Berkeley pianist Daniell Revenaugh remembers, during his student days in the late 1950s at Florida State University, walking at night by a former slave cabin near the campus in Tallahassee, hearing composer Carlisle Floyd, best-known for his nine operas, including Susannah, working on his Sonata for Piano.
“It’s one of the three great American sonatas of the 20th century,” Revenaugh said, “Along with Aaron Copland’s and Samuel Barber’s, which have their following, and been frequently performed during the past half century. Floyd’s hasn’t. ... I wanted to encourage Floyd to write again for piano, and do something to bring the Sonata to light, hopefully inducing further performances.”
Revenaugh has done just that, capturing his performance of the formidable yet ravishing piece—after a rare, fascinating tutorial for the pianist by the composer, now in his 80s—on a DVD Revenaugh co-produced. The DVD, now available at the Musical Offering, was honored at the Tallahassee Film Festival in April.
“It was a great success, the auditorium was full—to my surprise, no music faculty members or piano students, but theater and dance students and townspeople,” Revenaugh recalls. “Afterwards, audience members came up to us to say how much they appreciated the Sonata, understanding it better because of the coaching Floyd gave me on camera.”
Indeed, the unusual combination of a lesson for the player by the composer—following their conversation, with Floyd’s comments and Revenaugh’s demonstrations of musical points at the keyboard—is not only a boon for musicians and students, but a privileged glimpse into the process of music-making for untrained listeners, making it all tangible, showing how both a composition and its performance are put together.
“I’d never actually played for Floyd,” said Revenaugh, “and we hadn’t seen each other in years. I took advantage of his move back to Tallahassee after his many years with the Houston Opera. But I had no idea how he would respond to my idea. To my great, surprised satisfaction, he gave me this detailed lesson before I attempted to perform the Sonata, as if he had just written it—and Floyd hadn’t seen or heard it since its first performances, after which it just sort of faded away, in great part because of its highly individualistic style.”
In the DVD booklet, Revenaugh notes of his own encounter with the piece, “not an easy task for a musician whose repertory starts with Bach and ends abruptly with Bartok’s 1926 Sonata.”
Revenaugh characterized the Sonata as “Post-Romantic, structured after the 19th-century manner, harmonically traditional, with 20th-century inclinations to dissonance—but easily appreciable, if not on the first, surely the second hearing.”
Floyd’s third opera, Susannah, staging the story from the Apocrypha in a rural Tennessee setting and dialect, was premiered at Florida State in 1955, followed by its New York City Opera debut the following year, then a City Opera production at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. It has had a great worldwide success.
“Over 800 performances,” Revenaugh recounted, “more than West Side Story, second only to Porgy and Bess for American operas performed.”
Floyd has been honored, along with Leontyne Price and Richard Gaddes, by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as by the National Opera Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2004.
Revenaugh, whose mother danced with Mikhail Folkine’s ballet company, and whose paternal great-grandfather was portraiturist Aurelius O. Revenaugh, grew up in Louisville, Ky., living there until his teens when, he said, “I realized I couldn’t go any further with my musical career there; I had to get into a more competitive environment. My record collection had many Egon Petri records. I managed to get a recommendation to him. I thought he was at Cornell University; he was at Mills College. My parents brought me out here. I was 16 years old.”
Petri mentioned composer Ferruccio Busoni, Petri’s mentor, to Revenaugh at their first meeting. Revenaugh would go on to record Busoni’s Piano Concerto, Opus 39 in 1967, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Men’s Voices of the John Alldis Choir, with fellow Petri student John Ogdon at the keyboard, on EMI, an award-winning recording still in catalogue.
In 2007, EMI released Revenaugh and Lawrence Leighton Smith’s recording of Busoni’s Complete Two Piano Programme, originally composed and arranged by Busoni to further Petri’s career. Busoni and Petri performed it together, but it wasn’t recorded until Revenaugh and Smith’s version.
“Busoni’s recitals were said to have a demonic, magical power,” Revenaugh said. “Posters announcing his concerts would only say ‘Busoni.’ I resisted playing Busoni, even playing records, for years.”
It wasn’t until the 1960s, after rescuing Petri’s papers, including much Busoni memorabilia, from Petri’s house in Poland, from where he fled the invasions of 1939, that Revenaugh “got intrigued with the possibilities to try to make Busoni live on.” To that end, he also founded the Busoni Society. “It’s quite frankly the same thing I’ve been trying to do with the Floyd Sonata,” he said.
Revenaugh has the largest collection of Busoni memorabilia anywhere. He also acquired the cabin where Floyd worked on Susannah and the Sonata for Piano, moving it to the Millstone Plantation Preservation Institute outside Tallahassee, where he hopes it will house a Floyd archive and be a guesthouse for visiting artists.
Revenaugh, who once wrote a magazine article entitled “When the Piano Recital Became Deadly,” also organized the Electric Symphony Orchestra, which debuted in Zellerbach Auditorium, as well as L’Institut de Hautes Etudes Musicales in Switzerland—both in 1973—as well as the Classical Cabaret, which performed in the early ’90s at Freight & Salvage and the Julia Morgan Center, with jugglers, fire-eaters and eccentric dancers sharing the stage with classical music.
“I’m not trying to popularize,” Revenaugh declared, “but to propagate a huge body of literature out beyond its usual sociological barriers.”
An on-and-off Berkeley resident since 1951, who now divides his time between here, Switzerland and Tallahassee, Revenaugh said he’s spent more time in Berkeley than anywhere, including his childhood home.
“Berkeley has left me alone to my own devices,” he said. “I have not been disturbed in any way. And, like in London, there is everything life can afford in the Bay Area.”
The Piano Sonata of
DVD at The Musical Offering, 2430 Bancroft Way. 849-0211 www.musicaloffering.com. $19.98.