A Reuniting Repertoire–The Guitar Music of Ernst Bacon
A casual, musicological meandering developed into a hunt for forgotten music and transformed into a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of music, art, fathers and sons.
What follows is a story of discovery. It tells of a prominent composer’s forgotten works, unearthed after decades of neglect. And, it recalls how an instrument’s dearth of repertoire has been partially filled. It explains how a historically significant repertoire was conceived as a reuniting gift. For me, this journey began as a casual, musicological meandering, developed into a hunt for forgotten music, and transformed into a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of music, art, fathers and sons. It begins about four years ago.
On a crisp September evening, I performed a guitar recital in the almost ridiculously picturesque town of Tamworth, New Hampshire. With just under 3,000 residents, Tamworth is a sleepy little spot. Drive a minute, and you’re through it.
My recital was a small event; an intimate house concert consisting of pleasing, standard repertoire. Afterward, I chatted with audience members. Each conversation was casual and lovely. One, no more remarkable than the rest, was with a woman who asked if I knew of her longtime, now deceased friend, Ernst Bacon. While I haven’t been back in touch with this audience member—her name is Dale and she runs a lovely bed and breakfast in Tamworth—my sense was that this was a casual question; small talk at a musical event and with visiting artists. At any rate, in the moment, neither of us took her question and our conversation as particularly impactful, as best I could tell.
Now, Ernst Bacon was a first-rate, American composer whose considerable output was well recognized during his lifetime: he received a Pulitzer Scholarship in Music (Pulitzer scholarships were offered before the annual music prize was instituted), three Guggenheim fellowships, and grants from institutions such as the National Institute of Arts and Letters and The National Endowment for the Arts. Bacon was also closely associated with some of the leading artistic figures of the day including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Carl Sandburg, and Ansel Adams. His music, like Aaron Copland’s, helped forge an American sound that attempted to capture the spirit of America as expressed in its poetry, folk songs, history, and geography in the first half of the 20th century.
However, as a guitar composer, Bacon is virtually unknown aside from his single published guitar piece, Parting. Long out of print, Parting is fragile, intimate, stark, and subtle. Lasting not five minutes, it has been easily overlooked by most guitarists. However, it so happens that as an undergraduate, I fell in love with the piece. At its center point, just after an understated cadenza, the prevailing counterpoint texture arrests and a serene chordal progression emerges—but only for a moment. After eight bars, the piece returns to counterpoint and again is fragile and stark. This passage and the work as a whole really impacted me on a deep, emotional level, way back then.
So, four years ago, in New Hampshire and just after my performance, Dale and I chatted for a few minutes—about Ernst Bacon and Parting and, I’m sure, other, unrelated things—and that was that. Except that I had a long ride home and after hours of listening to NPR, my mind wandered back again to this one conversation. I asked myself why, after such a remarkable piece like Parting, Bacon never returned to the guitar. Once home, with no intention of finding anything but because I had not yet identified a topic for my now looming doctoral dissertation, my wife and I started poking around online for information on Ernst Bacon.
When we somehow Googled our way to the Library of Congress’s website, I immediately realized that I had stumbled onto something. There, in the Washington, D.C. holdings, were listed ten pieces for guitar. Original manuscripts, holograph scores, and sketches that had never been noticed or aired—this was exciting stuff that begged to be inspected.
I had never heard of the works. So, I asked around and checked various resources. These pieces were almost completely unknown. Nonetheless, it turns out that while Bacon was busy composing chamber music, dramatic works, symphonies, and art songs, while he was extending his reach as a teacher (with posts at Eastman, San Francisco Conservatory, Converse College, and Syracuse University), and while he was collecting awards and accolades for his work, he was also compiling a more private repertoire.
Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, while Bacon was busy and at the height of his career, he was engaged in writing stunningly original guitar music. Almost all of his guitar works were gifted directly to his son, Joe, for him to edit and play. And almost fifty years after the first gift was penned, I had stumbled across my first clue to this repertoire’s existence.
Road Trip No. 1: Washington, D.C. (June 2011)
On a whim and with my topic-less dissertation still hounding me, a buddy and I decided to take a road trip down to D.C. and visit the Library of Congress. There, in the bowels of the library, I found a treasure trove—amongst the writings, letters, programs, clippings, and various other materials were ten guitar pieces in exquisite, unpublished, manuscript form. The works, many of them on fragile, oversized manuscript, were deemed by the staff too delicate to photocopy. So, for three days, as I inspected and absorbed as much as possible, I took pictures of each page with my phone and emailed them to myself.
