William Mayer, contemporary classical composer


Notes from William Masselos plays Mayer and Rudhyar
New World-CRI (2007)

Octagon for Piano and Orchestra

William Mayer's Octagon for Piano and Orchestra (1971) was begun in an abandoned schoolhouse in West Townsend, Vermont and completed in Rome and New York on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The composer writes:

“In Octagon themes are often pitted against each other. In the very opening measures a fragile flute figure is pounded and eventually pulverized by attacking sonorities, first from the piano and then from the orchestra. This aggressive energy continues to bob up, but more sparingly, in succeeding movements, occasionally attacking new and more sturdy material without warning. These interruptions contribute an organizing element of their own to the work.

“There are, however, many stretches of the piece, free from attacks. And there are a number of organizing principles unrelated to conflict. Each movement, for example, features a different facet of the piano. But certainly a central fact of Octagon is the alternation of the gentle with the abrasive.

“The first movement, as the title Interotto indicates, is a series of interruptions—the piano even interrupts itself. There is tranquil relief, however, in an inner section scored for strings and English horn. The second movement, Canzone, is a lament, while the third, Scherzo is insouciant in spirit. The Toccata, which follows without pause, is a relentless workout for the piano, primarily in its darker registers.

“The fifth movement, Fantasia, functions as the central arch of Octagon. An opening filmy motive in the piano reappears throughout, walling off episodes as if by a crystal curtain. The movement relates back to the second in its lyricism and looks ahead to the sixth and seventh in its bell sonorities. In the sixth movement, Clangor, these bell sounds are boisterous and brash, at times jeering, while in the seventh, Points and Lights, they are distant and delicate, almost as if the bells were ringing under water.

“Piano perpetual-motion figures (quintuplets) draw the listener directly into the turbulent Finale. These figures spread throughout the orchestra and are then replaced by fragments of previous movements. Especially prominent are first movement sonorities attacking the simple lament heard in the second movement. A short and steely cadenza follows, leading directly into a massive orchestral cluster that includes organ for the first time. The work ends on an entirely new plane with remote piano chords and string harmonics—as if all the turmoil were receding into the galaxies.”

Of his Piano Sonata (1960), Mayer writes:

“In the first movement, motion and tension grow out of a languid twelve-tone theme: percussive and clangorous sonorities surge toward a climax, whereupon the energy subsides into the gentler material heard at the opening—akin to early morning mist clearing from a lake, only to return at dusk.

“The second movement has a similar contour, with rhapsodic elements framing a faster and more precisely articulated middle section. There is, however, a clear difference between this movement and the preceding one, the first ending in a question mark and the second movement ending in quiet resolution.

“There follows an interlude, comprised of block chords with increasing harmonic tension, building toward what could be a grandiose climax. But the climax never materializes, for at the very moment of its logical culmination an impudent theme steals in instead, its jig-like character deflating, as it were, the previous build-up. The ‘jig’ recurs in rondo fashion—giving the impression of scampering alternating with a leap-frogging from register to register.

“The music resolves into a coda, which, in triple counterpoint, combines the main elements from each of the three movements (a) the fifths that open the Sonata—heard in the bass line (b) the three-note motif and basic harmonic motto of the second movement; and (c) the triplet figuration of the jig, heard in the top line. The Sonata ends amid clangorous sonorities and on a note of unequivocal and positive resolution.”

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William Masselos plays Mayer and Rudhyar CD

William Masselos plays Mayer and Rudhyar
   New World-CRI (2007)

“Recording of Special Merit”
Stereo Review

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William Masselos, piano
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (Kenneth Schemerhorn, conductor)

~ Octagon
~ Piano Sonata

“Octagon is a shattering, bold and strangely beautiful piece of music.”
   — Robert Weinstein, reporting on 1971 premiere with Stokowski, conductor, and Masselos, piano, for Music Journal

© 2009 William Mayer