In recent years, the musical public seems to have rediscovered the well-crafted and appealing music of romantic-era American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) – at least in terms of available recordings. But most of these releases have been devoted to his chamber and orchestral compositions. With practically no recordings devoted to Foote’s keyboard music, the time is right for this milestone release of his complete music for solo piano.
A native of Salem, Massachusetts, young Arthur was raised in a family of devout Unitarians, and grew up in a rich church music environment. Early music lessons were followed by formal study at Harvard under John Knowles Paine: a prominent member of the important group of American composers which (along with Foote) came to be known as the “Boston Six” (its other members being Amy Beach, George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell and Horatio Parker). We may well have to eventually consider re-naming this group the “Boston Seven” in the wake of Delos’ recent series of recordings offering the neglected music of another of the city’s pioneering woman composers, Margaret Ruthven Lang. In fact, Foote owed much to the Lang family: it was only after his postgraduate organ studies with Margaret’s father, B. J. Lang, that he decided to make what had been his musical “hobby” his life’s work. He remains the only prominent American composer of his day to have trained exclusively in the United States.
In his twenties, Foote earned an enviable reputation as a concert pianist and performer of chamber music. But he soon realized that he preferred playing the organ in church – which, along with his work as a choirmaster, remained his primary performing activity for the rest of his life. In addition to his prominence as a teacher (piano and organ) and composer, he remains known as an editor (in collaboration with his older sister and his brother, a minister) of hymn collections; his compositions include largely forgotten liturgical music for organ and choir. Among several notable pedagogical books, he wrote Some Practical Things in Piano-Playing (1909).
Foote – along with all of his contemporaries – composed in forms and styles then prevalent in Europe; the uniquely American idioms of composers like Gershwin, Copland, Harris and Piston were not to emerge until near (or after) the end of his life. He gained some degree of early notoriety by advocating the music of his European contemporaries Brahms and Wagner – despite the ironic fact that the respective supporters of those two composers in Europe were still at each other’s throats! But Foote’s European roots and influences went much deeper than that. As you will see in the following discussion of his piano compositions (and hear as you listen to them), Foote’s music, while reasonably original in its lyrical impulses and stylistic detail, also owes much to composers like Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Schumann – among others.
The music also reveals a thoroughly trained theoretician’s command of form and structure – fetchingly fleshed out by Foote’s melodic fecundity and harmonic imagination. More often than not, these piano miniatures – whether they are stand-alone pieces or movements of a suite or cycle – are cast in ternary (ABA) form. Many of them were written for his own use, often with Boston’s busy “salon” scene in mind. Finally, Foote the conscientious pedagogue is in evidence throughout (he was in considerable demand as a teacher). Not only does this program include two substantial cycles of technical studies, but he produced quite a few other pieces – both individual and as individual parts of cycles – that are subtitled as etudes or studies.
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