Voices of Stone and Steel – Review – Bret Johnson

Voices of Stone and Steel: 
The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin 
by Walter Simmons. 
Scarecrow Press, Inc., £44.95 (includes a CD of music by all three composers).

This book, like its predecessor Voices in the Wilderness, which looked at the music of Bloch, Creston, Giannini, Barber, Flagello and Hanson, has been a labour of love for the author. Walter Simmons starts from the premise that the high watermark of American symphonic music in the years following the Second World War passed relatively unnoticed and undocumented, and that the vast contributions to American musical literature of three major figures during that period have largely been eclipsed by their other important, but less enduring, lifetime achievements. He identifies many reasons for this, not least the fact that in the 1950s the academic music establishment in the USA, with its huge influence over the training of the new generation of composers, embraced wholeheartedly the ideals of the Second Viennese School and the associated doctrines of serialism and atonality, thereby edging the traditional American ethos of Copland, Harris and Hanson out towards the margins. This had inevitable consequences for Schuman, Persichetti and Mennin, whose music largely extended and developed that ethos.

All three men shared significant links as educators and administrators as well as composers. Schuman and Persichetti are afforded lengthy treatment, in both cases about double the amount of space given to Mennin. Peter Mennin died in 1983 aged 60, and was notoriously secretive and reticent about his own work despite his very high public profile as President of the Juilliard School, and a string of well-known recordings of several important pieces during his lifetime (which out of a total of thirty works included nine symphonies). Drawing on a variety of sources (including an interview he conducted with the composer in 1982) Simmons summarizes Mennin’s early family musical background, the encouragement he received from Howard Hanson and his success with high-visibility premières of his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 in his early twenties. He also identifies Mennin’s personal single-mindedness as one of the keys to his music: he did things his way. He finds in Mennin’s music affinities with European contrapuntalists such as Rubbra, Holmboe and Simpson (all of whom, apparently, Mennin was unfamiliar with) and with Renaissance polyphony, with purely American influences assuming a subsidiary role. He speaks of the inner, dark intensity of the later pieces and to the unrelenting, restless drive of Mennin’s musical thought.

In fact, the slightest grain of populism was clearly anathema to Mennin: he wanted to ensure that everything about him and his music should speak for itself. He hated falseness, self-promotion, or any sort of dumbing-down (he called it ‘sugar-coating’), as was clearly shown in the perfectionist ethic he instilled at Juilliard. Personal issues aside, though, Simmons eloquently assesses the qualities of Mennin’s music and argues convincingly that its lack of popularity belies its enduring values of integrity, fine craftsmanship and emotional depth. Indeed Simmons feels that audience hostility to 12-tone music affords at least some explanation as to why the ‘traditional modernists’ (as he describes the three composers discussed here) still continued to enjoy a platform in the later 20th century.

William Schuman (1910–92) started out as a disciple of Roy Harris but soon outdistanced his mentor. As in his previous book, Simmons embarks on each composer survey with a relatively short biographical account followed by a much lengthier musical evaluation. Much is made of Schuman’s career as an administrator, both as President of Juilliard and Director of the Lincoln Center, where he had frequent personality clashes with Mennin (his successor at Juilliard), who detested what he saw as Schuman’s opportunism and vulgar courting of publicity. Schuman’s achievements as a composer are clearly catalogued and his friendship with Leonard Bernstein led to many performances and recordings by the New York Philharmonic. The past few years have seen two other studies of Schuman’s music: one by Steve Swayne entitled Orpheus in Manhattan (OUP) and American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman (Amadeus Press) by Joseph Polisi, Juilliard’s most recent President. Both offer a wealth of critical study: Polisi provides a broader evaluation of the man, his world and his music, whereas the weight of Walter Simmons’s survey lies in the painstaking analysis and contextualization of all the major pieces. Yet, despite a recent cycle of new recordings of all the published symphonies, Schuman, like so many other ‘modern traditionalists’ is a virtual absentee from the concert hall.

The common thread of Juilliard also runs through the professional life of Vincent Persichetti
(1915–87) – by far the most prolific composer of the three, with 167 numbered works. Many
of those are for small ensembles, piano, or wind band and this utilitarian quality, deriving mainly
from Persichetti’s talents as a teacher, have ensured his continued performance both in the concert hall and on the college campus. Simmons devotes some time to telling us about Persichetti’s remarkable partnership with his wife Dorothea Flanagan, a concert pianist who almost seems to have become his ‘alter ego’, so heavily did he rely on her advice and opinions in his professional life. The very detailed analysis of selected pieces magnifies the mercurial nature of Persichetti the composer, tending to confirm his reputation as a master technician rather than a ground-breaker. The author also tells us of the controversy surrounding Persichetti’s 1961 book on 20th Century Harmony, whose ‘militant ecumenism’ was panned by implacable serialist academics as an attempt to turn back the clock. In this most interesting and absorbing book Simmons emerges as a persuasive advocate for those, myself included, who feel that the past few decades have witnessed unprecedented growth in American musical culture, the effects of which are only now starting to
be assimilated.

Bret Johnson
(Oct 2011) 
65:258, pp. 62-63