The 18th Century American Overture - Hewitt, Carr, Reinagle / Gallois

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HEWITT Medley Overture. New Medley Overture. New Federal Overture. CARR Federal Overture. REINAGLE Miscellaneous Overture. Occasional Overture . Overture in G • Patrick Gallois, cond;...

HEWITT Medley Overture. New Medley Overture. New Federal Overture. CARR Federal Overture. REINAGLE Miscellaneous Overture. Occasional Overture . Overture in G Patrick Gallois, cond; Jyväskylä Snf Finlandia NAXOS 8.559654 (68: 25)

Most readers will never have heard of these composers. In fact, I rather suspect that most collectors attracted to this release, The 18th-Century American Overture , will be so more out of historical curiosity than out of any prior knowledge of the music itself. Benjamin Carr (1768–1831) and James Hewitt (1770–1827) were both English-born and educated. Carr, who studied organ with Charles Wesley and composition with Samuel Arnold, the first great cataloger and editor of Handel’s music, was a prolific publisher, a driving force in the development of a music establishment in Philadelphia, and one of the founders of the Musical Fund Society. Hewitt, who made the questionable claim that he had played violin in London under the direction of Haydn, was similarly engaged in New York, where he bought an earlier publishing concern from Carr, and later in Boston, where he was a conductor, arranger, publisher, and of course composer. Scots-born Alexander Reinagle was a contemporary of Carr in Philadelphia, where he established a concert series and was involved in the theatrical life of the city. He was a favorite composer of George Washington, who not only attended many of Reinagle’s concerts, but arranged for Reinagle to give piano lessons to his adopted daughter, Nelly Custis.

I mention the credentials of the three composers, as one would otherwise never attribute these works to musicians of any serious standing. Of course, when listening to the initial track, the Hewitt Medley Overture , one may well assume that a disc of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 had been substituted. But wait a bit, for soon after follow quotes of reels, marches, and patriotic songs like Yankee Doodle . In many of these, transitions are minimal, and there is little or no attempt to create a coherent flow. Tunes are occasionally cut off in mid-phrase to make way for the next, and the sublime and the trivial reside incongruously together. These then are pops concert entertainments of their day, compendiums of common tunes that would be recognized by the audience, packaged occasionally with the latest works from Europe. (The Mozart piano concerto premiered but 13 years before its appropriation here.) Some, like Carr’s Federal Overture , have a political purpose, with La Marseillaise running roughshod over some English tunes, followed by Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be? and Philip Phile’s Presidential March , now better known as The Itsy-Bitsy Spider . The intent would not have been lost on his audience in 1794. Others by Reinagle, the pragmatic man of the theater, lack pretensions musical or political, and are full of lively dance tunes.

Each of them, whatever the musical merit, gives insight into the culture of the new republic. These seven overtures are all that remain of many such works produced in America in the last two decades of the 18th century, and these have only survived in published piano reductions, or string parts without wind parts or score. The reconstructions were done by musicologist Bertil van Boer, professor of music history and theory at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He explains the historical background, and the detective work done in preparing the reconstruction, in his amusing and informative insert notes. Van Boer’s specialty is Scandinavian music of the 18th century, which explains, perhaps, the provenance of the recording. The Jyväskylä Sinfonia Finlandia is not an ensemble whose work often finds its way to these shores. Fanfare critics have reviewed only two releases: a disc of works by Rautavaara and another of Finnish tangos. That is about as broad a range as any ensemble I know. Now add obscure American popular potpourris to the mix. Who does their programming?

Whatever the story behind the recordings, kudos to van Boer, conductor Patrick Gallois, and the adaptable musicians of the orchestra for rescuing these curiosities and bringing them to our attention. The execution is polished and enthusiastic. The engineering is top-drawer. No one will mistake anything other than the Mozart quotes for great music, but the overtures are amusing, and this release adds an important tile to the mosaic of American music.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames


This is another issue in the Naxos “American Classics” series. Even if you are doubtful about the relevance of the word “Classics” these Overtures most certainly are, and go out of their way to be, American. Each is in the form of a “Medley Overture”, a collection of popular tunes linked together with greater or lesser skill. Although this device originated in London the examples here are all intended to further particular political views at a time of intense debate in America between Federalists and Republicans. All of this is explained in the fascinating leaflet notes by Bertil van Boer who has also reconstructed these works, in some cases from limited evidence.

The tunes included in these Overtures almost invariably include “Yankee Doodle” and a large helping of Scottish and Irish tunes, presumably appealing especially to those coming from those countries. Other tunes used include the “Marseillaise”, William Shield’s “The Ploughboy”, “Oh dear, what can the matter be”, and, most surprising of all, the opening tutti from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor. The results are clearly of considerable historical interest even if musically to describe them even as second rate might seem an exaggeration of their qualities. However unless you insist on nothing but the best, as did a relation of mine whose entire reading of fiction consisted of “Ulysses” and “War and Peace”, there is much to enjoy here. This is due more than a little to the sprightly performances and clear recording but I think is primarily due to the very appealing self-confidence and ingenuous swagger of the music itself. Despite the political messages that their music is apparently intended to send, the three composers represented here were all British in origin – Reinagle from Scotland and Carr and Hewitt from England. These Overtures have much in common with the music of such composers as Michael Kelly, Charles Dibdin and Steven Storace. Hewitt is best known for a wonderfully naïve Sonata describing the Battle of Trenton, and the works by him on this disc are little more advanced musically. However like all the rest they have charm and curiosity value in abundance. Maybe it is overstating the case to describe them as “American Classics” but this is certainly a disc that I find almost always generates a contented smile in this listener at least.

-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 29, 2011

  • UPC: 636943965429

  • Catalog Number: 8559654

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Alexander Reinagle, Benjamin Carr, James Hewitt

  • Conductor: Patrick Gallois

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Sinfonia Finlandia

  • Performer: Sinfonia Finlandia, Gallois