Cowell: Music 1957

Henry Dixon Cowell was born in Menlo Park, California, on March 11, 1897, and died in Shady, New York, on December 10, 1965. Music 1957 was composed in Tokyo during Cowell’s residence of several months in Japan. Commissioned by Antal Dorati, who wished to include a new work by Cowell in his tour of the Middle East with the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), it was first performed by that ensemble, under Dorati’s direction, at the Athens Festival on September 3, 1957, and in the course of the tour it was also performed in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and India. Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony gave the first United States performance on November 1, 1957. The only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in September 1998 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Music 1957 is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, anvils or pipes, five tom-toms, cymbals, xylophone, celesta, bells or chimes, and strings. Performance time: about ten minutes.

Virgil Thomson noted that “the variety of [Henry Cowell’s] sources and composing methods is probably the broadest in our time.” Raised in California, Cowell grew up free of the assumption that all worthwhile culture came from the other side of the Atlantic. Nearby San Francisco was full of Asian music, and to the end of his life, his musical fantasy was more and more drawn to sounds from across the Pacific.

Cowell, who wrote about 1,000 pieces of music, was more than just a composer. In Berlin he studied comparative musicology. During World War II, he was the Office of War Information’s resident expert on Asian music. He edited the much-imitated symposium American Composers on American Music, and with his wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell, he wrote Charles Ives and His Music, the first book on that great pioneer. He founded and edited the quarterly New Music and taught at colleges and universities across the United States.

Cowell has come to be identified with tone clusters. Although he did not invent the device, he invented this term for the simultaneous sounding of a bunch of adjacent or close-together notes on a keyboard. At the piano recitals with which he both delighted and infuriated audiences, Cowell made much use of tone clusters, playing with the outside of his hand, his forearm, or a stick cut to a specific length. But although he was associated with the tone cluster, there was much more to Henry Cowell.

Cowell composed Music 1957 for the Minnesota Orchestra and its then music director, Antal Dorati, the artists who gave the work its world premiere on the orchestra’s Middle East tour in the fall of 1957.  California composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003), a good friend of Cowell’s, has offered commentary on Music 1957: “Music 1957 begins decisively with a brief block of assertive rhythm, which is followed by a theme destined for variation in a number of ways . . . . It is astonishing to realize that the opening four notes of this theme appear in the piece twenty-two times, and are heard in the last measure itself. The theme seems to announce a new variation each time, whether small or larger, and itself undergoes very few changes. Very soon a lovely lyric melody [beginning in the cellos] is heard, which later on will sing in polyphony….These three ideas contain the generating music of the entire piece, but after a few variations are heard we experience a skittering of flute and xylophone. This will intrude several times, separating variations of the theme and the fine melody. About two-thirds of the way through, the three beginning ideas are recapitulated in slightly varied form but in the same sequence. The skitters then gain an astonishing development as a brief section for celesta, xylophone, anvils, and tom-toms and finally turn into a full dynamic rush upwards of the violins and violas towards the wondrous and jolting blocks of varied rhythms that conclude the piece.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Akeo Watanabe conducting the Japan Philharmonic (CRI)

Reading: Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music, by Joel Sachs (Oxford University Press)  |  Henry Cowell, Bohemian, by Michael Dustin Hicks (University of Illinois Press)  |  Bruce Saylor’s entry on Cowell in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music