While the library’s holdings were well organized, there were a few riddles and wrinkles unearthed on my trip. Along with these ten “unknown” guitar gems were a few pieces miscategorized and misrepresented: with brief glances at the scores, Whisperella and Jota are clearly revealed to be piano works, not guitar pieces as they are identified in the holdings.
More interestingly, I found a piece called Tin Lizzie in the library’s holdings categorized as a piano work. However, the exact same manuscript is found in the library with the title Coon Hollow. In essence, the manuscript in question is ambiguous. Adding to the confusion, while the Library of Congress lists Coon Hollow as a guitar work, Madeline Salocks (Bacon’s second daughter) has in her possession a score with the same title that is an entirely different work—a piano duo for four hands.
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While the “Concerto Grosso” was an emotional loss, another twist at the Library of Congress proved more exciting: amongst the unknown works in their holdings, I spied Bacon’s one published guitar work, Parting—the piece that I recalled in my New Hampshire post-concert chat, and the work that I fell in love with as an undergraduate.
Here, at the Library of Congress, were four manuscripts for Parting, each a developmental version leading to the published score. On one of these versions there is a bold, hand-written Roman numeral I placed just before the title. At first I took little notice of this marking. But as I leafed through the other works, I found a Roman numeral III on a piece entitled Quiet Hallelujah, and a Roman numeral IV on a manuscript entitled The Morning Star.
Roman numerals I, III, and IV demand a II, but it was nowhere to be found. Another piece in the library’s holdings, Fulfillment, seemed a perfect fit for this series in regard to texture, tonality, and material. However, many of the work’s harmonies were anemic and there was decidedly no Roman numeral on the manuscript. Fulfillment felt like another near miss; if it had a sounder structure and richer harmony, and if it had been marked with a Roman numeral II, a fully formed suite for guitar would have emerged from history and would have been a centerpiece in this newly unearthed repertoire. But, like the “Concerto Grosso with guitar,” this didn’t seem to be so.
An Improbable Discovery
I have always assumed that history must be rather good at sorting things out. It seemed to me inevitable that the great works of art, the ones that we prize, are in good order unearthed, valued correctly, and cherished. Conversely, for some art that is esteemed in its time, history, I have thought, is good at reevaluating and downgrading, if appropriate.
And so, my having stumbled upon these great works for guitar (and they really are great works)—pieces that are so desperately needed for the instrument (namely, 20th-century American music)—seems remarkable. After nearly 50 years, shouldn’t they have already been found? Why had no one before me engaged with these works, tended to them, and brought them to life and to the larger guitar community?
The answers to these questions are inherently complex. First, I now harbor doubts regarding my assumptions about history’s abilities. Sometimes, perhaps history just misses. Great works and great artists may still lay hidden. This strikes me as both exciting and sad. Second, perhaps sometimes those who are uniquely positioned to reveal the great works are stymied by complex situations.
During my time of discovery, happily, I developed warm correspondences and relationships with a few of Bacon’s family members, including his widow Ellen, three of this children (Joe, Arthur, and Madeline), and his grandson Sam.
Based on these few relationships, I imagine that Ernst instilled in his children restless curiosity, fierce intelligence, and strongly held opinions on a vast array of topics. As friend, author, and librettist Paul Horgan remembered in his unpublished manuscript To Remember Ernst Bacon, the composer himself bristled with “… energetic views of such various strands of life as the sovereign arts of music, literature, painting and architecture; the morality of education; the splendor of landscape… the leaven of humor; the power of tenderness and the love of women and children and friends; the practice of politics and the need to judge it fiercely; and over all, the abiding radiance of honor.”
From what I’ve seen, this also depicts the Bacon family: “energetic views,” “fierce judgments,” and “radiant honor.” With such traits, and having such a group of active, engaged thinkers, it’s surprising that this repertoire has been neglected. Perhaps with the manuscripts in different locations and held by different family branches, things went unnoticed. Maybe it took someone outside the family, a dispassionate middle man, to unearth, restore, and advocate for the works.
Joe and Ellen (Bacon’s last wife) have been my point persons within the family for this repertoire. Joe has, by far and away, the largest collection of his father’s manuscripts, and he understands completely the importance of this repertoire. He has tended to and cared for the works. A few of the manuscripts have Joe’s editing marks, and Joe has reported to me that he, on occasion and locally, has performed a few of the works including the serenely beautiful Fulfillment at his father’s funeral.
