Thoughts on Evaluating Unfamiliar Music

I have been a musicologist and critic for almost 50 years now, during which most of my activity has involved the description, assessment, and–in some cases– advocacy of music composed since 1915. Since there really aren’t generally accepted criteria for such evaluations, most critics—not to mention armchair musicologists—offer their reactions and judgments on an intuitive, self-determined basis. Ultimately this becomes a discussion of “taste,” which is often held to be a subjective matter. Some people argue that since taste is basically subjective, the postulation of criteria for making judgments is essentially a misguided and futile attempt to make what is primarily an individual matter appear to be objective, i.e. to give one’s personal reactions the abstract generalizability of “facts.”

Before I became a musicologist and critic I was an insatiable reader of music criticism, spending hours in libraries, ploughing through years of journals and magazines, trying to derive the principles that shaped the reactions of dozens and dozens of commentators. This voracious devouring and analyzing of music reviews, one of the primary activities of my teen years, led me to the principles that formed the foundation of my own musical judgments. While I agree that taste is, ultimately, largely subjective, I do believe that it is possible to adduce certain criteria that provide some internal consistency to one’s judgments. In this way, a critic can become a reliable guide for those whose own listening experiences tend to align with that critic’s perspective, as well as for those whose don’t. One learns how to “read” a critic. But what I have observed over the course of decades are judgments—made by both professionals and amateurs—that are essentially invalid because they lack internal consistency or are predicated on false premises. Many of these are addressed in the Introductions to my two books: Voices in the Wilderness and Voices of Stone and Steel. Since my own taste tends to favor the 20th-century composers who sought continuity with the music that preceded them, these introductions challenge many of the precepts of Modernism that were at one time used to disqualify music that rejected those precepts from consideration as serious works of art. This essay attempts to elaborate and broaden the points made in those chapters so as to address a wider range of observations and fallacies that are rarely subject to close examination.

I start from the position that while taste may be largely subjective, there is a finite number of “tastes” that, while differing from one another, are capable of maintaining a degree of internal consistency. The more reliable and valid musical commentaries either state their criteria or make their points in such a way that the principles on which their judgments rest are clear to the reader. I will attempt to set forth some of the premises on which my own taste is predicated. I postulate three levels of musical apprehension: a) one’s reaction to the musical materials (e.g. harmonic language) with which the composer chooses to work; b) one’s reaction to the expressive content or meaning that is inherent in the work, which may or may not be intended by the composer; c) one’s assessment of the proficiency of the composer’s technique in using his/her chosen materials to communicate the expressive content effectively. In this schema, a) is largely subjective; b) is partly subjective and partly objective; and c) is largely objective. Even this simple schema is fraught with assumptions, of which perhaps the most controversial are that music is capable of “expressing” something, and that there is such a thing as musical “content.” There is a school of thought that rejects these assumptions while others fully embrace them. There may be value to both positions, and this is what I mean by the statement that there is more than one valid, internally consistent “taste.” My own belief is that music does express particular perspectives on many aspects of human existence and that these perspectives are what is meant by “content.” While the exact nature of these “perspectives” may be unclear and difficult to verbalize, and listeners may disagree as to just what the “content” is in a given work, these complexities do not negate the assertion that music “expresses” something, and that something is its “content.” It is the matter of “content” that is at issue when a composition is said to have “nothing to say” or is described as profound, trivial, or any other point on that spectrum.

For example, my own personal preference is for music that draws upon a full spectrum from tonality to atonality and from harmonic consonance to dissonance as means of achieving a broad expressive range. I typically don’t enjoy music that is predictably and uniformly tonal, nor do I prefer music that is consistently and doctrinally atonal, nor do I prefer a language that is largely consonant harmonically, or consistently dissonant. I also prefer music that strives for expressive consistency and structural economy; i.e. the music is “about” something (the “content”), and the progression of the composition contributes to or comments on that “something” throughout, although the surface of the music may exhibit sufficient variety in its specifics to avoid monotony. To use a literary analogy, it stays on the point, without extraneous digressions. I especially enjoy music in which rhythmic asymmetries propel the music forward as contrapuntal development elaborates the argument. I also appreciate expressive intensity, not as a sine qua non, but as a preference. My musical assessments are intuitively derived from these values. Other critics may have other legitimate values, to which they are entitled, and their musical judgments should reflect these values.

The role of the music critic itself is another issue about which there may be more than one valid position. The role that I have attempted to fill as a critic is one who is deeply familiar with the full range of compositions that fall within the area of the repertoire in which I profess to make judgments of relative merit. Some critics may see themselves more as generalists, while others are more concerned with the quality of performances of a repertoire that is sufficiently established that relative judgments of quality are generally taken for granted, while still others are more focused on the different approaches to interpreting music from eras of the relatively distant past. Within the area of the repertoire that forms my primary interest I attempt to identify meritorious works that are outside the familiarity of most music lovers—professional and amateur—and bring them to the attention of interested listeners by describing them in such a way that the reader can gain a sense of the work’s personal appeal. In doing so, I imagine my readers as those with at least a basic familiarity with what is generally identified as “Western classical music,” and with an interest in enriching their listening experience through new musical discoveries that will appeal according to the criteria that I have embraced. I address listeners who expect to be moved, inspired, stimulated, or otherwise touched personally by a musical work without the need to spend hours of repeated listening in order to derive any meaningful feelings along those lines, even though deriving the full import of such a work is not likely from one hearing. But a first hearing must offer something rewarding to listeners; otherwise, why would they care to delve into it more deeply? Such listeners seek both cultural recreation and spiritual enrichment, as opposed to, at one extreme, intellectual exercises requiring extensive study, or, at the opposite extreme, shallow entertainment that is essentially trivial rather than enriching and deeply moving.

While many composers profess to have little respect for music criticism, and some even refuse to read criticism of their work, composers can learn a great deal about how their music is perceived by others, if they can suppress their defensive vanity. A range of reactions from a number of critics—and from listeners as well—can be even more useful. They may prompt composers to ask themselves just what they are trying to accomplish through their music, as well as who comprises their intended audience, and do they appear to be reaching that audience. Multiple critiques that make much the same points are especially valuable. Again, many critics and composers do not address the audience I identified as my target: Some compose only to please themselves (so they say), others compose as a means of competing with or impressing colleagues, while still others are aiming for a commercial success, which takes precedence over the notion of an aesthetic success.

Another question that isn’t usually addressed is how familiar must one be with the totality of a composer’s output in order to make judgments about a particular work? There are a number of factors that affect the answer. For example, with lesser-known composers, few works may be available to hear, so that comprehensive familiarity may be impossible or especially difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that the definitiveness of a critic’s judgment should be seen as directly proportional to the comprehensiveness of the critic’s familiarity with the composer’s output. A related situation that arises is the absence of a “level playing field.” For example, negative criticism is much easier to write or state than positive criticism. The reason is this: A new or unfamiliar work is, in a sense, asserting itself as a contender for the “canon.” As such, rejecting such a work is the default position. Any number of reasons may be adduced to justify rejecting it from entry into the “canon.” But arguing on behalf of such a work requires the critic to take a certain risk in order to justify such acceptance. Rejecting such an advocatory stance is easy because the advocate can be portrayed as “falling for” something that those who seek to appear more sophisticated may regard with condescension. On the other hand, the negative position requires only that the nay-sayer remain unconvinced. For these reasons, when unfamiliar works are given public exposure, negative reactions are encountered more frequently than positive ones, with two exceptions: a) when financial interests contaminate the assessment process; b) when the composer or the work has already received significant praise from influential quarters.

There is another, less obvious reason that unfamiliar works are not really on a “level playing field” with those that are often heard: Composers who live to see their music performed with some regularity have the benefit of learning how effectively their music comes across to listeners. For example, they can hear for themselves whether their orchestration achieved the intended impact—only determinable by hearing an adequate rendition. They can gain a sense from the audience’s reactions whether the intended “content” has been perceived and appreciated. On the other hand, composers who have not attained wide visibility through frequent performances may continue composing for decades without having heard how effective their orchestration is, or whether their “content” is perceived. Furthermore, composers who have come to expect their works to be performed are aware that each new work will be heard in light of their previous output, with the expectation that there is a degree of diversity and growth from one to the next. On the other hand, a lesser-known composer who has written, say, a dozen orchestral works, may have heard only a few of them in performance, maybe once or twice before small audiences. That composer, perhaps responding to a commission, may feel that some worthy material in previously unheard works may be worth re-using in a new work that has a greater likelihood of being heard. In this way, less widely heard composers may display a certain redundancy because they have come to expect that little of their music will achieve enough familiarity for anyone to notice or care.

