The Complete Guitar Works
The little known early 20th century American modernist, Ernst Bacon, was widely praised in his day as a composer of over 250 art songs (notably musical settings for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman), as well as chamber music and works for both piano and orchestra. His only known composition for guitar was published in 1968 and has long been out of print, which makes Bradley Colten’s excellent new recording of his works for solo guitar such a unique listening experience.
Working from the composer’s own hand written manuscripts in consultation with Bacon’s guitarist son, Joseph, for whom these pieces were written, Mr. Colten has given us all a chance to hear music which, until now, was only known within the composer’s immediate family.
Ranging from entire suites down to less-than-a-minute-long minatures, Bacon’s music bears many of the best traits of early American modernism; the harmonic palette is stretched to include newer, more dissonant sounds, while the use of elements of the folk tradition brings the music back toward a melodic center.
Obviously a labor of love, Bradley Colten’s well played and recorded “The Complete Works for Solo Guitar-Ernst Bacon” makes a very welcome addition to the modern classical guitar repertoire. A must-have for guitar and/or composition students (and a virtual goldmine for songwriters seeking melodic inspiration), it is also full of pleasant surprises for the general listener.
-- Oscar O. Veterano on hbdirect.com October 8, 2014
The Complete Works for Solo Guitar, classical guitarist Bradley Colten offers his listeners a fascinating treasure trove of American guitar music written left unpublished by Ernst Bacon before his death in 1998. Colten meticulously researched Bacon’s manuscripts, reassembled pieces written on paper scraps and postcards and ultimately reconstructed a masterful recording of 19 compositions. The pieces heard on this recording, many of them “lost” for 40 years, articulate an American sound that Bacon assisting in pioneering along with such great composers as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and others. Aside from his only published guitar piece, “Parting,” Ernst Bacon is virtually unknown even though he was a highly regarded composer of more than 250 art songs which included many of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s poems.
The program ranges in style and form – from an eighteen minute set of folk inspired works to short character pieces to miniature canons. Four Pieces For Guitar which includes “Parting,” “Fulfillment” “Quiet Hallelujah,” and “The Morning Star” represents the centerpiece in Bacon’s guitar catalogue. Bradley Colten plays these works with reverence and the newly inherited inspiration obtained from the composer’s son, Joseph Bacon, during his comprehensive research and re-assembling of the rare manuscripts. His interpretation is a rich blend of refinement and heartfelt communication. In “Toro” Colten’s dramatic flair and virtuosic playing captures the drama of a bullfight. The marcato open-string notes and the fortissimo, rasgueado chords that follow capture the flamboyance and theatrics often associated with Spain’s toreadors and bullfighting. By contrast, “Coon Hollow,” is a fun, exciting and cheerful Appalachian-inspired romp.
Three Canons: “A Christmas Canon,” “Anniversary Canon,” and “Marinio” were written for Bacon’s son and his widow. Although only three minutes in duration, they are charming and sophisticated. Colten plays them with intimacy, emotional intelligence and sensitivity and makes them an exemplary piece for any celebration.
“Just Wondering,” “Anything,” and “A Walk in the Hills” are short character pieces that reflect a succinct, clearly articulated and singular mood of Bacon. Bradley Colten’s interpretation is confident and infused with the curiosity, and earthly feelings one would feel during such times of reflection. Based on the American folk song, “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” Bacon’s “The Erie Canal” epitomizes his interest in American spirit and sound. Here Colten plays the textures and imaginative colors with energy and lyricism.
Classical guitarist Bradley Colten received undergraduate degrees from Tufts University and the New England Conservatory of Music, and MM and DMA degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. He is the recipient of the Andres Segovia Award from the Manhattan School of Music. Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar (Azica Records, 71294) is the fourth recording in his repertoire.
