Voices of Stone and Steel – Reviews – J. Scott Morrison

A Superb and Elegantly-Written Work on Three Great American Composers 
5.0 out of 5 stars 
 J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA)

Walter Simmons has written some of the most instructive, as well as elegantly written, articles and books on twentieth century American music. This book — The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin: Voices of Stone and Steel — is the second in a projected series of books on American composers. The first of these — Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers — focused on Bloch, Hanson, Giannini, Creston, Barber, and Flagello and was a model of its kind: graceful and clear writing in the service of exhaustive scholarship. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The present book is very much in the same mold. Simmons seems to have read everything extant about these three composers and clearly he has closely studied their scores. (He also wrote the Grove Dictionary bios for Persichetti and Mennin.) He calls them ‘Modern Traditionalists’ whom he describes as ‘not primarily concerned with the expression of personal moods, feelings, and emotions, nor with the representation of narratives, nor was their musical language a direct outgrowth of Late Romantic harmonic and tonal practice; unlike the New-Classicists, these composers did not represent a return to eighteenth-century musical values, such as conceptual simplicity, textural clarity, formal symmetry, or expressive restraint …’ Nor are they like the National Populists, who used jazz, folk or popular music in their works. But they are also not serialists or avant-gardists. They did not reject tonality although they often stretch its bounds. And they hewed often to traditional forms — symphony, sonata, concerto and the like. 

Simmons follows the same pattern as in the earlier book. Each composer has a long section devoted to him and his music. First there is a biography, then an extensive review of the pertinent aspects of each composer’s individual works that includes beautifully clear analytic descriptions in language perfectly understandable to the non-professional. He uses quotes from critical assessments of each work from both newspapers or magazines and from scholarly publications, followed by extensive references to available recordings. The book includes a CD with performances from the following works: 

Schuman: Judith 
Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony 

Persichetti: Concerto for Piano Four-Hands 
Georgia and Louise Mangos, duo pianists 

Persichetti: Serenade No. 10 (six excerpts) 
Samuel Baron, flute; Ruth Maayani, harp 

Mennin: Symphony No. 6 
David Alan Miller, conductor; Albany Symphony Orchestra 

It is hard to imagine that anyone reading this book won’t feel the need to go out and buy recordings of unfamiliar works herein extolled. I found myself making a wish list. 

In conclusion, I will say that I learned more in reading this book than I could have imagined possible. I found my respect and admiration for Schuman and Mennin had grown, and that I had fallen in love with Vincent Persichetti all over again. 

Scott Morrison
February 9, 2011