R. Nathaniel Dett: MY CUP RUNNETH OVER
Navona Records NV 6013 (2015)
is profiled at AfriClassical.com, which
features a comprehensive Works List
and a Bibliography by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma,
on December 30, 2015
While the rest of the world is looking ahead to a new year, Clipper Erickson is on the look-out for new repertoire.
"I think it's important to record things that are off the beaten track," he says. "We tend to get stuck into hearing the same pieces over and over again. Not that there's anything wrong with those pieces, but it's good to really explore and get a full idea of what has been going on in various periods in musical life. I think there is something important in a mission of bringing music that isn't known to a wider audience."
The omnivorous pianist, who is on the faculty of Rider University's Westminster Conservatory of Music in Princeton and Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance in Philadelphia, has two new releases of "new" music that has languished in obscurity for decades.
Erickson's research for a dissertation on the piano works of R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) qualifies him as a world authority on this neglected composer, who was born in what is now Niagara Falls, Ontario. The grandson of Underground Railroad refugees, Dett became an important figure in American music of his time. Yet he is remembered today, if at all, for a lone piano suite, "In the Bottoms," or perhaps only for its two-minute concluding dance, "Juba."
Erickson is the first to record Dett's complete piano works. His performances have been issued on an album titled "My Cup Runneth Over," on the Navona Records label, for which he provides his own liner notes. The two-CD set was made possible, in part, through the financial backing of St. Michael's Church in Trenton, where Erickson serves as organist.
"I did two programs there of Dett's music, which included piano works, some of the vocal music, and also poetry readings," he says. "Dett was a published poet."
He was also the first musician of African descent to earn a B.A. in Music from the Oberlin Conservatory. Dett pursued graduate studies at Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, the Eastman School of Music, and the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, in France, under the supervision of legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.
He himself went on to become an influential teacher. His works won prizes and his concerts and recitals received favorable notices. He was a gifted writer and choral conductor. All in all, his posthumous neglect is puzzling.
"I think there are a lot of reasons for that," Erickson says. "One is that he doesn't fit into our stereotypes. He's a black composer that doesn't compose in a jazz idiom, and that's what people usually assume when they run into an African-descent composer – oh, it's going to sound like jazz. It has roots in German Romanticism, so the music sounds a lot like MacDowell or Amy Beach or Griffes or Grieg. All of those influences are there. Of course there are strong ethnic influences, as well, but it's very much rooted in European classical music."
With the notable exception of "In the Bottoms," most of Dett's scores have also been long out of print. Be that as it may, Erickson speculates that the music isn't flashy enough to attract the interest of many pianists.
"Pianists kind of like things that go over well in competitions, and Dett's music is very personal," he says. "It's very poetic and intimate. Those things usually don't fly in competitions."
He hopes to have a hand in changing that. He is currently involved in the planning of a Dett festival at Temple, which is projected to take place in the fall. "We'll have choral performances and keyboard performances. The dance department is very involved. They've already choreographed a couple of Dett piano pieces. I'm hoping also to start a piano competition. I figure that's a good way to get Dett's music played."
With violinist Andrew Kirkman, Erickson has also been active in reviving the music of English composer Cyril Scott (1879-1970). A new album, "Dawn and Twilight," documents the first and last violin sonatas of the composer, sometimes referred to, rather reductively, as "the English Debussy." For decades, Scott's memory was kept alive through his piano miniatures, especially "Lotus Land."
"The First Violin Sonata had never been recorded in its original version," Erickson says. "Scott revised it later, about fifty years after he wrote it. It was really quite a ground-breaking piece. It was written in 1908. It was quite avant-garde for its time and has never been played after its first few performances, which is the case with a lot of Scott's music."
In the case of the Violin Sonata No. 4, it had never even been heard. Kirkman and Erickson received the manuscript directly from the composer's son, Desmond, now in his 80s and living in Toronto. They gave the first performance of the piece in 2013.
"It's kind of amazing how Cyril Scott was completely eclipsed," Erickson says. "He was really the leading light of the British avant-garde in the early 20th century. But by the time the '30s and '40s came along, he was completely forgotten. It was rather amazing to the two of us that this Fourth Sonata had never even been performed. It was written in 1956."
The album appears on the Affetto Records label, a recent venture of producer and recording engineer John C. Baker.
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Thanks again for posting! Have a wonderful New Year and best wishes for 2016. Clipper [Clipper Erickson]