William Mayer, contemporary classical composer


Notes from William Mayer
New World-CRI (2007)

Country Fair

Country Fair was composed in 1957 for two trumpets and trombone. It starts off with a rather important sounding flourish that immediately leads into a more gentle episode whose main characteristic is its “off-balance” quality generated by changing meters. There follows a misterioso section, which is succeeded once again by the original material.

Dream’s End

When asked by the American Artists Series to write a chamber piece using any group of instruments I wanted, I felt as if I had been given carte blanche in a pastry shop. My original plan was to use the violin, cello, and French horn as “dream” instruments contrasting with the here-and-now sounds of an oboe and clarinet. The sixth instrument, a piano, was to be a kind of bridge. Such a plan may sound impressive in program notes, but when I got down to writing the piece, the classifications soon went by the board. Following one’s instincts, it seems, can leave the best laid plans in shreds.

The fact is that each instrument is a world within itself. While the lontano sounds of the French horn in the movements entitled “Extremes” and “Appalachian Echoes” could be called dreamlike, the brassy eruptions of the same instrument in the movement entitled “Funicula Ridicula” are anything but dreamlike. In fact, the latter sounds closer to the alarm clock shattering our dreams. And, of course, an instrument’s timbre does not exist in a vacuum apart from the musical use to which it is put.

In Dream’s End, the music often comments on itself or cuts itself off with guillotine-like dispatch—as if a critic had entered the scene. These interruptions are generally good-natured, for if the composer’s right hand is slapping his left, the blow is apt not to be too heavy. This playful schizophrenia reaches its apex in the movement entitled “20th Century Guest at an 18th Century Musicale.”

For the most part the instruments speak in this piece as individuals rather than as part of a bloc. Beyond the conversational sallies and rejoinders, there is an overall pattern of a poignant motif (built on a descending second and third), which recurs throughout the work in different guises.

The commission for this piece happened to fall at a sad time for my family, coming soon after the sad death of a young and vibrant family member, which prompted the title Dream’s End. Having designated the work as a memorial for a young person, I have sometimes wondered whether its mirth might not be out of place—but as I write these notes I recall the observation that humor is one way to deal with the tragedy of existence; so perhaps these juxtapositions of jest and poignancy are not contradictory after all.

A word about the titles of some of the movements seems to be in order. “Extremes” (first movement), refers to the wide range of register, dynamics, texture, and dissonant content of the movement. “Buzzings” (third movement) represents two flies hopping about and annoying each other. “Funicula, Ridicula” (sixth movement) came into being when, as I was writing this burlesca, the old song “Funiculi, Funicula” poked its head out of the musical fabric. The tune seemed at odds with a “serious contemporary piece,” and I heard myself saying, “This is ridiculous.” But after shelving it, I longed for its return. Hence the title “Funicula, Ridicula.”


Khartoum expresses the longing for someone who has disappeared. Has he or she he gone to Spain? To Khartoum? Who can say? The word Khartoum is a beautiful one to set: exotic in spelling and in sound. The soft rise and fall of chords at the end of the song suggest, for me, great reaches of distance—both in space and in the heart.
    ~ The Lyrics: Khartoum by William Mayer

Brass Quintet

My Brass Quintet was commissioned by the noted New York Brass Quintet at the suggestion of first trumpeter Robert Nagel. Other founding members included John Swallow (trombone) and Harvey Phillips (tuba). A more recent group, The Manhattan Brass Quintet, describes the work as a “rambunctious fete.” At times exhilarating, it can also turn wry—and rude. In some spots a player turns critic and sasses what he has just heard. Yet in the midst of all the crackling motion a serious and tragic figure wells up, generally without warning. In the second movement (an elegy) the quiet melody is formed by an individual instrument emitting one long single note followed by the next instrument enunciating its single note. These notes are often held throughout the phrase, thereby creating chords that soften the starkness of the isolated notes. The elegy is in memory of a college student who was killed on his way back to winter term in Oberlin when his car skidded out of control. Of elegiac movements I have written, this is my favorite. The quintet ends with a joyful fourth movement. The trombone solos over asymmetrically placed fifths. The focus then shifts to the horn, which exhibits a spit personality between raucous and gentle utterances. High dolce figures on the trumpet conclude the work.


I see the Miniatures as concentrated essences. Deeply Down, the first miniature, luxuriates in the depths of dark green sea water. Land of Dead Dreams observes the loneliness that can afflict us when surrounded by strangers. Low piano notes (partially strangulated by stopping the piano strings with a rubber eraser) and a distant trumpet contribute to the lonely effect as does a speaking voice over the instruments. Fireworks is a celebration of sounds and syllables, generally divorced from any meaning beyond the physical sounds themselves. Timbres change from note to note. Prophetic Soul is a rather soulful rendering of a typically wry observation by poet Dorothy Parker. Isn’t There Some Mistake?, expresses our disbelief at each new sign of aging. For No Man refers to the adage “Time waits for no man.”