There is an important, but rarely noted, difference between a negative critique and an insulting critique. A negative critique is one that assesses a work according to the kinds of principles noted above, clearly specified, and finds it wanting. An insulting critique uses ridicule, demeans the integrity of the composer, or uses similes that relate the work to some inferior “class” of music (e.g. pop music, movie music, etc.). There is always a great temptation to write an insulting review, as the critic sees an opportunity to make him/herself seem superior to the composer and perhaps has thought of a clever way of doing so. But it is a rhetorical manipulation and there is no excuse for it. “Movie music,” in particular, is a simile to which critics often resort in order to assert the sort of superiority just described. How often recent music of dramatic character is disparaged as sounding like movie music! But a closer look reveals that to be a largely meaningless comparison. First of all, what is meant by the generic phrase ‘‘movie music’’ is usually the music composed for films between the 1940s and the later years of the 20th century. But even with this qualification, movie music is not one uniform style or ‘‘sound.’’ These filmscores were composed by individuals like Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and John Williams, along with myriad lesser luminaries. Most received orthodox musical training and developed styles of their own. Some, like Erich Korngold, already had considerable international reputations before they began composing for film. Their music tended to be rooted in the styles of the late 19th and early 20th century, though often intensified by increased levels of harmonic dissonance consistent with more recent stylistic evolution. However, in composing for films these composers were producing a subordinate element in a work of another art form, for the purpose of enhancing that work. As such a filmscore was not created as an autonomous work of art, with its own integral structure. For this reason, heard apart from the film it accompanies, the score is rarely satisfying; without its own abstract logic, without intrinsically motivated thematic development, it is an incomplete artistic experience. This is the chief aesthetic defect of filmscores—not the musical languages they embrace; there can be nothing ‘‘wrong’’ with a musical language. Therefore, the observation that a particular composition ‘‘sounds like movie music’’ begs the question as to whether its musical vocabulary or its formal structure is being so characterized. The former—which, in my experience, is usually the case—is simply a superficial matter of overlapping melodic, harmonic, and instrumental usages that are not unique to music for films. The latter, however, refers to a formal deficiency and is a more serious and quite legitimate criticism, but is rarely the basis of the disparagement.

This leads to the related concepts of “originality” and “influence.” Originality, in discussions of classical music, is often adduced as one of the primary touchstones of artistic value. It is usually used to refer to works that appear to define their own criteria, and stake a claim to being wholly or largely “new,” by rejecting the aesthetic assumptions and processes of the music that preceded it. When one looks back over the course of music history, it is clear that some composers pursued unique visions of their own, which may have entailed the use of unusual sounds and materials, as well as new techniques and forms that may have seemed strange and unprecedented when first heard. Others preferred to work with familiar materials in already-established forms, while developing a distinctive “voice” of their own. Composers of both types can be found in the pantheon of “great composers.” Examples of the former are Liszt, Wagner, and Debussy, while examples of the latter are Bach, Mozart, and Brahms. But since the 1920s the notion of “originality” has come to loom as one of the primary compositional values—a virtue in itself, and one whose absence is taken axiomatically as a mark of inferiority. As universal as this attitude has become, there is surprisingly little theoretical justification for its elevation among the qualities by which music is evaluated. Music that seeks to be original has a particular challenge to face: comprehensibility, given the use of unfamiliar materials, techniques, forms, and—most importantly—aesthetic principles. But the composer unconcerned with originality has an equally difficult challenge: to provide a degree of individuality, expressive power, and technical expertise to justify working within a musical language that has already produced accepted masterpieces. Being “original,” in itself, is not difficult to achieve. In 1952, when John Cage composed his piano piece, 4’33,” in which the pianist sits on the bench and plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the originality of his conception was not difficult to recognize. On the other hand, for a composer like Samuel Barber, a contemporary of Cage, to compose a tonal symphony that uses the same developmental techniques, harmonic language, and aesthetic principles that were used throughout the preceding century AND yet convey the sense of an individual and distinctive musical personality is quite difficult. The originality of Cage’s conception is obvious instantly; but the individuality of the Barber may take multiple hearings to become apparent to the listener. Yet the embrace of “originality” as an indication of artistic value remains unquestioned, and its validity inadequately articulated.

One of the obstacles to the acceptance of music that draws upon the aesthetic principles that preceded it is rooted in a concept from Gestalt psychology. A simple analogy is this: When one makes a new personal acquaintance, one’s reaction is often the noting of a resemblance—either physical or social/interpersonal—with individuals one knows well. It may take several additional meetings before the individual features of the new acquaintance become apparent, while the resemblance to previous acquaintances slips into the background. The same phenomenon occurs with exposure to a new piece of music: The listener’s first reaction typically involves the recognition of features familiar to that listener from the work of previous composers—if such are there to be found. If the music has clearly embraced a style with a rich past history, it will be similarities with previous examples from that history that are first noticed by listeners. Not until they develop familiarity with that work—and perhaps with others from the same composer—will its individual qualities emerge. When such a composer has eventually achieved that level of familiarity, the central features of that compositional personality will become dominant, while the resemblances to past composers recede into the background. One recalls the oftenrecounted response of Brahms to a critic who argued that his Symphony No. 1 seemed greatly influenced by Beethoven: “Any fool can hear that.” It is also the reason we don’t often find listeners complaining that Beethoven shows the influence of Haydn, or that Strauss sounds too much like Wagner.

The notion of “originality” has produced a number of related and equally misunderstood concepts. One of these is this matter of “influence.” What is actually meant by the term “influence” when applied to music? When a listener notes a similarity between two pieces of music, the next question is often, Which came first? If piece A preceded piece B, then piece A is often said to have “influenced” piece B. But what does that mean? Does it mean that when piece B was written, its composer had piece A in mind, and tried to imitate it? Or does it refer to a process that is unconscious? Is it assumed by the fact that piece A preceded piece B that the composer of piece B even heard piece A? Then what actually constitutes influence? Influence can exist at many different levels of abstraction. For example, Tchaikovsky adored the music of Mozart, and readily admitted the impact of the latter on his music. But does one listen to a Tchaikovsky symphony and think, “Ah, sounds like Mozart”? Not very likely, because the influence was more the matter of a perceived spiritual affinity than of an audible resemblance. In my experience, composers acknowledge the influence of predecessors based largely on abstract formal matters. For example, the influence of Beethoven on Brahms is more a matter of the latter’s adopting a similar notion of what a symphony should be expected to accomplish, as well as motivic and developmental procedures developed by the former, rather than by one’s “sounding” like the other. But what I have observed is that when a listener points to “influence,” what has frequently been perceived is something quite concrete: a turn of phrase, the pattern of a handful of notes that the listener identifies with a similar or identical pattern in the music of a preceding composer. Yet such momentary overlaps occur throughout the repertoire of music, whether or not the composer of one passage was familiar with the work of the other. But if by “influence” we mean that the creation of the later work was somehow dependent on the precedent set by the earlier one, then superficial and largely coincidental moments of overlap have no logical connection to what is meant by the term. This issue then begs the question, Is the apparent influence of one composer on the work of another a deficiency to be denied or avoided? Is Beethoven’s stature diminished by the fact that he was clearly influenced by Haydn? Is Bach’s stature diminished by the fact that he drew upon forms found in the works of Vivaldi? Few musicians would answer in the affirmative. Yet when an unfamiliar piece is introduced, resemblances to previous music are usually the first points to be observed, and are then held to indicate some sort of deficiency, often with a “gotcha” implication.

The evaluation of new or unfamiliar music is not simply a matter of intuitive, “seat of the pants” observations. It requires a thorough familiarity with centuries of musical repertoire, an understanding of the aesthetic principles upon which historical styles were predicated, and a comprehensive knowledge of the area of the repertoire in which one claims special expertise. It also requires a philosophical foundation reflected in the criteria used to evaluate a musical work, along with stringent analysis of and justification for those criteria. And it requires ruthless honesty—with oneself as well as with one’s readers. During the 19th century in Germany, the music world was strongly divided between those who championed the works of Wagner, said to be “the music of the future,” and those who defended the more traditionally-styled music of Brahms. The esteemed critic Eduard Hanslick took a strong position against the works of Wagner. The fact that Wagner was eventually hailed as one of the greatest composers of all time (as, however, was Brahms) tarnished the reputation of Hanslick and subjected him to ridicule for many years after his death. Perhaps the most negative consequence of the Hanslick phenomenon is that critics became so timid lest they fall victim to similar retrospective derision that they have “bent over backwards” to find virtue in any innovative music that appeared to be attracting attention and praise, while denigrating music that seemed content to retain traditional techniques, forms, and principles. It is this craven, thoughtless—and, in many cases, dishonest—exalting of innovation at the expense of traditional values that led during the 20th century to the vaunting of composers and compositional approaches that have proven to be stillborn—aesthetic dead-ends—and, ultimately, led to the estrangement of music lovers from the creative fruits of their own time, and their retreat into the endless re-hashing of a repertoire that was once stimulating, but has become moribund from over-exposure.

