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Max Morath : The "Descriptive Piece" of Piano Music
Max Morath Another form of piano music that was just big stuff in 1900 was the so called "descriptive piece". That is, it was written for the piano, perhaps orchestrated later, but it was written for the piano, principally by a man named E.T. Paul and another composer named Harry Lincoln, and in 1900 they had a massive hit -- who knows how many they sold -- of a piece called "Midnight Fire Alarm". And it was a descriptive piece about what would happen when the fire bell rings and the horses are ready to go and they go and put out the fire in a big city. And the cover has a wonderful -- it has to be stone ground litho in multicolors -- of that fire engine with the horses and so forth going to the fire.

Descriptive pieces weren't really marches. They were taccatas or something, ah, programmed pieces, I guess you could call them descriptive pieces about spring or whatever. But they took them in a direction that was very much a part of the time. Who's writing about fire engines in 1900 and seeing a picture of them on the cover? Another big hit was the Ben Hur chariot race and there are no words, but up above the staff with the music it says, "The firebell rings. The horses get ready." Dah-dah-dah-dah. It's very fast. Silent movie music, that's what it sounds like. It's sounds like the music you'd hear played behind the chase scene in a silent movie. "Dawn of the Century" was one of E.T. Paul's, compositions in 1900. It's not very good musical, I gotta tell you, but the cover is so evocative and so representative of what they were doing, in the first place, to sell music. Here's a beautiful color cover. This is not block letters saying, "Dawn of the Century"; I guess it's the Statue of Liberty or whoever -- it's someone we know -- and surrounded by these artifices of that year, 1900. It had to sell pretty well. It's turned up in an number of collections, as had a lot of his other things in 1900. But "Midnight Fire Alarm" was his big hit that year.

He always had some words and in his descriptive pieces, like "Midnight Fire Alarm" and "Ben Hur", he described the events and then wrote the music supposedly to go with that event. In this case he might very well have labeled the sections, "telephone", "automobile", and so forth, but he didn't. And here's his poem.

"The Dawn of the Century. Behold, a child is born unto this world, a man child, sturdy, strong and beautiful and wonderful. He clasps a shining scroll on which is writ 'the future of the race'. It tells of peace and justice, love and truth, the end of wars, the death of enmity, and, best of all, this universal law God's fatherhood, the brotherhood of man."

It's that inflated poetic language of the period and I don't think it means much and, by the way, that's not what the 20th century brought us. It brought us just the opposite. It brought us hate and war and chaos and disaster. And it's very nice and it's a sweet sentiment, but I think the music itself and the piece of sheet music is much more interesting with what it says rather than the poem. The sheet music says technology. The sheet music says color and speed and pianos.

The symbols of technology on the cover are placed in such a way that we are to believe that they are going to be to our benefit. All of these are refinements and this is typical of 1900. As the century turned, it was going to be wonderful. Everything was for the benefit of mankind. Wars would end. Technology would save us from ourselves, and, by the way, in many ways it has. But certainly not in the romanticized, inflated way that that poem indicates.

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