VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold. by Andrea Olmstead. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 493 pp. Cloth. $110

The third quarter of the 20th century was an enormously fruitful period in American classical music, which saw the appearance of an extraordinary number of masterworks—indeed, some among the finest works produced in this country. Yet many are still largely unknown to the general public—not to mention the members of the music profession in general. Among the most significant composers who contributed to this veritable bounty was Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). Therefore the appearance of this book–the first comprehensive biography of the composer–is an auspicious occasion. (Disclosure: I met the author once in 2007, while researching my own book on the music of William Schuman, Persichetti, and Peter Mennin [Voices of Stone and Steel, also published by Rowman and Littlefield]. I have never corresponded with her, and never discussed this book with her, beyond her recent invitation for me to review it. In fact, its publication took me totally by surprise. I should add that her book cites my own writing on Persichetti quite generously.)

Andrea Olmstead’s chief accomplishments until now have probably been her four books on Roger Sessions. But perhaps her most notable and controversial achievement was her history of the Juilliard School, where she studied, which made no effort to conceal many of the less flattering aspects of the institution and the people who shaped its development. Not surprisingly, that book ruffled a lot of feathers. She has now turned her attention to Vincent Persichetti, who—like Sessions—was a member of the Juilliard faculty for many years. This latest effort reflects an extensive amount of research, providing a good deal of general background information within which to understand and appreciate the context from which Persichetti emerged: his family history, the musical life of Philadelphia, and the many musicians who played significant roles within his life. Some of this background seems to reach beyond the realm of relevance (e.g., the fact that Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell were among the musicians who emerged from south Philadelphia, as did Persichetti). But much of it is relevant as well as interesting. For example, I was quite surprised to learn that Persichetti’s parents were convicted of embezzling many thousands of dollars, for which his mother spent significant time in prison.

Another notable revelation—a suspicion I have held for some time, which is supported by Olmstead’s research—is that despite Persichetti’s reputation for extreme humility and generosity toward others, he was not above re-arranging certain historical facts in what appears to be an attempt at self-mythologizing—something that William Schuman did more flagrantly and shamelessly. Even more remarkable is another long-held contention, confirmed here by a number of observations, that while Persichetti apparently displayed truly prodigious musical gifts at an extremely early age—comparable to the gifts of history’s greatest composers—which led to pieces of remarkable sophistication before he reached the age of 20, he was somewhat late (mid 30s) in developing what was a truly personal, individual compositional identity. It seems almost as if his astounding facility interfered with the development of his own compositional voice. 

Olmstead quotes a number of people close to Persichetti who insisted that his extraordinary artistry as a pianist might readily have led to a major career as a composer-pianist, along the lines of a Rachmaninoff. But his dedication to teaching—which was assiduous, as illustrated by a number of anecdotes—was more a commitment to the future of the art form than a means of augmenting his income. A number of his colleagues seemed to feel that this commitment came at the expense of his potential fame and fortune.

The book’s subtitle comes from Persichetti’s oft-quoted comment that the two primary elements in his music are “grace” and “grit”—sometimes one and not the other, and sometimes degrees of both. The “gold” comes from a remark made to Olmstead by Roger Sessions late in his life: “Mr. Persichetti is pure gold.”

In addition to voluminous biographical information, Olmstead discusses all of Persichetti’s works, delving into structural details likely to be of interest largely to potential performers. Included also are short essays by others, including her husband, the composer and Persichetti-student Larry Bell, which focus on particular works in detail. Hopefully, Olmstead’s book will be a significant contribution to a growing interest in this composer, who is arguably one of the greatest America has produced, but who has received a paucity of serious attention. (The Juilliard School, where he taught for 40 years, many as chairman of the composition department, evidently thought that including his 7-minute Serenade for Tuba Solo on a program with music by other composers was an adequate acknowledgment of his centennial in 2015.)

I have just a few quibbles. One is that the book is rather sloppily edited: Minor errors of dates, spelling, and chronology, along with redundancies, abound. The other is an aspect of Persichetti’s personality that is touched upon but minimally explored: the role in his life played by anthropomorphized animals (culminating in his sole opera, The Sibyl), and imaginary characters in general. Persichetti, who had a strangely dry sense of humor that often left people confused as to what to take seriously and what to dismiss as playfulness, made frequent reference to characters that were figments of his imagination. Some of these were known primarily to immediate family members, but others found their way into his compositional data. For example, there was the imaginary character “Michael Needle,” identified as the commissioner of a number of his works. Other characters lived in his bathroom, in his car, and he could be heard speaking to them when others weren’t around. I am not about to claim that Persichetti was psychotic, but I do believe that if he had lived in the world of, say, retail business instead of the arts, he would have been regarded as “strange,” to say the least. Yet though Olmstead mentions all these matters in passing, she never really addresses the significance of these quirks which, I believe, are connected to important aspects of his compositional personality.

“SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery Of Modern Music” By Robert R. Reilly

SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (Revised and Expanded Edition). By Robert R. Reilly, with Jens F. Laurson. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016. 510 pp. Softcover. $34.95

As noted in the accompanying interview, the original edition of Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty was published in 2002 by Morley Books. Its thesis was, essentially, that the dissolution of tonality in music that was promulgated around the turn of the 20th century, and the concomitant abandonment of traditional aesthetic values, corresponded to a breakdown of the centrality of spiritual order as understood and shared by most of Western civilization, and that this correspondence was no accident. The book consisted of a couple of essays that developed this idea, while affirming a belief in the sacred properties shared by the finest examples of serious art music, along with some 35 short essays on individual or related groups of composers who resisted this abandonment of traditional values despite facing derision and neglect as a result. Six interviews with significant composers and musicians followed.

This newly revised edition is nearly twice the length of the original. Its structure is essentially the same as the first edition, but with much new and updated material. It begins with a Foreword by critic Ted Libbey, taken from the first edition. This is followed by Reilly’s own Preface to the Second Edition: While re-emphasizing the neglect faced by those composers who remained loyal to traditional musical values, he points out how much the times have changed since the earlier edition. Those traditional values are no longer subject to such widespread scorn, and many younger composers have achieved success while embracing them. There are now 64 short essays on composers who illustrate Reilly’s thesis. (Many of the new entries are contributed by Jens Laurson.) These chapters range from the unfamiliar (Walter Braunfels, Günter Raphael, Geirr Tveitt) to the very familiar (Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius), and include figures who have entered the scene as recently as Kenneth Fuchs, Jennifer Higdon, and Jonathan Leshnoff. Reilly even includes a remarkably even-handed and fair-minded chapter on John Cage. Each of these short essays concludes with several recommended recordings. The chapters on composers are sandwiched between two abstract essays: One is called “Is Music Sacred?” and the other, “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In these Reilly takes the opportunity to develop and buttress the essential framework of his thesis, which I will discuss shortly. The six interviews from the first edition follow: the subjects are Robert Craft, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti. There is no index, the absence of which is a notable deficiency in a book of this kind.

The book (aside from the missing index) is quite “user-friendly.” Its tone is casual and informal (plenty of comments in the first-person-singular), making it pleasantly engaging, despite what some might find the severe absolutism of its fundamental message. There is no musical notation, no esoteric technicalities or expectations of advanced erudition. The book conveys the sense of one enthusiast who has made a number of exciting musical discoveries sharing that excitement with readers who may have been searching for just the sort of thing that Reilly has found. And at this he is excellent. His commentaries on Elgar, Finzi, Roussel, Shostakovich, Robert Simpson, Edmund Rubbra, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Bernard Herrmann, and Vagn Holmboe are just a few that display a vivid eloquence and penetrating insight that are truly enviable. He is able to capture their very essences in surprisingly few words.

