Voices in the Wilderness – Review – Steve Schwartz

Voices in the Wilderness
Six American Neo-Romantic Composers

Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004. 419 pp. ISBN 0-8108-4884-8

Appeared in Classical Net March 2004

A lot of whatever I know about American music Walter Simmons taught me. As a musicologist and critic, he has written liner notes and articles that always seemed to find me at the right time (that is, the time when I was intellectually and emotionally ready for them). As a producer, he has seen to it that wonderful, though neglected music got heard and, even more important, distributed. However, Simmons has always written to the task at hand, usually and necessarily very specifically, concentrating on particular works. This book gives him a chance to step back and expound on the general critical and theoretical context of his ideas, illustrated by the works and careers of six composers: Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello.

In a work of this scope, it would be unusual if one agreed with everything Simmons says. I, for example, take issue with judgments of specific works and even composers (Simmons regards Giannini more highly than I do, although, to be fair, he’s heard more Giannini than I have). This is also a polemic, for which Simmons quite rightly doesn’t apologize. He expounds a point of view in some ways antithetical, in others merely different, to the prevailing professional, academic Weltanschauung of 20th-century American music. The latter considers mainly two strains: the neo-classical, largely Boulangeristes like Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, Schuman, Diamond, and Piston and the twelve-tonalitarians like Sessions, Riegger, Babbitt, and so on. Everybody else, when not contemptuously dismissed, is treated as either – at best – a footnote or a sport. Simmons makes a case for a neo-Romantic “wing” and, significantly, traces its historic rise, fall, and rise again. Indeed, subsequent volumes, under the general heading of “Twentieth-Century Traditionalists” will address Neo-Classicists, opera composers, “symphonic traditionalists,” and “Nationalists and Populists.” I would add the two further categories of Radicals & Mavericks and Jazzers. The first would include Ives, the Twenties Antheil, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Cowell, Cage, Harrison, and Hovhaness, the second folks like Ellington, Giuffre, Russell, Brubeck, Mingus, Wilder, Mulligan, Lokumbe, Marsalis, and Taylor. Significantly, one of our greatest composers, George Gershwin, could reasonably reside in many camps. I’d tend to place him among the neo-Romantics myself, but one can argue that he serves as a model for the Jazzers, or one might even put him with the populists. Indeed, one might also argue that everybody mentioned so far, with the possible exceptions of Babbitt and Thomson, are fundamentally neo-Romantics, placing primary emphasis on emotion and on modified nineteenth-century techniques. However, at that point, we lose a great deal of whatever distinction the term “neo-Romantic” connotes.

This last point leads to my one major disagreement with Simmons: his characterization of “neo-classicism” as emotionally reticent. Indeed, I know of few pieces that break my heart more easily than Copland’s Appalachian Spring, overwhelm me so completely as Foss’s Parable of Death, or make me skip as lightly as Bernstein’s Candide overture – all of which fit most musicologists’ definitions of “neo-classical.” Simmons’s characterization may be in part driven by polemics (after all, there’s lots of writing on American neo-classicists and relatively little on the composers of this study), or perhaps (since I don’t know) by individual dislike. I think I can guess what Simmons is driving at by his use of “neo-Romanticism”: an idiom fundamentally uninfluenced by Stravinsky or Schoenberg, symphonic procedures Brahms would have been comfortable with, and a tendency to expand rather than to compress one’s materials, the expansion ideally equating with greater emotional power.

Even so, I still have problems seeing Creston as a neo-Romantic. To me, he’s pure Maverick. I can’t begin to recall anyone he’s musically related to – certainly not the other composers here. On the other hand, Simmons knows far more of Creston’s music than I do and at a much greater level of detail. I don’t mind being wrong about this.

That said, the book’s virtues shine. Simmons writes clearly and even eloquently. Even the book’s general format considers the reader. Each chapter (one chapter on each composer) follows the same plan: an overview of life and career; a list of “must-hear” works; a detailed consideration of individual pieces. He makes a case for each composer. He’s no brainless fan. He doesn’t hesitate to point out flawed works or even flaws in successful works. In fact, he lists for every composer those works he judges representative of the very best the composer has. I love the emphasis on specific works, rather than on theoretical issues. The book’s theories stem from the music. The judgments on the music aren’t twisted to conform to a theory. I might take issue over which works are flawed or whether the flaws he points to are indeed flaws. For example, it surprised me greatly that Simmons intentionally doesn’t list the violin concerti of Barber and Bloch or Barber’s cello concerto. But that’s a mere difference of opinion. He tells me why he thinks what he does and allows me to see his side of things. Furthermore, he pulls off the neat trick of providing both an introduction for the novice and a deeper instruction for someone already acquainted with the music.

I fervently hope this book sparks a revival of Bloch, Creston, Hanson, and Flagello (I owe to Simmons my love for this composer). Barber seems all but certain to remain in standard repertory, with even neglected pieces now gaining hold. I’ve never found Giannini’s music particularly interesting, and Simmons doesn’t change my mind, but he may turn on somebody else. I emphasize that this is the first of a projected series of books. There are lots of American composers for Simmons to tell us about.

Copyright © 2004 by Steve Schwartz.