Voices in the Wilderness – Review – Mark Lehman

Voices in the Wilderness:
Six American Neo-Romantic Composers

by Walter Simmons
Scarecrow Press, 419 pages, $70

Walter Simmons’s argument in this book, the first of a projected series from Scarecrow Press on 20th Century traditionalists, is that the modernist and avant-garde trends, though they get most of the attention from the academic musicologists who write music history, are only one stream–and not necessarily the most significant one–in modern American music. Composers who stayed closer to classic tonality and form not only wrote much that pleased (and still pleases) large concert audiences; they produced an imposing and valuable body of work “comparable in expressive power, individuality, and craftsmanship to the revered masters of the past”.

Voices in the Wilderness deals with six composers born from 1880 to 1930 that for Simmons epitomize neoromanticism: Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello. These men wrote music “primarily concerned with the evocation of mood, the depiction of drama–either abstract or referential–and the expression of emotion–personal, subjective emotion, in particular”. Their ideal, as conservative composers who embraced the legacy of such European late romantic predecessors as Richard Strauss, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Ravel, was to join the expression of mood, drama, and personal emotion to the classical goals of “formal coherence, developmental rigor, and structural economy”.

Despite their conservatism, however, the American neoromantics weren’t simply retreads of their predecessors. Their music tended to be more economical and disciplined, more driving and at times asymmetrical and unpredictable in rhythm, more adventurous and dissonant in harmony, and less strictly bound to tonal centers. Moreover, the composers Simmons chooses exhibit an “overall seriousness of purpose reflected in works of ambitious scope that attempt to address the fundamental existential and spiritual concerns of humanity. Each reveals an internally coherent psycho-aesthetic point of view, or ‘vision’, a relatively consistent standard of both workmanship and expressive urgency, and characteristic stylistic features that comprise [sic] a unique compositional ‘voice.'”

Each chapter begins with a biographical sketch, followed by a comprehensive assessment of the composer’s style and oeuvre and detailed descriptions of his “most representative and fully realized” pieces. Numerous quotations as well as notes and bibliography reflect the author’s painstaking research. Of special interest to record collectors, there’s a discography of “essential” recordings for each composer.

Simmons is never merely an advocate for the neoromantics he so much admires (though he knew several of them personally, and over the past few years has produced many first recordings of their music). Indeed, a special pleasure of Voices in the Wilderness is the remarkable precision and clear-sightedness of Simmons’s analyses of his six composers’ strengths and weaknesses. Simmons “gets inside” of these men to show how the circumstances of their lives and their individual psychology led to the kind of music they wrote. Writing on the autodidact Creston, for instance, he points out that “the key to understanding Creston’s creative personality lies in the psychological mechanism he developed to compensate for his lack of formal education. Lacking the advantages of fellowship, of comparing oneself with others holding similar aspirations, and of the social and professional contacts that a mentor and an academic community can …result [in] a deep sense of inadequacy, of being at a disadvantage, [along with] intellectual rigidity, arrogant defiance, defensive contentiousness, self-righteousness, and pomposity. Such dynamics …contributed to the way Creston developed as a man and as a composer.”

Simmons is just as perceptive on compositional styles and on individual works. He finds the origins of Ernest Bloch’s music in the music of Cesar Franck (I never would have thought of that), with its “view of music as a vehicle for profound spiritual and emotional expression …fusion of post-Wagnerian chromatic harmony with classical formal designs, the use of ‘cyclical’ principles–the recurrence, in identical or similar shape, of a primary motif at key points in a large work–as a means of creating structural unity, and a pre-impressionist use of small chamber combinations in making grand, almost symphonic statements.” On piece after piece Simmons reveals sources and characteristics that seem obvious once he’s explained them, though I never noticed them before–as for example his trenchant point that Barber’s famous Adagio arose out of the composer’s experience with choral settings and was conceived as a sort of recreation of a Renaissance motet.

The final test of a book like this is not only what we learn from it, but also its effect on us: whether it reinvigorates the reader’s desire to discover, or re-discover, the music. In this the book is a resounding success. I had to put down the book after finishing the second chapter (on Bloch) to rush off and track down the half-dozen pieces I’d jotted down while reading that I couldn’t wait to hear–with more appreciative ears–after absorbing Simmons’s descriptions. (As I write this I’m listening to the impassioned First Violin Sonata.)

In sum, this is a scrupulous, detailed, thoughtful, enlightening, and much-needed book on an important group of modern American composers who’ve been until now much too easily dismissed as reactionaries and throwbacks. We’re fortunate that someone with a lifetime of devotion to their music has written it.

American Record Guide
May/June 2004
pp. 254-55