In his essay, “Is Music Sacred?” Reilly presents and develops the essential foundation of his argument, which I will do my best to capture: Not surprisingly, he starts with the Greeks, discussing Pythagoras’s derivation of musical intervals and his belief that music was the organizing principle of the universe—the “music of the spheres”—already positing the notion that a stable cosmos was connected to a sense of musical stability and harmony. With the advent of Christianity, this notion of cosmic harmony was applied to morality and ethics: The harmony that governed the universe also governed both human life and music, and embracing this harmony elevated the human spirit. Since this eternal harmony preceded the arrival of human life, it could be seen as a first cause, a universal “purpose.” As such this harmony became linked to the belief in a single unifying figure, God, who governed through Christ. As music theory developed, the force that governed the harmonious property of music was codified into the principle of tonality—a dynamic force that provided the energy for musical expression while also permitting a central, unifying stability. Music thus became the pathway for experiencing the transcendent. Hence when doubt began to weaken religious faith in the late 19th century, culminating in Nietzsche’s notorious proclamation that “God is dead,” this also spelled the death of morality, the end of a governing order both to the universe and to the notion of a music of the spheres, and a concomitant weakening of the conviction that musical coherence requires a tonal center. Without such a fundamental spiritual core, music became mere technique, leading ultimately to serialism—a triumph of technique over content. Tonality was then viewed as merely one way of organizing music; other ways were possible and equally valid. Not surprisingly, the chief villain in all this was Arnold Schoenberg, although—to his credit—Reilly acknowledges that composer’s immense talent, as demonstrated in such works as Pelleas und Melisande and Gurrelieder. Other composers (e.g. Varèse) questioned the need for any sort of organizing principle at all; why not simply follow one’s impulses? John Cage’s idea of composing music by throwing dice was the logical next step, eliminating even the composer’s impulses. This sterile state of affairs was supported by a belief that the “exhaustion” of tonality was a historical inevitability. To resist this development was to deny the inevitable, and those who did so were backward, virtually by definition. This view persisted throughout much of the 20th century, until the late 1960s and early 70s, when composers like George Rochberg and others who had been taught that serialism was the only legitimate path had the courage to challenge this dogma, protesting that what they had been taught produced results that were devoid of the values that drew them to music in the first place.

Let me say at this point that I am in essential agreement with most aspects of Reilly’s thesis. The chief element that I question—which I mention because I suspect that many of today’s music lovers may have a similar reservation—is whether it is necessary to embrace a teleological theological foundation in order to share Reilly’s musical views. For example, not only do I agree that the dynamics of tonality are indispensable in creating music that has expressive meaning to listeners, but I greatly appreciate and enjoy music that strives to convey an emotional experience that might be termed “spiritual” or “transcendent”—because it aims to evoke an awareness of forces that reach beyond the experience of the mundane material world—without my necessarily adhering to any particular religious belief system. In short, can’t one experience that sense of transcendence without embracing a theology that “explains” it? Reilly himself seems to acknowledge this point when he writes, “… though not himself a believer, Vaughan Williams nevertheless imbued his works with a deep spirituality.” Another question—perhaps less fundamental—is whether a “loss of faith” is the best or only explanation for the breakdown of tonality; another explanation is that the group—originally, relatively small—who believed that tonality had run its course was motivated by a misguided sense of historical inevitability that supported a notion of “progress” (a notion largely alien to the arts). Then later came the view that music “should reflect its times.” But much is happening in the world at any one time; who’s to say which aspect of “its times” music should be reflecting?

In keeping with my cavil that one need not embrace every element of Reilly’s thesis in order to share his musical views, one also need not agree with every point he makes to appreciate his commentaries on specific composers. He does not “beat one over the head” with theology in each of these chapters. In fact, in some there is no reference to such matters at all. And in others, his introduction of a religious perspective raises some interesting points that are rarely encountered in discussions of these composers. But when—as in the chapters on Elgar, Franz Schmidt, Frank Martin, and others—the music is explicitly religious, Reilly certainly embraces that aspect head-on.

The later essay, “Recovering the Sacred in Music,” deals largely with Gorecki, Pärt, and Tavener, who found a way back in to both tonality and spirituality, while refuting Schoenberg’s claim that there was nothing “natural” about tonality. And I found the six interviews that follow especially interesting insofar as Reilly manages to elicit some meaningful commentary on the importance of religion from people like Craft, Diamond, and Rochberg—figures who were not often questioned about such matters, I suspect.

Surprised by Beauty—in this new edition—is a thought-provoking volume that offers an unusual perspective on the music of the past hundred years, exploring its underlying aesthetic and spiritual principles, while drawing attention to some truly great composers, most of whom remain largely unknown to most serious listeners, not to mention musicians, radio programmers, and concert promoters.

“ORPHEUS IN MANHATTAN: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life” By Steve Swayne

ORPHEUS IN MANHATTAN: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life. By Steve Swayne. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 692 pp. $39.95. (Web site

The year 2010 marked the hundredth birthday of William Schuman, which may account at least partially for the appearance of this new biography by Dartmouth professor Steve Swayne, coming on the heels of the 2008 biography by Joseph Polisi (reviewed in Fanfare 32:5). (I might add that the publication of my own book, Voices of Stone and Steel, which addressed the lives and works of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin, and was reviewed in Fanfare 34:6, was not related to Schuman’s centennial, but I mention it also to acknowledge whatever potential conflicts of interest may be involved in my reviewing Swayne’s book, as I did Polisi’s. I will also take this opportunity to disclose that among Swayne’s seven densely packed pages of Acknowledgments, I am rather generously included.)

The reader interested enough in Schuman to avail himself of Polisi’s comprehensive tome, written with the cooperation of the Schuman family, is likely to wonder what another biography—even longer (at 555 pages of text)—could possibly add to that earlier volume. (My own book, dealing with two additional composers and emphasizing their musical contributions rather than their biographies, is less directly comparable.)

After reading Swayne’s book, I have concluded that while only the most avid devotees are likely to find it necessary to read both biographies, there are differences of style and emphasis that distinguish them. Furthermore, Swayne has pursued his research with a voracious diligence that exceeds my understanding of the usual norms. As a result his book includes a few rather startling revelations. Perhaps the most remarkable of these involves the often-recounted story that the 20-year-old Schuman’s somewhat reluctant attendance at a New York Philharmonic concert—his first classical orchestral concert—prompted his sudden decision to drop out of business school and undertake serious compositional study.  Without spoiling Swayne’s scoop, I will simply note that this account entailed the composer’s own rearrangement of the facts as well as the omission of some key details. Swayne’s suggestion that the character of the woman whom Schuman was to marry exerted a stronger influence on his sudden career change than did his attendance at that concert is quite convincing, especially when presented within the context of some additional facts.

With regard to style, Polisi’s book is extremely sober, objective, and rather formal in tone. As I mentioned in my review of that book, although Polisi benefited from being virtually an honorary member of the family, he did not shy away from pointing out many of the defects in Schuman’s character, as well as some of his more egregious behavior, although these by no means overwhelmed Polisi’s recognition of his subject’s positive qualities and contributions. Swayne’s writing style is a little more informal, more anecdotal. Sometimes—especially in the earlier portions of the book—he indulges in digressions whose relevance one might question. And sometimes—again in the earlier portions—the amount of tangential detail seems rather excessive. In contrast to Polisi’s general posture of neutrality, one can infer how Swayne seems to feel about various aspects of his subject, and gives special emphasis to the areas that seem to interest him. For example, he draws considerable attention—even more than Polisi did—to Schuman’s discomfort and ambivalence regarding his Jewish background, including his refusal to lend his name in support of Israel during its earliest years. Schuman’s avoidance of religion in general seems distasteful to Swayne.

While not overlooking or downplaying Schuman’s less admirable qualities—his high-handedness, his arrogance, his manipulativeness, and, most of all, his outrageous chutzpah—Swayne gives more than equal attention to the composer’s generosity toward his colleagues, the visionary ideals that motivated so much of his activity, and his unwavering advocacy at the highest levels of serious American music in general, and not merely his own. Schuman strongly opposed both the League of Composers and the American chapter of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) because of their attempts to limit representation of traditionalist composers—those who refused to embrace serialism or other avant-garde compositional approaches. (So much for today’s revisionist attempts to deny the hegemony of serialism and the destructive efforts of its proponents to suppress alternative approaches.) At the same time Swayne reveals Schuman’s considerable efforts to find ways to accommodate aspects of serialism within his own compositional style, despite his natural revulsion to a compositional “system.”

One aspect I found disturbing about both books involves Schuman’s shabby treatment of Peter Mennin, his successor as Juilliard’s president. Although the casual observer may have assumed that the two were “buddies,” since the former hired the latter in the first place, in fact there was great enmity between them for decades, and Schuman actively attempted to prevent Mennin from succeeding him at Juilliard, when he became the first president of Lincoln Center. Polisi acknowledged that Schuman’s behavior toward Mennin was indefensible. The subject appears to be of little interest to Swayne, who seems to take Schuman’s positions at face value. Neither writer looks beneath the surface for an explanation, a deeper interpretation, an alternative perspective.

While Polisi devotes a significant section of his book to musical analyses, executed by an assistant, of a number of Schuman’s important works, the amount of musical analysis undertaken by Swayne is minimal, though not non-existent, and usually serves to make some important points, such as the considerable extent to which Schuman “borrowed” material from his other works. Swayne’s book is also enhanced by the presence of a Web site (indicated in the headnote above) that further augments the material in the book. Though not complete at the time of this writing, the site will, I believe, provide additional musical analyses for those who are interested.

“SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography” By Don A. Hennessee

SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography. By Don A. Hennessee. 404 pp. Westport, CT: Green­wood Press, 1985. $39.95.

Don A. Hennessee is variously described both as “author” and “compiler” of this book. The latter term is far more appropriate because there is no evidence of true “authorship” here: no discussion, elucidation, or analysis based on a study of the composer’s body of work; no attempt to distill essential thematic issues for the benefit of the less experienced listener; no effort to delve into biographical matters in order to isolate personal themes that might have some bearing on the composer’s work; no point of view whatever. This “bio-bibliography” is essen­tially a book written by a computer; the human contribution is limited to secretarial matters. We know that Mr. Hennessee is Librarian Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, but for all one gleans from this book he could easily be no more than a research assistant who has spent hours collecting entries from the Reader’s Guide, without ever having heard a note of music.

The body of the book comprises:

  1. Biography—10 pages
  2. Works and Performances (a complete list of works, with information on premieres and other “selected” performances)—70 pages
  3. Discography—47 pages
  4. Bibliography (excerpts from criticism concerning Barber and his music)—236 pages.

The brief biography, a model of timidity and lack of conviction, begins, “There is no way to predict the place of Samuel Barber in American music fifty or one hundred years from now.” (How’s that for an opener? We’re not taking any chances.) “It is possible that he may be completely forgotten.” (Anything is possible. Can’t go wrong there.) “More likely, however, he will be remembered by scholars and musicians as a composer with integrity, and his works will continue to be performed, some retaining their places in the repertoire of orchestras, opera companies, dance and ballet troupes, and soloists.” (Not too rash to assume, I suppose, that some of his works will continue to be performed, considering that about half are already in the standard repertoire. This really draws you in, doesn’t it?) Ten pages later, Hennessee concludes, “Three years after his death his music still appears frequently on programs from coast to coast and abroad. What is the secret? Perhaps it is a very simple one: to the average concert-goer, his music is listenable, it has beauty and can be understood. We can still be moved by Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and probably Samuel Barber would ask no more than this.” (Than what? That we can still be moved by Knoxville? He thinks that’s all Barber would ask? He’s got to be kidding!) These feeble platitudes encase a biographical sketch that contains nothing not al­ready known or easily accessible to anyone with enough interest in Samuel Barber to pick up the book in the first place. I will make the bold assumption that Mr. Hennessee knows some­thing about Barber’s music and likes it, because the money in writing books about modern composers is too small to motivate anyone. But one error—the attribution of The Lovers to 1979 (instead of 1971) and the consequent misplacement of it in the biographical overview—suggests that Mr. Hennessee has a rather tenuous grasp of the basic facts.

The Works and Performances section and the Discography do serve some modest but useful purposes, but, aside from the premieres, no criteria are given for the inclusion of “se­lected other performances.” The discography inevitably has its share of minor errors and omis­sions. Some entries are described in great detail, with duration, author of program notes, date of recording, etc., while others are given with very little information—even currently or recently available discs that are easy to find. Not terribly important, perhaps, but annoying nevertheless.

Obviously, the book’s major contribution is the compendium of critical comments. (Those of us who can enjoy sitting and reading music reviews for hours on end can appreciate something like this, but I suspect it is a specialized taste.) Again, the compilation is not “complete,” by any means; yet an awful lot of entries are included that offer absolutely nothing of any value or use to anyone whatsoever. It seems to me that “complete” should mean complete and that “selected” should mean selected for potential value to reader, researcher, etc. What is the value of an entry like, “For Barber’s Anthony O’Daly, Mr. Fountain let his group sing out dramatically.”? That is an entire entry. Or one that states, simply, “The program was featured principally by the music of Samuel Barber.” (Quite a sentence, isn’t it?) Again, one searches for evidence of an active intelligence behind all this. The entries in this section are grouped according to particular works. Then, within each group the entries are presented alphabetically, according to the author’s name. If someone wanted to read the critical reactions to a work like, say, Barber’s cello sonata, over the 50 years or so since it was composed (probably the type of item of curiosity which this book is most suited to satisfy), wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to present those critical comments chronologically, so that the reader might quickly sense the ef­fect of the passage of time and greater familiarity? But instead, because the entries are listed alphabetically, a 1958 entry follows a 1974 entry which follows a 1940 entry, etc. The reviews of the original version of Antony and Cleopatra are mixed with the reviews of the revised ver­sion, so that the marked change in critical reaction to the two versions is concealed. Or, a 1976 entry follows a 1980 entry by the same writer because the entries by a single writer are alpha­betized by title, preventing the reader from gaining a sense of a critic’s changing position over time. After all, in the case of a veteran like Irving Kolodin, for example, this is another point of interest. In lieu of a more useful organization, however, there is a busy cross-reference system that connects every work to every disc to every review excerpt—very neat, but not that necessary, I think. There are some reviews from foreign countries, especially England, but very few from elsewhere; but we know that Barber’s music has been played abroad frequently, including in Russia. It would be interesting to see what critics in other countries had to say. Reading through the review excerpts does give one quite a few glimpses of critical stupidity: the consis­tent reference to “serial procedures” in some of Barber’s music, for example. One would expect most critics to know that the use of a theme containing all 12 notes is not a “serial procedure.” One writer even talks about Barber’s use of “post-Webern” techniques. Unbelievable! We are also made aware of some nice examples of plagiarism from one Ph.D. dissertation to another. One more gripe—for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, the entity that “processed” all this material consistently changed the word “harmonies” to “harmonics”—dozens of times. Why? The two words mean very different things.

I don’t mean to be gunning down Mr. Hennessee here. It’s just that this is a non-book, the product of an age in which data-processing has become a major virtuoso activity and in which the exercise of knowledge, intelligence, and thoughtful judgment as means of providing com­municative insight have become increasingly obsolete. The best that can be said for this “bio­bibliography” is that it may be a time-saver for someone who one day wants to write a book about Samuel Barber.

“SAMUEL BARBER REMEMBERED: A Centenary Tribute” Ed., P. Dickinson; “THE SADDEST MUSIC EVER WRITTEN: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings” By Thomas Larson


SAMUEL BARBER REMEMBERED: A Centenary Tribute. Edited by Peter Dickinson. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010. 198 pp. $49.95.

THE SADDEST MUSIC EVER WRITTEN: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. By Thomas Larson. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010. 262 pp. $26.95.

