On American Independence Day, BASIL RAMSEY recalls a special composer.
We never met. He was in his late eighties and I a good forty years younger
when our correspondence started. Ernst Bacon had long retired from teaching,
but not from composing and writing his wonderfully sonorous prose. I never
fully understood the distance between his abilities and the rest of the
world. The majority of his music remained in manuscript. Perhaps his enormous
addiction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson had discouraged those publishers
who considered him a possibility in the light of his American folk style
for lots of keyboard pieces. I gathered that he prized the songs way above
anything else, and his tenacity would have rejected a publishing proposition
that left the songs out in the cold.
His best-known book would be Notes on the Piano, which was first
published in 1963 by Syracuse University Press, where he was for a time
as composer-in-residence. I first spotted Paul Horgan's tribute to him on
the back cover, which summed up my growing astonishment at the spirit of
genius only too clearly shining out from this man: '...the voice of a
philosopher and the spirit of an artist....his generosity of spirit, his
acute perception of human genius.. his passionate respect for that true
gesture of the heart that makes every act of art an act of love...'
The adulation from a small, astute group of musicians and men of letters
only served to fuel my curiosity. Ernst mailed me a few badly reproduced
tapes of his chamber music. Again, I was frustrated - and not a little astonished
- at the apparent indifference of most of musical America towards such a
gifted composer. No doubt there were extenuating circumstances, and the
indisputable fact that a shy or hesitant composer can live in a community
of 500 people without a slightest hint of recognition.
That would not appear to be relevant to Ernst Bacon, yet there's a human
perversity that sometimes squashes talent for expediency. I also accept
the possibility that his large-scale works failed to catch special attention
because the stylistic apparel did not stand out with quite the same distinctive
flair as some of his contemporaries.
To this matter I will return when some cherished letters and another
book are reclaimed from my disorganised clutter. In the meantime, any memories
of Ernst Bacon or experiences of his music would be gratefully received.
Copyright © Basil Ramsey,
July 4th 1999
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