Edward T. Cone - CRI CD 737


            Most of us know Edward T. Cone through his writings: his two remarkable books  (The Composer’s Voice  and Musical Form and Performance) , many penetrating and witty (often controversial) articles, the co-editing (with Benjamin Boretz) of  Perspectives on Twentieth Century Music Theory and Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky ,  the Norton critical edition of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  His encyclopedic knowledge of the repertory is legion to the legion of composers who were lucky enough to study with him at Princeton, Berkeley, and Cornell.  His music – some 80 pieces – has, alas, remained for the most part unheard (a recent concert celebrating his 80th birthday included a piano quintet from 1960 receiving its world premiere.)  While every composer of Cone’s stature and reputation has a score or two which hasn’t yet seen the light of day, it comes as no small surprise to learn that this recording -- four pieces written between 1954 and 1993 -- is his first ever.

            This CD was supported in part by the Princeton University Music Department.  Indeed, most of the performers, including the CD’s pianist and producer (Jeffrey Farrington) are, or have been in one way or another, associated with Princeton.  The task of choosing four pieces from some 60 years of composition for an inaugural CD must surely have been a daunting one.  If the selection fell to Farrington he is to be roundly commended.  To be sure, each is – to use the pianist’s own term – “beautifully made”, and taken together they are, or have become, “of a piece”, inhabiting the CRI CD in a way and in an order that no other music could have.

            There is a piece from the 60’s (Duo for Violin and Cello), one from the 70’s (Serenade), a recent composition from the 90’s (New Weather), and music begun in the 50’s and enlarged in the 70’s (Philomela).  Two are with voice, two are without, heard in an alternating fashion.  The dramatic and lovely “Serenade” is the centerpiece in every way, framed by an equal amount of music (c. 20 minutes) on either side.

            Despite the years separating these works, there is an uncanny sense of timelessness from beginning to end – as if they were all written together.  This perhaps Cone has never subscribed to a compositional doctrine.  Yes, he’s been associated primarily with Princeton, and will give the serialist aficionados much to ponder, yet he is hardly ever mentioned in the same context as, say, Milton Babbitt.  Cone’s music at times has embraced functional harmony, yet he will disappoint the neotonalists by throwing a twelve-tone ostinato into the consonant mix.  For some he was and remains a stick-in-the-mud, for others a voice of reason.

            In the accompanying notes he writes that “Duo”  is a “quadripartite movement … based melodically and harmonically on a collection of related three-note cells.  Each of these consists of two intervals differing by a half-tone, a perfect fourth plus a tritone, or a minor plus a major second.”  Then later, discussing the “Serenade” he can, with a straight face, tell us that what follows amounts to a program: a flutist appearing in the middle of a snowstorm attempting to summon three string playing colleagues to some alfresco music making: “[H]er companions, at first reluctant, gradually respond one at a time.  They are not tuned up, however; in fact, their strings as revealed by a succession of pizzicato strummings, comprise every note of the chromatic scale.  That won’t do for the music the flutist has in mind; so they all have to retune in the conventional manner. [see Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 “Il distratto”.]

            To Cone, properties like conventional or unconventional are used only to describe the characters of our imagination, dramatis personae who need not, and often do not, use language in the same way, or even speak the same language.  Cone’s music is postulated on his belief, convincingly put forth in The Composers Voice, that all music is dramatic, that each composition is “an utterance depending on an act of impersonation which it is the duty of the performer(s) to make clear.””

            Which they do, and very well, on this CD.  The performances are first-rate, particularly in the “Serenade” and “Nightingales”, the first song of “Philomela.”  Kudos to CRI and to Mimmi Fulmer, Scott Rawls, Jayn Rosenfeld, Cyrus Stevens, John Whitfield and Jeff Farrington for this long overdue contribution to music.