Voices of Stone and Steel – Review – Mark Lehman

Voices of Stone and Steel: 
The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin
by Walter Simmons
Scarecrow Press, 425 pages (+CD)

As Walter Simmons points out in the introductory chapter of Voices in the Wilderness, his 2004 book on six American modern-romantic composers (May/June 2004), the narrative outline directing the typical history of American concert music since 1900 starts with provincial, tradition-bound imitations of European masters. As the new century progresses, American composers begin to find their own voice and assert their artistic independence and national pride. Copland, Harris, Gershwin, and others begin to incorporate homegrown vernacular music—jazz and folk tunes—into their works. But by midcentury an influential “new music” arrives from post-War Europe. Even Schoenberg’s dodecaphony appears outdated to the proponents of this movement, who—claiming that tonality is “exhausted,” that the old rhetoric is irrelevant to a post-War world—adopt the austere, cerebral serialism of Webern as their touchstone. Stockhausen leads the experimentalists, Boulez the more severe and brittle pointillists. The “new music” is quickly taken up by university-based composers and leads to an efflorescence of fragmentation, relentless chromaticism, kaleidoscopic instrumentation, sudden and extreme contrasts in dynamics and register, and all sorts of new performance techniques. Melodic lyricism and tonal harmonies—and the openly romantic emotion they convey—become passé, even scorned.

Meanwhile, the turn-of-the-century innovations of Ives are rediscovered and canonized
as adumbrations of the newly ascendant avant-garde, as are the somewhat later experiments of Cowell, Ruggles, Crawford-Seeger, and Varese. All of these native forerunners and European eminences are seen to lead, by an inexorable teleological progression, to the dominance of serial techniques and other kinds of “contemporary” procedures, culminating in the 1950s and 60s in the rebarbative, complex, atonal, special-effects-heavy works and their accompanying ideologies of such commanding personalities as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Conlon Nancarrow. No matter that audiences hate the avant-garde— indeed, that’s a big part of its validation; its best-known composers gain stature, fame, even notoriety; its lesser figures get professional approval and academic tenure.

And what of the many unenlightened composers who continue to write old-fashioned
tonal music using the hallowed forms and procedures? Their efforts are denigrated by musical ideologues and taste-makers as quaint, anachronistic, or obsolete; their place in the story of modern American music is diminished to the merely incidental. Such music is, the up-to-date feel, at best merely peripheral to the grand narrative outlining the historically inevitable march to modernist supremacy; it is not to be taken as “serious” or “important”.

Worship of the newest thing is very old, of course. In the 20th Century the high priest of
musical modernism was Theodore Adorno, whose early and harshly doctrinaire promulgation of the view that tonality and traditional styles had outlived their usefulness (to be replaced by strict Schoenbergian dodecaphony) was hugely influential. Copland and other American “populists” merited only disdain, Adorno felt, in their hopeless pursuit of outworn ideals. By the late 1950s his dogmas had expanded their reach (and intensified their exclusivity) in such French critics as René Leibowitz and André Hodeir, the latter excoriating anything not adhering to the brittle pointillism of Boulez and Barraqué, specifically singling out (in his polemical screed Since Debussy) almost all modern-era American music as hopelessly irrelevant and reactionary. Most of it, he claimed indignantly, was no better than the hackneyed rubbish spewn out by
such dinosaurs as Shostakovich.

Soon this denigration of tonal music spread to American critics wanting to keep up with the latest fashions. See, for example, the dismissal of Barber’s “easygoing, sentimental” and “amusing” Violin Concerto in his 1966 High Fidelity review by the esteemed critic Alfred Frankenstein. Eric Salzman’s widely used and admired 20th-Century Music: AnIntroduction (1967, revised edition 1974) endorsed this attitude with a bit more subtlety by simply concentrating on avant-garde developments. Everything else was secondary and therefore given only cursory (if any) attention. Academic journals such as Perspectives in New Music reflected the same bias for many decades. “New music” was atonal music, as any issue from the 1950s or 1960s will illustrate. (An added attraction was that serial techniques present seductive opportunities for impressively abstruse analysis.)

