“The 18th Century American Overture” = By JAMES HEWITT; BENJAMIN CARR; REINAGLE; – Sinfonia Finlandia/Patrick Gallois – Naxos

by | May 21, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“The 18th Century American Overture” = JAMES HEWITT: Medley Overture in D Minor-Major; New Medley Overture in C Major; New Federal Overture; BENJAMIN CARR: Federal Overture; ALEXANDER REINAGLE: Miscellaneous Overture in D Major; Occasional Overture in D Major; Overture in G Major – Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä / Patrick Gallois – Naxos 8.559654, 68:25 ****:

In 1820 English clergyman and critic Sydney Smith asked his famously tart question “Who reads an American book?” Within a few years, the answer came: the world was reading and even learning from the likes of Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, soon to be followed by even more illustrious writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. However, as late as the 1890s Dvořák could counsel American composers to look to their own native music for inspiration since the chief models for America were still the works of European composers. Go back a hundred years still, and American music was in its absolute infancy. Without Europe’s still-powerful system of noble patronage of the arts or its vast supply of musical talent, musical entertainment in America, understandably, was largely imported, and even when American composers finally got around to writing music, those composers were imports as well, including Englishmen James Hewitt and Benjamin Carr and Scotsman Alexander Reinagle.
The orchestral music they produced was based on a genre that both Hewitt and Carr had perfected in London before emigrating to America, the medley overture. As the name implies, the form didn’t offer rigorous development in the manner of the symphony or concert overture but instead cobbled together a series of melodies popular, classic, and patriotic. Hewitt’s Medley Overture of 1798, for example, the Irish quickstep “Garryowen,” the Scottish folksong “The Bluebells of Scotland,” the Anglo-American tune “Yankee Doodle,” the American patriotic song “The President’s March” (a.k.a. “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”) composed for the 1789 inauguration of George Washington, and of course the opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. When I say “of course,” naturally I’m being facetious, but here is the essence of the musical grab-bag known as the medley overture.
The so-called Federal overtures of Hewitt and Carr are even more single-mindedly patriotic in their bent and appeared in the 1790s during the power struggle between the Federalists (represented by Hamilton and Adams) and Republicans (represented by Jefferson and Madison) over the reins of government. Since the idea in all of this music is to stitch the familiar melodies together as seamlessly as possible through the use of ingenious bridge material, there is some satisfaction in hearing the musical glue these composers used to hold their overtures together. None of this is great or even important music, but it is attractive and of course tuneful since it includes melodies that will be instantly recognizable even today, from The Marseillaise to “The Irish Washerwoman.”
Speaking of Irish tunes, perhaps the most refreshing of the compositions on offer here are those by Reinagle since they feature less-well-known melodies from the British Isles. They’re also more lightly scored—also refreshing after the more noisily jingoistic Federal overtures of Hewitt and Carr. As to instrumentation, to a large extent that’s a matter of conjecture since most of these works exist in scores with string parts only (and in the case of the Federal overtures, in piano reductions only). However, in some of the scores there are cues as to instrumentation, while a New York newspaper of the day advertised the Carr Federal Overture (1794) as being played by “the largest band of instruments heretofore assembled,” which would indicate an augmented Classical orchestra with trumpets and timpani. So arranger Bertil van Boer was not flying blind when he orchestrated these overtures, and he’s produced very convincing reconstructions that don’t stray from the sound that a well-staffed orchestra of Haydn’s day might have produced.
Conductor Patrick Gallois and his Finnish band play this music with energy and even more important, without an air of condescension. They take it seriously and so turn out performances that are fun, unstuffy, but respectful of the composers’ intentions. This is a very enjoyable recreation of music from a lively time in American cultural and political history. An attractively warm yet detailed recording from Hankasalmi Church in Jyväskylä completes the package.
— Lee Passarella

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