Voices of Stone and Steel – Reviews – James North

This is the second of Simmons’ studies of 20th-century American music, following his widely acclaimed Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. After a 20-page introduction that sets the scene, this book is divided into three sections for its three composers; each begins with a detailed biography, after which Simmons discusses and analyzes a great deal of their music. Each composer gets his own notes, selected bibliography, and “Essential Discography.” An enclosed CD includes complete recordings of Schuman’s Judith, Persichetti’s Concerto for Piano Four-Hands, his Serenade No. 10 for Flute and Harp, and Mennin’s Symphony No. 6. As the subtitle suggests, these were urban composers who wrote urban, uptown music. All were associated with New York’s Juilliard School, and—in varying degrees—with each other. Simmons shows us their widely divergent personalities, which strongly influenced the music of the aggressive, self-centered Schuman and the studious, humorous Persichetti. Mennin was the exception: an aloof, private person and a shrewd, educationally conservative administrator who wrote energetic, even ferocious music. 

Describing music with words is something every critic struggles with. Despite denying in his introduction that it can be done, Simmons is a master at it. His analyses are consistently revealing, never too esoteric for the untrained reader (no scores, mere hints at harmonic analysis), nor too simplistic for the knowledgeable one. He advises us to listen as we read, yet—if one knows the music at all—it comes alive with only his descriptions. He devotes three dense pages to Schuman’s Third Symphony, and every phrase, every note sounds and breathes. A well-loved symphony becomes all the more meaningful on next hearing.

The main theme of Simmons’ book is that this music—once hailed as the peak of American creativity, including several worthy candidates for the longed-for “Great American Symphony”—has disappeared from the repertory and is in danger of being forgotten even as a historical reference point. Its disappearance had much to do with the takeover of music by academic serialists, who rejected—and often ridiculed—any music not of their own kind. While he is correct about the serialists’ arrogance (not of Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern, but of Babbitt, Boulez, and Wuorinen), Simmons is not entirely candid about them: He carefully cites Babbitt’s infamous article as being “published with the title ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’” but stops short of telling the reader that the incendiary title was not Babbitt’s but was written by an editor. Surely 100 people recall that title for every one who has read the (less incendiary) article.

But the pendulum swings: By the 1990s, the serialists were in retreat, and such eminences grises as the New York Times espoused the equally ludicrous position that the ticket-buying public is the best judge of musical quality. We are in a better place today; all forms of music are acceptable, with no single clique in control. The damage had been done, however, and Simmons’ “modern traditionalists” of the mid 20th century have not recovered their well-deserved place at the table. That is why we need this estimable, closely argued book. One fervently hopes that Simmons’ series will continue, and that he will champion neglected composers across the entire spectrum of American music: Sessions as well as Piston, Weisgall as well as Argento. 

James H. North 
Fanfare Magazine 34:6 (July/Aug 2011)