April 4, 2013

Composers A-Z: Finney

Last time I wrote an installation of this overly-ambitious series I cheated hard-core and went with Emma Lou Diemer. NO MORE I SAY!

Ross Lee Finney is another composer who I found through his didactic works. His pieces for beginning pianists are imaginative and work on techniques that are normally ignored by other educational composers. In that way he's similar to Emma Lou Diemer, Diane Goolkasian Rahbee, and Stephen Chatman, some of my absolute favorite didactic composers. Of course, as is the case with all of these other composers I've mentioned, his work goes far beyond teaching pieces.


Hailing from the small town of Wells, Minnesota, and a graduate of Carlton College, Ross Lee Finney was an American composer, whose lifespan overlapped Aaron Copland's very closely (1906-1997) but who never made it very far into the forefront of American composition fame. You are much more likely to find a composition by Crumb (a student of Finney's), Cage, or Copland than Finney but I think it's unfair. Finney's compositional technique, which underwent change through his lifespan, is accessible and intriguing. There's a strong sense of melody in his pieces but mixed in with a Ginastera-like sense of rhythmic momentum. He's a a great example of the melting-pot composer, who takes characteristics from all across the globe, and across time and mixes them to his own purpose.

Unfortunately there are few recordings available on YouTube for me to post here so you'll just have to trust me in these descriptions.

In the beginning of his Piano Sonata no. 3 you can hear that great rhythmic propulsion which smacks so strongly of Ginastera, but is quickly subdued by a thick atonal counterpoint. The second theme is a quietly burbling but menacing antagonist that rises of out the remnants of what came before it.

Other advanced pieces by Finney that I recommend are his Sonata quasi una Fantasia, and his Fantasy (1939).

His educational pieces are an absolute treat, especially his collection Games from 1969. Games is a a series of graded pieces in which he wanted to expose young pianists to the entire range of the piano (in terms of notes and otherwise). The pieces use a lot of improvisation, something I love to include in my own teaching. The pieces also use a lot of unconventional notation, a characteristic that may have rubbed off onto his student, George Crumb.

Since I'm not sharing any videos on this one I'll keep it short. Ross Lee Finney is great, and under appreciated. Seek his works out if you're planning your next recital, or looking for something exciting to teach.

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