The situation with regard to “originality” has softened somewhat since the mid-1980s. A number of composers who appear motivated more by giving voice to their individual perspectives than on appearing “original” have won major awards and commissions, and their works have been rewarded by auspicious performances and recordings. Nevertheless, much prestigious attention continues to be directed toward those who can be proclaimed as doing something “new.” And many reviews continue to indulge in the same kinds of unquestioned assumptions in making their judgments. Although composers and performers are often fond of dismissing comments in the press as inconsequential and irrelevant, this is wishful thinking. The audience for classical music tends to be educated and well-read. Their responses to unfamiliar music are strongly shaped by the opinions they read and the assumptions underlying them, lacking in theoretical rigor though they may be. I encourage listeners to read such opinions critically, challenge those predicated on questionable assumptions, and hold critics to a higher standard in making judgments.

See www.walter-simmons.com for hundreds of articles and reviews

MusicWeb-International.com
October 2018

American Traditionalist Composers and the Music of Samuel Jones

Histories of American classical music in the 20th century typically begin with the bold experimentation of Charles Ives, who created sound collages using familiar American tunes. They then move on to the arrival of jazz and its great influence on American composers such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, who were seeking a distinctly American “sound.” Inevitably the subject of an alleged “crisis of tonality” is raised, a phenomenon that led many composers to explore a variety of radical new paths: serialism, indeterminacy, aleatory, microtonality, and others. These new directions were part of an avant-garde movement that became known as “Modernism”: an aesthetic perspective that influenced all the arts during and after World War I.

The Modernist position in music held that Romanticism—especially its focus on the emotional life of the composer—was no longer relevant to the concerns of the new century. Around 1920 Arnold Schoenberg devised his “twelve-tone” system—an alternative to the organizing principle of tonality, later developed into a more comprehensive approach known as “Serialism.” Schoenberg actually saw in twelve-tone composition a means of perpetuating the supremacy of Austro-Germanic music into the future, but many of his followers promoted this system as “international,” scorning the provinciality of more nationalistic approaches. Most public audiences, however, were unmoved by—even hostile to—the twelve-tone music they heard. From the outset atonality was aimed at, and appealed to, an elite, specialized group.

During the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression, composers who were unwilling to limit their work to a small group of specialists turned to recognizably American themes and musical styles. They were successful in reaching a broader audience and their music enjoyed a brief period in the limelight. Although the quest to create an American symphonic repertoire dated back to the mid-1800s, it was not until the 1930s and 40s that a distinctive American symphonic school of composition began to emerge. Most of the composers who participated in this movement—Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and others—were eager to find an appreciative audience for their work and attempted to evoke a sense of the “American character” or the “American experience” in a way that would be discernible to the untrained listener. Many incorporated jazz, folk, and popular elements in their work; others sought ways of reconciling modernism with more traditional approaches. These composers, too, enjoyed a brief period of attention, as well as popular and critical favor. A handful of composers—Copland and Samuel Barber, for example—developed prominent reputations that outlasted the brief period when these trends were in vogue, and their music is still heard today; however most enjoyed either a brief period of exposure or were overlooked completely.

During the middle decades of the 20th century, Modernists persuaded many influential critics and academicians that theirs was the logical next step. But the American music-loving public never accepted the music composed in the wake of the tonal system. In fact, many European composers at the time who did not embrace Modernism—Ravel, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and Rachmaninoff, for example—were achieving tremendous popular success in the United States, as well as in Europe. By the mid-1950s the Modernists—especially the twelve-toners—established influential power-bases in the music departments of Princeton, Columbia, and other major American universities, where composers were freed from the responsibility of having to win acceptance for their creative fruits in the marketplace of music lovers. Touting its “internationalism,” this approach, as articulated by provocative, outspoken European advocates like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and by Americans like Milton Babbitt, successfully pre-empted the American symphonic school. In 1952 Boulez wrote, “I . . . assert that any musician who has not experienced . . . the necessity for the [twelve-tone] language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”1

With an abundance of theoretical writing to elaborate its principles and support its claims, Serialism lent itself to the academic propensity for abstract rationalization, aligning itself with subjects like mathematics, linguistics, and philosophy. Scholars who embraced the Modernist view of musical history propagated it in their teaching and writing, and, by suppressing or discrediting alternative interpretations, succeeded in achieving intellectual hegemony. Composers like Elliott Carter and even Copland, who had embraced the nationalist/populist aesthetic during the 1940s, began to incorporate aspects of Serialism into their work during the 1950s. Recalling in 2000 the “fractious decades after World War II,” Anthony Tommasini described in the New York Times how university composers “seized the intellectual high ground and bullied their colleagues and students into accepting serial procedures as the only valid form of modernism. All those fusty holdouts still clinging to tonality were laughably irrelevant, the serialists argued. And if beleaguered audiences and even many critics recoiled from 12-tone music, well, . . . that was their problem.”2

 The contemptuous attitude of Modernist composers was crystallized in a notorious article, published with the title “Who Cares If You Listen?” by Serial composer Milton Babbitt.3 Sadly, force-feeding these nontraditional musical styles left the public increasingly uncertain of its own reactions and insecure in its own tastes, leading to a gradual estrangement of the audience from the music of its own time.

The piece of the truth that was suppressed during this aesthetic fiat was that there continued to be many American composers for whom the crisis of tonality was not a central issue, nor were the other issues that concerned the modernists. Yet few of the conventional accounts of American musical history included any but the two or three most prominent of these “Traditionalist” composers, leaving most of them in the lists of miscellaneous “others” typically found at the ends of chapters. Traditionalists were typically dismissed as shallow, unoriginal, or derivative, academic journeymen of limited talent, panderers to commercial interests, or guilty of some other deficiency of character or artistry. By 1979, Serial composer Charles Wuorinen went so far as to say, “the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers,” adding, “it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream,” having “been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.”4

The disparagement and suppression from about 1955 until about 1975 of new music that retained a connection to tonality was reflected in dismissive reviews, few performances, and a minimal number of recordings. The most celebrated figures had admittedly enjoyed sufficient popular success to ensure their works an enduring foothold in the repertoire and other traditionalists who had achieved substantial reputations as a result of their positions as administrators or highly regarded pedagogues were accorded the nominal respect typically associated with such positions. But the works of even these figures, not to mention those with less prominent reputations, were simply disregarded, their contributions denigrated and relegated to the periphery of the musical arena. By the late 1980s serialism had lost many of its followers. Yet, as recently as 2007, critic Alex Ross made no mention of the Traditionalist alternatives to Modernism in his widely-praised book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century.5

Some commentators do not accept the Modernist interpretation of musical history, nor many of the assumptions on which it is based. For example, while many theorists have argued that the tonal system served as a fundamental organizing principle for all Western classical music, this is really true only in the Austro-Germanic line of musical evolution; it is not so in the styles that evolved in the other surrounding countries, except insofar as composers in these countries chose to adopt the Austro-Germanic aesthetic. These commentators reject the belief that the evolution of the tonal system proceeded according to a linear progression that led inevitably to the dissolution of tonality altogether. More broadly, one might question the view that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of linear progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all contenders are racing—the prize going to the one who gets there first.

By the late 1970s, Modernist attitudes had begun to lose ground. Discouraged by the unwavering hostility and indifference of audiences to their works, an increasing number of Modernist composers—most notably George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, and David Del Tredici—began to question the linear view of music history that had served as their aesthetic premise. Many also acknowledged the intellectual snobbery, blind conformity, and self-serving careerism that underlay the agendas of many in the avant-garde and began to seek ways of achieving a meeting-ground with general audiences. Composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and, later, John Adams had been developing a defiantly tonal, if not simplistic, approach that became known as “Minimalism.” A radical repudiation of the intellectual complexity of Serialism, Minimalism aroused an astonishingly enthusiastic response from audiences; however, most of the composers who had maintained their commitment to traditional tonality all along were now largely forgotten. While the music of a figure as prominent as Samuel Barber was soon heard widely again, he was still identified more as an anachronism than as the most prominent example of a significant aesthetic alternative.

