Over a recent holiday, I was rummaging through my mother’s basement. I found a book called “Notes on the Piano,” by Ernst Bacon. I had enjoyed it very much when I was a kid. When I returned to work, I found in the mail a new compact disc called “Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar.”
I would not contend that America or the world is in a Bacon moment. But I’m in one, personally. And others may want to know about Bacon, or get reacquainted with him.
He was a composer and writer, as you have gathered. He was also a pianist and conductor. Bacon was born in Chicago in 1898. (McKinley was in his first term.) His father was an American doctor; his mother was an Austrian musician. Ernst was well positioned to be what he would become: an American composer rooted in the traditions of the Old World.
He went to three of our best universities: Northwestern, Chicago, and Berkeley. He also studied in Vienna with the composer Karl Weigl. Early on, he decided he would not be a merely theoretical or academic composer. He would make real music, fed by a muse, as well as a brain.
And he would be an American composer, star-spangled. He loved America: its optimism, its youth, its possibilities. Its freedom from cynicism, by contrast with Europe. He loved its music and poetry and landscape. He was a big outdoorsman, doing a lot of hiking and climbing.
Among his friends was Ansel Adams, the photographer, who helped immortalize the West. Other friends were Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder. These were once big, big names. Now they have an air of quaintness about them, which is a shame. They were not quaint, they were very good, even formidable.
Bacon wrote all sorts of music, especially songs: more than 250 of those. He particularly liked to set poems of Dickinson and Whitman, those ultra-American poets. Ansel Adams told Bacon, “You are like the clear dawn wind in the midst of the foul smogs of contemporary cultural decay.”
Bacon worked at various institutions, as a teacher and administrator. Among them were the San Francisco Conservatory, Converse College (in Spartanburg, S.C.), and Syracuse University. He was married four times and had six children. He was prolific in music, wives, children — and years. He died in 1990, just short of his 92nd birthday. (The first George Bush was president.)
He could not only write music, he could write write: prose. In 1960, he published Words on Music. Winthrop Sargeant called it “by far the sanest book by a composer that I have read recently.” That is an excellent word for Bacon, as a composer and writer: sane. (Sargeant, by the way, was another big name who has largely been forgotten. He was a violinist who became one of the most important arts writers in the country.)
Three years after Words on Music came Notes on the Piano. For once, a punny title was a good one. The volume is a compendium of notes about piano music and piano playing. Bacon jots observations, aperçus, impromptus. If we really wanted to get punny, we could retitle the book “Bacon Bits.”
The book has an organization. For example, the first section is called “The Performer,” and it has three sub-sections: “Of Interpretation,” “Of Melody,” and “Of Form and Style.” But the organization is loose. In his introduction, Bacon writes, “This is a book to be nibbled. Open it wherever you like, for its thought is not successive nor cumulative. Its last chapter could as well be its first.”
Bacon has the ability to write breezy, confident statements without sounding pat. For instance, “The whole rule of rubato is grace.” (“Rubato” means license with time, roughly speaking.) He also writes, “If there is one trait common to all great interpreters, it is their capacity for intensification.” He then goes on to discuss the nature, or natures, of intensity.
Sometimes he quotes others — as in, “Dullness, remarked Liszt, is the cardinal sin of performance.” The author continues, “Nothing contributes to this more than the ostentation of learning, whereby a player will emphasize and sometimes exaggerate structural details, phrasings and dynamics, in a spirit of zealous didacticism or reform.” That is a very Baconian sentence and sentiment.
He can be fantastically quirky, or, better put, individualistic. He is also a sure puncturer of pretension. Consider this: “It is only when music is personal that it becomes regional; only when regional, national; only when national, international. An international music per se has the artistic attraction of Esperanto.”
Ever and always, he is the defender of music, its champion. And, writer though he is, he knows that writing about music is a sharply limited activity. It is also, often, a fool’s errand. Here is a passage from the final pages of the book: “All words about music are, to the consecrated writer, a kind of betrayal, whereby confidences are squandered to the careless, and secrets revealed to the sacrilegious. In the end, a man in music, as one in love, either lives it or talks about it; seldom both.”
Bacon was 65 when he wrote Notes on the Piano, and far from through: He had more than 25 years to go. But 65 years is a long time, and the book feels like the expression of a life’s wisdom, certainly where the piano is concerned. I am reminded of another volume, approximately the same size: Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. Penick was a great golf teacher, and he published this book in 1992, when he was 88. It became the best-selling sports book of all time.
Did I mention a guitar CD? I did. Bacon published just one piece for guitar, Parting (1968). How can you get a CD out of this little five-minute piece? You can’t — but a guitarist, Bradley Colten, discovered a cache of guitar manuscripts by Bacon. The composer wrote most of these pieces, I gather, for his son Joseph. And now Colten has recorded them, along with Parting, for the Azica label.
In general, the pieces are both natural and learned. They seem almost casual, but there is serious craft behind them. They are distinctly American — redolent of hymns, folk tunes, and other markers. Charles Ives would have enjoyed them, I think. Often these pieces are tinged with nostalgia. Whether Bacon himself would have seen it that way, I’m not sure.
A piece called “Quiet Hallelujah” is well titled. Some of the other pieces here could bear that title. They are casually sacred. Coon Hollow is also well titled: It is bluegrassy, positively down-home. You can’t have classical-guitar music, by anyone, without a touch of the Spanish — and Bacon wrote a piece called “Toro.” It is meant to evoke bullfighting. Though the piece is obviously Spanish-inflected, it is not an exercise in imitation or cliché. It is essentially an American, Bacon-like piece.
Very Bacon-like is Just Wondering: an elegiac, wistful thing. And The Erie Canal swings nicely. It’s based on a song from 1905, “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” also known by other titles, such as “Low Bridge.”
It is good to have these long-buried guitar pieces in the light of day. Also, there is something pure about music for a single acoustic guitar. Such purity tends to focus the mind in a noisy world.
As you can tell, I’m glad to have become reacquainted with Ernst Bacon. A cello piece by him is included on a CD called “Forgotten Americans.” There are a lot of those — forgotten Americans. There are forgotten people of all nationalities, of course. Not everyone can remain onstage. But fame, fashion, and durability can be mysterious things.
Take Walter Piston — another American composer, whose dates are similar to Bacon’s (1894 to 1976). He is better known than Bacon. But his music still gathers dust. He wrote eight symphonies, and at least one of them, the Fourth, is one of my favorite American symphonies. Or 20th-century symphonies. Or, hell, symphonies. Do you know how many times I have heard a Piston symphony, in 20 years as a music critic, all but three of them in New York? Zero. I have never heard a Piston symphony live in concert, ever.
Piston was a “neo-Classicist” or “neo-Romantic,” and there has long been a bias against that type. But can that alone explain the neglect? I don’t think so. Part of it is mere inattention or unawareness, or the natural and understandable onward rush of the world.
Anyway, I have now written about Bacon, and I could do the same for his fellow 20th-century Americans, including Piston, Norman Dello Joio, Peter Mennin (born “Mennini”), and Vincent Persichetti (who kept his Italian name and wrote me, when I was a boy, a letter). But I have not come across them in my mother’s basement lately. And they do not have unpublished guitar pieces lying around, to my knowledge.