Voices of Stone and Steel – Reviews – R. James Tobin

Voices of Stone and Steel
Walter Simmons
The Scarecrow Press, 2011. 425 pages
ISBN-10: 0810857480
ISBN-13: 9780810857483 (cloth ; alk. Paper)
Includes a CD of complete recordings of Schuman’s Judith; Persichetti’s Concerto for Piano, Four Hands; six movements of Persichetti’s Serenade #10 for flute & harp; and Mennin’s Symphony #6

This is a valuable book. I don’t mean costly, though the list price is equivalent to a year’s subscription to Gramophone, and even the Amazon price is greater than the cost of a subscription to Fanfare (for which Simmons has long been contributing valued reviews.) I mean the intellectual contents are valuable and they may well be worth the book’s market price to those interested in American music. The monetary value of the included CD is not negligible either.

What is of great value here is: first, the brilliant summaries of the style and substance of the considerable musical output of these composers; second, the many detailed descriptive analyses of individual compositions; third, historical reports of the critical and popular reactions to these musical works when first performed; fifth, information about the recording history of many of these works; and, finally, Simmons’ highly informed evaluations of the strengths and weakness of the many works he writes about.

Simmons includes lists of recommended (“essential”) recordings, as well as listing the works of each composer that are in his opinion “most representative, fully realized works.” His evaluations give considerable weight to a composition’s organization. 

This is the second of a projected series about mostly neglected American classical composers – all of these were notable symphonists – who were active in the middle of the last century. The volume’s predecessor was Simmons’ Voices in the Wilderness: Six Neo-Romantic Composers. In the present volume he deals with half the number of composers in close to the same number of pages. These three composers were all at Juilliard, Schuman and Mennnin serving as President there in addition to actively composing. Simmons calls them “Modern Traditionalists.”

By Modern Traditionalists, Simmons means, first, that they were traditional in resisting the trend among their contemporaries of embracing serialism as a style, even though they may sometimes have seen fit to use all twelve tones in a theme or phrase. They went their own way stylistically, and one of them, Mennin, whose style changed little over time, claimed to have been influenced by no other composer.

Second, these composers were modernist in style, writing music that was often dissonant or even atonal, though typically with some kind of tonal center, with major and minor chords and melodic themes. Their music, although often forcefully expressive, did not express the kind of emotional feelings the Neo-Romantics embraced. Nor did their music generally did not have the degree of expressive and formal restraint and balance that the Neo-Classicists sought, nor were they inspired by 18th century forms. (Actually, Simmons does find Neo-classical style in a number of Persichetti’s works, but I will come back to that.) 

The organization of the book is as follows. After an introductory chapter, three long chapters are given to each of the composers. A relatively brief biography is followed by a general summary section about each composer’s work and then a detailed consideration of particular works, divided, In Schuman’s case, by periods; in Persichetto’s case by musical genre. For Mennin there are no subdivisions for works.

2010 was the centennial year of Schuman’s birth, and this marks’ the third recent book celebrating the life and work of this important composer and arts administrator. Previously, I reviewed of the major biographies by Joseph Polisi and Steve Swayne.

Simmons describes Schuman’s music as very American, and as “bold and brash, declamatory, self-confidently assertive, tense, aggressive, nervously edgy, and, at times, contemplative, lofty, and even oratorical.” Many of his works have been called “optimistic” but he also could and did express tragedy. They had boldness, intensity, and energetic forward motion. Typically they ended in an affirmative mode. He was not much concerned with originality, rather with being himself, and he by no means scorned melody. He used harmonic triads.

For William Schuman the clarity of musical architecture was paramount, Simmons notes. Schuman thought through the direction of large-scale works, but would begin a piece by selecting a tempo and go from there. He did not compose at the piano and he thought in instrumental terms so much that if a line was to be given to, say, the oboe, he would think directly of an oboe melody, not of a melody which he would then assign to an oboe. In writing orchestral works, he would write directly onto a big score. He also spoke of the “emotional climate” of a piece.

Schuman was prolific and Simmons discusses mainly major works, especially the symphonies. The Third was his first big success and is still probably his most popular and most frequently performed. Simmons calls the 6th Symphony Schuman’s greatest, though he notes that the premiere did not go well.

Another of Schuman’s “most powerful works” was his Violin Concerto. Interestingly, this went through two major revisions and three soloists before it emerged to Schuman’s satisfaction. This work came at the end of what Simmons, following Christopher Rouse and others, calls Schuman’s second major period of creativity, corresponding largely to Schuman’s years as President of Juilliard.

Schuman’s late period tended to produce music that was increasingly “more introspective” and structurally complex, less tonal, without reference to classical forms, more dissonant and more percussive, so that as Schuman’s biographer Polisi noted, it tended not to be audience accessible at first hearing. It was, however, expressive and melodic. Simmons says of the 7th Symphony that it is reminiscent of Shostakovich’ middle period. My though is that that really should not scare audiences away, though Simmons quotes the British critic Hugh Ottaway as saying of Schuman’s 8th Symphony: “Neither avant-garde nor unadventurous, such music tends to fall between the acclamations of the few and the acceptance of the many.”