One could argue that the marginalization of these “alternative” figures deprived the listening public of an important and rewarding repertoire; that the value of music lies in the myriad temperaments, personalities, perceptions, and perspectives on life-and-the-cosmos reflected in it; that the most interesting composers are those whose music reveals the most rewarding perspectives, and does so through the means that convey them most effectively and convincingly. One might further argue that the compositional languages adopted by the Traditionalists of the 20th century allowed for a richer, subtler, more varied range of musical expression than ever before in history. By retaining the notion of tonality as a center of gravity—but not as a fundamental structural principle and without replacing it with another arbitrary system like Serialism—they freed tonality to function as an expressive parameter of the greatest nuance, in conjunction with other parameters like melody, rhythm, tone color, and so on. “Traditionalist” refers to composers who embraced the continuing viability of tonality, as well as the musical forms and developmental principles on which the body of Western classical music has been based. Some of the Traditionalists even used atonality as a legitimate expressive device within tonal works. The most distinguished Traditionalist composers created substantial bodies of work notable for their richness, variety, accessibility, and expressive power; their music reveals distinctive individual features, recognizable stylistic traits, and consistent themes and attitudes, as did the acknowledged masterpieces of the past. Much of this music had—and still has—the ability to bridge the gap between composer and audience, to enrich a musical repertoire that has become stagnant with the endless repetition of the tried and true, and to engage the enthusiasm of those seeking the adventure of discovering new creative personalities and their masterpieces, rather than merely the reassurance and soporific comfort of the overly familiar.6

Since the early 1990s, some have begun to reconsider the Traditionalist composers whose work has been languishing in the footnotes of mainstream textbooks. Dismissive judgments made decades ago are being re-examined. Conductors like Gerard Schwarz, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony for many years, undertook a series of highly praised recordings of American Traditionalists so that their music might enjoy a fresh hearing. These were composers who were more concerned with their own individual expressive purposes than with novel compositional procedures.7

In an attempt to create clarity in identifying the common aesthetic elements embraced, American Traditionalist composers can be divided into five main categories. As with all such schema, this categorization represents something of an oversimplification; it doesn’t apply to every Traditionalist, and there are some who created works that fall into multiple categories.

1. “Neoclassicists” sought to return to the textural clarity, emotional restraint, and formal symmetry characteristic of music from the 18th century, while adopting bracing harmonic dissonance. They were strongly influenced by composers like Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. Some of the best-known American Neoclassicists are Walter Piston and Robert Muczynski.8

2. “Nationalists” and “Populists” created a distinctly American sound that would appeal to a broad public. Some used elements of jazz and popular music while others used actual American folk tunes. The most prominent examples among this group are Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Roy Harris.

3. “Modern Traditionalists” continued to embrace traditional forms such as the sonata, symphony, and concerto, like the Neoclassicists, and they often employed harmonic languages that were quite dissonant. But unlike the Neoclassicists they did not necessarily aim toward clarity and restraint, but more often strove toward a brash, hard-edged monumentality. Many of the Modern Traditionalists displayed recognizably American qualities, but without using actual popular or nationalistic elements. Among the best-known representatives of this group are William Schuman and David Diamond.9

4. “American Opera Composers.” Although many of these composers share stylistic features with some of the other groups of traditionalists, they warrant a separate category because these figures have concentrated almost exclusively on the venerable operatic genre. Examples of this group include Gian Carlo Menotti, Carlisle Floyd, and Dominick Argento.

5. “Neo-Romantics” are those composers whose work is primarily concerned with the evocation of mood, the depiction of drama—either abstract or referential—and the expression of emotion—personal, subjective emotion, in particular. The Neo-Romantics embraced many of the stylistic features of late-19th century music, and they may be viewed as the most conservative of the traditionalists. In fact, the very term ‘‘Neo-Romantic’’ is less than ideal, as the prefix ‘‘neo-’’ implies the revival of a stylistic concept from the past. But the early Neo-Romantics were not reviving a style from the past—they were evolving along a continuum still very much alive. The composers who served as their chief sources of influence and points of departure were Richard Strauss, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Debussy, and Ravel. These composers were still active when the American arch-Neo-Romantic Howard Hanson began composing. And the younger Neo-Romantics viewed these same Europeans as their immediate antecedents. But while the term may not be 100% accurate, it has commonly been used to identify this group of composers.

Perhaps more than any other group among the American traditionalists, the Neo-Romantics have borne a stigma of disrepute. Certainly the general listening public is most readily drawn to music with the qualities associated with the Romantic aesthetic. But an implied assumption underlying much critical and musicological commentary suggests that a direct appeal to the emotions represents a lower form of artistic expression, as if accessibility somehow diminished the magnitude of a work’s aesthetic achievement. Such an attitude plagued the reputations of earlier Romantics like Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Strauss, and Rachmaninoff for years; indeed, it is only since the end of the 20th century that the critical community has acknowledged their greatness without significant reservations. Compounding the problem for the American Neo-Romantics are the additional stigmas of being Americans in a field still considered to belong chiefly to Europeans, as well as continuing to embrace a style whose time has allegedly passed. In 1978, when an interviewer inquired of Howard Hanson whether his famous “Romantic” Symphony perhaps appealed to a lower order of listener, the composer commented, “That’s what the intellectual would like to have you think . . . [but] I get letters to this day from those who are not morons saying that their favorite [symphonies] are the Fourth of Brahms and [my] Romantic Symphony.”10

As recently as 2002, a New York Times critic capped off a begrudging acknowledgment of the effectiveness of a neo-Romantic opera with the revealing statement that it “seems to be a solid work at the lower end of the artistic spectrum, like a piece of furniture from Ikea: secretly better than it’s supposed to be.”11 Similarly, just a couple of years ago Howard Hanson’s opera Merry Mount—a huge hit when it was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1934—was performed for the first time in New York since its premiere. Writing in The New Yorker, Alex Ross gave the performance only passing mention, describing the work as “entertainingly schlocky.”12

What does that mean? It seems Ross enjoyed it, but felt the need to protect himself from criticism by his peers by adding the word “schlocky,” derived from a Yiddish word meaning cheap, inferior, or trashy. Both these reviewers acknowledged the appeal of the works they were covering, but felt the need to deprecate their own favorable reactions.

There may be some truth to the claim that composers whose music appeals directly to the emotions may be less concerned with matters typically viewed as ‘‘intellectual,’’ such as formal coherence and structural complexity. But one may legitimately question why an appeal to the intellect necessarily represents an order of artistic experience superior to an appeal to the emotions (except insofar as it satisfies humanity’s vain quest to elevate itself above the animal kingdom). But perhaps a more important question is whether an appeal to the emotions must somehow compromise legitimate formal and structural values. One might argue that there is a Neo-Romantic ideal, in which the expression of emotion, depiction of drama, and evocation of mood are joined with, rather than opposed to, formal coherence, developmental rigor, and structural economy. Instead of representing mutually exclusive polarities, these two aesthetic objectives can complement each other in producing a heightened, intensified artistic experience. It is this ideal toward which the greatest Neo-Romantic composers have striven, and have, at times, achieved.

Like their European predecessors, the American Neo-Romantics tended to emphasize intense, passionate emotional expression, lavishly colored instrumental sonorities, and a rich, chromatic harmonic language derived from expanded triadic harmony. Though they may have been unapologetically conservative, there are points that distinguish them from their European predecessors. For one, most American Neo-Romantics use Classical forms more frequently, economically, and in a more disciplined manner than their European models, such as Mahler and Strauss. Second, they display certain characteristics often identified as “American”—chiefly a heightened importance of rhythmic drive, with patterns that are often irregular, asymmetrical, and syncopated—and, associated with this, a greater and more varied use of percussion instruments. Third, especially later in the 20th century, the Neo-Romantics expanded the language of their predecessors by raising the “dissonance quotient,” so to speak. Such harmony added richness, harshness, or both, thereby expanding the expressive potential of the language. Fourth, the later American Neo-Romantics used the flow between tonality and atonality as an expressive device, its relative strength or weakness contributing to a sense of emotional stability or lack thereof in the work at hand. Further, in these later Neo-Romantic compositions, a subjective perception of tonality may be absent altogether for periods of time, allowing for the expression of more extreme emotional contrasts. But even when a tonal center is barely perceived, subjectively experienced tensions rooted in tonal expectations serve as important expressive elements.

While the American Neo-Romantic approach emerged during the 1930s, it did not end with that generation of composers. As has been stated, many later composers followed this path, adopting the aesthetic values of their predecessors and extending them in their own personal directions. One of the most distinguished American Neo-Romantics of the “next generation” is Samuel Jones. Jones was born in 1935 and, now in his 80s, continues to actively compose. He was a composition student of Neo-Romantic pioneer Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned his Master’s and Doctoral degrees. Although his early compositions show Hanson’s strong influence— and one of his later compositions, A Symphonic Requiem, is based on Hanson’s best known melody—Jones has developed his own musical language, one that is considerably more technically sophisticated and varied in its expression than that of his mentor.

