American Music for Viola & Piano



American Music for Viola and Piano


Lawrence Wheeler, viola


Ruth Tomfohrde, piano






Considered a magnificent instrument for chamber music since the eighteenth century, the viola nevertheless had difficulty establishing itself as a solo instrument. Its rich, sandy tone and middle range, indeed the very qualities which make it an ideal chamber music partner, historically deterred composers from placing the viola in the spotlight. Notable exceptions exist, of course; Berlioz's Harold in Italy and Brahms' two sonatas for viola and piano spring immediately to mind. It has only been in the twentieth century, however, that the viola has come into its own as a solo instrument. This change has been wrought by contemporary composers searching for new timbres to explore, as well as by exceptional performers such as William Primrose and Walter Trampler, whose commissions and performances inspired dozens of composers to view the viola as a viable solo instrument. This trend has been especially well-developed in the United States, and the four works for viola and piano on this disc exemplify the expressive range of which the viola is capable.




George Rochberg was born in 1918 and educated at Mannes College, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to composing, Rochberg has had an impressive teaching career, first at Curtis, and then for many years at Penn. Rochberg's composing career can be delineated into three stages. The first, an early involvement with the abstract neo-classicism of Stravinsky and Bartok, lasted into the 1950s, after which Rochberg became deeply involved with serialism. The death of the composer's son, Paul, in 1964, however, brought a crisis to Rochberg's composing career and forced him to question not only the serialist aesthetic but the entire role of modernism in music. Rochberg emerged from that crisis and struck out on a new path, one in which quotation of other musical works occurs frequently, and one in which traditional tonality is embraced as an important expressive device. Indeed, for the past thirty years, Rochberg has been among the most eloquent spokesmen for many composers' adoption of the new tonality.




Rochberg's Sonata for Viola and Piano dates from 1979, the result of a commission from friends of William Primrose, The American Viola Society, and Brigham Young University in honor of Primrose's 75th birthday. The work was first performed in July of that year at the Seventh International Viola Congress on the Brigham Young campus. The sonata is a major work in three movements, the first of which begins boldly with a soaring melody in the viola covering that instrument's highest range. This gives way to a fugato tune, stated first in the piano, and characterized by its heavy accents. After the viola and piano develop the fugato tune, a third melodic component emerges; a heavily dotted, jagged melody which is accompanied by repeated chord clusters. Rochberg combines and develops these three components throughout, and the movement dies away with quiet statements of fragments from the fugato tune. The beautiful second movement is a plaintive song whose melody, stated in the viola, is accompanied differently each time it returns. The closing Fantasia is a short postlude to the sonata. Here, fragments of first-movement themes, both the lyrical opening line and the dotted melody, return in a free, discursive style, as if they are mere recollections of the first movement, tempered by the song which has intervened.




Unlike Rochberg, Paul Creston (1906-1985) had little training in music and no formal training as a composer. Born in New York to Italian immigrant parents (the family name was Guttoveggio), Creston studied piano and organ, but learned composition entirely on his own by studying books and scores at the New York Public Library. From this unlikely beginning, however, Creston set out on a career in composition in the early 1930s and met with considerable success. He received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Music Critic's Circle, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and no less a composer than Henry Cowell expressed his admiration for Creston's compositions. Throughout his career, Creston gave primary importance to the rhythmic aspect of his pieces, frequently using a single rhythm to unify an entire work. The resulting dancelike character of many of his pieces accounts for Creston's widespread appeal in the concert halls of the 1940s and 1950s.




Creston's Suite for Viola and Piano, op. 13, provides clear illustrations of the composer's accessible style and rhythmic organization. The first-movement Prelude opens in the style of a Baroque French Overture, complete with double-dotted rhythms. The viola writing is expansive and relies heavily on triple and quadruple stops reminiscent of violin pieces by J.S. Bach. The middle section of the Prelude is also Baroque in conception, this time consisting of an invention in three voices for the piano above which the viola plays a lyric melody. The Prelude ends with a return of the dotted French Overture style. The light-hearted Caprice which follows is in triple time and presents a striking example of Creston's rhythmic inventiveness. Nearly every rhythmic permutation available in 3/4 is woven into the texture, particularly sections in hemiola (6/4) and rollicking versions of 6/8. Throughout the ensuing Air the viola plays a long melody over repeated chords in the piano. If this movement sounds strangely familiar, it may be because the piano harmonies, primarily major seventh chords, received wide usage among the popular ballad writers and film composers of the 1930s. The Suite ends with a driving Tarantella, a virtuoso show piece requiring speed and dexterity from both violist and pianist.




