Over the last few weeks, perhaps on account of desiring a ski trip, or rather a yearning for snow at all as yet another mostly non-white British winter fades into spring, I’ve been thinking of mountains. I have been sating said urge with nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, a chronicle and guide to the extreme heights of our planet. Peaks and summits, it seems, have always been the backdrop for artistic endeavor, not least musically, far beyond the mystical words of Psalm 121: “I lift mine eyes to the mountains- from whence cometh my help”. Without doubt and unsurprisingly so, it is the Germanic composers who have been at the forefront of depicting these- the blaring fanfares of reedy alpine horns in Mahler’s symphonies are the accompaniments to which I intend to scale the Eiger…! But Richard Strauss’ monstrous tone poem, Eine Alpensinfonie (1911-15), is a choice to which one might equally turn. Strauss (1864-1949), with Mahler, the leading Romantic composer after Wagner, forgoes the orthodox structures of the given title, producing a series of twenty-two brief episodes charting the day-long ascent of an Alpine mountain from just before dawn breaking to nightfall, scored for around 125 players. Just as the early 20th century was the zenith of mountain-climbing lore, this is a consummation of Romantic music, reaching its own peak before the changing to the new landscape of modern music.
Across the ‘pond’ and in the vain of Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony, in 1944 Aaron Copland (1900-90) premiered a ballet score, Appalachian Spring, which is now considered one of the ‘Great American pieces’. Perhaps the most significant figure to come out of a country that has sometimes been seen, unfairly and even ignorantly it should be stated, as a wilderness of classical music. A Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, like Strauss’ piece, the ballet recounts a community of American pioneers of the 19th century in vernal scenes around a Pennsylvania farmhouse and, as the L.A. Times said at the time, it represents ‘a parable of American conquering new land’.
It is the optimistic and organically rhythmic folk-y tunes speckled across the work, especially the Shaker tune towards the end, now most familiar as Lord of The Dance, that takes us due south to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Recommended by third-year Allen Harris, of History and IR Honours fame, who is taking a module on The Folk Music Revival and Society in the United States, 1900-70, Estil Cortez (aka. E.C.) Ball and his wife Orna’s Through The Years 1937-75 is an hour-long collection of traditional, pre-Cash or Carter Family, deeply spiritual, Alleghenian music, interspersed by the sugary, southern tones of the villagers of Rugby, VA being questioned about their lives. Recorded on a phonograph by folklorist father and son, musicologists John and Alan Lomax, these are hugely influential tracks for vast breadth of the folk genre- bluegrass, country, gospel, Americana, Piedmont and finger-style guitar etc.
The rich and mellow vocals of E.C. and Orna are reminiscent of bands such as The Handsome Family or the Avett Brothers, but it is the prodigious fiddle-playing that draws closest comparisons to Old Crow Medicine Show, who would be most familiar to audiences through their track ‘Wagon Wheel’, a popular Dylan reconstruction. Natural inheritors of Ball and co. and contemporary revivalists, the rootsy harmonicas, grating strings and quirky ukuleles of the Scotch-Irish pioneer balladry of ‘Black-Haired Québécoise’ among others from their recently released compilation album, Best Of, produce a contemporary take on traditional mountain music.