-- Paula Edelstein AXS Contributor, axs.com, Sepember 20, 2014
(see Works and Recordings)
Performed by Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. in a tribute to Louis and Adrienne Krasner on Saturday, February 7, 1998:
"Over a period of years Bacon had composed the movements of "A Life" to commemorate moments in the life of his newborn son; when the son was composed in a skiing accident, (*see notes below) Bacon wrote a final movement, "Departure," revised the earlier ones so that the clouds scud over them, and then put the piece away - he never heard it performed until he was in his 80s. It is a wonderful piece, as subtle and elusive as anything by Fauré, but as real and functional as a Shaker chair. The performance by Krasner's Tanglewood colleagues Krosnick and Kalish was heart-rending."
-- Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, February 9, 1998
Performed by Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish at the Miller Theater, New York, Monday February 16, 1998:
[Krosnick and Kalish] were powerful advocates, too, of A Life in which composer Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) created a portrait of, and a memorial to, his son, the five movements including a waltz of parental love and a march of young manhood before the sober elegy. Bacon's music as represented here, is graceful and unexpected.
-- Paul Griffiths, The New York Times, February 17, 1998
* His son Paul was, in fact, killed in 1968 in a construction accident while erecting a radio transmitter tower. He was, like his father a lover of the outdoors and especially the mountains. He was an avid skier and it is not surprising that these details have subsequently become merged.
Performed by Herbert Burtis and Scott Kluksdahl at the Edward Pickman Concert Hall at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA, May 17, 1998:
A Life is a work for cello and piano that is a portrait of another of the composer's children, Paul, who died in an accident at the age of 26. The suite has music written in celebration of his birth as well as music of tribute composed after his death. There was a noble, eloquent, charming, large-hearted, and utterly unsentimental performance to match the plain-spoken qualities of the music from cellist Scott Kluksdahl, with Burtis at the piano; this is one of the great works for cello.
-- Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, May 19, 1998
California Symphony Opening Concert of the 2010-2011 Season
Review of the October 3, 2010 performance, published on websites and newspapers of the Bay Area News Group
The afternoon's most thrilling revelation was the music of Ernst Bacon, 1898-1990. An astonishingly prolific composer as well as a pedagogue, painter and writer, much of his work went on right under our noses here in the Bay Area. Son of an American doctor and an Austrian mother, he studied for a time in Vienna. Although moved by the music of the darkly depressed European avant-garde of the times, he returned to America and began composing music that brimmed with the vitality and optimism of the American spirit.
Remembering Ansel Adams, while definitely elegiac, was animated with something like a 20th century version of the 18th century Antonio Vivaldi's musical "scene-painting." It was hard not to "see" rippling cataracts amid streams and rivers or vast open deserts under lonely mountain peaks looming under the gaze of a luminous moon as the orchestra coursed its way through the piece. Orchestral principals Mark Shannon, clarinet, and Leighton Fong, cellist, performed hauntingly beautiful song-like solos, while the piece ended with suggestions of a slowing heart beat emanating from the orchestra's percussion section.
-- Cheryl North. See full review at NorthWorks
All-Bacon Concert, Longy School of Music, Cambridge, Mass. May 17, 1998
Bacon composed more than 250 songs, and 22 of them were featured on the program. Bacon's melodic lines have both the flowing inevitability and the durability of folk tunes. The accompaniments are subtle as Fauré’s; surprising and elegant maneuvers of harmony color the texts and capture their ambiguities. Bacon had a wonderful ear for poetry and for capturing the weight, color, and rhythms of words in music. A formidable pianist himself, his accompaniments are full of specifically pianistic imagination. Occasionally they pay tribute to great songs of the past he had loved - one hears Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Tchaikovsky in them as well as the French composers, always with Bacon's own American accent. He was a consummate professional, so the accompaniments are also always transparent; they support the singer but also stay out of his or her way.
