in the Wilderness
Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
Walter. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004. 419 pp.
Net March 2004
A lot of whatever I know about American music Walter Simmons taught me.
As a musicologist and critic, he has written liner notes and articles
that always seemed to find me at the right time (that is, the time when
I was intellectually and emotionally ready for them). As a producer, he
has seen to it that wonderful, though neglected music got heard and, even
more important, distributed. However, Simmons has always written to the
task at hand, usually and necessarily very specifically, concentrating
on particular works. This book gives him a chance to step back and expound
on the general critical and theoretical context of his ideas, illustrated
by the works and careers of six composers: Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson,
Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello.
In a work of this scope, it would be unusual if one agreed with everything
Simmons says. I, for example, take issue with judgments of specific works
and even composers (Simmons regards Giannini more highly than I do, although,
to be fair, he's heard more Giannini than I have). This is also a polemic,
for which Simmons quite rightly doesn't apologize. He expounds a point
of view in some ways antithetical, in others merely different, to the
prevailing professional, academic Weltanschauung of 20th-century American
music. The latter considers mainly two strains: the neo-classical, largely
Boulangeristes like Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, Schuman, Diamond, and
Piston and the twelve-tonalitarians like Sessions, Riegger, Babbitt, and
so on. Everybody else, when not contemptuously dismissed, is treated as
either - at best - a footnote or a sport. Simmons makes a case for a neo-Romantic
"wing" and, significantly, traces its historic rise, fall, and
rise again. Indeed, subsequent volumes, under the general heading of "Twentieth-Century
Traditionalists" will address Neo-Classicists, opera composers, "symphonic
traditionalists," and "Nationalists and Populists." I would
add the two further categories of Radicals & Mavericks and Jazzers.
The first would include Ives, the Twenties Antheil, Ruth Crawford Seeger,
Cowell, Cage, Harrison, and Hovhaness, the second folks like Ellington,
Giuffre, Russell, Brubeck, Mingus, Wilder, Mulligan, Lokumbe, Marsalis,
and Taylor. Significantly, one of our greatest composers, George Gershwin,
could reasonably reside in many camps. I'd tend to place him among the
neo-Romantics myself, but one can argue that he serves as a model for
the Jazzers, or one might even put him with the populists. Indeed, one
might also argue that everybody mentioned so far, with the possible exceptions
of Babbitt and Thomson, are fundamentally neo-Romantics, placing primary
emphasis on emotion and on modified nineteenth-century techniques. However,
at that point, we lose a great deal of whatever distinction the term "neo-Romantic"
This last point leads to my one major disagreement with Simmons: his characterization
of "neo-classicism" as emotionally reticent. Indeed, I know
of few pieces that break my heart more easily than Copland's Appalachian
Spring, overwhelm me so completely as Foss's Parable of Death, or make
me skip as lightly as Bernstein's Candide overture - all of which fit
most musicologists' definitions of "neo-classical." Simmons's
characterization may be in part driven by polemics (after all, there's
lots of writing on American neo-classicists and relatively little on the
composers of this study), or perhaps (since I don't know) by individual
dislike. I think I can guess what Simmons is driving at by his use of
"neo-Romanticism": an idiom fundamentally uninfluenced by Stravinsky
or Schoenberg, symphonic procedures Brahms would have been comfortable
with, and a tendency to expand rather than to compress one's materials,
the expansion ideally equating with greater emotional power.
Even so, I still have problems seeing Creston as a neo-Romantic. To me,
he's pure Maverick. I can't begin to recall anyone he's musically related
to - certainly not the other composers here. On the other hand, Simmons
knows far more of Creston's music than I do and at a much greater level
of detail. I don't mind being wrong about this.
That said, the book's virtues shine. Simmons writes clearly and even eloquently.
Even the book's general format considers the reader. Each chapter (one
chapter on each composer) follows the same plan: an overview of life and
career; a list of "must-hear" works; a detailed consideration
of individual pieces. He makes a case for each composer. He's no brainless
fan. He doesn't hesitate to point out flawed works or even flaws in successful
works. In fact, he lists for every composer those works he judges representative
of the very best the composer has. I love the emphasis on specific works,
rather than on theoretical issues. The book's theories stem from the music.
The judgments on the music aren't twisted to conform to a theory. I might
take issue over which works are flawed or whether the flaws he points
to are indeed flaws. For example, it surprised me greatly that Simmons
intentionally doesn't list the violin concerti of Barber and Bloch or
Barber's cello concerto. But that's a mere difference of opinion. He tells
me why he thinks what he does and allows me to see his side of things.
Furthermore, he pulls off the neat trick of providing both an introduction
for the novice and a deeper instruction for someone already acquainted
with the music.
I fervently hope this book sparks a revival of Bloch, Creston, Hanson,
and Flagello (I owe to Simmons my love for this composer). Barber seems
all but certain to remain in standard repertory, with even neglected pieces
now gaining hold. I've never found Giannini's music particularly interesting,
and Simmons doesn't change my mind, but he may turn on somebody else.
I emphasize that this is the first of a projected series of books. There
are lots of American composers for Simmons to tell us about.
Copyright © 2004 by Steve Schwartz.