Voices of Stone and Steel – Review – Robert Matthew-Walker

Voices of Stone and Steel–
The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin
By Walter Simmons
Scarecrow Press
425 pages hardback with free CD bound-in
ISBN 978-0-8108-5748-3

This is a very useful book, a study of three contemporaneous American composers, which usually means these days that they spent a lot of their time in academe rather than writing music, which they ended up fitting around their day jobs.

But they make a good and suitable trio to be discussed together, and although all of them made significant contributions to the American symphony as a genre, it cannot really be denied that their best work as symphonists is to be found in their earlier and late music; for
William Schuman, his greatest legacy is not perhaps his music but the Juilliard School, for which he did so much. He withdrew his earliest symphonies, so his symphonic output actually begins, rather bizarrely, with his Symphony no 3 – a fine work which certainly shows the influence of the older Roy Harris, but which none the less declares Schuman’s individuality. Schuman’s Ninth Symphony, subtitled ‘The Ardeatine Caves’ is another remarkable achievement, but it has to be admitted that rather too many of his other six symphonies do not reveal much in the way of genuine symphonic movement, merely gestures followed by more gestures.

Persichetti’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies are probably his best, and Peter Mennin’s Third (composed when he was only 23) and Ninth are his finest contributions to the genre. Walter Simmons understandably tends to concentrate upon those larger-scaled orchestral works, without neglecting other scores, and his discussions of all three composers tend to be rather polemical rather than analytical in the generally accepted sense of the term.

However, he cannot entirely disguise a certain partisanship in favour of Schuman, both as man and as artist, as opposed to Mennin (Simmons devotes 170 pages to Schuman, 165 to Persichetti and just 76 to Mennin), and fails to grasp the enormous power of such a work as Mennin’s Ninth Symphony (of which José Serebrier’s world premiere recording, one of the conductor’s best records, is completely ignored by Simmons).

There is sufficient material here on all three composers to form an insightful view of their lives and work – both administrative and musical – and one would have to seek far and wide for greater insights into the legacies of all three men, who – together with Copland, Bernstein, Harris, Piston, Thomson and Ives – constituted the bulk of important American music in the 20th-century up to, say, 1960, by which time their most valuable works had appeared.

The ‘free’ CD is particularly valuable, enabling us of course to hear a representative selection of the music of all three composers about which Mr Simmons has written so informatively and well.
Robert Matthew-Walker
Musical Opinion 
July/August 2011, p. 50