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Road Trip No. 2: De Witt, New York (January 2012)
Ellen Bacon is the president of the Ernst Bacon Society. In a short period of time, she and I developed a warm correspondence via email. She was enthusiastic about my hunt and invited me up to her home near Syracuse to discuss the guitar scores. This visit was invaluable in regard to learning about Bacon’s music, his family, and the man himself.
Ellen’s home is a testament to her advocacy for Bacon’s music. Throughout, scores are piled high, rooms are filled with notes and articles, and Bacon’s artwork and music occupy nearly every surface. While these materials look overwhelmingly disarranged, Ellen can put her hands on any scrap, score, or note at a moment’s notice. She seems to have perfect recall of Bacon’s themes and compositions and is an expert on the (lamentably scant) research that others have done on Ernst Bacon-related topics.
As she keeps a nocturnal schedule, my visit with her consisted of a lovely, free-association chat from the hours of approximately seven in the evening until two in the morning. We discussed the works I had uncovered, Bacon’s family, friends, and the ups and downs of his career. As we spoke over many hours we moved from room to room, inspecting and discussing the manuscripts and articles that Ellen had collected over the years. The evening was like a private tour of a monothematic museum in slight disarray. It was wonderful.
At one point, passing through a narrow hallway, I noticed a picture frame hanging on the wall with a manuscript in it. I asked Ellen about the work and she casually mentioned that it was an unpublished piece that Ernst had written for her on their wedding anniversary.
The full title of the work is Vocalise in Canon on a Name. Wedding Anniversary, Dec. 31, 1984. At just 23 measures, this two-voice canon is nothing if not brief. The work indicates no instrument. In fact, there is no reason to believe that it is a guitar work. However, it is easily realized on the guitar and she offered it to me in the spirit of sharing.
After a long evening of conversation and discovery (and a short nap to clear my head), the dawn broke and I quietly let myself out of the house, secured the door, and left Ellen asleep for the day. I then promptly experienced a car fire that left me stranded on a barren and frigid stretch of Interstate 81 for almost two hours. My travel time almost doubled from what should have been a four-hour trip home to New York City; I spent the remaining hours of the day first snacking from a vending machine in a small-town gas station and then in the cab of a tow-truck, rambling slowly home with my slightly charred car trailing behind me.
But, I was far from dispirited. My visit brought me priceless background information on the composer and I netted a “new” work for guitar, the delightful and intimate Anniversary Canon.
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All along, the incomplete Roman numeral series kept me frustrated, but only pointillistically. I still felt that the Library of Congress’s Fulfillment wasn’t, as a piece, what it should be and I imagined that it must somehow fit into the Roman numeral series of other works. But, I was busy filling in other gaps and holes in my knowledge and following up on many, many other leads.
I’m sure that I must have mentioned the incomplete Roman numeral series to Ellen Bacon at some point in our correspondence. Regardless, almost a year after my Library of Congress visit I received a ream of paper in the mail. The package, from Bacon’s eldest son Joe, contained many copies of works—many of which, by that time, I recognized. However, amongst these sheaves was a copy of Fulfillment.
Where the Library of Congress’s Fulfillment was anemic and problematic in regard to structure, this version was lush in harmony and fully formed. It was immediately impactful, an attractive and deeply satisfying piece. And, in a bold declarative hand, it contained the Roman numeral II at the top of the page, just before the title.
Bacon never explicitly indicated that these four works (Parting, Fulfillment, Quiet Hallelujah, and The Morning Star) were conceived as a set, and there is no cataloging evidence that anyone ever assigned them as such. In fact, the first of these, Parting, was published on its own without reference to the others. Nonetheless, the Roman numerals seemed to me to indicate the composer’s desire to organize the associated works as a series. My supposition was buoyed by the fact that these four works contain many similarities and coordinate remarkably well, in regard to tonality and material content, with each other: each work begins with a clear statement of its main theme, has a parlor-like quality to it, and is organized with clearly delineated sections that frequently return to the same melodic material. Moreover, all four works are Americana in spirit.
While intriguing, a unifying pathos and common aesthetic are hardly proof of Bacon’s intent to present these pieces as a group. But, in the 1968 published version of Parting, a footnote on the first page of the score reads, “A freely used tune from G. L. Jackson’s Another Sheaf of White Spirituals (University of Florida, 1952).” This note references an obscure and out of print anthology by George Pullen Jackson.
