Voices in the Wilderness – Review – W.K. Kearns


September 2004

Simmons, Walter.  Voices in the wilderness: six American neo-romantic composers.  Scarecrow Press, 2004. 419p bibl discography index afp  ISBN 0-8108-4884-8, $69.95.

Simmons provides excellent biographies of the 20th-century composers examined here—Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello—and lucid, non-technical descriptions of their major works. Bloch and Barber have been the subjects of recently published major studies, but the others have not received such detailed treatment. A distinguished music critic, the author is vigorously polemical. He blames “modernism” for having relegated these composers to the “wilderness,” but he points out that all were recognized, some more than others, during their lifetimes. And all have had recent revivals or recordings of their music, as Simmons’s inclusive research shows. But though Simmons tends to speak of emotion (often vivid and accessible) in music as the prerogative of neo-romantics, this reviewer would point out the undeniable emotion of modernists exemplified by Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter. The neo-romantics have been criticized for their lack of innovation, a preeminent value in Western artistic culture for centuries, and this is the principal reason that they have not been more highly respected. These are quibbles, however, and they are not intended to argue the fact that this book will be useful to musicians and laypersons alike. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals; general readers.

W. K. Kearns, emeritus, University of Colorado at Boulder