Ernst Bacon: Remembering Ansel Adams and Other Works

"Bacon is a very good composer indeed, one of America’s best..."
"The mood and temper of Mr. Bacon's work are chiefly a meditation on nineteenth-century rural America. He is full of our Scotch-Irish folklore, knows it from the inside, speaks and writes it as his own musical language. Mr. Bacon also has a modern musician's knowledge of American speech cadences..."
"Mr. Bacon's work is remarkably pure in its expressive intent. It communicates its meaning with a straightforward and touching humanity. It is not got up with chromium-plated cadenzas or lace-curtainlike instrumental figurations, and it poses no passionate attitude. But it is full of melody and variety... it at least looks backward toward an ideal and primitive America without snobbery, self-deception, or truculence. It is honest and skillful and beautiful."

- Virgil Thomson,
The New York Herald Tribune, 1946

ERNST BACON (1898–1990) was part of the pioneering generation of composers that included Thomson, Copland, Harris, and others, who found a voice for American music. Born in Chicago on May 26, 1898, Bacon's Austrian mother gave him a love of song and an early start on the piano. Although his varied career included appearances as pianist and conductor, along with teaching and directing positions, his deepest preoccupation was always composing. His musical awards included a Pulitzer Fellowship in 1932 for his Symphony in D Minor and three Guggenheim Fellowships.
From his first job as opera coach at the Eastman School in the early '20s, Bacon went on to receive a Masters Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was associated with Ernest Bloch. During the '30s he was director of the WPA Federal Music Project and Orchestra in San Francisco and founded the Carmel Bach Festival. From 1938-45 he headed the School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, and established the New Spartanburg Music Festival. At Syracuse University he was director of the School of Music from 1945–47 and composer in residence and professor of piano until his retirement in 1963.
In 1964 Bacon returned to the West, settling in the small town of Orinda, east of the Berkeley hills. Here, as everywhere else, he drew his greatest inspiration from nature, jotting down notes as he explored local trails. His fertile imagination and constant creative efforts left little time for the promotion of his works, and although nearly blind in old age, he continued to compose until the very end of his 91 years.
At the age of 19, while majoring in math at Northwestern University, Bacon wrote a complex treatise exploring all possible harmonies. However when he began to compose music in his 20s, he rejected a purely cerebral approach, taking the position that music is an art, not a science, and that its source should be human and imaginative, rather than abstract and analytical. He did not find meaning in musical puzzles or arbitrary series of notes, but in life itself: things to celebrate, as well as to ponder and grieve. For example, his cello/piano masterpiece, A Life, was begun when his son, Paul, was born and was completed 26 years later, when the same son died in an accident. Many of his smaller pieces were inspired by the tenderness and affection he felt for his six children, born of four wives.

Though well trained as a musician (including conducting studies with Goossens), as a composer Ernst Bacon was largely self-taught except for two years of study with Karl Weigl in Vienna. Experiencing the depression of post-war Europe at first-hand, he believed that the European avant-garde movement reflected the pessimism of that era and locale and was not appropriate to America. Returning to Chicago he set out to write music that expressed the vitality and affirmation of our own country. Sometimes compared with Bartok, he incorporated into his music the history and folklore, as well as the indigenous music, poetry, folk songs, jazz rhythms, and the very landscape of America.
As with Schubert, a large body of more than 250 art songs is the heart of an oevre that also includes numerous chamber, orchestral, and choral works. According to Marshall Bialosky, Ernst Bacon was "one of the first composers to discover Emily Dickinson...and set a great number of her poems into some of the finest art song music, if not actually the very finest, of any American composer in our history." Other poets with whom he felt an affinity included Whitman, Sandburg (who was a personal friend), Blake, Bronte, Teasdale, and Housman. Twenty-two of Bacon's Dickinson settings were recorded in 1964 by soprano Helen Boatwright with the composer at the piano and can be heard on CRI compact disc (CD 675).
In his instrumental as well as vocal music, Bacon insisted on the primacy of melody. The spirit and sometimes the actual melodies of his songs, as well as of folk songs, are often recast as themes in his instrumental pieces. Defending melody and tonality against their detractors, he combined tradition with his own highly original ideas and created many appealing works, some of which are charming, picturesque, and playful, while others are profoundly touching and sad. Many of these works are still uncatalogued, in manuscript, and unknown to the world. The Ernst Bacon Society, a collection of colleagues, former students, friends and relatives of the late composer, is dedicated to bringing these works to light through performances, recordings, and publications, so that they may take their worthy place in the 20th century's cultural heritage.

Remembering Ansel Adams is the composer's tribute to his oldest friend in the West. At the time when they met in 1927, both men had ambitions as concert pianists, but as Bacon's focus turned increasingly to composing, Adams chose to concentrate on photography. Besides music, their lifelong friendship was based on a shared love of nature and a passionate concern for the environment, as together they explored and climbed in the Sierra Nevada and Canadian Rockies. Adams once wrote to Bacon, "You are like the clear dawn wind in the midst of the foul smogs of contemporary cultural decay."