Jones was born in Mississippi, where he grew up and received his education through his undergraduate degree. In addition to composing, he has been active as both a conductor and a member of the academic world, in the dual roles of teacher and administrator. As conductor, he founded the Alma Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, led the Saginaw Symphony (also in Michigan), and finally served as Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic—a major orchestra in the city where he received his professional education. He held this position from 1965 to 1972. Perhaps his most distinguished academic accomplishment was founding the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in 1973, serving as Dean for six years, and remaining there in various capacities for 24 years. After retiring from the Shepherd School in 1997, he served for 14 years as Composer-in-Residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.13

But it is Jones’s compositions that represent his primary achievements. Over the years he has amassed a varied output of more than 40 works, including three symphonies, a touching opera based on Truman Capote’s well-known story A Christmas Memory, a religious oratorio, and even a children’s piece for narrator and orchestra based on a story by Eudora Welty. Among his most distinguished contributions are a series of six concertos, all written since 2006. These feature the tuba, the French horn, the cello, the violin, the trombone, and the flute. In many ways these concertos establish Jones’s place among contemporary composers as a mature, confident, and eloquent compositional voice. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and commissions from many of the country’s most auspicious musical organizations, and his works have been performed by some of America’s finest orchestras.14

Although Jones’s productivity as a composer dates back to the late 1950s—the period when twelve-tone music was dominating the compositional scene—he remained loyal to the Neo-Romantic ideal, and has continued to do so to this day. This can be observed in his rich treatment of the orchestra, as well as in his receptiveness to extra-musical influences, from the wedding anniversary of friends and the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas to the relationship between fathers and their daughters. But in keeping with the Neo-Romantic ideal, his use of extramusical sources of inspiration does not in any way compromise clarity of formal logic. Regardless of its program, each work stands as an abstract, autonomous entity that does not require an awareness of its source of inspiration in order for it to make sense. Jones’s music offers a generous flow of melody, the readily discernable expression of emotion, and a clear sense of tonality, despite a harmonic language that some might at times describe as dissonant.

Samuel Jones is one of the foremost American Neo-Romantics of his generation. His music displays a direct connection to those of his predecessors who followed this aesthetic path. Familiarizing oneself with his works and programming them in orchestral concerts is rewarding to conductors and performers, as well as to audiences, while demonstrating that American composers have continued to create appealing and deeply moving contributions to the repertoire.

Footnotes

  1. Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship, (New York, Knopf, 1968), 148.
  2. Anthony Tommasini, “Midcentury Serialists: The Bullies or the Besieged,” New York Times, July 9, 2000. 
  3. Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?” High Fidelity, February, 1958. 
  4. Charles Wuorinen, Simple Composition, (New York: Longman, 1979), 3. 
  5. Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).
  6. Walter Simmons, “Contemporary Music: A Weekend of Reflections,” Fanfare, May-June, 1981.
  7. Walter Simmons, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004). 
  8. R. James Tobin, Voices of Clarity and Restraint: Neoclassical Music in America, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 1-11.
  9. Walter Simmons, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 8-12. 
  10. David Russell Williams, Conversations with Howard Hanson, (Arkadelphia, AR: Delta Publications, 1988), 6. 
  11. Anne Midgette, “Opera Review: Finding the Musical Romance in a Chekhov Play,” New York Times, December 14, 2001.
  12. Alex Ross, “Climate Change,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2014.
  13. “Biography.” Samuel Jones, Composer. http://samueljones.net/longbio.html 
  14. “Samuel Jones.” Carl Fischer Musichttp://www.carlfischer.com/composer/jones-samuel/

Bibliography

 Babbitt, Milton. ‘‘Who Cares If You Listen?’’ High Fidelity (February 1958), 38–40, 126–       127. 
“Biography.” Samuel Jones, Composerhttp://samueljones.net/longbio.html
Boulez, Pierre. Notes of an Apprenticeship. New York: Knopf, 1968. 
Midgette, Anne. “Opera Review: Finding the Musical Romance in a Chekhov Play.” New    York Times(December 14, 2001). 
Ross, Alex. “Climate Change.” The New Yorker (May 26, 2014). 
___. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and     Giroux, 2007. 
“Samuel Jones.” Carl Fischer Music.           http://www.carlfischer.com/composer/jonessamuel/
Simmons, Walter. “Contemporary Music: A Weekend of Reflections.” Fanfare (May– June 1981), 22–23. 
___. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. Lanham, MD:          Scarecrow Press, 2004. 
___. Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti,    and Peter Mennin. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011. 
Tawa, Nicholas. American Composers and Their Public. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow    Press, 1995.
___. A Most Wondrous Babble. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. 
___. Serenading the Reluctant Eagle: American Musical Life, 1925–1945. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984. 
Tobin, R. James. Voices of Clarity and Restraint: Neoclassical Music in America.       Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 
Tommasini, Anthony. “Midcentury Serialists: The Bullies or the Besieged.” New York   Times (9 July 2000). 
Williams, David Russell. Conversations with Howard Hanson. Arkadelphia, AR: Delta Publications, 1988. 
Wuorinen, Charles. Simple Composition. New York, Longman, 1979.

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who has been intensely interested in 20th -century music since his early teens. Holding a master’s degree in theory and musicology from the Manhattan School of Music, he has contributed to several editions of the New Grove Dictionary of MusicAmerican National Biography, the AllMusic Guide, and scores of other publications, including the American Record Guideand Musical America. In addition, he was a regular contributor to Fanfare for 35 years. Simmons has been active as a radio host and producer, a program annotator, lecturer, and teacher, a repertoire consultant, and a producer of recordings and educational materials about music. Through his recording productions—as well as his recommendations to record company executives, conductors and soloists—he has made available commercially more than 85 works never before recorded or, in some cases, even performed. Simmons is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism and the National Educational Film Festival Award. In 2004 his book, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, was published by Scarecrow Press, a subsidiary of Roman and Littlefield. This was followed by a second book, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin (2011). Simmons is supervising editor of Rowman and Littlefield’s ongoing music series, Twentieth-Century Traditionalists. Hundreds of his writings can be found on his website: www.WalterSimmons.com.

Walter Simmons
© Journal of the Conductors Guild, Vol. 33

Arnold Rosner (1945-2013)

American composer Arnold Rosner died in his Brooklyn apartment on his 68th birthday, November 8, 2013. Rosner was born in New York City, where his father owned a candy store. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, NYU, and the University of Buffalo, where he earned the first doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York. Rosner had been on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College (CUNY) for several decades. He leaves behind a sister, Irene.

Rosner was one of the true maverick composers of his generation. In some ways it is easier to define his approach to music by what he shunned than by what he embraced. Rosner rejected all the compositional styles that seized the limelight during the course of his career. Though in many ways a staunch traditionalist, he didn’t align himself with more conservative approaches either. While he decried what he saw as the sterility of the serialists and the experimentalists, as well as the mindlessness of the minimalists, he also loathed the sentimentality of the neo-romantics and the dry formalism of the neo-classicists. He developed his vision of a musical ideal around the time he entered high school, and, though he refined and elaborated this vision throughout his life, he never repudiated it, and paid a significant price for his stubborn adherence to it.

Rosner’s music was predicated on the modal polyphony of the Renaissance and early Baroque, as well as on the pre-tonal harmony of late Medieval dance music, and the free triadicism and rhythmic phraseology of that music underlay his entire output, regardless of how far from those sources he ventured. He saw a world of difference between the free triadicism of, say, Monteverdi or Gesualdo, and the major-minor dualism of Classical 18th-century tonality, which he despised and found insipid.  He seasoned these rather austere elements with a pinch of Judaica, and combined them with the rich luxuriance of 19th-century orchestration and a Romantic sense of drama. In some works he displayed a Hindemithian vigor and in others the stark brutality of Shostakovich. These basic elements may seem antithetical to each other in many ways, but therein lies the remarkable individuality of Rosner’s music. When he discovered pieces such as the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams, Mysterious Mountain by Alan Hovhaness, the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, and the Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich, he regarded them as precedents that justified the ideal vision he sought to realize. But what makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely a homogenization of earlier styles, is the way that his unusual language is capable of embracing an enormous expressive range—far broader than one might imagine possible—from serene beauty to violent rage, with many points in between. And despite its fusion of seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible to even untutored listeners.

Fiercely independent, Rosner shunned any of the institutions or organizations with which he might have aligned himself. Although he earned his living in an academic setting, he never took advantage of the opportunities open to academic composers. As desperately as he sought acceptance, he would have it only on his own terms. Without his cultivating opportunities for performance, his music initially attracted the attention of only a small number of equally independent-minded musicians and music lovers. As the years passed, his works gained no foothold within the world of professional musicians, and he became increasingly embittered. Deciding simply to bypass the conventional music institutions, he began to produce recordings of his music and make them available to the public. These recordings, where a sizable portion of his output may be heard, were highly praised by most of the review media, and Rosner began to develop a modest following of committed enthusiasts who recognized the value of his unique voice.

