The Virtuoso Piano Music of George Frederick Boyle

05/05/2012
Phil Sommerich
Classical Music Magazine

A pianist whose performances were lauded on three continents and who became professor at America's three most prestigious music academies can surely not have sunk into obscurity a scant 64 years after his death?

That has been the fate of George Frederick Boyle until now, when the first of what Timothy Young hopes will be a series of recordings of Boyle's compositions appears on Australia's Melba label.

Young discovered Boyle's music when listening to piano rolls which have been collected by Grahame Code, a fellow pianist living in the rural town of Aberfeldy in Victoria, South Australia. Code had assembled the rolls while researching his own family's musical history and was impressed by Boyle's music. 'The more he delved into it, the more he realised that this man was huge, not only in Australia but America as well,' Young says.

As Young researched this forgotten Australian, he came to realise that Boyle's fame spread even further. With his father director of the Sydney Chorale, his mother a piano teacher, George's talent emerged early, and at the age of 14 he was touring Australia and New Zealand. Paderewski heard the youngster while touring Australia and suggested he should study with Busoni in Berlin. He did so for five years, but also performed across Europe. 'He was doing an extraordinary number of concerts and the reviews were glowing. It was remarkable – these guys played every day or every second day, and in those days the piano recitals were huge, Liszt's influence was still pretty strong.'

In 1910, at the age of 24, he was invited to become professor of piano at the Peabody Institute, taking over from another Australian, Ernest Hutcheson. In 1924 he moved on to the then newly founded Curtis Institute in Philadelphia as its first professor of piano and three years on opened the Boyle Piano Studios in Philadelphia and became associated with the Institute of Musical Art, to become the Juilliard School of Music. He remained there until 1940, when a stroke incapacitated his left arm. Boyle trained himself to resume playing and he gave recitals until his death in 1948.

Among his students were Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, the latter saying it was Boyle 'who encouraged me to compose'.

Boyle was also a prolific composer, his works championed by Wilhelm Backhaus and Ernest Ganz among others.

Young has resurrected about 60 of the works and finds Boyle's career progression echoed in the music. 'He wrote character pieces – waltzes and minuets – in his early teens and I suppose that was the music he was studying at the time.' Later works are more virtuosic, reflecting his recitals. The self-taught composer seems to have been uncomfortable with formal theory.

As teaching took up more of his time, Boyle's works became more didactic but defied definition by established forms – Young cites the fantasy-style Ballade, which he plays on the new CD, in particular.

'His wife said that when he was at Curtis and they tried to introduce a lot of theory he said pianists should be practising and not just reading books all day.'

Boyle's adventurous attitude may be a reason for the obscurity, Young suggests. 'He was introducing Debussy to what was then a fairly backward-looking American audience.' Boyle also avoided publicity and commercial recordings, so the piano rolls remain sole evidence of his playing.

Many of Boyle's scores may have gone missing in the war years and the post-war enthusiasm for the Darmstadt school made Boyle's finely crafted but fervent Romanticism seem old-fashioned.

Young has often had to transcribe manuscript scores from microfilm, and the repertoire ranges from songs and a viola sonata, in which he detects echoes of Arnold Bax, to cello and piano concertos.

The first album has been recorded in Monash University's Robert Blackwood Hall – a favourite location for Melba Recordings and busy 1,600-seat performance venue – and two more albums of piano works are planned.

Young intends to publish a Boyle edition to reinstate a crucial piece of Australian and American musical history. But that may take time given Young's schedule as a performer and head of piano at the Australian National Academy of Music.