Most of the songs went to Janet Brown, who sang 13 of Bacon's Emily Dickinson settings, as well as a group devoted to other poets, including Burns, Bronte, and Lenau (in German). The soprano is an ideal interpreter of these works, singing with intelligence, musicality, interiority, communicative urgency, suppleness of phrase, and ravishing beauty of tone. Brown is not the most publicized contemporary American lyric soprano, but none of the famous ones sings any better than she does, and some of them nowhere near as well. She enjoyed superb collaborative support by pianist Herbert Burtis, who played with an imaginative variety of dynamics and touch.
-- Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, May 19, 1998
All-Bacon Concert, Merkin Concert Hall, New York, September 17, 1998
Wayward Revelations of a Loner Reveling in Song
The centenary concert of Ernst Bacon's music at Merkin Concert Hall on Thursday proved the truth for this composer of Thomas Carlyle's saying that "All deep things are song."
Song dominated the program. Amy Burton sang some of Bacon's Emily Dickinson songs and William Sharp some of his Walt Whitman settings. Both singers were scrupulously accompanied by John Musto, and both also offered other songs, to words by Burns, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Housman, Sandburg and the composer himself. Moreover, several of these song melodies turned up again in the two big instrumental items, A Life, for cello and piano, and the Piano Trio No. 2. The latter was almost a compendium of such tunes.
For Bacon, song evidently had two sources: the great tradition of German-language vocal music from Bach to Brahms and Appalachian folksong. These were his models, but he gave them a twist. A piano waltz, in the Dickinson song When Roses Cease to Bloom, supports a wayward, asymmetrical line in the voice. Or a hauntingly direct and memorable vocal phrase -- to take the example of another Dickinson song, It's all I have to bring today -- is given a much more prickly kind of accompaniment. Or a stout piece of declamation, carrying Whitman's Divine Ship, is turned by the piano into a chorale prelude.
Curious, too, is how all the music Bacon loved -- with the possible exception of ragtime, which surfaced fleetingly in one or two of the songs -- had been written before he was born. His reverence for Bach seems to have had nothing to do with the Neo-Classicism of such contemporaries as Paul Hindemith or Elliott Carter. Though he was staunchly traditional in his outlook (as evidenced by a recording, played at the concert, of him gruffly dismissing modernism), his music sounds like the work of a loner, almost as much as Ives's does.
The concert could not have made a better case for him. A Life will perhaps turn out to be one of his finest pieces; it was nobly played by Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish. Ronald Copes joined these two for the trio, which was one of Bacon's last works, written when he was in his late eighties.
It seems an unwieldy mixture of the composer's diverse modes -- the graceful, the humdrum and the rugged -- though Mr. Kalish's serene discretion kept it largely on course and revealed many appealing moments. Ms. Burton was in sweet, strong voice and Mr. Sharp robust and characterful. Meanwhile, Mr. Musto's pianism was exquisite and exploratory, and showed that, in the end, not all deep things are song. Some of them are accompaniment.
-- Paul Griffiths, The New York Times, September 19, 1998
My Business Is Love: Songs That Perch in the Soul
Settings of poems by Emily Dickinson
Renee Fleming, soprano; Helen Yorke, piano; Julie Harris reader
Alice Tully Hall, New York, February 20, 2000
... Among the earlier items, Ms. Fleming was superb in Ernst Bacon's song "The Heart Asks Pleasure First," a composition that is barely more than an eightfold repetition of the same cadencing contour, but as sung here, merged with Dickinson's words in telling simplicity.
Dickinson was no fan of virtuosity, as Ms. Harris disclosed in a re-enactment of the poet's attendance at a concert given by Jenny Lind (Ms. Fleming, warbling). Dickinson preferred "the simple pure art of feeling." Bacon, and Ms. Fleming singing his setting, came nearest taking her at her word.
-- Paul Griffiths, The New York Times, February 22, 2000
My Business is to Love
Renee Fleming, soprano; Claire Bloom, reader
Barbican, London EC2, March 1, 2000
... And on the way, we heard the songs. There were composers little known in England, such as Ricky Ian Gordon and his Letter to the World, with its wide sighs of melody. Ernst Bacon, writing in the 1930s and 1940s, was a real discovery: his salon ballad of a setting of It's all I have to bring had a disarming directness the equal of the poem itself.