Rosner’s final output comprises more than a hundred compositions: three operas, eight symphonies, six string quartets, three a cappella Mass settings and a large Requiem Mass, three piano sonatas, and a host of other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. Two of his symphonies have been released by Naxos, and six CDs of his music can be found on the Albany label. At the time of his death he was in the middle of a project with the University of Houston Wind Ensemble to record all his music for wind band. Performance materials for Rosner’s music are available from Carson Cooman, www.carsoncooman.com.

Link: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/in-memoriam-arnold-rosner-1945-2013/

The Houston Connection

As regular readers may be aware, I have a fondness for American wind band music—especially from the generation of composers who contributed to that repertoire during the 1950s and the 20 or 30 years that followed. During the decades of my tenure at Fanfare, I have reviewed many recordings of this repertoire, and much of it is well-represented on compact disc. But there were three works in particular that I felt were especially outstanding, yet were never available commercially, or in performances that represented them in a favorable light. So I began advocating on their behalf, urging recordings of them in every review of band music that I wrote over a period of several years. The three works were Variations and Fugue, by Vittorio Giannini, Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds,” by Nicolas Flagello, and a more recent work, Trinity—subsequently identified as Symphony No. 8—by Arnold Rosner.

In June of 2003 I received an e-mail from a Merlin Patterson—a name new to me. He identified himself as a Fanfare reader, and referred to my exhortations regarding Giannini’s Variations and Fugue. He asked whether I would be interested in producing a recording of the complete band music of Giannini. (Giannini composed five works for band between the years 1958-65. One of them—his Symphony No. 3—has become a classic of the repertoire, and is performed more frequently than the rest of the composer’s entire output combined; it has been recorded brilliantly a number of times. But the four other pieces had never been available commercially, although I was familiar with them all from live performances. It so happened that these five works would fit nicely on a single CD.) I immediately responded with interest, but wondered what band Patterson had in mind, and how this might all be arranged. At that point he revealed that he had been involved with the Moores School of Music Wind Ensemble at the University of Houston for a number of years in an ongoing relationship as their “unofficial arranger.” In this capacity he had undertaken a series of transcriptions for band of major orchestral works—major works such as Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Planets, and Janacek’s Sinfonietta. In order to persuade me of the quality of the wind ensemble (and in the process demonstrating that he was no dilettante), he sent me recordings of these and others of his transcriptions, as performed by the Houston ensemble. He said that if I were interested in pursuing a recording of the Giannini project with them, he thought he could make it happen. Listening to the recordings he sent, I was greatly impressed with the band’s performance standards, as well with the quality of Patterson’s transcriptions. To say that I was excited would be an understatement, and I told him I was on board.

Over the course of the next few months Patterson (or “Pat,” as he is known informally) followed through with his plan. He successfully persuaded the principals of the University’s Moores School of Music, including the wind ensemble’s conductor Tom Bennett, of the merits of this project; as a specialist in the music of Giannini, I would serve as producer. Having already produced one recording for Naxos, I indicated that the company might be interested in this one as well. And, indeed, several months later Naxos did agree to release the recording. In the meantime, Bennett began rehearsing the wind ensemble—primarily undergraduates—in the music that would be on the program, while Pat and I maintained contact and worked out details via phone and e-mail.

Then, early in March, 2004, I was flown down from New York to Houston and for the first time met Pat Patterson and the others involved in the recording: It turned out that Bennett had assembled a terrific and cooperative team with Joe Dixon as session producer and David Burks as engineer. All were musicians and invested in the musical outcome. We spent one solid weekend recording all the music for the disc. As most of my work as producer has involved music that has never been previously recorded—or sometimes even performed—I have often said that participating as “midwife” in the process of bringing such works to life has given me the greatest thrills I have ever experienced. This weekend in Houston was no exception. Working smoothly and cooperatively with a team of people I had never met before, on music for which we all shared a love, was gratifying to the point of sheer euphoria—and certainly shattered the stereotypes of Texans previously held by this northeasterner—while the musical results were all I had hoped for. The band was amazingly focused and dedicated, and it quickly became clear that they had been disciplined and inspired to strive toward the highest musical standards. I was surprised to see that they spent a good hour on various intonation and balance exercises before playing a note. But what I will never forget is how Bennett had the group sing their parts in certain passages of the music—again without playing a note—and were coached on their phrasing and expression based on their singing. When they were asked to sing their parts at the exposition of the second theme of the first movement of the Symphony No. 3, I could not keep my eyes from tearing up. By the end of the weekend I was so impressed with the overall ambience of the Moores School of Music that I was ready to leave New York and move there. But more realistically, my long-held dream of a recording of Giannini’s Variations and Fugue—much more demanding and complex than the popular Symphony—would soon become a reality.

During the weekend’s down-time I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Pat Patterson. I realized that he was not just a “band guy,” but—despite the Texas accent—a serious musician with a rich fund of musical knowledge comparable to that of my most sophisticated colleagues. We had some stimulating conversations and, as the weekend was proceeding so smoothly, we began to talk about the possibility of another recording project. Needless to say, I mentioned the two other works on my “must record” list, those of Flagello and Rosner. Pat was already somewhat familiar with both composers. He knew Flagello’s Symphony of the Winds through the abysmal recording that was then on the market, and several works by Rosner, but not Trinity. The prospect of recording these pieces seemed to appeal to him. I also mentioned Flagello’s last work, the Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, which had been performed several times by the New York-based New Hudson Saxophone Quartet with a number of different orchestras. In fact, we had a plan to record the work later that year with the Rutgers University Orchestra. Although very effective in its original guise, I mentioned to Pat that the piece would probably generate more activity in a transcription for band. That idea also seemed to pique his interest, and he asked me to send him a score and tape.

As soon as I returned home, I sent Pat the material he had requested; impressed with the Concerto Sinfonico, he began work on the transcription almost immediately. I also sent him a tape of a horrid reading of Rosner’s Trinity. He was bowled over by the work, and saw its potential despite the quality of the performance. We began to discuss the possibility of a recording that would include all these pieces, and he introduced the idea to the personnel at the University. Meanwhile, Pat completed his transcription of the Concerto Sinfonico early in 2005, and presented it to conductor Tom Bennett, who agreed to program it on a concert scheduled for that spring. The New Hudson Saxophone Quartet was enlisted for this performance, and the results indicated how successful Pat’s transcription proved to be.

In 1964 Flagello had written a brooding, somber five-minute piece called Introduction and Scherzo in response to a commission for a contest piece for solo accordion. Although I later learned that the piece was well known among the community of serious accordionists, this was admittedly a small community with little intersection with the larger world of concert music. In 1984, while Flagello was composing the Concerto Sinfonico, it occurred to me that the saxophone quartet—an increasingly respectable musical medium—would be an ideal vehicle for the transcription of an accordion work. I suggested this to Flagello, and he said it sounded like a good idea, but by the time he completed the Concerto Sinfonico, his health had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer work. So I decided to undertake the transcription myself, entitling it Valse Noire.

Meanwhile, Pat had spoken a great deal about the high quality of the saxophonists at the school, and informed me that the University of Houston Saxophone Quartet was a top-notch ensemble that had won a number of competitions. He felt that they would be great as the solo group in the Concerto Sinfonico, if we were going to include that on this next recordingThe thought immediately occurred to me that in that case, we could include Valse Noire on the same disc.

Flagello’s Symphony of the Winds was not scored for the standard band instrumentation, but rather for a chamber ensemble consisting of only the winds and percussion of the symphony orchestra. But he did have one piece scored for a conventional symphonic band, called Odyssey. So we decided to include that on the recording as well, and now we had the program for a full CD. Pat approached Tom Bennett with this idea, and he responded with enthusiasm, and a plan was developed to produce this recording some time during the 2006-07 school year.

In May, 2006, Naxos released the Giannini recording, which was received most favorably (see Fanfare 30:1 and 30:2). But then came a series of delays: Tom Bennett left the University and was replaced by David Bertman, a very personable fellow I had met during the Giannini weekend. Once he had been comfortably installed as the new conductor of the Wind Ensemble, Pat presented our programming idea to him. Not familiar with any of the music we had in mind (no surprise), he asked to hear some samples, which I provided. Once he heard portions of some of the music he was eager to participate in our project. But the band had a number of other obligations, and our project had to be postponed—first to 2007-08, then to 2008-09. For a while it seemed as though the recording would never happen. (It was during this time that I realized that Pat had the musical background and intellectual sophistication to write music criticism himself, and I suggested to publisher Joel Flegler that he consider Merlin Patterson for Fanfare’s reviewing staff. Joel was impressed enough to hire Pat, who has since been a valuable contributor to the magazine.)