The view that avant-garde music represents progress, that it is the only proper goal of a natural and beneficial aesthetic evolution, superseding hidebound tonal, traditional music, remains persistent in American music criticism still, in for instance Kyle Gann’sAmerican Music in the 20th Century, published in 1997. Even Alex Ross, in his eloquent and impressive 2008 overview of modern music, The Rest Is Noise—which is particularly good in evoking the historical and cultural context of 20th Century music—is nevertheless strongly skewed toward “the progressive path from Debussy to Boulez and Cage” (as he puts it). American experimental composers are given far more space and attention than the more traditional figures, with the clear implication that they represent the dominant and more significant evolutionary strain.

Walter Simmons’s Voices in the Wilderness was the first in a series of books with the overarching title 20th Century Traditionalists intended to present a corrective to that story about modern American music. Simmons explicitly rejects both the teleological argument that “the evolution of the tonal system proceeded according to a linear progression that led inevitably to the dissolution of tonality” and the underlying assumption “that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of linear progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all contenders are racing”. Simmons’s history of American music instead places much more value on the intrinsic and particular virtues, as well as the effect on actual concert audiences, of the music written by the many American composers who (in different ways) maintained their allegiance to traditional melody, harmony, textures, and forms, as well as to the warmth, engagement, and immediate, visceral effect these elements convey. Those composers also, of course, made many innovations, as all imaginative artists do, but for specific communicative reasons, not in service of an ideology of “originality” for its own sake. They refused to abandon the time-honored musical virtues of shapely melodic lines, tonal-based harmonic tension and release, clear formal logic, sensuous  instrumental color, and the expressive purposes to which these qualities have traditionally been put—their frank appeal to pleasure, their immediate and obvious ability to arouse and ennoble human emotion.

Before going on I should add that just the fact that audiences hated so-called “new music” doesn’t mean that all of it was bad. Much was, of course—as indeed could be said of the music in any stylistic idiom however new-fangled or old-fashioned. But “new music” was, at first, almost impossible to judge, so undifferentiated did it sound to its earliest audiences. With time it became clear that the idiom’s trademark excesses and extremes quickly degenerated into cliches and (unintentional) self-parody, especially when taken up by the legions of Boulez’s inferior imitators. Furthermore, its most devoted practitioners tended to run out of worthy ideas and lapse into silence early in their careers. Nevertheless there are many well-made and expressive compositions that employ atonality and avant-garde techniques, even of the iciest and most forbidding mode. I’m not arguing that a more traditional, tonality-based music is always or inevitably better—or somehow more “natural” or “proper”—than more difficult “new music”. There are no doubt certain emotions that can only be conveyed by “contemporary” styles and devices. My point is that individual works in any and all styles should be judged, and their significance assessed, on the basis of their merits and not on rigid a priori ideological assumptions about what is or isn’t fashionable or privileged by an imputed evolutionary inevitability. Nor should musical history be distorted by such assumptions. We need to take a longer view; no one today disparages JS Bach for being “old-fashioned”—which he was, by the standards of his own time.

Just such a “longer view” is what Simmons tries to encapsulate in the notion of “20th Century traditionalist”. This, in Simmons’s use of the term, is a wide, encompassing category. There are many different “traditions” and so many different varieties of “traditionalists”. Fervent romantics like Bloch, Hanson, Barber, Creston, Giannini, and Flagello (discussed in Voices in the Wilderness) are one kind. Others are nationalist and populist composers like Copland, Harris, Gershwin; “multiculturalists” like Hovhaness and Harrison, who drew on exotic modes and tried to transmit non-Western emotional states; neoclassic composers influenced by Stravinsky and Hindemith like Piston and his students Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, and Ingolf Dahl; “modernist traditionalists” like Schuman, Persichetti, Mennin, and Diamond, whose bolder harmonic vocabulary expanded their range of expressive possibilities; and so-called “new romantic” composers like George Rochberg and John Corigliano who have since the 1970s reasserted the late-romantic heritage of Strauss, Mahler, and Puccini.

