SAN DIEGO JEWISH TIMES—August 27 through September 9, 2004
Voices in the Wilderness
Voices in the Wilderness is a book that takes us through the lives and music of six major American composers of the mid-20th century. These were not the wild revolutionaries who sought new musical styles to shock and awe us, but rather the ones who extended the tonal, traditional music of the immediate past by contributing their own individual, albeit conservative idioms (call them “neo-romantics”), to the concert hall.
The author is the respected musicologist and critic Walter Simmons. He has dedicated his life to promote the music of great contemporary masters whose musical styles gave them fame and fortune in their early and middle years, but later fell out of favor due to the wave of the more radical, avant-garde music of more recent times.
The six composers that Simmons chose may be familiar to you: Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello, all recognized masters of their art form.
For me, reading this book was like the old saying of “preaching to the choir.” I have conducted in concert and in recordings the music of all of them; and the late Paul Creston, a San Diego resident in the last years of his life, was a personal friend.
All of these composers’ music is audience friendly and accessible. And here is where the crux of the problem is. From approximately the 1950s until our times, most of the musical trends have been controlled by the academic avant-gardists, composers, who as a group, forced new music and composers into styles that have not endeared themselves to the music-going public. These musical steam-rollers were (and many still are) in prominent positions in academia and in arts management. This has resulted in a general distaste for what we generically call “modern music” expecting it to be horribly dissonant and difficult to enjoy and/or absorb on a first hearing.
Also, this has alienated many people, unjustly, from enjoying the many rewards of newer music, and in turn has negatively affected concert attendance and support for the musical arts. But the six composers of this study maintained their traditional voices, and the quality and depth of their work is undisputable. Remember that J.S. Bach wrote conservatively for his time, in the 1700s, but the quality of what he composed is what counts and endures, and that is what made him one of the greatest composers of all time.
For example, critic Arthur Cohn wrote of Giannini: “A 20th century composer using well sharpened tools of the 19th century.”
Walter Simmons not only gives us an academic description of these composers, their lives and their works, but puts the entire spectrum of 20th century serious concert music in logical focus. The introduction to the book, by itself, is a masterpiece of clarity and logic, guiding the reader through historical perspectives and the trends in music that brought us to the present. Luckily, we are seeing a reversal of the radical, atonal, serial music of the past, to what has evolved into more accessible styles that audiences can appreciate and enjoy more readily.
The book crystalized in my mind the eternal question: are the arts better served by skilled traditionalists, or by progressive, risk-taking modernists? My personal preferences seem to favor the former.
But, even though I was already familiar with most of the music mentioned in Voices in the Wilderness, Simmons’ writing reawakened in me the desire and interest to explore the music that I have not heard, and re-acquaint myself with music that I have neglected to enjoy for many years. It also reinforced and drove home my obsession and repeated mantra, which has been frequently mentioned in my column: there is a treasury of wonderful music out there, ready for us to discover and enjoy; especially music that falls in the styles of these six aforementioned composers. Of course there are many other modern masters, but this essay focuses specifically on that group.
The book makes fine reading for the amateur enthusiast, for all of the reasons stated above, and also for the professional, who can gain insights and other bibliographical sources and analysis from the meticulously referenced writing. Also, as a guide to selecting music for concerts and recitals, Voices serves as a useful starting point.
Voices in the Wilderness is published by the Scarecrow Press, Inc., and was released early this year. The website is www.scarecrowpress.com. Needless to say, it is highly recommended.
Postscript: I am thoroughly convinced that a great part of the revival of interest in serious orchestral and chamber music has to originate in composers such as the ones mentioned by Walter Simmons. Also, the creation of new repertory, available in concert halls and recordings, composed by skilled artists in a musical language that is challenging and complex, but also accessible, exciting, and audience-friendly. We are not talking about any compromise in quality, but I adhere to my belief that music can inspire, satisfy, evoke in us an emotional reaction, and touch the soul.
My campaign continues!
David Amos has directed the Orchestra at the East County Jewish Community Center for 25 years. This orchestra is now affiliated with Tifereth Israel Synagogue. Amos has also recorded 25 compact discs with orchestras in Israel, U.S., Eastern Europe and London. He is in frequent demand as a guest conductor and lecturer in his specialty, American and Jewish orchestral music. His recordings are played on radio worldwide.