I searched for and found Jackson’s anthology in the New York Public Library and indeed, the main tune from Parting is in the anthology. Excitingly, so too are the tunes from Fulfillment, Quiet Hallelujah, and The Morning Star. In fact, the manuscript score of Fulfillment that contains a Roman numeral also contains Parting’s exact footnoted reference to Jackson’s anthology. While Bacon’s footnote correctly described his borrowing as “freely used,” the relationships are clear and without question.
Considering the Roman numeral series, the shared anthology source, and the similarities regarding tonality and material, it is clear that these four works were conceived as a set. And so, with Joe Bacon’s counsel, I have reunited these pieces and named this re-assembled work Four Pieces for Guitar.
Road Trip No. 3: Fairfax, California (November 2012)
It’s difficult to overstate how exciting this find was for me. Not only had a flawed piece been instantly transformed into a beautiful work, but also four disparate pieces had been joined and now formed a 19-minute Americana suite for guitar. In a phrase, I had been fulfilled with Fulfillment. This discovery focused my mind to more research and toward another excursion.
Just north of San Francisco, in his detached studio space a few steps from his home and atop a gently rolling, leafy mountain, Joe Bacon received me for a day-long visit. He and I reviewed the guitar manuscripts in detail. I played through the works and, as best he could, Joe filled me in on the story of the repertoire’s coming into existence. Toward the end of my visit, we uncovered yet another piece in Joe’s study—a scrap of a paper that Joe had forgotten about. It was, in fact, the first piece Bacon wrote for the guitar. Jotted down on a scrap of paper during the 1964 holiday season in Joe’s home, A Christmas Canon is a vocalise with “Joseph Bacon” highlighted and paired with notes in the first bar. It contains a simple dedication to Joe, too: “For Joe, with love, Pop.”
Lasting under a minute, it’s brief—just as Anniversary Canon is—and also unusually charming, understated, and intimate. In fact, considering the entirety of Bacon’s guitar works, these two diminutive canons—A Christmas Canon and Anniversary Canon—seem especially poignant. The unearthing of both works felt like something out of Indiana Jones: Both pieces were manuscript scraps, held in disparate and private collections on opposite ends of the country. Both pieces demonstrate the composer’s technique and skill, for sure. And both are personal and intimate in their dedication.
These works, more than the others, offer a window into Ernst’s relationships with those he loved. In their first measures, these two pieces vocalize familial names (Ellen’s and Joe’s), and both works were written in and for a moment and dedicated to a relative. They also serve as bookends: A Christmas Canon (1964) is his first guitar work, written for his first son. Anniversary Canon, written in December of 1984 and dedicated to his last wife, is amongst the final guitar works he composed.
Not Just a Repertoire
So it turns out that I had indeed unearthed the lost and forgotten guitar works of an American master composer—in total, about an hour’s worth of music.
So, this story is about a rediscovered repertoire, but not only.
Upon engaging with these works, I did not at first realize that I had also stumbled upon a great story of fathers and sons. It turns out that as I was pursuing Bacon the composer, I came to understand a bit of Bacon the father.
Ernst Bacon had six children from four different marriages. As Joe, his eldest son, grew up, Ernst was absent. Ernst and Joe’s mother (Mary Lillie) divorced, and father and son became separated by a continent (Ernst on the East Coast and Joe on the West). In these years, in his father’s absence, Joe developed an interest and then a passion for the guitar.
Despite the absence, both father and son longed for a closer relationship. As Joe entered adulthood he found himself on the East Coast, and he and Ernst renewed ties. As a composer, Bacon had expressed no discernible interest in the guitar. But, almost at the exact moment he learned that his first son took to the instrument, Bacon began writing guitar works. Many were explicitly dedicated to his son, almost all were passed along to Joe at one time or another.
Of the seven guitar manuscripts that contain dedications, all are addressed to Joe. Each offers not just an important illustration of Bacon’s impetus in writing guitar music but also an insight into his disposition toward his son: A Walk in the Hills and Anything are joined with a common title page. On it, Bacon writes, “A Walk in the Hills for Guitar, also ‘Anything’. Dedicated to my son, Joe. Pop.” And then: “edit and improve as you like.”