-- Hilary Finch, The Times, March 3, 2000
Trio Number 2
(See Works and Music Clips)
Performed by Malan-Sutherland-Miland Trio, February 1, 1987, Burlingame, CA
His boldness, his rhythmic balance and his harmonic palette call for physical rather than intellectual response. You want to move with the joyous spirit of the music.
...there was no chance of inattention Sunday night, when the capacity audience seemed tautly drawn to every nuance of the trio's playing.
...As the composition drew to an end, the music got playful, bouncy, full of surprise rhythm changes, yet bold and decisive. It evoked for me scenes of dancing bears and harlequins as in a Felini movie.
Bacon wrote equally well for all three instruments, but his melancholy cello voice and elegiac violin passages stayed with me the longest.
-- Barbara Bladen, The Times, San Mateo, CA, February 2, 1987
From These States
Performed by the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Emeritus Kazuyoshi Akyama at Crouse-Hinds Concert Theatre, Syracuse, NY on November 17 and 18, 1997.
The set of 11 miniature movements, totaling about 20 minutes in length, is a cunningly orchestrated work that captures a variety of moods through the use of melodies with modal flavors, and snappy, syncopated rhythmic accompaniments.
...Bacon's settings are unpretentious: simplicity dominates, and the result is an uncomplicated, yet refreshing, array of tunes that charm the ear.
-- David Abrams, The Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY, November 22, 1997
(See Recordings and Works)
The work presented in concert version, is in 12 short movements and was intended to accompany stage action portraying events leading up to Lincoln's assassination in Ford's Theater. It's in the finest traditions of modern "program" music -- comparable to Prokofieff's score for Alexander Nevsky, and Walton's score for the Olivier Hamlet.
-- Harvey Taylor, The Detroit Times, Nov 19, 1948
Singers who are always complaining about the shortage of good songs in English, would do well to take a look at some of the music of Ernst Bacon; by the same token, listeners would be rewarded by getting to know a treasurable record that has crept onto the market, and on which the soprano Helen Boatwright, with the composer at the piano, sings 22 of Bacon's Emily Dickinson settings (Cambridge). Bacon, now 70, wrote most of these songs, and about as many again, in the late twenties. With their lyricism, the poetic sensibility of the best of them, their economy, their faintly French flavor, they remind a bit of the lovely and better known songs of Bacon's slightly younger contemporary, Theodore Chanler. Very worthwhile, and the performances are exquisite.
-- Micheal Steinberg, The Boston Globe, April 26, 1968
Remembering Ansel Adams
(See Recordings and Works)
After hearing a performance last February of A Life, Ernst Bacon's touching cello and piano tribute to his son who was killed in an accident, Paul Griffiths, a Times critic wrote: "Bacon's music, as represented here, is graceful and unexpected. This centenary year should be the occasion to explore it."...
The disk proves Griffiths's evaluation is more than correct. The music is always interesting, full of energy and melodious even when dissonant. Much of it is steeped in American folk idiom and jazz, as can be heard in Tumbleweeds, a 1979 piece for violin and piano, and in several of the Collected Short Piano Works (1950-65), here played with great gusto by Emily Corbato. The Cello Sonata, a four-movement work which uses quotes from Walt Whitman to set the tone ("I know the amplitude of time" is written in the score at the beginning of the first movement), is alternately lugubrious and bouncy. Cellist Bernard Greenhouse and pianist Menahem Pressler give it a convincing reading. Remembering Ansel Adams, an elegy for solo clarinet (here played by the incomparable Richard Stoltzman), string orchestra and timpani, was written for the photographer, a close friend of the composer. It is a plaintive work which uses hymn-like melodies, and incorporates Adams's name (the musical notes A-E-A-D-A) in the more vigorous contrapuntal second section. Perhaps the disk will help spark an interest in Bacon's music, which deserves more attention.