Until recently the published scholarship on Samuel Barber was extremely limited. An important gap was filled by the publication of Barbara Heyman’s Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music (Oxford University Press, 1992). Heyman presented a richly researched, painstakingly detailed account of Barber’s life, as well as a thoroughly documented survey of his works. Yet missing from this large volume was a palpable sense of Barber as a person, and, arguably more important, a critical assessment of his body of work. I attempted to provide the latter in the chapter on Barber in my book Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow Press, 2004). But now, in commemoration of the composer’s centennial this year, two new books have appeared that fill in many of the gaps that have remained. I daresay that today the reader who seeks a comprehensive understanding of Samuel Barber, the man and the composer, can derive just that from these four books, which complement each other with relatively little overlap.
Peter Dickinson is an English musicologist who has written a great deal about American composers and their music. Samuel Barber Remembered is built around a series of interviews that Dickinson conducted for the BBC, in preparing a memorial tribute, shortly after the composer’s death in 1981. Dickinson interviewed Barber’s closest friends, other American composers whose careers ran parallel to his, as well as colleagues who worked closely with him in other capacities. These interviews are supplemented by two chapters written by Dickinson himself: one detailing Barber’s formative years, enriched by reminiscences of those—not necessarily musicians—who knew him as a youth in suburban Philadelphia; the other discussing the reception of his music in England (which appeared essentially to parallel the attitudinal shifts toward his music in the United States). There are also transcripts of three of the few interviews granted by Barber himself: one done in 1949 by James Fassett, a well-known commentator and host for CBS Radio during the middle decades of the 20th century; one from 1978 with Robert Sherman, still active as a radio producer in New York; and one considered to be the composer’s last interview, by the distinguished New York Times critic Allan Kozinn in 1979, when Barber was already facing his final illness. This interview was published in High Fidelity shortly after his death.
The cumulative impact of all these interviews and essays reveals a significant insight into Barber’s personality and character. True, those who are familiar with his body of work, and with the various program notes that have accompanied performances and recordings of his music, are not likely to be surprised by the picture that emerges. But those many listeners who have heard only a handful of his works, perhaps only recently, and have not been reading about him for years, and wish to know more, will find this volume enormously illuminating. One reads the depiction of a hypersensitive, rather shy, and somewhat melancholy individual, born into a highly cultivated—almost aristocratic—family that nurtured his remarkable talent from the time of its early manifestation. With an aunt who was an internationally acclaimed opera star, and whose husband was a respected composer himself, Barber was given every advantage, including access to some of the most influential figures in the music world. Demonstrating as early as his teen years an ability to charm and ingratiate potential patrons and others in positions of influence, he achieved national recognition by the time he was in his mid 20s. For the next 25 years his works were championed by the foremost performers of the time, even by those—such as Arturo Toscanini and Vladimir Horowitz—who had little interest in modern music in general. Counseled by his uncle to remain true to his inner voice regardless of changing fashions, he was not by nature aggressively contentious or “pushy,” and simply disregarded the various modernist trends that were germinating around him and came to dominate the new music scene during the 1960s and 70s. Following his uncle’s advice, he treated his compositions as vehicles for his inner emotional life, and by so doing found resonance among a large portion of the cultivated musical public, although many of his colleagues were contemptuous of the “old-fashioned” language he embraced, and the apparent ease with which he attained such success. Yet like most composers who have become identified with a single work that seems to pre-empt the rest of their outputs, Barber came to detest the ubiquitous Adagio. As a defense against the harsh realities of a highly competitive field, he developed a somewhat “snobbish,” condescending manner and a sharp wit that could be quite cutting toward those who offended or challenged him. However, the virtually untrammeled acclaim he achieved during his 20s, 30s, and 40s did not prepare him for some of the failures and disappointments that occurred later on. Chief among them was the international public humiliation he faced when the opera he had composed for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center was roundly condemned by the critics; the gradual dissolution during the 1960s of the intimate relationship he had shared with Gian Carlo Menotti from the time of their mid-teens; and the relinquishment during the early 1970s of the handsome estate they had inhabited together for some thirty years. Devastated by these profound defeats, Barber’s creativity diminished as he sank into the alcoholism and depression of his final years. A tone of whiny self-pity emerges from the final interview with Allan Kozinn.
Of course, most revealing are the interviews with Menotti himself, as well as the one with Charles Turner, a close friend for many years. But fascinating in other ways are the interviews with composers Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and Virgil Thomson, which really reflect more about them than about Barber. Most gracious is Schuman, who, in his “musical statesman” persona, provides the perspective of a respected colleague. On the other hand, Copland emphasizes that he and Barber traveled in different circles, and acknowledges only limited familiarity with his body of work. Without expressing explicit disdain, he repeatedly describes Barber as “well settled,” juxtaposing his lack of interest in “trying to add a new page to the history of music” against his own alignment with “the far-out people in New York.” Referring to their earlier days, he recalled, “He wasn’t carrying out what you would have thought a young composer would have wanted to do … He wasn’t ambitious to strike out on new paths, make a fuss, and upset audiences.” Most remarkable is the attitude of Virgil Thomson, who claims familiarity with only a handful of Barber’s works. His comments are surprisingly snide, petulant, and cynical, crediting Barber in only the most begrudging terms. (“I think that his idea of a successful musical work .. was something that could be played … for the subscription public of the Philadelphia Orchestra.”) Asked—as were many of the interviewees—about the “meaning” of the famous Adagio, he characterized it as “a detailed love scene, … [with] an awful lot of rubbing around!” while admitting that he had never even heard the full string quartet from which the Adagio was extracted.
Thomas Larson’s is a very different sort of study and a most unusual book. Its initial stimulus seems to have been a “contest” presented by the BBC, inviting submissions for the “world’s saddest music.” Evidently, Barber’s Adagio won by a landslide. Younger readers may not be aware of the role that this music has played over the years outside the concert hall. The Adagio was performed (or played on recording) in response to the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, Gian Carlo Menotti, the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, the victims of 9/11, and the victims of the tsunami in Haiti. It was used in such films as The Elephant Man, Platoon, Lorenzo’s Oil,El Norte, and others. It has even been used parodistically on TV shows such as South ParkThe Simpsons, and Seinfeld. So Larson—a general writer, rather than a musicologist—has undertaken a wide-ranging analysis and commentary on this single work. Not only does his discussion include a detailed analysis of the Adagio itself, a biographical overview of the composer, and a history of the Adagio’s role as “America’s quintessential elegy,” “the Pietà of music,” “among the most moving expressions of grief in any art,” which “embodies Barber’s melancholia more completely than any of his other compositions.” (One wonders how Larson reacts to Virgil Thomson’s interpretation, noted above.) He goes on to speculate about the possible significance of Barber’s homosexuality on the expressive content of the work, and about Barber’s place in American gay culture of the time. Larson also discusses the role played by the Adagio in his own life, not to mention the hypothesized roles it may have played in his own parents’ lives. It even includes a thoughtful discussion of the Adagio’s place within American culture and its relationship to the American character. (Those readers who objected when I dared to inject a social comment or two into an opera review a few years ago are not likely to appreciate the free-wheeling breadth of Larson’s speculations.)
I must admit that early in the book I was put off by some infelicitous writing and a few musical gaffes that identify Larson as an “amateur,” as well as by the way he jumps around back and forth from one perspective to another. I also—as will a number of readers of this magazine, I suspect—found myself thinking of other contenders for the “saddest music” distinction that were overlooked. (In addition to my own idiosyncratic selections, the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”—surely a worthy contender for the title—is never even mentioned.) However, I gradually became increasingly sympathetic to Larson’s thinking and respectful of the challenge he had set for himself. I was also impressed by his citation of the importance of the late cantata, The Lovers, a masterpiece that has yet to be recognized, and which disproves the often-encountered assertion that Barber composed nothing of value after Antony and Cleopatra. By the end, when he discusses America’s attitude toward grief, and presents the Adagio as representing a different view of America from Copland’s equally ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man, I felt deeply moved. “The power of positive thinking is also the power of denial, which cancels the need to mourn, a feeling common with the generation after that of the Second World War…. After the war and with a booming economy, the somber mood quickly fell out of favor. Since 1945, American mourning has too often been ‘lite’…. Hint at, but avoid true grief. Don’t get maudlin either. We’ve got the weather and the sports on tap. The Copland-Barber divide reminds us how precisely sculpted the emotional content of our culture is….” Whether or not one thinks one agrees with his conclusions, Larson leaves us with much to reflect upon. As personal as it may be, this book is as important and valuable to a deep understanding of Samuel Barber as are the other studies cited earlier.

“THE GREAT AMERICAN SYMPHONY: Music, the Depression, and War” By Nicholas Tawa


THE GREAT AMERICAN SYMPHONY: Music, the Depression, and War. By Nicholas Tawa. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. 237pp. $24.95.

Nicholas Tawa is a veteran musicologist—one of the founders of the Society for American Music (formerly known as the Sonneck Society) and the author of countless books on various aspects of American music. He has focused on art music as well as more vernacular styles, has written about all periods, and is especially interested in examining the social and political context in which the music under discussion has arisen, and its relationship to that context.

At its conceptual core, Tawa’s latest book focuses on the period roughly from 1935 to 1950, when a combination of factors—the failure of the experimental music of the 1920s to win popular support, the Great Depression and the consequent shock to America’s self-esteem, and, later, the challenge to mobilize the country to defeat tyranny overseas—resulted in a consolidated effort by composers to create a symphonic repertoire of the highest quality that would embody and extol the shared values of America in a language that the general public could and would appreciate; in a sense, to “speak for” the American public, while providing a “bulwark against barbarism.” As additional factors that contributed to this brief period, Tawa cites the advocacy by major conductors of the living composers they favored; FDR’s “Federal Music Project,” which led composers to feel needed and appreciated by the society in which they lived; and the resident orchestras formed by the major radio networks that broadcast much of this new American music. After elaborating these factors, Tawa then discusses the symphonic works that attempted—often successfully—to achieve the goal of “speaking for” the American public, and even contributed to the incipient development of a national musical language. He identifies each composer according to a particular descriptive rubric (e.g. Hanson and “the Spiritual Symphony,” Harris and “the All-American Symphony,” Schuman and “the Muscular Symphony,” Mennin and “the Dynamic Symphony,” etc.). For example, he considers Barber’s Symphony No. 1 (1936) to be the first work to embody these ideals successfully, while viewing Hanson’s Third (1938) as a statement on behalf of courage and perseverance during hard times, leaving listeners with a sense of “lofty concepts and exalted thought.” He notes the immense if brief popularity of Harris’s Third (1939), which many believed at the time to be “the great American symphony.”

