Voices in the Wilderness – Review – James H. North

VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. By Walter Simmons. Latham, MD; Scarecrow Press Inc. 2004. 420 pp. 6 Illustrations. $69.95

This book is intended as the first in a series, “Twentieth-Century Traditionalists,” which will present a previously underrepresented view of the history of American music. The six composers here are Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello. Simmons cites his relationships with these composers, some of whom he knew personally, in the introduction; I too should note that I have known Walter for nearly two decades, starting as his student. I hope that our continuing if friendly disagreements about music will mitigate not recusing myself on this review.

Simmons’s general thesis is a defensive one: music that delivers primarily an emotional impact is not inherently inferior to that aimed directly at the intellect. He points out that musicology and criticism tended to sneer at Tchaikovsky for a full century, yet the public’s continuing faith in his music has finally produced at least grudging acceptance from the intelligentsia. While cringing at the idea that audience favor is the ultimate musical judgment (a position espoused by Bernard Holland of the New York Times, who is quoted twice), I can only cheer as Simmons delivers knockout punches to the serialist academics who ruled the world and American music scenes in the 1960s and the 1970s. They well deserve his invective, having ruined many a promising young composer. He cleverly sharpens their own words to use as swords against them: nothing could be more self-damning than Milton Babbitt’s or the young Pierre Boulez’s bald, insulting statements. The truth, if there can be any such beast, must cover all bases. Simmons is showing us the other side of the coin, and it could not have a more knowledgeable, more committed champion. In addition to his long considered, carefully reasoned positions, the author delivers some brilliant flashes of insight: on page 14 is a single paragraph on what’s wrong with movie music; it’s by far the most trenchant analysis I’ve read on the subject.

One long chapter is devoted to each of the six composers, and each chapter is similarly organized. A brief introduction is followed by a biography; then comes discussion of the music, including a list of “Most Representative, Fully Realized Works.” Premieres, later performances, and recordings are mentioned as well. The music section is often divided into three or four appropriate groupings, such as the familiar early, middle, and late periods we associate with Beethoven. Simmons is generous with quotations from both contemporary reviews and later opinion; footnotes come at the end of each chapter, followed by a selected bibliography and essential discography. Those last two lists are missing in the Bloch chapter; they may be found on the author’s Web site, www.Walter-Simmons.com. In any case, the text includes discussions of many recordings and the notes contain a wealth of bibliographic references. A comprehensive index closes the volume

The book is not an easy read, as the musical analyses can become somewhat technical (although there are no notational examples) and repetitive. Indeed, the author suggests that reading everything at one sitting is not the ideal way to make use of his work. While these are composers whose music Simmons favors, he is honest and thorough about their faults as well as virtues. One of the book’s great strengths is that he is as cautious about his claims as he is assured of his thesis. In an effort to leave no stone unturned, a fact or opinion may be discussed in the music section even though it has already appeared in the biography. In the long run, however, Simmons’s serious style, as well as his depth of understanding, adds to the book’s overall impact.

The publisher rejected Simmons’s request to include a CD with the book. I think it is better this way: 80 minutes could never cover even a representative sample of the music discussed here, and Simmons offers excerpts from 10 works by each composer on his Web site. Despite already possessing recordings of much of this music (acquired under his personal as well as Fanfare guidance), the book inspired me to get many more CDs, and it vastly increased my understanding and appreciation of the music therein. This hardback volume is well printed on heavy, near-white stock, and it is superbly bound, good harbingers for long and repeated use. On a per-page basis, it may seem expensive; judged solely by content, it is a bargain. This alternate version of a period in the history of American music could hardly be better represented than by Voices in the Wilderness.

James H. North
July/August 2004
pp. 271-72