-- Ira Rosenblum, New York Today (New York Times cultural web site), September 2, 1998
Although this release includes only a single orchestral work, it welcomes back to the instrumental recorded catalog a unique figure in American music, a Chicago-born, American-trained composer who, despite his Austrian family background, was borne on the same nativist groundswell that lifted up his better-known contemporaries Copland, Harris, Thomson, and Piston. Even though his forthrightly tonal, accessible language is thoroughly permeated by the cadences and inflections of American folk song, Bacon was capable of creating works that stand on their own as absolute music, as the magnificent Cello Sonata of 1948 confirms. Possibly the finest chamber work for its instrument by any American, this four-movement, 21-minute statement covers a wide expressive compass and makes a forcefully solid impression. This legendary performance by two great soloists from the Beaux Arts Trio was originally issued on Desto and later transferred to vinyl by CRI. Its restoration to the catalog fills an important gap in the recorded American chamber repertoire.
Also reissued here are works originally released in the 1980s on the West Coast label Orion. The eight striking pieces for solo piano here are drawn from Bacon's mature years (1950 65) and incorporate varying moods and lengths, ranging from less than a minute to six. Several are inspired create independent works, however small-scaled. The Lobo Girl of Devil's River, a dissonantly head-long portrait of a Texan wolf-girl, is an astonishing example of musical fauvism, and all eight are brilliantly played by Emily Corbató.
The only premiere recording here is a late (1988) work in memory of Bacon's close friend, the famous photographer Ansel Adams. This appropriately mournful and close-to-monothematic quarter-hour elegy calls for some passages for solo clarinet (and even an occasional cello), but the bulk of the argument is carried by an ensemble of strings and percussion that are handled with consider able character and eloquence.
No one interested in American music can overlook this release, but let's hope that somebody, somewhere is looking into Bacon's several symphonies and piano concertos. They could prove a revelation.
-- Paul A. Snook, Fanfare Magazine, January/February 1999, Vol. 22 #3
Fond Affection, Music of Ernst Bacon,
CRI CD 890 (See Recordings and Works)
It's hard to pin down Bacon's style. He was a conservative in that he used triadic harmonies and traditional procedures, but he was also a resourceful, independent-minded artist who stamped everything he did with his own strong, pungent personality. There is a tension between delicacy and ruggedness, an interplay of gentle and tough, that's hard to describe but easy to hear. His use of folk tunes can be earthy, but at other times genteel and elegant--endearing in a chaste, sentimental, Victorian way. He was a skilled craftsman who valued economy and could be simple and direct, but he could also be fanciful and poetic. And he could toss off music of surprising rhythmic or contrapuntal intricacy so easily that it sounds much simpler than it really is. His music is somehow both sophisticated and hand-carved.
This new release offers a selection of 21 songs--half sung by soprano, half by baritone, each with piano--all short, sharply drawn, stressing precision and focusing on a single mood or gesture. Many are gems. 'Schilflied' (on a German lyric) is Schubertian, infused with gloomy, ardent longing. Even better are Bacon's Dickinson settings. 'It's Coming--the Postponeless Creature' evokes the remorseless tread of mortality in somber repeated chords, while 'Velvet People', with its evanescent darting piano figures like the scattering of light on water, conjures up the bumble-bees alluded to in the poem's title. A wayward vocal line over fluttering arpeggios in 'The Bat' portrays that tiny monster's eccentric swooping flight.
The bat's unpredictable trajectories return in the almost Conlon Nancarrowish rhythmic dislocations of the half-whimsical, half-menacing--and entirely astonishing--scherzo of Bacon's 1983 Violin Sonata (written when he was in his mid-80s). This is preceded by a dignified and power-accumulating passacaglia-like first movement, and followed by a sweetly singing slow movement shaded by achingly tender harmonic nuances. The sonata ends with a rugged, vigorous, striding allegro that recasts ideas from the first movement.
