Around a decade earlier Ben Weber had been similarly thrilled with the playing of William Masselos and decided to write him a serious piece for piano which became the Fantasia (Variations), premiered in March 1949 at Carnegie Hall, New York. Weber wrote in his unpublished autobiography:
I write pieces for my lovers […] when I dedicate a piece I don’t do it idly. I never did it with success on that level except with Billy Masselos, though it was not physical […] The Fantasia is a kind of bond between us, and when I wrote it deliberately, note for note, I was really making love to him through the avenues of sound. (How I took 63 years to commit suicide; with Matthew Paris)
(On a personal note I had the privilege of playing this piece for Masselos in the 1980s before he died.)
Ben Weber was born in 1916 in St Louis and was largely self-taught. His music was highly regarded by many composers of the time such as Copland, Carter, Cage and Babbitt, and he worked as a copyist for many, including Virgil Thomson and Artur Schnabel, both of whom became admirers and close friends. He was the first American composer to use the twelve-note technique consistently, and he made the following comments on his music (quoted by Oliver Daniel in an article for Broadcast Music Inc. in 1965):
By and large since 1938 my music has been usually atonal […] but sometimes I have written pieces which have strong functional and tonal impetus, or at least implication. However my use of ‘techniques with twelve-tones’, i.e. serial music, has been consistent over a period of now twenty-two years, and most of what I and some others consider to be my most important work is accomplished within these means.
The work is titled with a certain precision: Fantasia (Variations), the latter word in both brackets and smaller letters. Thus, like the Corigliano, this piece is principally a fantasy—a large form with smaller units creating a framework to hold the piece together. (As it is a piece using the twelve-note technique, it is by default ‘variations’—any twelve-note row can be seen as a ‘theme’ which is varied.) The overall structure of the work is three sections: first, a theme with four variations followed by a five-bar interlude; second, three variations in passacaglia form; finally, a free fantasy section based on earlier material which culminates in a climax surging with emotion. In contrast to the cool objectivity of the Copland work, the Weber revels in the sun of its post-Romantic harmony, and is freckled with tonal implications, in spite of the Second Viennese School ‘umbrella’. In fact there is even a whiff of Brahms’s cigar in the loose folds of the arpeggiated figuration, as well as the more exotic fragrance of Scriabin.
from notes by Stephen Hough © 1998