Contemporary Music for Mandolin

This article was originally published in Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2006.
Download a pdf file of the sheetmusic that accompanies this article: Pantomimes

For the last 4 issues I have been introducing the style periods of Western classical music, beginning with the Renaissance and moving through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. In these periods much of “classical music” sprang from popular music, and was a gloriously more sophisticated version that was universally loved and supported by the public. We now arrive, for the fifth and final music history column, in the modern era, that began around 1900 and hit its stride after World War I.

The 20th century “classical music” profile, unlike those of previous eras, was shaped by many varied forces that were beyond the control of composers, like electricity, psychology, cultural blending, the anonymity of global war, and the recording industry. Unprecedented concepts and inventions pushed music out of its concert and entertainment niche as composers reacting to the startling events of modern life found the traditional language and instruments of music increasingly inadequate to express their feelings of horror, obsession, or psychological angst. Mathematical systems of organization replaced scales and modes, atonal music abandoned the time-honored concept of key, and electronic instruments added to the palette of tone color, and expanded the possibilities of pitch beyond the traditional 12 tones to microtonal and flexible-pitch sounds. Popular music was left far behind as 20th-century composers began to smash rules and abandon traditions in their attempt to express the modern condition through their compositions.

As music, along with painting, dance, theater, and the other arts, moved farther away from traditional language, it left its mainstream audience behind. We can’t really blame the composers for this, as many actually believed that audiences would welcome the new sounds and structures that the composers felt fit contemporary life so well. But audiences were largely unwilling to accept the stark new musical landscape being offered, and increasingly turned to styles like jazz, waltzes, ragtime, and other types of salon music that were rewardingly complex without being unnervingly intense. Even early 20th-century masterpieces, like Stravinsky’s now-beloved “The Rite of Spring” were received with boos and rioting at their first performances before audiences began to appreciate the beauty of the bold new sounds. The gulf between popular and fine art music widened and the latter became less a part of mainstream culture.

Luckily musical style runs in cycles and about every 75 years tastes change. The structures and intellectual focus of the Classical Era (1750-1825) gave way to the passion and fantasy of the Romantic Era (1825-1900). Similarly, the initial stark sounds of the 20th century (1900-1975) began to mellow and become more melodic and more traditionally beautiful as we entered the unnamed style period (1975-2050) that we are currently living in. Contemporary composers are inventive, curious, and less stylistically rigid than those in the early 20th century, borrowing eclectically from styles of the past to create their own personal musical language.

For this column I’m going to introduce you to the music of John Craton, a contemporary composer whose personal approach to the mandolin I really enjoy, and whose use of the internet has made his music accessible on a global scale. His webpage bio begins, “Born in Anniston, Alabama, John hails from an extended family of musicians, including both professionals and amateurs.” Craton has written operas, symphonic works, and chamber music, and, luckily for us, has composed a number of pieces for mandolin as well.

John has written 3 mandolin concertos. “Mandolin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor,” written for mandolinist Victor Kioulaphides, is largely traditional in language and style and features solo mandolin with string orchestra in three movements. “Mandolin Concerto No. 2 in D Major” was composed for internationally recognized mandolin virtuoso Richard Walz, and is scored for chamber orchestra and percussion. John’s most recent mandolin concerto, “Mandolin Concerto No. 3 in E Minor” was written for Gertrud Weyhofen and subtitled “Verdun, 1916”. The concerto commemorates the Battle of Verdun and is dedicated to the memory of all the soldiers, attempting to convey the sacrifice and ultimate triumph of the human spirit in wartime. The concerto is scored for solo mandolin, strings, and percussion. The scores for all of these concertos are available for review at the American Music Center website, and there is a link available on John’s webpage. Another work written for mandolin and orchestra, “The Legend of Princess Noccalula,” was commissioned by Het CONSORT of Amsterdam, and premiered with mandolinist Sebastiaan de Grebber on April 1st, 2006. It celebrates the legend of Cherokee Indian Princess Noccalula, that dates from antiquity in northeast Alabama where the Cherokee nation once thrived, and is a tragic story of ill-fated love.

The piece included in this issue is the second of Craton’s “Six Pantomimes for Two Mandolins”. John has made the scores for all six pieces available for free download, along with Scorch files so you can listen to them as well. The six pieces begin simply and grow in length and complexity, with the fourth and sixth being the composer’s own favorites. They are dedicated by the composer to Gertrud Weyhofen’s daughter Nelleke. who was born last December 31.

The second piece in the series, published here by permission of the composer, is a cheerful good-natured musical gem that begins as a sprightly dance-like tune in G major. It brings to mind the mandolin duets of the early 18th century by Cecere and Canciello, especially in the sequence of parallel 3rds in measure 4. Around measure 9 the piece begins to add slightly dissonant intervals (major and minor 2nds), and notes outside of the key, while keeping the dance rhythm in tact. After modulating briefly to G minor, it pounces on an accented dissonant chord on the last note of measure 15, that sets off a humorously clashing run with 3-against-2 rhythm that careens to a halt with a dissonant fanfare in measure 18 and demurely begins its tonal dance again. A nice touch is the sextuplet-against-16th rhythm alternating with dotted notes in measures 23 to 25, as the piece romps, with a few scattered dissonances along the way, to a hearty tonic chord conclusion.

This “Pantomime” is a simple example of John Craton’s art, that will be a lot of fun for you to play and for your audiences to hear. It serves as a good introduction to his more weighty pieces, and also as a reminder that contemporary music can be playful. And as much as we all love the music of earlier eras, it’s necessary that we continue to explore new music, and play the compositions that living composers are writing for the mandolin. In this way we and they insure that the mandolin will continue to be part of the living tradition of classical music now and into the future.

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Posted April 28th, 2006. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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