Music of Charles Jones

Charles Jones: An Appreciation

He was always Mister Jones: I never thought he'd actually have minded it if we called him “Charles”—particularly once we had grown out of our apprenticeship and into what passed for full maturity. But something about his presence, gracious and supportive as he inevitably was, prompted an observation of old-world manners. Mr. Jones he was—and, so far as I'm concerned, Mr. Jones he will remain. Those of us to have called him our teacher would make our way to 311 East 58th Street down Second Avenue or, perhaps, wander over from the subway stop beneath Bloomingdale's. Suddenly confronted with what still seems a fairy-tale house, we would unlatch the picket fence (in midtown Manhattan!), ring a loud, old- fashioned doorbell, and suddenly Mr. Jones would appear, ushering us into his living room, greeting us, artist to artist, with a warm “Ah, yes! Come in, come in...”

How many others among his students date their artistic coming of age to those late winter afternoons seated at Mr. Jone's Steinway? Our meetings would combine aesthetic advice, score reading, historical analysis, delicious anecdotes and a nurturing, near-parental warmth, for he was always aware of just how lonely New York City could be for a newcomer. I would arrive drunk on Steve Reich one week, on Olivier Messiaen the next, and on the late works of Richard Strauss the week following. He would listen to what I had written (pretty eclectic stuff in those days!), size up whatever strengths and weaknesses it might have had, and make suggestions that were inevitably both compassionate and of enormous practical help. Even when he actively disliked the works of a given composer—Shostakovitch and Sibelius were two bete noirs— he was always keenly interested in the reasons his students had somehow taken to this music.

In short, he was a thoughtful, creative, and extraordinarily stimulating guide for young people. Moreover, he was amazingly generous with his time and friendship. He seemed to know everybody—at one East 58th Street party, I recall scanning the room and spotting Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Vittorio Rieti, Virgil Thomson and Ned Rorem—and he always made sure his pupils were introduced all around. Then there were the concerts arranged by his students. Listening to these events, I was always fascinated by a central parado. On the most basic level, we were all writing in on our own individual manners and seemed to have little in common with one another. Later on, I realized that this was what made Mr. Jones a great teacher—this very refusal to drill any single musical language into our systems against our will. Rather, he believed in building our knowledge, sharpening our ears, and allowing us to emancipate the composer within.

His own music is stirring, concentrated, sometimes tempestuous and deeply expressive. The Sonata da Camera (1966) was a piece of which Mr. Jones was particularly proud. With its arching melodies of violin, the complex but curiously transparent writing for piano, and the sheer muscular energy of the whole endeavor, the Sonata attains a rare synthesis of neo-classicism and expressionism, two elements that tugged throughout Mr. Jones output.

I was studying with Mr. Jones when he wrote the Psalm (1976) for solo piano and vividly remember hearing it for the first time. (Whenever he finished a work, he would play a tape for his students and we would follow along with the score, breathlessly interested.) The Psalm struck me then—and continues to strike me today—as a remarkably forceful, challenging but never forbidding piece, one that makes the listener work for just a little but provides ample reward for the study.

The Cantata The Seasons (1959), to texts by five English poets of the 16th to 18th centuries, is, by comparison to the rest of the program, a relatively early piece. Yet it is still highly characteristic: Mr. Jones always went out of his way to find texts of genuine literary merit, and he had a gift for matching music and imagery. Unlike many composers of his era, he also respected the capacity of the human voice and never tried to turn it into a surrogate instrument. (All those song cycles by other composers from the 60s and 70s that nobody could ever really sing!) Here, too, we find that mixture of the modern and the timeless that looks forward to his later settings of William Langland and Henry James.

The String Quartet No. 6 (1970), was among his best-known pieces, due in part to the recording on the CRI label. Mr. Jones always referred to his quartets as musical “journals”—he felt they contained his most intimate music—and this tautly compressed one-movement work is indeed highly personal and persuasive.

Finally, we have Emblemata (1994), a late composition and a splendid and idiomatic contribution to the modern organ repertory. Although Mr. Jones was never a fierce colorist—one sometimes had the sense that his music, like Bach's, could be played on many different instruments and still make its effect—he worked hard to exploit fully the resources of his chosen vessel. For those of you who have never heard Mr. Jones' music before, this program will provide an excellent introduction. For those of us who knew and loved the man, it will remind us that Mr. Jones' distinctive, heartfelt and affecting music is still very much in our midst.

—Tim Page (Adapted form a program essay for the Charles Jones Memorial concert.)

From 1972 (CRI SD 283):

“The six string quartets which I have written night be considered as a musical diary which I have kept through the years. The first one dates from student days, the second (1944) is already concerned with the special sonorities possible in this medium, the third (1951) is more complex in texture and probably the most dissonant, the fourth (1954) is more simple and lyrical, and the fifth (1961) again is much taken up with special sonorities.

“I feel that in a large and general way, two diverse elements are juxtaposed in the Sixth Quartet (1970). One is the element of fanfare (or other somewhat stirring sounds) and the second is a kind of lyricism normally associated with the voice. As both of these elements are, in a sense, foreign to the nature of the strings, it was necessary to translate them into the medium of the quartet. The fanfare-lyric juxtaposition is evident in the first movement. In this section, use is made of left hand pizzicato (plucking of the string), returning on the part of the second violin; and the movement ends with only the sound of the first violinist's fingers dropping on the strings.

“There is a unifying or punctuating element marking off the various sections, which are played without pause. This is made up of eight-part chords, related to a canonic passage which recurs throughout the quartet, and which is used as a formal beacon or guideline in tying the various parts together. The second section (calm, 3/4 time) is in a three part form, having a quicker-moving Trio section before a short return of its first part.

“There is clearly recognizable slow movement in 12/8 time which is connected to the finale by the chords already mentioned, differently laid out and played pizzicato. In the last movement, use is made of the canonic figure, and the texture is mostly that of a reference (only as regards texture) to the first part with left hand pizzicato, harmonics and collegno (striking the strings with the wood of the bow) passages.

“The Sonatina for Violin and Piano was written in California in 1942 and had its first performance at the International Society for Contemporary Music in Berkeley, California that summer. The performers then were Sascha Jacobsen, violin and Maxim Shapiro, piano.”

—Charles Jones

CHARLES JONES (1910–1997) born in Tamworth, Canada.on June 21, 1910. At the age of ten he moved to Toronto where he studied the

violin and theory. In 1928 he went to New York and studied at the Institute of Musical Art with Sascha Jacobson. He graduated in 1932 in the violin.

In 1935 Jones entered the Juilliard School on a fellowship. He studied with Bernard Wagenaar and graduated in composition in 1939. He was then sent by the Juilliard to teach at Mills College, California. There he met a

fellow teacher, the French composer Darius Milhaud. This began a thirty year collaboration between them, first at Mills College, then at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, and finally at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. Milhaud retired from teaching in America in 1969 and Jones continued at the Aspen Festival as composer-in-residence until 1989.

In 1946 he and his wife moved from California to New York. He began teaching at the Juilliard School in 1954 and later at the Mannes College of Music. Two short periods were spent teaching at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria and at the Bryanston School in England. Jones died on June 6, 1997.

In spite of teaching, Jones considered himself first and foremost a composer. He wrote some ninety works including four symphonies, nine string quartets, vocal scores and many other combinations. He has had music played by the New York Philharmonic; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; the BBC; the National Symphony Orchestra; and the San Francisco, St. Louis, and Dallas Symphonies among many others.