Voices of Stone and Steel – Review – Philip Scott

VOICES OF STONE AND STEEL: Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin. By Walter Simmons. Scarecrow Press, 2010. 425 pp. $70 (includes CD)


Musicologist, critic, recording producer, and 20th-century American music expert Walter Simmons has produced a follow-up to his earlier book, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The latter dealt with Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello: a substantial and still shamefully neglected group of American composers (if you discount Barber’s Adagio and Violin Concerto).

The three composers covered in the new book are even more urgently in need of reparation, despite the fact that two of them (Schuman and Mennin) could well be described as the finest symphonists America has yet produced, alongside the neoclassicist Walter Piston. Through careful analysis of their music and insightful appraisal of their achievements, interspersed with enough biographical information to humanize his subjects, Simmons makes a solid case for their work and provides an enjoyable read in the process.

The book also proves to be a de facto compendium of changing attitudes toward contemporary music, and a salutary reminder of both the power and the ephemeral nature of music criticism. In a well-paced introduction Simmons places all three men in their mid 20th-century context, and explains how their musical styles slipped between the cracks of neoclassicism, neoromanticism, and Copland-style Americana. He devotes an exhaustive chapter to each of the composers—Persichetti’s is the longest at 163 pages—quoting personal reminiscences and many contemporary reviews, a number of which are quite negative. Simmons’ approach is to discuss the genesis of a work and survey the critical reaction of the time, then move on to the work’s recordings, most of which were produced years or even decades after the premiere, and provide a selection of reviews of those recordings. The contrast is often startling, even taking into account the difficulties in mastering a new piece on its first outing. An unavoidable truth emerges: Critics are heavily influenced by subjective factors, ranging from personal dislike of the composer to their own musical or political agendas. As ever, carping reviewers—even when employing reasonable language—tend to criticize a work for not being what they want it to be. (The few exceptions to this syndrome include Persichetti himself and Henry Cowell.)

Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin often suffered from problems of perception, partly influenced by their success in other fields. All were highly respected academics and/or administrators. Mennin succeeded Schuman at Juilliard, and Persichetti was better known as a teacher than a composer. In their later lives, this automatically relegated them to the abhorred “mainstream” in the eyes of the new-music community. Prior to that, Schuman and Mennin in particular were marginalized because they did not employ a strict 12-tone system, yet their music was also too tough, rigorous, and atonal to capture the instant audience appeal of the “wide open spaces” school. Following their deaths, their music suffered the usual period of neglect (with a few notable exceptions on disc). Simmons clarifies the false perceptions, and reveals the true importance of these composers by returning to the scores. He convinces us we should get to know their music not because it is significant historically or liable to be forgotten (though in both cases this is true), but primarily because it is stimulating and we may enjoy it! My first reaction after reading his chapter on Peter Mennin was to order a second-hand CD of his Cello Concerto, played by Janos Starker with the Louisville Orchestra; it is an engaging piece.

Simmons is no blind enthusiast. He can be quite upfront about the music’s shortcomings, or why some pieces work better than others. Schuman, for instance, tended to repeat himself and occasionally it took an extramusical stimulus to freshen his vision. His Ninth Symphony, inspired by a visit to the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, is more focused and alive than either of the flanking commissioned symphonies. (The Ninth, a true masterpiece, was the first music of Schuman’s I heard, on an old RCA LP coupled with Persichetti’s Ninth, played by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was instantly and forever won over. It was fascinating to read in the book about the difficulties Schuman had in getting the piece recorded. He even contributed to its funding out of his own pocket.)

William Schuman, though witty, was inclined to come across as arrogant and high-handed—not the most endearing traits. Ditto, Mennin’s detachment and pathological secrecy. Persichetti seems like the most pleasant personality of the three, and was certainly the most talented as a practicing musician. Stories of his vast musical memory and formidable sight-reading skills are jaw-dropping. The only other composer I know of to approach him in this regard is Arnold Bax, who sight-read Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 at the piano perfectly when the work was brand new. Simmons mentions a major falling out between Schuman and the younger Mennin, but does not go into much detail or speculation about the cause. A touch of jealousy, perhaps? Mennin was a remarkably productive symphonist up until his 30th birthday. 

Overall the balance between biography and analysis is well judged. Simmons shows us enough of his subjects’ feet of clay to remind us that composers are people, too, in a book that is primarily about absolute music. To this end, he has additionally compiled a CD. Its contents are listed at the end of this review.

With enticing recent recordings readily available, such as Naxos’s complete set of Schuman’s symphonies (or at least officially complete; coincidentally, each of these composers withdrew his first two symphonies), and Persichetti’s 12 piano sonatas played by Geoffrey Burleson on New World, there surely exists a new audience for this period of American music—an audience with open ears and fewer preconceptions. For them Simmons’ book will be a godsend.

Phillip Scott 
Fanfare Magazine 34:6 (July/Aug 2011)