Voices of Stone and Steel – Peter Mennin

Peter Mennin

The career of Peter Mennin is remarkable for its consistent sense of purpose. In personal statements made during his maturity he gave verbal expression to some of the principles that defined aesthetic creed and guided his creative life (edited and condensed here for the purpose of succinctness): “Individuality is an inevitable precondition for music of lasting value. By this I mean a strong musical thrust, unconcerned with convention, but, rather, with the drive of the composer’s musical ideas; it is having one’s own voice. The only thing that lasts is what one human being can bring that is peculiarly his own and not anyone else’s. A major composer always brings a visceral reaction, a physical involvement. Unless compositional technique reflects a creative impulse, a creative drive, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Mennin completed his Third Symphony, which also served as his doctoral dissertation, on his 23rd birthday. It was introduced later that year by the New York Philharmonic, before it had even been accepted by his doctoral committee. The following year he joined the Juilliard composition faculty. By the time he reached the age of 30, he had completed six symphonies, and was recognized as one of the most promising young composers on the American scene. At 35 he was appointed to head the Peabody Conservatory; four years later he accepted the position of president of the Juilliard School, a post he held for 21 years, until his untimely death at age 60. Mennin’s output is relatively small, amounting to barely thirty works, but his catalog is notably devoid of music of frivolous or diverting character. Each work follows the last along a continuum of increasing emotional intensity and structural complexity. By the time of his death Mennin was regarded as a member of “the Establishment,” and his reputation as an administrator had displaced his identity as a composer. Yet his body of creative work, notable for its strong personal voice, consistency of vision, seriousness of purpose, and impeccable workmanship, has largely fallen from view.
(from Voices of Stone and Steel, pp. 337-38).