PETER MENNIN: Biography

by Walter Simmons



MENNIN, Peter (17 May 1923-17 June 1983), composer and educational administrator, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, the son of Attilio Mennini, a restaurant owner, and Amelia Bennaci. The elder Mennini was an avid record collector, and music was a central feature of the family environment. (Peter’s older brother Louis Mennini also became a professional composer. Peter later changed his name to avoid confusion between the two.) Young Peter began formal musical study at age 5, and started to compose at 7. He entered the Oberlin College Conservatory in 1940, but left to join the United States Army Air Force in 1942. By this time, he had already completed his First Symphony, a large work nearly an hour in duration. Upon completion of his military service, he entered the Eastman School of Music, where his major teachers were Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. There he earned his B.M. and M.M. in 1945, and his Ph.D. in 1947. While at Eastman, he completed two more symphonies, already revealing the predilection for large forms that was to characterize his mature output.

Mennin’s work began to attract widespread attention immediately. His Symphony No.2 won Columbia University’s Bearns Prize in 1945 and his Symphony No.3 was performed by the New York Philharmonic before he left Eastman, and was recorded by them soon afterward, placing him at the forefront of American composers while still in his mid-twenties.

In 1947 Mennin married Georganne Bairnson, a young violinist whom he had met at Eastman, and they later had two children. At this time the Juilliard School in New York was undergoing a major restructuring at the hands of William Schuman, who invited Mennin to join the distinguished composition faculty he was in the process of putting in place. Mennin remained there until 1958, when he was was offered the opportunity to head the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1962 he returned to Juilliard, now as its president, guiding the school’s move to the newly opened Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He continued to hold this post for the rest of his life. As president, Mennin advocated training based on rigorous discipline and upheld traditional standards of excellence during a period when educational orthodoxy was under severe attack. At the same time, he inaugurated an array of special programs that brought international attention to the school, and drew talented students from all over the world.

Despite Mennin’s important role as an educational administrator, composition remained the driving force in his life, and throughout his career he continued to produce major works, which were performed and recorded by many of the world’s leading orchestras and soloists. He received awards, honors, and commissions from the most prominent musical institutions and served on the boards of a wide range of arts organizations. However, Mennin’s identity as an administrator, and a distaste for promoting his own music, caused his public persona to overshadow his contribution as a composer. Furthermore, from about 1950 to 1975, American composition was deeply divided between those who adhered to traditional musical forms and values and those who repudiated them in favor of more novel modes of expession. Mennin’s affiliations, both administrative and artistic, placed him firmly in the former camp and, while his position earned for him considerable prestige within institutional circles, that very prestige somewhat tarnished his reputation as a creative figure. Hence, during the later years of his lifetime, the actual substance of his own work received little serious attention.

Although Mennin’s music did conform to traditional techniques and forms in the most general sense, his evolution as a composer was marked by an utter independence from prevailing trends and models and by a consistent adherence to his own aesthetic ideals. As he stated in an interview, “Individuality is an inevitable precondition for music of lasting value. Individuality does not mean novelty for its own sake, since novelty, once familiar, becomes a cliché. It does mean a strong musical thrust, unconcerned with convention, or with conformity either to the past or to the fads of the moment. It is concerned with the drive of the composer’s musical ideas; it is having one’s own voice, one’s own face….I don’t think any real composer ever aligns himself with a group….A composer has to travel alone.”

Mennin’s relatively small body of some 30 compositions centers around nine symphonies, a large dramatic work entitled Cantata di Virtute based on Robert Browning’s poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and several concertos. His output shows a preference for large, abstract forms, and is consistently serious–even grim–in tone and lofty in intent, with no trace of either frivolity or sentimentality. His music is characterized by nervous contrapuntal activity and an intense rhythmic drive, along with a propensity for cataclysmic explosions of violence, all of which became more severe in later works. However, despite the uncompromising character of his music, its fundamentally expressive orientation and its consistently meticulous craftsmanship have rendered it accessible to audiences. During the years since his death, Mennin’s work has increasingly been regarded as representing the American symphonic school of composition at its most distinguished.