Ernst Bacon was visiting at the Adams home in Carmel, CA, the day that Ansel died in the spring of 1985. He was deeply affected by his friend's unexpected death and immediately set about writing an elegy for him. The work was premiered by the San Jose Symphony in 1986 with George Cleve conducting.
The grandeur and rugged beauty that Adams captured so eloquently in the light and shadow of his photographs is reflected in the tone of the elegy, which is scored for string orchestra, clarinet solo, and timpani. Soliloquies by the cello and clarinet in the opening section, which could represent the sorrow of the grieving friend and the solitary man in nature, are combined with a luminous, hymn-like theme in the strings. The middle section, more rugged and rhythmic, is a contrapuntal treatment of the musical letters in Ansel Adams's name (A, E, A, D, A) and expresses his energy and individualism. In the last section the hymn-like theme returns, with the clarinet playing a quietly sparkling theme reminiscent of a tumbling mountain brook. The serene final cadence seems to fade into eternity.
The present recording of Remembering Ansel Adams was funded by the generosity of Virginia Adams, widow of Ansel Adams.

Bacon's Sonata for Cello & Piano was premiered at Syracuse University in 1948 by the composer's second wife, Analee Camp, with himself at the piano. The four movements are interspersed with evocative quotations from Walt Whitman's poetry. "I know the amplitude of time" appears at the beginning of the slow introduction to the first movement. "How dare you place anything before a man?" stands before the robust risoluto that follows; and the expansive fanfare-like theme that signals the allegro main body of the movement carries over it the inscription, "Warlike flag of the great idea" (referring to Whitman's apostrophe to Democracy in By Blue Ontario’s Shore). "I draw you close to me, you women" bespeaks a lyrical transitional episode, and the assertive aspect of the movement returns with "What is a man anyhow? What am I? What are you?" "Tenderly—be not patient" -"Unborn deeds, things soon to be" - "World, take good notice" constitute the Whitmanesque verbal summation of the first movement's course.
The second movement is an elegant and charming folk song-and-dance evocation bearing the one all-embracing epigraph: "Some of the younger men dance to the sound of the banjo or fiddle, others sit on the gunwale smoking and talking." The middle part of the movement is marked by a delicious canonic episode between the cello and the piano right hand.
The Lento slow movement is solemnly tender and elegiac, with inscriptions drawn from the poem "To One Shortly to Die."
From all the rest, I single you out...
You are to die—let others tell you what they please...
I cannot prevaricate...
Softly I lay my right hand upon you...
Strong thoughts fill you and confidence...
You forget you are sick...
I do not commiserate, I congratulate you.
"Let us go forth refresh'd amid the day" reads the introductory inscription to the virile fugue finale. The dotted-rhythms of the theme are almost an Americanization of the mirror Contrapunctus XVIII from Bach’s Art of Fugue.
The Lobo Girl of Devil's River (1967) is an unpublished piano work based on the Texas legend of a girl, abandoned as an infant, trapped by ranchers, and rescued, adopted and raised by wolves. In time she is capable of running with the pack and speaking their language. Following Emily Corbato's New York premiere of this work, Raymond Ericson of The New York Times called it "virtually a tone poem. In a dissonant Ivesian vein, it has a primitivelike power..."
The shorter piano selections that follow are picturesque vignettes in diverse moods. Nuka was written for Bacon's little daughter, who was called by this name as a term of endearment. Flop-Eared Mule has a lop-sided rhythm, in character with its title. Yemassee River is based on a spiritual slave song. Maple-Sugaring is a cheerful piece written for children; and Drip-Drop Rain is another self-described miniature, gentle and evocative. Habañera is one of a number of pieces in which the composer drew on Spanish rhythms and colors; and The Pigtown Fling (second version) is a humorous American counterpart of the Highland fling.
Tumbleweeds, described by Bacon as "a cycle of freely used Americana," was commissioned by violinist Dorothy Bales in 1979 and premiered by Bales and pianist Allan Sly at the National Gallery in 1980. It is a succession of 8 separate pieces, each calling up memories of tunes we have long known and half-forgotten--some from Appalachia, some from the prairies, some from covered wagon days. Some we may have come across in anthologies, as did the composer, but an encyclopedic listing of their sources might well inhibit the listener's pleasure of hearing them in Bacon’s terms. The suggestive titles, Gualala River, Sod Busters, The Gilligaloo, Little Boy Asleep, The Oregon Trail, Gospel Gulch, Blue Grass, Mexican Hat, may point the way to their intended characters. Little Boy Asleep was written for the composer's youngest child, born when he was 74.
--Ellen Bacon

This compact disc has been made possible through the generous support of VIRGINIA BEST ADAMS (MRS. ANSEL ADAMS), THE GLADYS KRIEBLE DELMAS