Cambiatina for Guitar contains the short postscript, “For Joe, mit Liebe, Pop,” and Bacon’s Jack Sprat for voice and guitar has an even more direct dedication. It simply reads, “For Joe and Wanda.” Bacon’s last work for guitar, Marinio, was composed in 1988. Again, simple and direct, Marinio’s postscript reads: “For Joe, 1988.”
Bothin Street contains perhaps the most interesting of the dedications. In addition to its simple subtitle, “to Joe Bacon,” this piece contains an implied dedication as well. The work’s title refers to the street where Joe lived for some time, and written below the work’s last line, Bacon pens a brief vignette that notes “No. 74.” This is the address on Bothin Road where Joe resided. (Joe’s address was actually Bothin Road. In conversation, Ernst often mistook the name and would frequently substitute Street for Road. Considering this, the work Bothin Street is technically speaking, mistakenly titled.) The full text of the postscript follows:
By this time the cars are asleep, most lights are out – only one glowing at No. 74 where music and philosophy are in silent debate, with occasional distracting thoughts, in Goethe’s words, “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan.”
The Goethe reference—“The Eternal-Feminine draws us upward”—is the last line of Faust (Part Two) and refers to woman’s ability to inspire and enlighten the rest of humanity. The vignette as a whole paints a vivid picture of an intimate evening with music and philosophical debate. One can easily imagine a reunited Joe and Ernst engaged in such an evening together. The work captures this mood evocatively with a slow-moving, single line that grows then subsides; this line seems at times to be two divergent voices in conversation.
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Joe is quick to mention that while the works were perhaps born from his father’s desire to connect with him, Ernst surely also desired that these pieces be performed and enjoyed by guitarists everywhere. I imagine that as father and son reunited these compositions served as conversation points. They may each, in a real sense, be viewed as intimate gestures—musical offerings, from father to son.
The guitarist in me is excited and energized about the newfound repertoire and I am working to have it reach a larger audience. As a son and a father, I am captivated by the personal aspects embedded in these pieces.
In Bacon’s music I hear a unique American voice—one that has been sorely missing from the guitar repertoire. Publicly, the works will surely fill a hole for the classical guitarist. Privately, they helped reignite a relationship. The fact that the pieces helped forge an American sound and that they are symbols of paternal love is, for me, a weighty thing.
My work these last few years has been, in essence, to steward this intimate repertoire toward public consumption. With the Bacons’ blessing, I have systematically unearthed and catalogued this family treasure trove. After much research, a fair amount of traveling, loads of editing, and practice, I have recorded a disc—ERNST BACON: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar. It was recorded in Cleveland last May and is available on the Azica Record label. Another of the composer’s sons, Arthur, studied photography with the iconic photographer (and Ernst’s longtime friend) Ansel Adams, and his stunning photo of his father graces the disc’s cover.
Along the way, I also completed a dissertation on this topic, which includes edited scores and analyzed repertoire. I hope that my edited manuscripts will soon be picked up for publication. Certainly there is a need for excellent guitar music from America in the 20th century, and as I’ve begun to perform these works publicly I have received an ever-increasing number of requests for scores.
This article is slated to be followed by others, as well as with interviews in print and on air. Lectures and recitals of Bacon guitar music are, happily, beginning to fill my schedule. This is all exciting for me personally, but mostly, I feel it expresses a larger interest and intrigue in this remarkable repertoire and fantastic story of discovery.
To be sure, for the community of classical guitarists, it really is a phenomenally exciting find. One that I hope and suspect will gain great attention, with the works being widely performed and appropriately celebrated. More poignantly, the Bacon family has been delighted and moved by my efforts.
Long underappreciated—even neglected—Ernst Bacon may be on the verge of a new beginning of popularity. And this due to the most unlikely of reasons: this gifted, reuniting repertoire.
|THE GUITAR MUSIC OF ERNST BACONThe following is a complete listing of Ernst Bacon works for guitar arranged chronologically. The specific date of each composition is indicated, when known. At the end of this list, incomplete and misattributed works are noted, non-chronologically.
1960s (five works)
Early / Mid 1970s (four works)
Late 1970s (four works)
1980s (eight works)
Incomplete and undated (three works)
Misattributed (three works)
Bradley Colten has appeared in performance throughout the United States and in Canada, France, Germany and Switzerland as a soloist and chamber musician. He is a recipient of the Andrés Segovia Award from the Manhattan School of Music and was noted with “Performance Distinction” after his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. Bradley holds undergraduate degrees from both Tufts University and the New England Conservatory, and Masters and Doctorate degrees from the Manhattan School of Music.