Hearing Voices in the Wilderness

by Robert Reilly

Crisis (March, 2005)

Once upon a time, the ancients believed that there was a harmony of the spheres, a harmony in the world of earthly sounds, and one in the souls of men that all sympathetically vibrated with each other in a universal order of music – some of which could be heard and some of which could not, since it was divine. Later, men lost their tuning to this order. The spheres became frighteningly mute; instruments sounded separately and clashed noisily; and souls were without order, if they were thought to exist at all. But not everyone forgot. A few labored on, straining to hear the secret harmonies. They even tried to sing. They were the voices in the wilderness.

A book of this very name has been written by Walter Simmons, a distinguished musicologist and music critic, familiar to many from his years of outstanding contributions to Fanfare magazine. Voices in the Wilderness (Scarecrow Press, 2004) attempts to resuscitate the reputations of six American neo-Romantic composers whose works were overshadowed by the din of modernity: Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), Howard Hanson (1896-1981), Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), Paul Creston (1906-1985), Samuel Barber (1919-1981), and Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994).

As a work of music criticism, Voices is as close to a model of its kind as anything I have ever read. The great good news is that it is the first in a series of books proposed by Simmons, under the title Twentieth Century Traditionalists, that will examine the entire range of those "who failed to conform to the approved version of music history." They were the ones refused to accept Arnold Schoenberg’s premise that tonality had been exhausted by the end of the 19th century. Simmons will deal with the so-called neo-Classicists later because their return to Classical and Baroque forms, such as in Stravinsky’s post-Rite of Spring works, was in direct response to the chaos unleashed by the "liberation" of dissonance and the ascendancy of atonal music. The American neo-Romantics, on the other hand, were not, as Simmons points out, really "neo" at all. They were in a direct and unbroken line of development from the late 19th century Romantic masters and, like them, sought above all to be highly expressive and directly communicative. Nothing could have been more derriere garde at the time than to ignore the "progress" insisted upon by Schoenberg disciple Pierre Boulez, who declared that "any musician who has not experienced . . . the necessity for dodecaphonic language [Schoenberg’s 12-tone system] is USELESS."

Simmons says that these traditionalists "for whom the dynamic force of tonality was an indispensable parameter of musical experience" made profound musical contributions of which we need to be aware. His assertion and the appearance of this book could not have been more propitiously timed. The reign of cacophony has ended, and it has become permissible not only to say such things, but to command an audience for them. For example, the musical journals that have so far reviewed this book have all been favorable. Even 20 years ago, Voices would have produced ample indignation and howls of protest.

Simmons’s introduction, in which he lays out the case for reconsidering these composers and the reasons for their neglect, is worth the price of the book by itself. He succinctly states the causes for the crisis in 20th century music and the path to its recovery. Having attempted to write such things myself, I am in admiration of what he has achieved here. I am also immensely grateful for the in-depth treatment afforded to each of these six composers, all of whom I was familiar with to some degree. However, Simmons has added a great deal to my knowledge of even the composer with whom I was most familiar, Samuel Barber. Actually, aside from Barber, I have not paid a great deal of attention to this group. Voices has provoked an intense curiosity about the others, especially Flagello and Creston, who always interested me but about whom there exists little information.

Each chapter of Voices contains a composer’s biography, a comprehensive survey of his compositions, with particular attention paid to how the composer developed through various stages, and Simmons’s critical reflections on the stylistic features that make the composer’s music distinctive. Simmons is adept at sketching out the musical structure of a composition without descending into the kind of labored technical jargon found in many CD booklets. This is very much a book for the interested layman. Simmons never offers a technical analysis of a work for its own sake, but always shows its relevance to the development of the music’s larger meaning. The very hardest thing for a music critic to do is to put in words the "meaning" of a piece of music. Simmons is particularly gifted in doing this, and it is what makes Voices so valuable.

There is no room here to comment at length on the individual composers. However, I can report that, for the last several months, I have had tremendous fun following Simmons’s suggestion for listening to key works by these six composers (there is an extensive discography after every chapter), and have deepened my appreciation for several of them to the point where I would consider writing an article about them had Simmons not already rendered the effort superfluous.

For example, Simmons has made me pay much closer attention to Howard Hanson, whose music I thought a pleasant imitation of Sibelius, but not much more. Another problem with Hanson’s music is that its gorgeous melodies, sumptuous orchestration (he studied under Respighi in Rome), and crystal clear development leave you with the false impression that you have pretty much taken it all in on first hearing. Listening again, especially to the first two symphonies, leaves me embarrassed that I could have been so quick to judge. Hanson was a craftsman of the first order whose wholesale assimilation of Sibelius’ language was turned to different expressive ends. Sibelius goes so deep into the icy vastness of the North that you wonder if you will ever see a human being again. Hanson, on the other hand, expresses far more emotional warmth and is, unlike Sibelius, a Romantic. Try his stirring Symphony No. 1, Nordic, on Naxos’ new release, with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, under Kenneth Schermerhorn, or find the deleted Delos CD (at Berkshirerecordoutlet.com), featuring the Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz, in the first two symphonies.

Nicolas Flagello has fascinated me ever since I first heard his riveting, extraordinarily beautiful orchestral songs, Contemplazioni de Michelangelo, based on Michelangelo’s sonnets, on an old Serenus record. The Phoenix label has made that recording available on CD, along with another gorgeous song and several orchestral works. As one reviewer said of the Michelangelo piece, "if this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit." Naxos has also released a CD, produced by Simmons, who also wrote the liner notes, of Flagello’s Symphony No. 1, with other orchestral pieces. The Symphony is a major statement. It is close to over the top in the extreme length to which it takes its basically Romantic vocabulary, which becomes almost expressionistic in its feverish ardor.

These six composers were once unfashionable because they were considered old fashioned in the sense that they embraced music as a means of expressing, through a basically tonal harmonic language, the deepest stirrings of the human heart and soul. In this they were doing what composers had always done and, thanks to recent changes, are now doing once again. Because of that and the attention Walter Simmons has given to them, these voices are no longer in the wilderness. Listen to them for yourself.


Reilly Recommends:

Bloch -- Poems of the Sea; Violin Concerto; Voice in the Wilderness -- Capriccio 67 071

Symphony in E flat; Macbeth- 2 Interludes; 3 Jewish Poems; In Memoriam – ASV CD DCA 1019

Hanson -- Symphony No. 1; Merry Mount Suite; et al – Naxos 8.559072

Creston -- Symphonies Nos. 1-3 – Naxos 8.559034

Barber – Symphonies Nos. 1-2; et al – Naxos 8.559024

Flagello – Symphony No. 1; Theme, Variations ,and Fugue; et al – Naxos 8.559148

Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra; Contemplazioni di Michelangelo; et al – Phoenix PHCD 125

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