On Monday, February 10th at 7:00 pm in the Murray Adaskin Salon in Vancouver, the Canadian Music Centre will celebrate the life and work of composer Ross Alden on the occasion of what would have been his 100th Birthday.
Ross Alden (1920–2008) was a pianist and teacher born in the Canadian wilderness; fellow of Trinity, London; baccalaureate at Durham; magister at Harvard; matriculant at Oxford; sojourner in five countries; beloved of thousands of children. Posthumously, awarded the status of Associate Composer by the national Composer’s Committee of the Canadian Music Centre, Mr. Alden’s work will be preserved in our libraries for future generations to enjoy.
As we prepare for the Celebration we thought we would share the words of famed British Composer Howard Skempton, who recently wrote about Howard’s music for our programme.
The Music of Ross Alden
Ross Aldenʼs music has a Beethovenian restlessness and vigour. There is urgency in the more expansive pieces and touching candour in the more lyrical.
The Juvenilia are impressive. Composed between 1935 and 1942, they are both accomplished and characterful. Seizing on models, like many a young composer, Ross chooses several of the best, from Bach and Beethoven to Chopin, Schumann and Debussy.
There is nothing here that is merely deferential or well-behaved. Prelude and Fugue in C minor reveals a strong melodic gift, as does Toccatina, its freewheeling line offering the pianist considerably more than an exercise in touch. Fughetta and Gigue are the other tributes to Bach. There is harmonic playfulness in Gigue, and even a hint of jazz.
Adagio and Variation, though evidently “after Beethoven” and notably ambitious in its shifts of harmony and texture, seems Schubertian in its wistful lyricism. The Chopinesque Nocturne and Song Without Words (citing Schumann, not Mendelssohn) are more ardently romantic, and perhaps less individual. Prelude in C major is more contained, paying homage to Debussy: a ʻChildrenʼs Cornerʼ with sophisticated digressions. The one remaining example of Juvenilia, Valse, is outstanding. Melodically, harmonically and formally, it convinces on its own terms. There is an easy command of line and ornament, a winning sense of abandon and well-being, and a beautifully resolved conclusion.
Ross Aldenʼs only home was music, and he was committed to tonality, with its powerful promise of homecoming. Whether or not, under different circumstances, and at a different time, he would have dipped his toe in the waters of modernism, is difficult to say. He certainly had the ability and flair to study composition at the highest level. One can imagine him at the feet of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where he would doubtless have found kindred spirits. Be that as it may, events took him to England where his musicianship developed and was recognised. Following retirement from teaching, he focused on composing as if freshly liberated. The three Piano Quartets are a substantial, permanent achievement: a late flowering of his genius.
At twenty minutes in length, the Piano Quartet in C seems to make special claims. The first movement, Serenata, evidently means business, with its robustly romantic opening and its expansive melodies, redolent of Elgarian nobility. The second movement, Canon, is notably expressive; economical, and with a clear sense of direction and purpose. The third movement, Rondo, is a delight: intelligently playful, and even capricious.
The title of another of the Piano Quartets, Carnival in G, suggests a convivial style, but the first movement, Masquerade, is exploratory and vigorous; with an uninhibited generosity, expressed both lyrically and technically. After the elegiac second movement, Harlequin and Columbine, masterly in its development and circularity of form, the final movement, Carrousel, is bustling and lyrical, intriguingly alternating routine figuration and expressive twists and turns.
The third, “Untitled” Piano Quartet also has three movements, the first of which, Rhapsody, is impressively discursive. The flow of ideas is inventive and delightful. The music begins with something like a march of a most congenial, subtly irregular kind. Slower sections serve as a perfect foil, and achieve a notable clarity of texture. The lyrical Cavatina is a dreamy younger sibling, hinting at the rhythmic snap of the Rhapsody, but proving consistent in character. The final movement, Burlesca, has appropriate pace and skittishness.
Even when restless, Ross Aldenʼs music never loses its focus. Romance for piano and cello, for example, is unashamed in its romantic aspiration, yet every note is felt. Although it is a reworking of his Song Without Words, the use of the earlier music in this way serves to lend emotional weight to fresh thinking.
A familiar – perhaps folk – style can liberate and enrich melodic invention. Ross Alden had a life-long preoccupation with folk music, and there is a disarming buoyancy of spirit in Jota, originally composed for descant recorder and harpsichord, and later arranged for violin and piano. A Jota is a Spanish dance and this piece has a spring in its step. Musical sophistication is worn lightly and lastingly.
Howard Skempton January 19, 2020