Monday, January 13, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part seven)

We now return to our regularly scheduled rag sonata, already in progress.

The last of the three movements of William Albright's "Grand Sonata in Rag" is modestly entitled "Ragtime Behemoth" and it is certainly a monster. Mr. Albright lets us know that right away, with this reference to Liszt's "Dante" Sonata. Dante's story of obsession obsessed 19th century composers, particularly the bit about making a pact with the devil (turns out to have been a bad idea; who knew?), and Liszt begins his sonata with a musical illustration based on the tritone, an interval so bizarre to Medieval minds they referred to it as "the devil in music."

[listen]

It gets the point across that something sinister is going to happen, doesn't it?

Now for Mr. Albright's version, which is simultaneously more diabolical and more fun at the same time:

[listen]

We can tell right away we are dealing with something a bit on the wild side. A Behemoth is not really a very nice animal, after all.

Then the composer takes us on a wild ride through something that sounds like it was made for the vaudeville stage. It starts out nicely enough; then it turns into this:

[listen]

Writing at least 75 years after ragtime began, Mr. Albright has the luxury of mixing, matching, and generally amplifying various influences and voices that we now know as ragtime, stride, jazz, novelty, even various references to Hollywoodish entertainment. I present for your inspection this little number from later in the piece, which somehow reminds me of the Dick van Dyke show:

[listen]

This is a long way from Scott Joplin's idea of dignified ragtime--clearly he's lost control, here! As entertaining as it is, The Monster seems to have won. This may be a "Ragtime" sonata, but ragtime purists will have started scratching their heads a long time ago.

But it isn't as if Bill Albright doesn't know his history--in fact, he's practically giving us a pellmell rundown on the whole thing in just a few minutes!

One of the trends in ragtime was for a pianist to take a well-known tune and "rag" it. Making even classical tunes, popular songs, whatever you could find, sound like ragtime. I recently demonstrated this at a party to general laughter when someone called out the tune for "Amazing Grace." Being able to do this on the spot was kind of a way of demonstrating your "chops." Another thing that ragtimers and popular entertainers ever since have done was to make fun of serious music by ragging it. And so, for the second time in the same evening (the first was when the writers of "The Girl in 14G" worked in a reference to "Tristan and Isolde") on the program was a bit of fun at Richard Wagner's expense. Richard Wagner was a composer so serious that even other serious composers like to make fun of him, which tells you something!

Anyhow, listen to this bit from Wagner's "Ring" cycle--an ethereal progression of just four chords, followed by an outburst of horribly uncouth ragtime:

[listen]

This happens three times, and the third time Mr. Wagner appears to be very upset!

[listen]

In the end, a fairly jaunty, Joplinesque tune has us heading for home, and we get there with a bang!

[listen]

Now if I can make the world stop for just a little bit I might manage to have a recording for you of the entire wonderful sonata by next week--if not, I'll get it finished as soon as I can. In the meantime, this 8-part series is nearly concluded. I hope you've enjoyed the ride. 

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