It’s easy to forget that American classical music didn’t begin in the mid-20th Century. Europeans brought their musical traditions with them to the new continent. After the American Revolution, some composers worked to develop a new style of music for their new nation. Benjamin Carr was one such pioneer.
Carr was born in London and studied organ with Charles Wesley. He immigrated to American in 1793. He settled in Philadelphia and set to work creating a musical empire.
Carr was organist and choirmaster at two of the city’s largest churches. He gave music lessons and established one of America’s earliest music publishing houses. He organized and conducted concerts. And he wrote music — a lot of music.
This release collects hours of Carr’s piano pieces. It presents a snapshot of life in the Federalist Period. Most of Carr’s compositions were for amateurs. Most genteel American families had a pianoforte in their homes. Playing the instrument was an important skill for middle and upper-class young ladies.
Although the music may be simple, it’s not simplistic. In his six sonatinas, for example, Carr develops his material as skillfully as Haydn. (It’s no accident they resemble Haydn’s piano sonatas).
The Preludes, Op. 13 present some challenges for the player. They sound as if Carr transcribed them from his famed organ improvisations. They may have been inspired by Bach, but I’d say it’s likely Carl Philipp rather than Johann Sebastian.
Carr was looking for an American style. Often he incorporated American tunes into his music. His most popular work, the Federal Overture used “Yankee Doodle” as a starting point. It also mixes in other tunes of the day, such as “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be.”
“Yankee Doodle, An Original American Air with Variations” takes the tune through some innovative changes. I think this would make a great companion piece to Charles Ives’ “Variations on America.”
Kirsten Johnson has done an in-depth study of American music. Her catalog includes recordings of piano music by Arthur Foote, Amy Beach, and James Hewitt (one of Carr’s contemporaries). She understands the style and the creative drive behind Carr’s music.
This might not be a release to listen to from start to finish. But every piece has its own delights. I recommend dipping into this treasury time and again. This is real American music by a real American! Sure, he was an immigrant, but that’s part of the American character, too.
Benjamin Carr: Piano Music
Kirsten Johnson, piano
Centaur CRC 3862-65
Four CD set