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Music Notes: rekindling a once bright light

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Erik Eriksson first discovered Edward Joseph Collins in the 1950s while poring over a list of works by local composers that had been performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the first half of the century. "There he was, with piano concertos and other major compositions conducted by Frederick Stock," the CSO's music director for most of that era. "He must have been important and held in high regard, yet I had not heard of him," says Eriksson, a Wisconsin-based music critic.

His curiosity led him to Collins's unpublished scores; then, in the late 1980s, he finally got a chance to hear some of the pieces performed. "The Allegro Piacevole by the Manhattan String Quartet and piano solos by Earl Wild, all on one recording," he says. "I was incredulous that music of this high quality should still be obscure."

From that point on, he's been working avidly to restore Collins's reputation, urging performers to look at his music and serving as his official biographer. After writing a series of articles on Collins's life and times for a Door County publication, Eriksson was asked by the composer's heirs to expand them into a book. With their help and materials from the family archives, he's recently finished a lengthy monograph, excerpts from which he'll read in a lecture-recital this Saturday at the Newberry Library, another repository of Collins manuscripts and memorabilia.

Collins was born into an Irish family in Joliet in 1886, the youngest of nine children. A prodigy on the piano, he started giving concerts at age nine and often traveled to Chicago to take lessons from Rudolph Ganz, the well-known musical polymath. In 1906, Ganz took him to Berlin for further study at the Konigliche Hochschule, a prestigious conservatory where some of the last German Romantics taught. He stayed abroad for over six years, and according to Eriksson his Berlin debut in 1912 got glowing notices from the local press.

Collins didn't take up composing seriously until he was 35. He shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic, sharing a tour with Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a celebrated German contralto for whom his sister was a longtime accompanist; apprenticing as a conductor at the Bayreuth Festival; and working as a military interpreter and bandleader during World War I.

After the war he settled in Chicago, taught at several musical colleges, including the American Conservatory of Music, and married Frieda Mayer, Oscar Mayer's daughter. Then he turned his attention to composing. One of his first major efforts, a tone poem titled A Tragic Overture, won a competition and was performed by the CSO under the direction of Stock, who had been one of the judges.

Collins's style evolved over the next 20 years "from a neo-Brahmsian romanticism to the impressionism of his idol Ravel, in which the development or recasting of themes wasn't as much a concern," says Eriksson. Claudia Cassidy, reviewing the CSO performance of his Concert Piece in 1931, praised its "quicksilver approach." "If I were asked about the chief flaw in his orchestral music, I'd say he had trouble bringing it to a close," Eriksson says. "A lot of it just stops without logic. Yet you do have to admire a man who knew how to come up with passages of folklike simplicity and movements of enormous complexity in cross rhythms."

Soprano Patrice Michaels, who was steered to Collins's vocal music by Eriksson, finds his songs "challenging in the long lines spanning more than an octave. And their harmonic language ranges from fairly predictable romantic stuff to rather interesting chromaticism." She's been rehearsing some of Collins's settings of texts by Wordsworth, Shelley, Poe, and Carl Sandburg.

In the last decade of his life, Collins spent much of his time at his country home in Door County, a few miles down the road from Eriksson's house. He was in ill health and his champion Stock had died in 1942, which meant the end of his CSO affiliation. "Despite some good reviews when his music was performed there, Collins was not part of the east-coast establishment," says Eriksson. "Had he lived in New York, he surely would've been better known and still appreciated. As it was, he died a regional composer."

With a revival of Collins's work now under way, led in part by Eriksson, many activities are scheduled for the 50th anniversary of his death this year, including a series of CDs, the publication of all of his music, and the creation of a Web site.

"Collins might not have been a trailblazer like his contemporary Charles Ives," says Eriksson, "but his music did change with the times. While none of the materials he employed were innovative, his use of them certainly was. His was a distinctive voice."

Patrice Michaels and pianist Elizabeth Buccheri will perform a sampler of Collins's songs during Eriksson's lecture on his life and career this Saturday, June 23, at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. The event begins at 11 AM, and it's free. For more information, call 312-255-3700. --Ted Shen

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