After concluding his discussion of the important symphonies of the 1930s, he goes on similarly to discuss the “war symphonies,” noting that while some composers became creatively paralyzed by the war, others felt it was their civic duty to continue to compose, producing works that promoted the spirit of democracy, without obvious literalism or jingoism. He cites American symphonies by Antheil, Diamond, Piston, and Barber (No. 2) as sources of national pride and courage during those years. A discussion of the symphonies of the immediate post-war years follows—works that reaffirmed American values, while inspiring trust in the future. But this was also the beginning of the “Cold War,” and with it the “red scare” of the McCarthy period. During the Depression and the war years, many of the composers who had shaped the American symphony into a source of national cohesion, did so from a sense of solidarity with “the common man.” Many of them felt a kindred affiliation with the Soviet Union, which had been one of the Allies during World War II, believing (erroneously and somewhat naively) that their sympathies were shared and supported by the Soviet government. But now the Soviet Union was our enemy, and those who had expressed sympathy for communist ideals in the past, were regarded as traitors. Even the composer of A Lincoln Portrait, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo was blacklisted. Tawa attributes the end of this Golden Age of the American symphony to the politically-based schism within American society, along with the post-World War II suspicion that feelings of nationalism were precursors of fascism. Roger Sessions, vehemently opposed to populism, nationalism, and fascism, pointed the way toward a new “internationalism.” In this he was joined by the many composers who immigrated to this country in the wake of the war, and who knew and cared little about an “American symphonic school,” supporting the notion of an “international style.” Tawa quotes Paul Turok, who pointed out, “European artists are for internationalism, so long as they come out on top.” 

This central argument is filled out by additional relevant information about each composer, as well as a more cursory examination of what happened to American symphonic music after 1950, leading roughly up to the present, when Tawa sees a renewed interest in the symphony afoot. Although he does discuss the continuing symphonic vein in American music after 1950, Tawa might have stressed the irony that although the American public was most intensely drawn to the search for “the great American symphony” during the 1930s and 40s, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s when most of the greatest American symphonies were actually composed. In the course of pursuing his argument Tawa discusses about twenty composers, most of whom one might expect to find, although I was somewhat surprised by the importance given to the symphonies of John Alden Carpenter and Douglas Moore, and somewhat disappointed by the absence of any mention of Gardner Read’s four symphonies or Vittorio Giannini’s seven.

The Great American Symphony is a significant contribution to the history of American art music; while most of the basic factual information has appeared elsewhere before, Tawa brings to it the insight of his own personal interpretation, while the circumstances he recounts led to an egregious outcome that is still very much with us, i.e. the virtual obliteration of a vast repertoire from the awareness of the younger members of today’s musical public—a repertoire that at one time galvanized the enthusiasm of a whole generation of music lovers. My own experience has confirmed that young musicians today are largely unaware of the symphonic music composed in America between, say, 1920 and 1970, aside from a few favorites by Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. This is of particular importance to those of us concerned with the fate of classical music in American culture because much of the “listener-friendly” music composed during the past 25 years has been written from a position of utter ignorance of this earlier repertoire, resulting in much “reinventing of the wheel,” and often not doing as good a job of it. It is also especially important because the business of classical music in this country has been undergoing a steady process of “dumbing down,” and, as a result, what is peddled through the media as “classical music” has become increasingly boring, hence failing to attract intelligent younger listeners who seek the excitement of discovery, rather than the tedious re-hashing of a finite, pre-digested, overly familiar roster of standards whose chief function is to provide reassurance of class and status. (I realize that in writing for Fanfare, I am “preaching to the choir,” because this publication is geared to those with a taste for discovery.)

Tawa has a relaxed, conversational writing style, which is pleasant to read, and he does not hide the fact that he is expressing his own observations and perceptions, derived from a lifetime of listening and study. So there is no pretense of pure “objectivity,” nor the tedium of timid, defensive academic writing, while his descriptions of each composer’s music succeed in capturing each one’s distinctiveness, providing some guidance to the reader who wishes to explore the music that Tawa is advocating.

“AMERICAN MUSE: The Life and Times of William Schuman” By Joseph W. Polisi

Book Review

AMERICAN MUSE: The Life and Times of William Schuman. By Joseph W. Polisi. New York: Amadeus Press, 2008. xvii + 595pp, inc. 127pp. musical examples. 8 b/w plates. Hardcover. $32.95

This past weekend I attended a dinner-party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The guests comprised some ten senior citizens, all of whom are highly cultured and remain actively involved in the arts, though not classical music especially. Nevertheless, pre-occupied with the subject at hand, I decided to ask the group how many of them could identify William Schuman. Not a single one could. Once I announced that he was a composer, and had been the president of Lincoln Center during the 1960s, one or two indicated some vague recognition of the name. I thought that this was fairly remarkable, in view of the fact that in 1992, the year of Schuman’s death, Edward Rothstein had characterized him in the New York Times as “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century” and “at one time … probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music.” Furthermore, my own recollection is that during the 1960s he was generally regarded as one of America’s two or three foremost symphonic composers, and I suspect that many enthusiasts of the American symphonic repertoire of the 20th century still feel that way today.

Schuman belonged to a group of composers that might be termed “modern traditionalists,” i.e., composers who renounced the opulent emotionalism and clear tonal adherence of the “neo-romantics,” refrained from dipping into the overtly American vernacular elements that attracted the “nationalist-populists,” and avoided the spare textures and restrained expression of the “neo-classicists,” while shunning the strictures of 12-tone serialism and other experimental approaches that came to command critical attention during the 1950s and 60s. The modern traditionalists embraced familiar genres, such as the symphony, concerto, sonata, etc., and standard techniques like counterpoint, motivic development, and thematic transformation, while using the gradient of tonality as an expressive device, rather than as an organizing principle. The modern traditionalists comprise a large group of composers, a group that is in many ways epitomized by William Schuman. The stranglehold that serialism exerted on public discourse within the music profession loosened considerably during the late 1970s and 1980s, to be replaced by minimalism, along with a variety of eclectic approaches. A more open, tolerant atmosphere prevailed, and with it a revival of interest in the long-disparaged neo-romantics. However, the modern traditionalists have continued to remain in the background, their more challenging, sometimes abrasive language not as immediately appealing to casual listeners. Their names may still be familiar to some, while their creative identities have grown dimmer and dimmer.

Perhaps in anticipation of his centennial in 2010, there has been a sudden flurry of interest in Schuman, heralded by the appearance of Polisi’s book, to be followed by several others currently in progress (including one of my own, I should disclose, although mine is not limited to Schuman alone). Of course the broad outlines of Schuman’s career have been long familiar, even legendary: Born in New York City, this all-American boy spent his childhood consumed with baseball, later forming a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with lyrics by his friend Frank Loesser. Classical music meant nothing to him until, at the age of 20, he was dragged reluctantly by his sister to a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini, when the sound and appearance of the symphony orchestra precipitated a conversion experience: The next day he dropped out of business school, walked into the first music school he could find, and announced to the receptionist that he wanted to become a composer—what should he do? Amazingly, nine years later his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. At the age of 35 he became president of the Juilliard School, revamping the entire faculty and curriculum, and 17 years later became president of the brand-new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all “performing arts centers” to follow. By the time he died in 1992, he had completed ten symphonies, a couple of operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which had been performed and recorded by the world’s leading soloists, conductors, and ensembles. But, of course, there is much more to the story than that.

I approached Joseph Polisi’s book with great interest, as he, as the current president of the Juilliard School, clearly has access to the widest array of documents and reminiscences. However, I expected the result to be biased and hagiographic, as I was aware that Polisi has personal ties to the Schuman family. I had also heard a number of stories documenting Schuman’s attempt to control what was said and written about him. In fact, in her book Juilliard: A History, Andrea Olmstead asserted that after Juilliard president Peter Mennin’s sudden and premature death in 1983, Schuman had advocated Polisi for the position, “because Schuman knew he could control Polisi.” It appeared that such control was continuing posthumously when Polisi began the “Acknowledgments” section of his book with an account in which Schuman’s widow stated that she wanted the story of her husband’s life to be told “only in his own words…. [She] emphatically stated that she did not want a musicological study that would analyze her husband’s life through a revisionist or psychological lens, …” Therefore I am both pleased and relieved to state that not only is American Muse a fascinating and enormously informative study, but also that it presents a remarkably balanced picture of the man. Of course it presents Schuman in a favorable light: As the first comprehensive study of the man, how could it be otherwise? (Hatchet-jobs usually come later.) But as a man of professional stature, grand vision, supreme self-confidence, and boundless energy, Schuman did not look favorably upon anyone or anything that stood in his way, and he was both clever and charming enough to manipulate most situations in such a way as to achieve the outcomes he desired. (Phillip Ramey recounted to me an incident he witnessed personally in which Schuman, upon learning that a pianist he knew was scheduled to perform the concerto of another composer with one of America’s leading orchestras, simply phoned the orchestra manager and insisted that his own concerto be played instead. Not only did he get his way, but the composer whose music had been elbowed out never learned what had happened, and continued to regard Schuman as a “good friend.”)

