Voices in the Wilderness – Review – Ken Smith

GRAMOPHONE—December, 2004


Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers by Walter Simmons discusses the music of Bloch, Barber, Hanson, Creston, Giannini and Flagello. All composers happy to pursue a furrow in which they felt comfortable rather than fall in behind any avant-garde dogma, together they raise a powerful voice. (p. 7)

If you think life is difficult for those in the avant-garde, consider those who live on the back of the cutting edge. Artists in the ‘derrière-garde’, who consciously shun Stravinsky’s maxim that we must kill our parents, get hammered both by trendy peers who brand them reactionary, as well as historians who measure the timeline by innovation rather than refinement.

In concert music, however, often the opposite occurs. Tonal composers who had always found themselves compared unfavourably to, say, Schoenberg, can find themselves compared favourably to, say, Brahms. It usually takes a couple of generations, if not the actual death of the artist, but in the ranks of posterity both the competition and the stakes are substantially higher.

Books like this one are a firm indication that we have at least approached, if not fully attained, this level of appreciation. Walter Simmons, a longtime critic and annotator, has collected bio-musicological profiles of a handful of composers who fit the description above. His six musical figures break down into tidy pairs of marquis names known only for a fraction of their output (Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber), reputations that have recently returned to public acclaim (Howard Hanson, Paul Creston), and those who still have a long way to go to enter the public ear (Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello).

Recordings are a big part in the process, of course, and Simmons does a thorough job in sampling the critical evaluations of his subjects during different eras – so much so that at times it threatens to muddy the overall picture. But Simmons is both vivid in his own descriptions of the music and level-headed in his judgements. He is unafraid of challenging opinions he deems ill-considered (New York Times’ critic Anthony Tommasini’s dismissal of Flagello’s opera The Piper, he says, recalls ‘the contemptuous Modernist critical clichés commonly encountered in the 1960s’), or of pointing out when his pet composers are not at their best.

Simmons’s success varies from figure to figure. He adds almost nothing to the already well-biographed Barber (although, paradoxically, Barber receives the longest profile. With Bloch, however, he helps free the composer from the Jewish ghetto and bring him into the broader musical picture. Hanson and Creston both receive a most welcome, and thorough, re-evaluation of their work (balancing, as the author points out, the fact that Hanson had only eight lines in the 1986 New Grove Dictionary of American Music). Giannini, though, has the most to gain, since Simmons highlights that his recording profile misleadingly neglects his most significant work. (Simmons himself has championed several of Flagello’s works, most notably with Naxos.)

The lasting value of this book, however, lays not in its individual profiles, but in the way Simmons threads them together. Among these composers, Hanson was a firm champion of Bloch; Flagello was a student of Giannini; Barber was an influence on, well, everyone here. With so many people opting out of both the Modernist and populist currents of the time, we should finally acknowledge these figures as a fully separate and legitimate tradition of their own.

Ken Smith
p. 127