Edward Burlingame Hill – the Gershwin of Harvard?

Edward Burlingame Hill forms a link in the development of American classical music. He studied under one of the preeminent American composers of the late 19th century, John Knowles Pain at Harvard, In turn, as a Harvard professor himself, taught the next two generations of American composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra’s debut recording presents four of Hill’s works written between 1926-1941. It’s easy to dismiss Hill as an academic (“those who can’t do, teach”), but that’s not really fair to Hill or his music. Listening to this disc without any preconceptions, I heard works that were well-crafted without a trace of stuffy academia. Further, although Hill’s music is tonal, he does successfully incorporate Gerswin-like jazz elements, injecting a little fun into the proceedings.

The album opens with Hill’s 1926 Divertimento for piano and orchestra. It reminded me quite strongly of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (written just two years before). The difference is approach. Gershwin came from the rough-and-tumble world of Tin Pan Alley, and his rhapsody is a jazz piece cast in a symphonic mold. Hill is classical trained, and his use of jazz elements seems more polite and restrained. (Still, I think prefer Hill’s Divertimento to Gershwin’s Concerto in F major.)

The two concertinos for piano and orchestra reminded me strongly of similar works by Bohuslav Martinu. Hill’s orchestrations are sometimes spare, and there’s a strong sense of syncopation and rhythm throughout. The jazz elements are more smoothly integrated into these works.

Hill’s Symphony No. 4, completed in 1941 is a good example of American neo-classicism. This 30-minute work follows the general symphonic form, but this is no Brahms knock-off. Once again, Hill’s orchestration and strong rhythms reminded me of Martinu. The lush harmonies of the slow movement, though, brought to mind the music of of another mid-century composer — Eric Korngold.
That’s not to say Hill is derivative — he just happened to be writing in a similar vein.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra under Peter Bay is in fine form throughout this recording. The ensemble really digs into this music, presenting it in the best possible light. Anton Nel nimbly runs up and down the keys, making both the jazz and classical sections sound convincing.

Perhaps Edward Burlingame Hill’s greatest strength was as a teacher. But these works show he knew his craft. And they provide some fascinating insight into the musical zeigeist of between-war America.

Edward Burlingame Hill: Divertimento for Piano and ORchestra; Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 47; Concertino No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 36;
Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 44
Austin Symphony Orchestra; Peter Bay, conductor; Anton Nel, piano
Bridge Records 9443

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