The fact is that a good deal of the book is told in Schuman’s own words, as he had provided several “oral histories” during the latter part of his life, and, although such recollections inevitably present the perspective of the subject, one can “read between the lines” and glean a good deal more. Although the primary focus of the book is biographical, Polisi presents Schuman’s creative work as a parallel track, stopping every few chapters to “catch up” with his compositional output during the years just discussed, including the basics, such as source of commission, first performance (when, where, by whom), and a general description of the approach and content of the work in question. Then, following the body of the book, an appendix of some 150 pages is devoted to more elaborate analyses of ten works, in which Polisi was assisted by one of Juilliard’s music theorists. Though accompanied by copious musical examples, these analyses are intended to be self-sufficient even for those who do not read music. They are largely effective as fairly in-depth program notes, although references to measure-numbers may be distracting and disheartening to those less trained listeners. The selection of ten compositions encompasses Schuman’s entire career, and embraces most of the genres in which he worked, although other commentators might choose differently. Polisi’s writing is clear and fluent, so that the narrative is consistently compelling, even when delving into the complexities of budgetary issues and inter- and intra-institutional conflicts among boards of directors. The author does not avoid potentially sensitive areas, such as Schuman’s ambivalent relationship with Judaism, his hostility toward Peter Mennin (his successor at Juilliard), his relationships with his children, and the rigidity and arrogance that inflamed his conflicts with the Lincoln Center board of directors—especially, John D. Rockefeller III. 

However, what I miss from this study are summaries and conclusions: Putting together the various contradictory elements of Schuman’s personality, what is the central character that emerges; i.e., how are these elements integrated? Polisi does make some general evaluations of some individual compositions, but what about Schuman’s overall stature as a composer? What are the central strengths of his output? What are the chief weaknesses? How is he viewed today, and how apt is this perspective? Aside from the absence of such summary points, American Muse paints a fascinating and vividly detailed portrait of one of this country’s most important musical figures, placing it within the rich context of American musical life during the middle third of the 20th century.


 THE ERNEST BLOCH COMPANION. By David Z. Kushner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. 198 pp. $79.

Information generally available about Ernest Bloch and his music is so stale, third-hand, and pervaded by ideas that are either misconceived, trite, or both, that any attempt to present a fresh view, based on authoritative research, is more than welcome. David Z. Kushner, chairman of musicology at the University of Florida School of Music, has written extensively on Bloch, including the entry in The New Grove, and is probably—since the recent death at age 95 of the composer’s delightfully irrepressible daughter Suzanne—recognized as the leading living authority on Bloch and his music. Hence his new Ernest Bloch Companion is likely to be the most informative publication on the composer’s life and works currently in general circulation. The book contains much interesting and provocative information, but—with fewer than 200 pages—many subjects and related questions are raised and addressed, without being discussed thoroughly or resolved definitively. One leaves the book with much to reflect upon, but with many questions unanswered. Moreover, one wonders how many aficionados are likely to jump at the prospect of spending $79 to wade barely waist-high into the subject at hand.

Organized chronologically, the book provides a fairly thorough biographical overview, along with basic descriptions of most of the composer’s works. The literary style is congenial and conversational, with little to alienate the reader who is at least somewhat conversant with general musical terminology. There are a few musical examples, but they are not essential to the usefulness of the study.

Some of the main issues that emerge in any discussion of Bloch and his works are the extent to which his musical identity is connected to Judaism, the extent to which Judaism actually dominated the essence of his music, and the extent to which this association has influenced the way his music is understood and evaluated by the general musical public and by the musicological community. Complicating the issue are Bloch’s own ambivalence, confusion, and shifting positions on these matters. While Kushner does not resolve these questions in any conclusive way, he does provide some information that might be surprising even to fairly knowledgeable enthusiasts: for example, the fact that at the time when he composed most of his explicitly Jewish works, Bloch was remarkably ignorant of Jewish terms, practices, and traditions, and that he kept a life-size statue of Christ on the cross in his study for some fifty years, revered Jesus and extolled the values of Christianity, and—initially, at least—praised Hitler for his “sincerity,” and was opposed to the formation of Israel.

Kushner provides authoritative documentation of Leonard Bernstein’s decision to have the recitative in the final section of the Sacred Service spoken, rather than chanted, initiating a flagrant violation of Bloch’s intentions that has become an egregiously commonplace practice during the past 40 years. He also draws a legitimate distinction between Bloch’s earlier works of Biblical inspiration (e.g., Israel SymphonySchelomo, the psalm settings), and later works more suggestive of shtetl or ghetto life (e.g., Baal ShemFrom Jewish Life).

Another important aspect of Bloch’s career that is mentioned, but not examined in depth, is his meteoric rise to international celebrity as a leading representative of musical modernism upon his arrival in the United States in 1916, and the rather abrupt decline in his critical status precipitated some twelve years later by his winning (sic) a lucrative award for America: An Epic Rhapsody. (This phenomenon is examined in fascinating detail in the article, “The Winner Loses: Ernest Bloch and His America,” by Charles Brotman, published in American Music[Winter, 1998]).

Other matters that are touched upon with tantalizing brevity are Bloch’s voracious womanizing (“at least 23 mistresses,” according to his daughter); also, his early acquaintance with Debussy, who commented in his correspondence on the younger man’s admiration with contemptuous disdain (“His voice sounds like that of a eunuch bursting into a harem…. He’s destined for higher things, like selling guaranteed rings on the streets– …”).

However, what I do miss from Kushner’s book is a real point of view, beyond simply a position of general advocacy: How does he assess Bloch’s musical contribution, relative to those of such contemporaries as, say, Bartók, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, Respighi, or Vaughan Williams, with regard to its depth, consistency, expressive power, variety, technical mastery? What are his compositional strengths and weaknesses? Which are his most fully realized works? his most representative works? his weakest works?

Kushner does provide a valuable bibliography, as well as an appendix that discusses Bloch’s photography, another means of expression that he pursued actively throughout his life. Far more than a casual hobby, Bloch’s work in this medium brought him the warm admiration of Alfred Stieglitz. The appendix includes approximately a dozen of his photographs.

“MUSIC AFTER MODERNISM” By Samuel Lipman; “OPUS EST: Six Composers from Northern Europe” By Paul Rapoport


MUSIC AFTER MODERNISM by Samuel Lipman. 256 pp. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979, $11.95.

OPUS EST: Six Composers from Northern Europe by Paul Rapoport. 200 pp. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1979, $11.95.

Each of these books casts a significant reflection on today’s classical music crisis. This crisis may be summed up thus: over the past several decades, despite technological developments that have made accessible a greater variety of music than ever before, the overwhelming majority of performed repertoire is composed of a relative handful of works from the past. For an enormous number of complex reasons, hardly any music written since World War II has succeeded in winning favor among soloists, ensembles, or audiences. The mutually interacting causes and effects of this have included: alienation and resentment between living composers and others of the music world; ossification of the repertoire into a self-contained, finite curriculum; a shift of perspective towards that repertoire as an obstacle course for the performer, and thus primarily a means of judging one performer versus another; transformation of a profound, deeply meaningful art form into a glorified athletic contest built around the ephemeral preeminence of one or another interchangeable, slickly packaged “star” who, while rigorously trained for the contest, is abysmally ignorant of its vestigial artistic roots; division of the music world into two largely unrelated factions–the first, built around showmanship and the second, devoted to the scholarly analysis of remote details, largely removed from music’s basis in expression and communication and directed more toward the self-serving defense of music as sufficiently objective and esoteric to justify it as a legitimate field of academic study.

Many–far too many–are content to participate in this disintegration. Audiences have become accustomed to the familiar repertoire, and are lazy and timid about new musical experiences. Critics feel that they are making a sufficient contribution by comparing one conductor’s Beethoven with another’s–or his 1975 recording with his 1965 recording of the same piece. Performers seem content to regurgitate this “hit parade” endlessly, and appear blind to their own redundancy. And, of course, record companies exploit this system, capitalizing on the sophisticated techniques of hype that work so well in pop music. But for those who expect more from a serious art form, for those who realize that today’s passive reverence of the “great masters” is based on a trivialization of those values upon which that music’s greatness rests, the present situation appears to foreshadow the imminent dissolution of music as an art form of any cultural importance.

