Henry Cowell’s Heavenly Music?

Anyone who has taken Music History alongside the Norton Anthology knows Henry Cowell as the composer of the epically stated The Banshee. However, The Banshee is not the only Irish mythological topic that inspired his music as noted by Dr. Charles Pease, writer of the “As I See It” column in the Evening News, published in San Jose, California in 1922.[1] This column does not specify which piece he heard, so I did some extra research to find out which piece is most likely.

The volume of The Evening News was published three years before Cowell’s The Banshee was premiered.  I found another piece written in 1912, entitled The Tides of Manaunaum: No. 1 of “Three Irish Legends.” This piece accurately fulfills all the descriptions found in Dr. Charles Pease’s article; it is based on Irish myths, voices “the crashing movements of the incredible forces and masses conveyed in strange ‘chord-clusters’, and includes “the old Dorian modes developed perhaps five or six centuries before Christ.” However, just because this piece includes chord clusters and the Dorian mode, does this piece really show a “World Closer to God?”[2]

The edition published in American Piano Classics selected by Joseph Smith includes the story according to John Varian:

Manaunaum was the god of motion, and long before the creation he sent forth tremendous tides, which swept to and fro through the universe, and rhythmically moved the particles and materials of which the gods were later to make the suns and the worlds.[3]

Yes, the low clusters the show the crashing tides against the shore created by the “god of motion” and the Dorian mode points back ancient Greece. But does this music really transcend over all other music the godly cosmos of another world? The ideas of chord clusters had been around as Igor Stravinsky used dissonant clusters in his music, and composers had been looking back to the Greeks for some time. Henry Cowell is just another development in the scope of music.

[1] Dr. Charles Pease, “As I See It: Cowell’s Cosmic Music World Close to God,” Evening News vol. 78 no. 73 (09-25-1922) : 6.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Henry Cowell, “The Tides of Manaunaum,” in Americn Piano Classics: 39 Works by Gottschalk, Griffes, Gershwin, Copland, and Others, ed. Joseph Smith (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001), 44.