All of these in-one-way-or-another “traditionalists” adopted and adapted in their works time-honored structural patterns and procedures, including tonally-derived harmony and classic outlines—passacaglia, fugue, sonata, theme-and-variations, rondo, and aria and dance forms. That, after all, is a considerable part of what it means to be a “traditionalist”. But each group had distinct and differentiating characteristics, as of course did the individual composers themselves. For Simmons’s second volume in his projected series he has singled out three “modernist traditionalist” composers who came to prominence in the 1940s and 50s—William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin—who he thinks exemplify (and indeed mark the summit) of this particular strand in tradition-based American composers of the past century. That all three were long associated (as teachers and administrators) with the Juilliard School of Music is a less important but by no means negligible point of connection among them.

Though all three were heralded during the early part of their careers as bold, strongly profiled personalities and brilliant craftsmen (which they certainly were), they suffered from a kind of two-sided neglect as more avant-garde figures came to prominence. Like such renowned figures as Stravinsky, Bartok, and Hindemith (whose music they learned from), they were more “modern” and adventurous (especially in their use of dissonance and chromaticism) than the more melodious, openly romantic Barber and Hanson, but they abstained from the post-Webernian pointillism and more extreme “contemporary” effects and procedures of the avant-garde (including doctrinaire serialism). As a result, typical concert audiences found them too difficult, and on the other hand “sophisticated” audiences (such as there were) found them too old-fashioned and lacking in cutting-edge caché. As Simmons points out, their explorations of a more searching and chromatic vocabulary and other recent techniques were disdained by the cognescenti as merely belated attempts to update their image, “while more conservative listeners failed to distinguish their work from that of the avant-garde and viewed such efforts as ‘selling out’”. As a result “their work was increasingly marginalized and supported by a dwindling number of advocates”. Hence the need for a reappraisal of their achievement.

As in Voices in the Wilderness, each chapter in Simmons’s new book offers a detailed biographical sketch, a description of individual stylistic features of each composer, an assessment of the important and representative works that identifies both strengths and weaknesses, and a depiction of the larger social and cultural context out of which the music arose. There are many and extensive quotations from critical opinions (often at some variance with each other) and hundreds of citations in the notes for each chapter, as well as bibliographies and discographies for each composer—and even a compact disc with works by all three of them.

Among the many pleasures and sources of enlightenment offered by the book are Simmons’s penetrating (and sometimes surprising) comments about how the personalities of these composers were reflected in their music. He is particularly sensitive to the contradictions and mysteries that invest the complex relationship between the artist and his creations. Schuman, for example, like his music, was bold, assertive, confident of his own stature, impatient with academic dogma. He had both the inclination and assurance to compose large-scale, serious, imposing compositions—especially symphonies. There’s no doubting the importance and striking individuality of his best works: the Third Symphony, Violin Concerto, and Fourth String Quartet all show his declamatory power, lofty eloquence, nervous tension, kinetic vigor, and the unmistakable stylistic fingerprints—the dramatic gestures, plangent clashing triads, rich yet transparent scoring, multi-layered polyphony—that make his music instantly recognizable. His muscular sprung rhythms and optimism are felt as “American”, yet there is a strong tragic vein also in his music—for example, in the Sixth Symphony and The Young Dead Soldiers.

On the other hand Schuman is not, as Simmons notes, immune from accusations of rhetorical posturing: some commentators have found the sonorous but gloomy Eighth Symphony (which I love) more grandiose and oratorical than authentically felt. It elicits reactions “divided between those who hear it as a profound abstract statement and those who hear it as…straining to sound profound [with] parts that are stunning in their impact and others…the backdrop for something striking that never occurs”. Curiously, even in his most pessimistic or post-tonal, chromatic music, Schuman often ended his works—however peculiar and incongruous this became—with a major triad. “One can only speculate as to the meaning of this practice for the composer. Was it a statement of loyalty to tonality? An inability to relinquish hope, or a spirit of optimism?”