Samuel Lipman, pianist and music critic for Commentary, is one of those who shares this anxiety, and it is this thread that unifies this collection of essays on diverse subjects and musical figures, published originally as separate pieces. The first section, “The Music,” includes articles dealing with Wagner and his coterie, assessments of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Copland, and the musico-sociological implications of the towering position of Mahler today. The second section, “The Performers,” discusses the pedagogical legacy descending from the pianism of the Lhevinnes, the careers of Horowitz and Menuhin, and even questions the ultimate importance of interpretive distinctions in matters of performance. A final group of essays deals with miscellaneous subjects such as the packaging of Nyiregyházi and the value of competitions for young virtuosos.

Most of these short essays consist of light, informative overviews of the subjects, clearly addressed to the reader of modest musical background, followed by rather tentative discussions of some of the more serious implications suggested by the subjects. Unfortunately, limitations of space prohibit my giving a step-by-step analysis of each point, but the final import of these essays reveals a serious concern with the crisis outlined above. Lipman sees the crux of the problem, to which he returns repeatedly, as the “atrophy of musical creation in our time.”

However, Lipman’s analysis of the problem is weakened by a serious misunderstanding, and it is a misunderstanding endemic to most musicians who have relied for their training and education on conservatories and universities, and whose thoughts are shaped by simplistic media like the New York Times. This serious error is the assumption that “modern music” refers to a generally unified style or “sound”–a style usually said to derive from the dual influences of the international serial movement, personified by Pierre Boulez, for example, and the neo-Dada nihilism personified by John Cage. It is true that the “avant-garde” represented by these two schools of thought (often unsympathetic to each other) combined in a truly totalitarian effort to deny legitimacy to music that failed to conform to its precepts. And the public, in its ignorance, indifference, and fear of being unfashionable, was gullible enough to swallow pronouncements such as that of Stockhausen’s colleague Herbert Eimert in Die Reihe, quoted by Lipman: “There is little to choose between ‘advanced’ expressionist music and the stagnant bourgeois reaction to it; today, either music exists as it is in the vanguard, or it does not exist at all. This is not a ‘totalitarian’ alternative; it is the simple truth.” There were obligatory attempts to understand and appreciate this music, which systematically flouted and often ridiculed the conventions of musical syntax as they had been evolving for centuries. What is more exemplary of this than a traditional institution like the New York Philharmonic hiring as its music director Pierre Boulez, who openly refused to present any 20th-century music that failed to fit his rigid dogmas! But few people are willing to be masochists indefinitely, so most simply dismissed modern music altogether as not worth the effort.

However, during the time this power structure was foisting its exclusive definitions on the international public, a true musical explosion was occurring–one that actually had been growing since World War I. For just as serialism was being represented as the “inevitable” direction for music, literally dozens of alternative directions were springing up, all over the world. Some of these alternatives were more “traditional,” i.e., palatable to conventional tastes, and some were more aggressive and challenging; some directions were clearly related to earlier and/or current influences, while others were limited to single individuals; some of these composers like Shostakovich, Britten, and Barber, won a certain amount of fame and attention, but these were truly the tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg, as the vast majority, including many of absolutely first-rate quality, have remained quite unknown. The important, point is that, in fact, there is such extraordinary richness and diversity among 20th-century music that there is absolutely no supportable stylistic generalization that can be made about it. Samuel Lipman, sensitive and well-intentioned, demonstrates his ignorance when, for example, he characterizes American music today as ranging from “Elliot Carter on the (musical) Right to John Cage and his followers on the (musical and political) Left”–a gamut that does not begin to account for composers like Lee Hoiby, John Corigliano, Arnold Rosner, Nicolas Flagello, Steve Reich, Thomas Pasatieri, Philip Glass, and Carlisle Floyd, to draw some names from the post-1925 generation alone. It is clear that Lipman’s conclusions about contemporary music are based on a very narrow, skewed familiarity.

My contention is that among the music lying outside the simplified definitions and boundaries is much that would provide just the stimulating infusion that serious music so desperately needs today, the absence of which Lipman bemoans in hopeless bewilderment. To some extent the complexion of the music profession, which today tends to attract complacent types comfortable with inheriting and transmitting unexamined verities, will have to change. What is needed are people for whom exploration in search of an infinite number of “great” works is an exciting venture, not a chore to avoid.

The conventional point of view and the middle-brow media go hand in hand, however, so that Lipman’s book was given a lengthy critique in the New York Times Book Review, in which the reviewer echoed the problem and wrung his hands. But Paul Rapoport’s Opus Est was not reviewed in the New York Times, and Rapoport, who is on the faculty of McMaster University in Canada (and is one of Fanfare’s regular critics), is a member of the small but, I think, growing body of writers about music whose thoughts reflect a real awareness of the music of the past 60 or 70 years. The title Opus Est is intended to be translated “not only there is artistic achievement but also there is a need and there is a requirement.“To demonstrate this, Rapoport has selected six Northern European composers: Matthijs Vermeulen, Vagn Holmboe, Havergal Brian, Allan Pettersson, Fartein Valen, and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. These composers have been largely ignored, although several of them have begun recently to win enthusiastic followings, especially Brian and Pettersson, partly due to the efforts of Rapoport and others. (Lipman, incidentally, never even mentions these two composers. One wonders if he has ever heard their names!) For the most part, the composers Rapoport discusses represent a middle ground, in that their music is largely free of overt, obvious derivation from past styles, yet is mostly rooted in some form of tonality, and shows enough affinity with the gestures of traditional symphonic music to be comprehensible on at least a basic aural level. All six of these composers view their music with the utmost seriousness, have fashioned uncompromisingly individual ways of conveying their messages, and have suffered severely for their independence.

Whether these six composers are an ideal choice is beside the point. There are so many books to be written, and so many composers about whom to write, that Rapoport’s is as good a choice as any. Each composer is introduced through an analysis of one major work, preceded by some general comments, and followed by extremely useful bibliographic and discographic information. Of great value also are the introduction and conclusion, which raise many important questions and challenge many conventional assumptions. For example, Rapoport questions the importance of “influence” as a measure of a composer’s stature, and notes that many factors other than a composer’s intrinsic merit are active in determining his degree of “influence.” Perhaps most important, he challenges the homily that “time will tell”–that the music that becomes recognized is ultimately the most worthy of recognition. It is important that this convenient crutch for the lazy mind be confronted for what it is, and that the truth be faced that fame and recognition are merely an accidental consequence of political, economic, sociological, geographical, psychological, and personal factors. In fact, in the case of the six composers discussed here, as in the case of many others one could name, a paradoxical result of the brutal and painful disregard they were forced to endure was the development of neurotically perverse self-destructive personal traits that acted further to ensure their obscurity: for example, the ban imposed for 40 years by Sorabji on all performance of his music.

Unfortunately, Rapoport’s treatment of the individual composers suffers from several weaknesses. For one, he does not take sufficient pains to convey the “sound,” or initial impact, of the composer’s music. (An exception is the chapter on Allan Pettersson, and it is perhaps for this reason that that chapter seemed the most satisfying one.) For many reasons, one assumes that this book is addressed primarily to those who are unfamiliar with the music of these six composers, and that it is an attempt to generate interest among those readers. To this end, a fair amount of descriptive background is essential. True, Rapoport offers a modicum of interesting biographical information, but at least as important is a sense of the “flavor” of the music. A summary of the composer’s technical proclivities is inadequate, because a particular technique can produce many different musical results, and it is the latter that will or will not draw new listeners to a composer. For example, Rapoport offers a fairly elaborate discussion of the significance of metamorphosis in Holmboe’s music. But this discussion communicates nothing of the dynamism and propulsive intensity that have attracted listeners to Holmboe’s music. The matter of metamorphosis is likely to be of interest only to those already convinced of the music’s value, and now ready to take a more serious look. If Rapoport wants to address that reader as well, fine–but he should not ignore the non-initiate if he is concerned with engendering interest in the music. One of the truths of musical commentary is that technical analysis can never prove a composer’s “greatness,” although once one is convinced of it, technical analysis can provide much valuable insight. But to present this sort of analysis as a means of introduction to a composer really does the composer and the reader a disservice. And despite the pressure on a “scholar” to rely on “objective” data, music makes most of its impact in affective, non-objective ways, and I believe most readers prefer and benefit more from “subjective” commentary that invites and prepares them to share a holistic musical experience.

Another problem of misjudgment is the large amount of space devoted in two chapters, those on Brian and on Valen, to discrepancies between existing sources on the composers. When one considers that, as Rapoport himself concedes, “the number of people who know [Brian’s Gothic Symphony] well may still be no more than a dozen,” one cannot help but question whether it wouldn’t have been wiser to devote that space to information of greater interest to those likely to read the book.