The performers obviously love this music; they sing and play it with warmth, sensitive musicianship, and tonal beauty. Sopranos Janet Brown and Amy Burton have lovely voices, and baritone William Sharp is commanding and manly. The sound (seven songs given before a politely quiet concert audience, the remainder in the studio) is excellent. This is a wonderful addition to the recorded repertoire of a fascinating and inimitable American composer.
-- Mark L. Lehman, American Record Guide, September 1, 2002
This is a genuinely wonderful recording, yet another candidate for my already over full list of potential Want-List items.
The extremely fine Violin Sonata from 1983, written on a commission in honor of his 85th birthday, is a firmly original work within its own conservative stylistic parameters. His sense of both form and economy is especially striking here; each movement not a moment longer than it needs to be, imbued with passion and a sense of important matters being under discussion. It is a masterly work that is fully worthy of the powerful and quite beautiful performance given here by Ronald Copes, second violin of the Juilliard Quartet, and that great champion of all things American, Alan Feinberg.
Part of the reason the songs come across so well here, of course, is the outstanding performances they receive by all three singers and their partners. Janet Brown and Amy Burton are both lyric sopranos of the silvery sort blessed with almost perfect diction, impeccable legato, and an ability to make Bacon's occasionally awkward word setting scan musically. William Sharp is just as fine in the ten songs he is assigned, ranging from the robust masculinity of Whitman's The Commonplace to the rapt setting of Dickinson's How Still the Bells.
The recordings, from three separate venues, are all very fine and very well integrated, including the in-concert recording of the seven songs sung by Janet Brown. ...an outstanding issue. ...A definite find and firmly recommended.
-- John Story, Fanfare Magazine, September/October 2002
Not many modern composers would necessarily share Bacon's perspective, but he must be commended for remaining true to what he believed to be his calling as a composer.
Bacon demonstrates time and time again a truly exceptional sensitivity to texts and also a certain daring about setting complicated poems that might not seem to lend themselves to such treatment.
The disk opens with seven songs sung with breathtaking beauty by soprano Janet Brown. Especially lovely is Schilfled, which shows Bacon could set German poetry quite well. His setting of Robert Burns's famous poem The Red Rose is challenging, and Ms. Brown effortlessly encompasses its soaring upper reaches. She also captures the exquisite sense of mystery of the disk's title track, set to an anonymous poem.
It should be noted that this disk features not only two dozen Ernst Bacon songs but also his violin sonata, played beautifully by Ronald Copes, the second violinist for the Juilliard String Quartet. Not incidentally, the slow movement features a quotation from the disk's title song, Fond Affection. It's fascinating to hear on one disk how Bacon wrote so effectively both for voices and instruments, and also how lovingly and sensitively he crafted his accompaniments, played impressively here by John Musto, Herbert Burtis, and Alan Feinberg.
-- Gregory Berg, Journal of Singing, November/December 2002
Words on Music
By far the sanest book by a composer that I have read recently. Bacon ought to be read by everybody who is concerned about the condition of musical culture in this country.
-- Winthrop Sargeant, The New Yorker
One of the best books on music that has come to my attention in a long time. It is sound, constructive, scholarly, and with all this it has a lively style and charm that made it no chore to read on a rainy and dreary Sunday.
-- J.R. Cominsky, Saturday Review
You've written it splendidly. ...a fine piece of exposition.
Notes on the Piano
If Bacon is able to give out in discussion with his students any reasonable part of the wisdom he has written into "Notes On the Piano, not to mention its recent forerunner, Words on Music, he is a teacher to be sought out for penetration, for relevance and for a keen humanity.
-- Christian Science Monitor
Ernst Bacon speaks with the voice of a philosopher and the spirit of an artist. His generosity of spirit, his acute perception of human genius, and his passionate respect for that true gesture of the heart which makes every act of art an act of love make his book a perfectly fresh experience. It is beautifully written and nobly purposed.
-- Paul Horgan