Miniatures were first heard at the Guggenheim Museum in 1968.
    ~ The Lyrics: Deeply Down by Elizabeth Aleinikoff
    ~ The Lyrics: Land of Dead Dreams by Alfred Noyes
    ~ The Lyrics: Prophetic Soul by Dorothy Parker
    ~ The Lyrics: Isn’t There Some Mistake? by William Mayer
    ~ The Lyrics: “... For No Man” by William Mayer

Two News Items

Two News Items were best described to me by an amused member of the audience. “They are totally unhinged,” she reported. The first item, “Hastily Formed Contemporary Music Ensemble Reveals Origins,” has the soprano desperately trying to stay seriously “avant-garde” though she and the ensemble often slip back into their true métier i.e. old pop tunes, jazz, Salvation Army hymns, etc. The second item, “Distraught Soprano Undergoes Unfortunate Transformation” has a soprano becoming more and more distraught from stage fright. Sedatives and massage fail to relax her, especially when she learns a critic is in the audience. The final straw is her sudden remembrance that she forgot to turn the gas oven off and her cat is in the kitchen. Hysteria drives her over the brink; she is struck dumb and can only make clucking sounds. Sadly, she has turned into a hen. Incidentally, the accompanying trumpet is played by Gerard Schwarz before he embarked on his conducting career.
    ~ The Lyrics: Hastily Formed Contemporary Music Ensemble Reveals Origins by William Mayer
    ~ The Lyrics: Distraught Soprano Undergoes Unfortunate Transformation by William Mayer

Essay for Brass and Winds

The Essay for brass and winds dates from 1954 and was written at the request of trumpeter Robert Nagel, whose New York Brass Quintet occasionally gave joint concerts with the New York Woodwind Quintet.

The concert literature for double quintet is sparse (the Essay also uses a percussion player in the second of its two movements). Despite the combining of two quintets in the scoring, the music gives no impression of a choir of woodwinds being pitted against a choir of brass. Instead, the instruments are treated individually.

The first movement could safely be called a passacaglia, save for an interlude and the ending in which the theme is inverted for the first time. The theme itself is built on an alternation between whole and semi-tones and between a minor and a major seventh. While the first movement exploits the sustained, lyrical qualities of the instruments, the second exploits their secco and satiric possibilities. One programmatic touch involves a raucous trombone heard near the beginning of the second movement. It reminded me of that overly loud and drunken voice so often heard over the din of a cocktail party in its later stages.

The Eve of St. Agnes (condensed)

The Eve of St. Agnes might best be described as a highly romantic drama for chorus. A lot happens in a short amount of time (the piece takes less than fifteen minutes).

The action takes place on a bitter cold night in a medieval castle. A young would-be lover, Porphyro, sneaks into the bedroom of Madeline, the girl of his desires. She has gone to bed early and is asleep, for as legend has it, a maiden will dream about her future lover if she fasts and retires early on the magical Eve of St. Agnes. For the young man to sneak into her bedroom, however, is a highly dangerous operation: Madeline’s family is feuding with Porphyro’s family, much as Capulets and Montagues feuded in Romeo and Juliet. If discovered, Porphyro will almost certainly be killed.

As he steals into her room, a drunken party is in progress on a lower floor of the castle. The raucous sounds of the partygoers contrast mightily to the quiet mystical chant of Ave Marias that float into the castle from the frosty night outside. A further contrast to both the above is the romantic passion of the lovers. These opposing atmospheres are rapidly juxtaposed so that the listener senses that they are all happening at the same time.

The dramatic action swiftly unfolds in four compact scenes: 1) Porphyro gains entrance to Madeline’s chamber; 2) He woos her with food and song; 3) She awakes and feels fully as much passion for him as he does for her; 4) the clear moonlit night turns into a howling storm, permitting them to escape undiscovered as they elope into the night.

Finally there is one pervasive contrast throughout the work: the bitter cold of that frosty night that is unable to penetrate the lovers’ island of warmth.
    ~ The Lyrics: Selections from The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats

William Mayer

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William Mayer CD

William Mayer
   New World-CRI (2007)
Eight instrumental and vocal works by Mayer.

~ Order online from New World Records or from Amazon, ArkivMusic, etc.

Performers: Iowa Brass Quintet; Members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (William McGlaughlin, conductor); New York Brass and Woodwind Ensemble (Emanuel Balaban, conductor); Robert Nagel Brass Trio; The Peabody Conservatory Chorus and Orchestra (Gregg Smith, conductor; Arthur Weisberg, conductor; Catherine Rowe, soprano; Albert De Ruiter, narrator).

~ Country Fair
~ Dream’s End
~ Khartoum
~ Brass Quintet
~ Miniatures
~ Two News Items
~ Essay for Brass and Winds
~ The Eve of St. Agnes

Dream’s End:

“... an attractively and brilliantly scored nineteen-minute work ... Dream’s End once again affirms Mayer to be an inventive composer whose imaginative touches are found everywhere in his works.”
   — Jerome Rosen, Notes

Brass Quintet:

“The Brass Quintet is a very spunky piece that spits in your face the instant you put it on.”
   — Edward Canby, Audio

“Mayer’s Quintet is a busy, brassy and well-crafted piece that is good to listen to.”
   Music Journal


“Mr. Mayer’s songs chattered along with an elfin, askew wit that led only back to itself, as good music ideally should.”
   — Donal Henahan, New York Times.

The Eve of St. Agnes:

“... The Eve of St. Agnes gives us several levels of experience, each one balanced against the other ... The blend of the effects ... is what one remembers after the amusing virtuosity of the different elements has receded.”
   — D. Moore, American Record Guide

“The poetry of The Eve of St. Agnes is evocative, romantic, ethereal and sensuous. The composer manages to convey all these moods—especially the romantic.”
   — Gregg Smith, conductor

© 2009 William Mayer