Still, there is much informative and fascinating reading here. Each of the six is an extraordinary individual, and each brief recounting sheds some light on the inner and outer world of the composer in this century. Most of all, each composer offers a unique musical world-view through his music; perhaps readers who turn to this book will be inspired to seek out the music.

We need many more books and articles to draw attention to the limitless wealth of top-quality 20th-century music that has been languishing in neglect for decades, not to mention the fine music being written up to this minute. Those fortunate enough to have discovered these treasures must offer some inducement to the many who have become jaded and disgusted with the pompous, precious, sanctimonious circus that the society surrounding classical music has become.

“SERENADING THE RELUCTANT EAGLE: American Musical Life, 1925-1945” By Nicholas Tawa

SERENADING THE RELUCTANT EAGLE: American Musical Life, 1925-1945.  By Nicholas Tawa. 261 pp.  New York: Schirmer Books, 1984, $19.95.

Few books on the subject of American concert music provide much of either value or interest.  Most tend to fall into one of two categories: those that aim toward comprehensiveness but become little more than compendia of names, dates, places of birth, and random lists of titles, with little or no attention to musical content or critical evaluation; and those that focus on a limited number of presumably representative composers.  In books of this kind (like Rockwell’s All American Music) the selection of composers is rarely made from a truly informed perspective, but rather from a superficial awareness of that portion of the spectrum currently in the limelight.  This approach would not be so misleading were it not for the fact that in this country the limelight has always had a focus both too narrow and too shallow to be of any value and its force is determined by factors that are more political than artistic; hence books of this kind are no more illuminating than official texts on contemporary music in the Soviet Union.  Furthermore, succeeding generations of books on American music have tended to inherit the errors, omissions, and misunderstandings of their predecessors, while contributing a few more of their own.  Thus it is somewhat astonishing to encounter in Nicholas Tawa’s Serenading the Reluctant Eagle a real awareness of the context in which American music has developed, knowledge of the music itself, and even a concern for the situation just described with regard to the literature on the subject.  Tawa is a musicologist from the University of Massachusetts in Boston who has focused on the issue of music in relation to American culture, and it is this perspective that he brings to the subject. Concentrating on the period between the two world wars — a period that has been called “The Golden Age of American Music” — Tawa analyzes a number of the cultural and political attitudes that underlie the situation, influencing the course of events in the public arena.

The book is organized along two dimensions: One is chronological.  Tawa sets the stage by describing a musical culture so intent on justifying itself according to snobbish European attitudes — both social and intellectual — that it was more than willing to alienate its legitimate constituency — its audience — in the process.  While our cultural patriarchs scorned American vulgarity from a pose of aristocratic gentility, spokesmen for the avant-garde derided middle class standards from a perspective of haughty intellectual superiority.  Since it is a truism of human communication that people cannot be won over by being denigrated, during the 1920s the American public responded by withdrawing from the music of its own culture, understandably finding it irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

During the 1930s composers began to recognize their cultural irrelevancy and attempted to embrace a more populist approach.  This new attitude found intellectual legitimacy as a corollary of the leftist political styles then in vogue.  From this perspective avant-garde experimentation was viewed as irresponsibly elitist.  Many of those who had denounced bourgeois taste most contemptuously a few years earlier were now bending over backwards to appeal to the “common man” through accessible works that often drew upon vernacular musical idioms.  Whatever its roots in vain intellectual fashion, this attitude resulted in a number of constructive steps — constructive, at least, according to the democratic notion that drawing people in is more desirable than alienating them — culminating in the WPA Arts Project of the late 1930s.  Though short-lived, this project poured large sums of money into an effort to bring concert music — especially American concert music — to a broad-based public.  During a period of four years, 6,000 works by 1,600 American composers were performed all over the country, reaching and involving people from all walks of life.  Tawa calls this period “one of the highest points in American cultural history.”

However, World War II and a philistine political backlash brought this program to an end.  Moreover, many of the refugees who fled to this country from Europe were prominent musicians who espoused “internationalism” in artistic matters, which really meant a reinstatement of European attitudes and techniques and a virtual boycott of those American composers who resisted this line of thinking — at least of those who had not gained enough of a foothold, as had Barber and Copland, for example, to achieve immunity.  The period of rapprochement between composer and audience was over and the attitude of mutual suspicion returned, remaining until the mid 1970s, when composers once again began to address the question of their own accountability.

Simultaneously with this chronicle, Tawa has divided his book into chapters that focus on the attitudes expressed, respectively, by composers, by intermediaries (performers, critics, boards of directors, arts patrons), and by audiences, before summarizing the actual musical contributions of the most prominent composers of the era — with particular attention to the way they were received in the concert halls.  Organizing the book in this way inevitably entails returning repeatedly to the same issues, viewed each time from a somewhat — sometimes only slightly — different perspective, but such a format has its virtues.  Tawa has drawn his perspective from documents of the time, often written by those who, over the years, have gone on to achieve considerable prominence.  Many of these individuals would probably be embarrassed to see their views expressed without the veneer of moderation that comes with the responsibility of eminence.  But these documents reveal to the reader too young to have lived through the period the attitudes, expressed with brazen arrogance, that have underlain and influenced many of the aspects of American musical life that we have come to accept as “the way it is,” without realizing that “the way it is” now is the result of the self-serving behavior of individuals whose interests lay elsewhere than in the development of a healthy musical culture and that those individuals have been the chief beneficiaries of “the way it is.”

Tawa concludes with a number of proposals for improving the situation surrounding contemporary music in this country.  In keeping with his own orientation he encourages a continued examination of the relationship between composers and their culture, rather than viewing music in a social vacuum.  He urges that music be viewed as a form of two-way communication between composer and listener, entailing a degree of mutual responsibility and mutual accountability.  Of course he encourages us to cease neglecting our own music, a pathetic situation that remains to this day unabated as we continue to welcome foreign conductors and soloists utterly oblivious to the bulk of American music as well as to their obligation to learn about it. (Tawa quotes Koussevitzky’s comment that American audiences “would never understand American orchestral compositions until they heard them conducted by American-born conductors,” a remark that is more appropriate today than it was decades ago, when we had conductors of the stature of Koussevitzky, Stokowski, and others far more able to penetrate the spirit of American works than are the exotic manikins at the helms of most of our major orchestras today.) Tawa underlines what ought to be obvious, but somehow isn’t: that we allow our musical life to be manipulated in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the democratic ideals that underlie (at least vaguely) most of this country’s institutions.  And to those who fatuously argue that artistic quality is inherently undemocratic one can only point to what we hear — the quality of most of the recent compositions that are performed and the general quality of musical performance as evidence that something other than high artistic accomplishment is certainly the operative factor.  Somehow or other the American public has been intimidated into accepting the authority of self-appointed aristocracies regarding their musical life that they would never countenance in other areas and that no other country would countenance in this area.  Tawa urges that federal support of musical institutions be contingent on performance of a certain quantity of American music — a proposal I thoroughly endorse (although I would increase his suggested quota from 12 or 15% to something along the lines of 30%) and which has never been refuted with any cogency.  Tawa even goes so far as to urge that representatives from the general audience participate in the selection of composers to receive grants and awards and that audience polls concerning repertoire policy be a regular practice.

Serenading the Reluctant Eagle boldly confronts many important issues that are rarely addressed in print — largely because of the pervasive timidity of most of those who chronicle our musical life. (Other important issues remain to be addressed: the relevant consequences of ethnic background and sexual preference among musicians and composers, for example.) One may or may not agree with some of Tawa’s particular beliefs — I, for example, do not share his commitment to the necessity of nationalistic musical styles, nor do I believe that most composers cantailor their music to the audience’s level of sophistication. (Composers seem to be at their best when they write from within themselves in the language that is most natural to them.  But if the result is meaningless and irrelevant to most listeners, then it is the responsibility of the “intermediaries” to recognize this and to turn to music that is meaningful and relevant and not allow disgruntled composers to blame listeners for their own failures or to browbeat others into being subjected repeatedly to music they do not enjoy.  There has never been a shortage of high-quality American music capable of reaching listeners, but there have been many factors preventing listeners from hearing that music — as there continue to be today.) But the issues and ideas that Tawa raises are interesting, provocative, and long-overdue in our ongoing public dialogue.  Moreover, his book is written in a direct, conversational style accessible to anyone interested in the subject.  One can only look forward to further studies of this kind — by Tawa himself and by others in the field.  Not only is there room for more examination of the period between the wars, but there is a need for similar analyses of the period since World War II.