The precociously gifted, likable, easygoing, generous, witty, astonishingly fluent, stylistically chameleonic Persichetti presents a wonderful contrast to Schuman. There is no hint of self-importance in the man or his music, and though he wrote nine symphonies and many concerted works, big orchestral works don’t dominate his output as they do for Schuman or Mennin. But Persichetti’s facility and wide-ranging stylistic eclecticism (ranging from clear tonality to highly-fragmented atonality), along with a certain characteristic emotional coolness—a “classic” rather than “romantic” cast—have exacted a cost: his music lacks the strong individuality that would make it instantly identifiable, and as a result it’s never gotten the attention from press, listeners, performers, and recording companies that Schuman’s music has. Nevertheless there are riches in Persichetti’s oeuvre that as Simmons points out are among the high-points in modern American music, including the cycle of 12 piano sonatas, the Concerto for Piano Four-Hands, the Third String Quartet, and the Fifth Symphony. These works evince “a summation of modern classicism” combining “a spirit of spontaneous improvisation with the definitiveness of total premeditation. The result is highly cerebral music with charm, wit, grace, tenderness, and dynamism”.

Mennin, the third of this New York triad, is a very different sort of man and composer from both Schuman and Persichetti. Stern, aloof, and aristocratic in demeanor, he was a deeply private man. Behind his humorless, businesslike facade was an uncompromising dedication to his aesthetic goals; a seriousness and consistency of style, vision, and purpose; and a burning intensity (darkening into febrile obsessive mania and deep pessimism as he aged) that blazed forth in the rigorous, densely-woven counterpoint of his muscular allegros and grave, elegiac adagios. There is nothing frivolous about Mennin; he had absolutely no interest in writing “minor” or merely charming pieces, and his career exhibits a single-minded and “continuous process of compression and increasing intensification of expression” that, Simmons notes, recalls Bruckner (an astonishing comparison I would never have thought of, but—whatever one thinks of Mennin’s symphonies—a very acute one). One consequence of Mennin’s aesthetic and stylistic predilections is that he (unlike Schuman and Persichetti) doesn’t sound particularly American, but instead is closer to such Europeans as Rubbra, Holmboe, and Simpson (and ultimately to Beethoven), composers who “develop abstract ideas logically and coherently, while seeming to allude to or address profound existential issues … without recourse to extramusical references, but as if from a lofty, somewhat depersonalized perspective”. Mennin’s symphonies are tough nuts to crack, for me as for many listeners. I still find them often impenetrable: too opaque and airless, too filled up with notes, and too lacking in clearly shaped and separated phrases that I can easily hold in memory. Still, Simmons’s comments on his character helped me to approach them with a more open mind—and I’ve come to admire Mennin’s 1957 Piano Concerto (recorded by John Ogdon) and his magnificent (though not yet commercially recorded) 1963 Piano Sonata.

Simmons’s extraordinary ability to advocate for these composers yet see them whole, with all their virtues, difficulties, and failings, is a triumph of sensitivity and a lifetime spent in thoughtful listening, research, and adjudication. He loves these men and their music yet makes careful, nuanced discriminations about them, raises questions about their accomplishments (sometimes unanswerable), and gives full credit to the intricate and unfathomable workings of personality and circumstance that bring forth artistic creation. Together with the many detailed and perceptive analyses of individual works (strictly verbal—there are no music examples) it is this celestial balance of judgement and mercy, knowledge and enigma, light and dark, that makes Voices of Stone andSteel indispensable for anyone studying or simply curious about the achievement of these three distinguished and emblematic “modern traditionalist” American composers.

Mark Lehman
American Record Guide (Sept/Oct 2011)
pp. 50-53