Vincent Persichetti was a friend of William Schuman and during the latter’s lifetime wrote a life and works of Schuman. As it happens Schuman did not like the biography part and someone else was asked to replace that part before the work saw publication. Unlike Schuman and Mennin, Persichetti was not interested in administration but taught composition at Juilliard for many years. Persichetti first became well known through pieces for band and his Sixth Symphony is written for wind ensemble. He then wrote a number of piano sonatas (nos. 3 and 9 being the most popular) and, later, 22 harpsichord works, including the last work Persichetti ever wrote. One of his many serenades for various instruments, no. 10 for flute and harp, is included – most of it – on the CD included with this book. It is a lovely piece in the spirit of Ravel. He wrote more chamber music, among which a Piano Quintet was especially well received; nine symphonies, some concertos; and vocal music including a haiku-inspired Winter Cantata for flute, marimba and women’s chorus. Another haiku inspired work was A Net of Fireflies. Spring Cantata set four songs to poems of e.e. cummings; there was also a setting of poems by Wallace Stevens. 

Although Simmons includes Persichett among the composers he calls Modern Traditionalists, Simmons says that “his overall compositional identity falls among the Neo-Classicists,” which shows just how fluid style designations of composers with full careers can be, and he goes on to say that “the body of Persichetti’s work reaches far beyond the aesthetic parameters that define most of the American Neo-Classicists.” Some initial critical negativity to some of Persichetti’s work reflects a general dismissive attitude toward neoclassicism on the part of critics like Harold Schonberg and John Rockwell – a sign of the times in which they wrote, I believe. Persichetti’s harmonies included polytonal and “pan-diatonic” effects. Perchichetti’s rhythms featured lively syncopation and frequent use of duple meter. The appeal of this composer’s work can depend very much on the quality of performance. 

Mennin’s output was smaller – and his life shorter – than the other composers considered. His technique was impeccable but his music has been more admired than loved. Up till now I have never much cared for it myself, but I will say that after reading Simmons’ chapter about his music I now understand it as never before. Greater appreciation may follow. Simmons compares his music to that of Rubbra and Holmboe. Simmons notes that Mennin’s world view was not a rosy one and his music reflects that, much in the way that Beethoven’s Eroica and Fifth Symphonies reflected a stance of grim struggle. In one extraordinary passage, Simmons says that Mennin’s “mature compositions seem to reflect the sober contemplation of ferocious conflict among wild, massive forces in ceaseless turbulance, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality – all articulated through clear musical logic and meticulous craftsmanship.” His later works became increasingly dissonant. But Mennin’s “slow movements…reveal a Bach-like dignity and a sense of deep feeling, eloquently expressed.” 

Simmons is a tough-minded critic of music by some tough-minded composers. In fact Simmons does not hesitate sometimes to use the word “harsh” in his descriptions of some works. If my aim were to promote all of these works, I would not let a word like that slip into my prose. Also, in reporting the opinions of early critics he always includes the unfavorable as well as the favorable. If one were to assume that the author’s overriding aim were to promote all this music, one would have to conclude that including the nasty comments would seem to undercut such an aim. As it is, this inclusion is a testament to this author’s fearlessly honest and objective reporting. 

As it happens, many of the works Simmons discusses were greeted with less than raves by various critics with their own biases, raising an important question about modernist music that Simmons fearlessly puts: “if a work requires multiple hearings before it makes sense…why would the listener choose to hear it a second time?” One answer to Simmons’ question is that occasionally outstanding champions of new music like Koussevitsky chose to program new pieces a second time. Would that this were a more general practice. A second answer to the question is that some performers and recording companies have chosen to record new works, allowing for leisurely getting to make their acquaintance. (I can personally testify as someone who has more than once reviewed a premiere of a work and then reviewed a recording of it, that repeated re-hearings allowed me to hear things easily missed the first time. And from an e-mail exchange with a newspaper reviewer who excused his own limitations by pointing out what a short deadline he had after a concert for filing the review, I can easily downplay the significance of first impressions. My third answer to Simmons question is sheer curiosity. 

This leads me to one of the very few disagreements I have with Simmons. He refers to the “unimaginative programmers” who, if presenting American classical music, all too readily schedule such well-loved works as Barber’s Adagio or Schuman’s New England Triptych. Again a personal note: I grew up with the New England Triptych and still love it, so that it always disposed me favorably to hearing other works by Schuman– but only once have I ever heard it in concert and that was at a recent children’s concert at which I was a volunteer usher. Both favorable and unfavorable associations count toward molding taste, and concert audiences all too seldom get to hear any American music. 

The intended audience for this book includes the adventurous listener, musicologists amateur or professional, performers interested in a varied repertoire and, hopefully, recording companies. It helps to know at least the rudiments of music but no score-reading knowledge is required. Fortunately, quite a lot of the music of these composers is currently available on recordings, notably thanks to the recent efforts of conductors such as Gerard Schwarz, and current releases from Naxos and Albany.. Historically, this music was championed by the conductors Koussevitsky, Ormandy and Bernstein, some of whose recordings are available on CD. 

Given the rarity of live performances of any of this music, and the frequently indifferent or hostile reviews of early performances, the importance of recordings cannot be overemphasized. It is vital that the curious listener be able to listen repeatedly to some of these works, in order to judge them in terms of one’s own taste and even to get a clear idea of what the composer was about in writing them. Simmons makes a number of helpful suggestions about recommended recordings – for each of these composers. Some of these are included on the accompanying CD. 

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2011 by R. James Tobin
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