Foote, Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat Major

Arthur Foote, 1853-1936

Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 65, 1908

Arthur FooteDespite a recent revival through a number of recordings by Naxos, the American composer Arthur Foote, though well respected in his time, has largely been forgotten. Born in 1853, Foote would have been old enough to be the father of Charles Ives, the grandfather of Aaron Copland. Two facts make Arthur Foote a noteworthy American composer: he was the first classical composer wholly trained within the United States (vs. travelling to Europe), and, he was the first to earn an MA in music from any American institution, in his case, Harvard. Foote made a good living as a professional musician by playing organ, teaching piano and composing, spending his life in Boston close to Harvard where he enjoyed a variety of fruitful associations. Foote composed songs, anthems, choral music, and several orchestral pieces, but he most outstanding achievement was his admirable corpus of chamber music comprising three string quartets, a piano quartet and quintet and two piano trios among other works. In his chamber works in particular, one finds finely-crafted works in a mid-19th century Romantic style showing the influence of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Dvořák while displaying Foote’s own genuine talents for melody, color and narrative form.

Regardless, Foote’s reputation largely faded with time for three primary reasons. First, during his lifetime, American composers of “classical music” had yet to taken seriously. Second, Foote wrote in a European style, no more “American” than Dvořák had done decades earlier. Finally, this style was swiftly becoming old-fashioned, overshadowed by the avant-garde comprising Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and more. Foote became a historical relic in his own time. Despite this tale often told in the history of art, Foote’s music is well worth discovering, enjoying and appreciating, particularly to the pride of American music lovers.

Foote composed his second piano trio in 1908 and it is probably his most celebrated work to date. A three-movement work in a general fast-slow-fast design, it dances, sings and engages with winning melodies, vital rhythms, artful scoring and genuine affect. The opening movement pursues a fluid, seamless sonata form featuring three main themes. The first is a jocular lilting dance, the second in a folk-tinged minor-mode that to some suggests the influence of Native American music. The second movement is serene, poised and noble turning plaintive in the middle section of the three-part form where peace and sorrow combine in the manner of a classic elegy. The finale starts with a stormy bustle, unsettling and turbulent and slowly makes its way back to the tonic key like the sun emerging from the clouds. The music literally makes its way home again as the jocular dance theme from the very beginning re-appears, a familiar, friendly face waiting at the end of a journey.

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