Bernard Heiden was born in Germany in 1910. He studied composition with Paul Hindemith for four years in Berlin before moving to the United States in 1935. Heiden became a US citizen in 1941, and since 1946 he has spent his career teaching composition at Indiana University. Like Hindemith, Heiden has made important contributions to the solo sonata and concerto repertoires of many relatively-neglected instruments. These include major commissions from the International Trumpet Guild and the International Horn Society. His Sonata for Viola and Piano, although written in 1959, remained unpublished until 1968. The sonata is a large work in four movements, infused with Heiden's characteristic intense lyricism and clear contrapuntal writing. The first movement consists of constantly changing meters and sinewy chromatic melodies which become more expansive in the second movement. The incessant rhythm of the third-movement scherzo is derived from repeated groupings of five eighth notes, yet even here a lyrical melody is allowed to break out, first in the piano and then in the viola. The final movement begins with a free recitative for the viola which leads into the more rhythmic allegro section. While such multi-tempo movements were a hallmark of Hindemith, the long scaler melodies which infuse this movement are distinctly Heiden's own.




The beautiful Elegy by Elliott Carter (b. 1908) which concludes this disc is an early work, intensely emotional and predominantly diatonic. The piece contains none of the later progressive traits usually associated with Carter, such as intense chromaticism and metric modulation. The Elegy began life in 1943 as an Adagio for Viola (or Violoncello) and Piano, but in that year Carter chose the cello as the Elegy's primary instrument. The composer subsequently arranged the work for other media, however, including string quartet in 1946 and string orchestra in 1952. The Elegy was revised for performance on viola in 1961, and it received its first performance in that form in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1963.




Kendall L. Crilly




Lawrence Wheeler is a professor at the University of Houston School of Music. He has given recitals in New York at Alice Tully Hall,


in London at Wigmore Hall, at International Viola Congresses in Stuttgart and Houston, as well as recitals in Mexico City and throughout Texas. His chamber music performances have included concerts with the Tokyo, Pro Arte and Tallis string quartets and the Mirecourt Trio. For several years he was violist of the Lyric Art Quartet, whose compact disc recording was nominated for a Grammy Award. Two other compact disc recordings include the Howard Hanson String Quartet with the Lyric Art Quartet and works by Bernard Herrmann and Ernest Gold with the Texas Festival and Picasso Quartets. His performances have been heard several times on National Public Radio's Performance Today, as well as throughout Europe on the BBC.




Currently Principal Violist of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, he is former Principal Violist of the Pittsburgh Symphony and has been Co-Principal of the Minnesota Orchestra and guest Principal with the Dallas and Houston Symphonies. Mr. Wheeler has appeared as soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Icelandic National Symphony, Texas Chamber Orchestra, Hilton Head Chamber Orchestra, and the UNAM Philharmonic in Mexico City.




A graduate of the Juilliard School, his teachers have included William Lincer, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, Francis Tursi and Leonard Mogill. For five summers he taught at the Meadowmount School for Strings. Since 1984 he has worked with gifted young string students as a charter faculty member of the ENCORE School for Strings. He is also founder and conductor of the Greater Houston Youth Orchestra.




Ruth Tomfohrde, pianist, has a wide and varied career as a solo recitalist and collaborative artist. She has appeared as soloist with several orchestras, including the Houston Symphony, the St. Louis Philharmonic, and the Seattle Symphony. Her early training was in Houston with Ruth Burr. She graduated from the Juilliard School, studying with Ernest Hutcheson, and also studied at Fontainebleau, France with Robert Casadesus. With Lawrence Wheeler, she has performed at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, at Wigmore Hall in London, and has recorded for the BBC in London. Mrs. Tomfohrde is a professor of piano at the University of Houston School of Music. She has taught many outstanding students, some of whom have been winners in national and international competitions.






A production of KUHF-FM Radio, Houston


Produced by John Gladney Proffitt · Engineered by Ron Russak


Recorded in Dudley Recital Hall, University of Houston · Hamburg Steinway piano






American Music for Viola and Piano


Lawrence Wheeler, viola


Ruth Tomfohrde, piano




George Rochberg


Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979) (16:39)


Allegro moderato (8:20)


Adagio lamentoso (5:47)


Fantasia: Epilogue, allegro moderato, ma un poco parlando (2:29)




Paul Creston


Suite for Viola and Piano (1928) (13:55)


Prelude (3:58)


Caprice (2:25)


Air (3:37)


Tarantella (3:53)




Bernard Heiden


Sonata for Viola and Piano (1959) (21:25)


Allegro moderato (5:00)


Andante sostenuto; poco più mosso; adagio (7:02)


Vivace, ma non troppo (3:28)


Lento; allegro molto; lento; allegro vivace (5:53)




Elliott Carter


Elegy for Viola and Piano (1943) (3:55)




Total Time = 57:13