Finally, a commitment was made to record the music for our project in May, 2010. By the time I arrived for the sessions, David Bertman had been rehearsing the music with the Wind Ensemble for several weeks. By now he was really excited about the repertoire, thrilled about the project as a whole, and had successfully engendered the necessary enthusiasm from the band members. We then faced another long, intense weekend of recording; Arnold Rosner came down from Brooklyn to attend and supervise the recording of Trinity. Hearing the band play the opening contrapuntal passage with impeccable intonation and rich, organ-like sonorities, I was enormously gratified that my judgment of this work, despite the severely flawed reading I had heard, proved to be justified. As listeners will realize when they audition the recording, Rosner’s piece contains some very difficult passages, which required considerable detail work. As a result, despite our most intensive efforts, we were not able to complete the program during the weekend allotted to it. Specifically, recording the Concerto Sinfonico would have to be postponed. This meant waiting another year, as both David Bertman and the band had other obligations and responsibilities. Not until May, 2011, could the remaining work be recorded, and this was scheduled at a time I was not able to attend, although I had the opportunity to review and comment on the takes from New York.

Then came the process of editing the takes. Pat did most of the take-selection, while I reviewed his choices and offered suggestions where I felt necessary. But we needed an engineer to actually pull the takes together, and the fellow usually enlisted to do this work for the University ensembles was booked for months. We couldn’t stand the idea of any more delays. So I decided to call upon Carson Cooman, Fanfare’s Wunderkind, who—in addition to being a composer of 1000 works, a professional organist, a music critic, and a consultant to other composers—functions as a recording engineer, together with his friend and colleague Jeffrey Grossman. They agreed to edit the takes into a final master, and accomplished the task within a few days.

During the years of cancelled and postponed recording dates I realized that it would be unwise to solicit Naxos’s interest in the project until we had a finished master. Now we had such a master, approved by Bertman, Patterson, and me. Only then did I contact Naxos, who agreed to release it in their “Wind Band Classics” series (of which the Giannini CD had been one of the first releases). With the appearance of this new release, I finally have those three “must record” works for band on the market; David Bertman has a recording that displays his fine musical leadership on an internationally-distributed label; Merlin Patterson is represented by an excellent example of his extraordinary ability to transcribe orchestral music for band; the Moores School of Music has a showcase for two of their top ensembles; Naxos continues to provide wide distribution for unknown but deserving works; Arnold Rosner is enjoying the first of his band works to appear on a commercial recording; and the general public has the opportunity to experience fine performances of some really wonderful music they are not likely to have ever heard before.

Paul Creston: Maintaining a Middle Course

An autodidact by necessity as well as by temperament, Giuseppe Gut­toveggio was born seventy years ago to immigrant parents in New York City and was forced to take a full-time job before finishing high school. Although he had taken piano lessons as a child from a mediocre local teacher, his more advanced instrumental attain­ments as well as his mastery of the techniques of theory and composition were accomplished on his own. In 1927, he assumed the name Paul Creston and married the dancer Louise Gotto. Gradually his menial jobs were replaced by positions as theater and church organist, teacher, and radio musician.

Creston’s career as a composer and teacher has been characterized by a sincere, steadfast, and diligent adher­ence to a carefully evolved set of fun­damental musical and metaphysical principles, formed at the time of his decision to become a composer in 1932. Having resolved to pursue a professional career as a composer, he began to produce a steady flow of works. In 1934, Henry Cowell introduced him and his music at the New School for Social Research, his first important public exposure. There followed a Guggenheim fellowship in 1938, and in 1943 his importance as a composer was established when his First Symphony won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. This award proved a turning point after which commissions and performances by major artists and ensembles fol­lowed. Such noted conductors as Toscanini, Stokowski, Rodzinski, and Ormandy performed his music in the 1940s. In 1948, he was the subject of an article in the Musical Quarterly, and by the 1950s Creston was regarded as one of the handful of leading American composers along with Copland, Barber and Gould.

Permeating his teaching, composing, and writing has been the credo which he has followed throughout his career. It is probably best expressed by excerpting from his own words:

 I consider music, and more specifically the writing of it, as a spiritual practice. . . . To me, musical composition is as vital to my spiritual welfare as prayer and good deeds, just as good food and exercise are necessities of physical health, and thought and study are requisites of mental well-being. . . .

I also consider music as a language: a language which begins where words end, a language much more precise, more effective and more indispensable than any verbal tongue of man. Being a language, it consequently has many uses, all equally indigenous. All I ask of any composition is that it fulfill its particular purpose for it to be consid­ered good music, whether it be a cradle-song, a military march or a symphony. I cannot agree with the ultra-purists or snobs who regard only suites, sonatas and symphonies as good music and any other type as an indignity.

Concerning the more specific aspects of composition, I believe all the elements of music — rhythm, melody, counterpoint, harmony, form and tone color — should be given due consideration to attain the perfect balance of a good musical composition. This does not mean that one element may not be pre­dominant in a particular work. It merely means that no element is completely ignored. The element that is consistently disregarded is that of rhythm. A student of composition is taught harmony and counterpoint and form. Sometimes mention is made of melody. But in the matter of rhythm he is left to shift for himself.

My philosophic approach to composition is abstract. I am preoccupied with matters of melodic design, harmonic coloring, rhythmic pulse and formal progression, not with imitations of nature, or narra­tions of fairy tales, or propoundings of sociological ideologies. Not that the source of inspiration may not be a picture or a story; only that, regardless of the school of thought, a musical composition must bear judgment on purely musical criteria. The intrinsic worth of a composition depends on the integration of musical elements toward a unified whole. . . .

In my music, as in my life, I have striven to abide by the Golden Symbol of Pythagoras, “Go not beyond the balance.” In other words, I have tried to determine and follow the golden mean or happy medium, and to avoid extremes of any kind or nature. It is not surprising, then, that I have been called a radical by conservatives and a conservative by radicals; which .gives me a great sense of justifica­tion and convinces me that I must be on the right track: maintaining the balance. . . .
I utilize in my music all that is good in music from ancient times to the present, so long as it is clothed in 20th-century language. I am not and never have been a revolutionary. I believe that the accomplishments and experience of 400 years should not be discarded: they should be built on and developed; that, in musical developments there has never been revolution but evolution.

I make no special effort to be American in my music. I try to be myself, which is American by birth, Italian by parentage, and cosmopolitan by choice. I do not compose for musicians and musicologists exclu­sively but for intelligent listeners and music lovers. I do not compose to shock or to confound but to com­municate expressions of joy or exhilaration or spirituality. . . .

The manifestations and ramifications of these beliefs may be clearly perceived in Creston’s music, although only a few can be touched on here. The backbone of Creston’s compositional output is undoubtedly his five symphonies, which represent all the dimensions of his unique musical style in their most fully-elaborated forms. Foremost among these characteristics is Creston’s predominating concern with the rhythmic element in his music. Rather than an underlying framework that is felt but not heard, rhythmic manipulations — shifting meters against a regular pulse, a coun­terpoint of accents, of overlapping ostinati — become the focal point of the listener’s attention, creating an inner vitality recognizable instantly as Creston’s own “sound.” One can hear this in almost any of his pieces, but a good place to begin is perhaps his best-known work, the Symphony No. 2, composed to illustrate the duality of song and dance as the basic components of music. Incidentally, Creston explains his theory of rhythm with great clarity in his textbook, Principles of Rhythm; in addition, his 10-volume set, Rhythmicon, presents the subtleties of rhythm to the piano student in a highly attractive, carefully graded format.

Also contributing to the irrepressible vitality of Creston’s music is the special harmonic language that he calls “pantonal,” termed by Henry Cowell as “smooth dissonance.” This is the avoidance of clear tonal centers not by the use of a tone row or by highly dissonant chord structures, but simply by the use of successions of chords built upon the quality of the dominant seventh that never resolve where traditional harmony would dictate. These chains of non-resolving chords, instead of creating a sense of frustration, simply liberate the music from the bonds of tonality, creating a free, restless quality without a sense of harshness or abrasion. His treatment of harmony, with its deliberate  rein­forcement of the upper partials of the overtone series, and bass doubled at the octave, creates a richness of sonority that is highly individualistic as well.

Another facet of Creston’s compositional activity is his enrichment of the repertoires of many instruments suffer­ing from a shortage of solo or concerto works. His virtuoso works for sax­ophone, harp, trombone, marimba and accordion have become classics in their respective media. But Creston has not neglected the more popular concert instruments, having written also two violin concertos, a piano con­certo and a two-piano concerto. In fact, his Three Narratives is a mile­stone in contemporary piano literature.

During this period, when musicians all over the world are finally looking into the works of American com­posers, it has become evident that the twentieth century has seen the emergence of an entire body of concert music that is recognizably, though not self-consciously, American. For too long America’s cultural xenophilia has kept our eyes closed to the wealth of quality, variety, and individuality to be found in our own music. Paul Creston has the rare ability to compose in a manner both appealing to the layman, yet challenging to the professional. For those who wish to delve into our contem­porary musical heritage, Creston’s music is an ideal starting point.

The author has taught at Brooklyn College and is now music editor of Educational Audio Visual in Westchester. His music reviews appear in Music Journal) Fanfare, and the American Record Guide.

Robert Muczynski (1929-2010) Obituary.

American composer Robert Muczynski died on May 25, at age 81. I have often described Muczynski as the most frequently-performed composer whose music is never discussed. His Flute Sonata (1961) is in the repertoire of most flutists, and his Moments (1992) for flute and piano is well on the way to matching its success; his Saxophone Sonata (1970) is in the repertoire of most saxophonists; his Time Pieces (1984) is in the repertoire of most clarinetists; and his copious music for piano solo is heard on recitals throughout the country. Most of his music can be found on recordings. And yet, when was the last time you saw an article about Muczynski or his music? What accounts for both these phenomena?

Born in Chicago, Muczynski studied piano and composition at DePaul University with Alexander Tcherepnin, who was his most significant mentor. Initially he pursued a career as a composer-pianist, becoming a persuasive exponent of his own music. During the 1960s he moved to Tucson, joining the faculty of the University of Arizona as composer-in-residence. He held this position until his retirement in 1988. For the rest of his life he remained in Tucson, where he lived with his partner, documentary filmmaker Harry Atwood.

Muczynski concentrated his compositional efforts on works for solo piano and pieces for small chamber combinations. His music speaks the language of mid-20th-century American neoclassicism, tempered by a romantic sense of mood and affect. One might identify its underlying stylistic currents with reference to the phraseology of Bartók, the harmonic language and overall rhetoric found in the piano works of Barber, a fondness for 5- and 7-beat meters reminiscent of Bernstein, and a piquant sprinkling of “blue-notes” within its melodic structures. The music is modest, soft-spoken, earnest, and unpretentious in character, and is developed according to techniques that are thoroughly traditional—some might say conventional. The result is a friendly modernism—tonal but not reactionary, peppered with light dissonance and energetic asymmetries of rhythm—always expertly tailored to highlight the artistry of the performer in a manner idiomatic to the featured instrument.

It is not hard to understand why his pieces have been favored by music teachers and are often used as test-pieces in competitions. Indeed, music like this is easy to patronize—or would be, if it weren’t for what might be termed its essential honesty. Without ostentation, pretense, or much alteration of his basic style, Muczynski produced piece after piece of authentic musical expression, without hiding behind any of the compositional smokescreens to which so many composers resort. I am not referring only to the modernist smokescreens of technical complexity, originality, and pseudo-profound obfuscation; Muczynski also shunned empty virtuosity, grandiosity, overpowering emotionalism, opulent sonority, and eccentricity—the kinds of smokescreens to which more conservative composers fall victim in their weaker moments. Muczynski’s pieces tend to be short because his music is pure substance—nothing but the aesthetic basics: straightforward yet distinctive themes and motifs, woven into clear, transparent textures, developed logically but imaginatively into concise, satisfying, compelling formal entities. 

An overview of his output reveals how little Muczynski’s style changed over the course of four decades—perhaps moving from more overt reference to his musical models to a broader, freer expressive palette—holding steadfastly to a relatively narrow creative range. Yet what is most remarkable is how consistently high was the quality of its thematic material, its expressive content, and its workmanship, so that the music continues to sound fresh and imaginative, with little sense of redundancy. Some may find his music “tame,” but within the boundaries of its own language, there is plenty of dynamism and verve. In fact, after having been familiar with most of his music for several decades, I find virtually nothing—not even the simple Duos for flute and clarinet—less than fully realized.

Readers whose interest has been piqued may be pleased to learn that they can satisfy their curiosity and gain a thorough familiarity with Muczynski’s music through four compact discs—two on one label and two on another. What may well be the composer’s masterpiece is his Sonata for Cello and Piano (1968). A brilliant performance, featuring cellist Carter Enyeart and pianist Adam Wodnicki, may be heard on Centaur CRC 2300. Also among his finest pieces are three piano trios and a string trio. (In fact, the Piano Trio No. 1 [1967] would be my choice as the ideal introduction to Muczynski). These trios, along with a piece for cello solo, may be found in stupendous performances on another Centaur CD: CRC 2634. (For these pieces the aforementioned cellist and pianist are joined by violinist Robert Davidovici.) These CDs can be found at www.centaurrecords.com. Virtually all of Muczynski’s piano music can be heard in authoritative performances by the composer himself on two CDs: Laurel LR-862 and LR-863 (www.laurelrecords.com). The Laurel discs are filled out by the Flute Sonata, the Time Pieces, and the Duos (1973) for flute and clarinet. Though he may never be the subject of elaborate scholarly discussions, Muczynski’s music seems likely to retain a strong foothold in the repertoire during the years to come—and that is the ultimate dream of every composer.

PETER MENNIN: Biography

MENNIN, Peter (17 May 1923-17 June 1983), composer and educational administrator, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, the son of Attilio Mennini, a restaurant owner, and Amelia Bennaci. The elder Mennini was an avid record collector, and music was a central feature of the family environment. (Peter’s older brother Louis Mennini also became a professional composer. Peter later changed his name to avoid confusion between the two.) Young Peter began formal musical study at age 5, and started to compose at 7. He entered the Oberlin College Conservatory in 1940, but left to join the United States Army Air Force in 1942. By this time, he had already completed his First Symphony, a large work nearly an hour in duration. Upon completion of his military service, he entered the Eastman School of Music, where his major teachers were Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. There he earned his B.M. and M.M. in 1945, and his Ph.D. in 1947. While at Eastman, he completed two more symphonies, already revealing the predilection for large forms that was to characterize his mature output.

Mennin’s work began to attract widespread attention immediately. His Symphony No.2 won Columbia University’s Bearns Prize in 1945 and his Symphony No.3 was performed by the New York Philharmonic before he left Eastman, and was recorded by them soon afterward, placing him at the forefront of American composers while still in his mid-twenties.

In 1947 Mennin married Georganne Bairnson, a young violinist whom he had met at Eastman, and they later had two children. At this time the Juilliard School in New York was undergoing a major restructuring at the hands of William Schuman, who invited Mennin to join the distinguished composition faculty he was in the process of putting in place. Mennin remained there until 1958, when he was was offered the opportunity to head the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1962 he returned to Juilliard, now as its president, guiding the school’s move to the newly opened Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He continued to hold this post for the rest of his life. As president, Mennin advocated training based on rigorous discipline and upheld traditional standards of excellence during a period when educational orthodoxy was under severe attack. At the same time, he inaugurated an array of special programs that brought international attention to the school, and drew talented students from all over the world.

Despite Mennin’s important role as an educational administrator, composition remained the driving force in his life, and throughout his career he continued to produce major works, which were performed and recorded by many of the world’s leading orchestras and soloists. He received awards, honors, and commissions from the most prominent musical institutions and served on the boards of a wide range of arts organizations. However, Mennin’s identity as an administrator, and a distaste for promoting his own music, caused his public persona to overshadow his contribution as a composer. Furthermore, from about 1950 to 1975, American composition was deeply divided between those who adhered to traditional musical forms and values and those who repudiated them in favor of more novel modes of expession. Mennin’s affiliations, both administrative and artistic, placed him firmly in the former camp and, while his position earned for him considerable prestige within institutional circles, that very prestige somewhat tarnished his reputation as a creative figure. Hence, during the later years of his lifetime, the actual substance of his own work received little serious attention.

Although Mennin’s music did conform to traditional techniques and forms in the most general sense, his evolution as a composer was marked by an utter independence from prevailing trends and models and by a consistent adherence to his own aesthetic ideals. As he stated in an interview, “Individuality is an inevitable precondition for music of lasting value. Individuality does not mean novelty for its own sake, since novelty, once familiar, becomes a cliché. It does mean a strong musical thrust, unconcerned with convention, or with conformity either to the past or to the fads of the moment. It is concerned with the drive of the composer’s musical ideas; it is having one’s own voice, one’s own face….I don’t think any real composer ever aligns himself with a group….A composer has to travel alone.”

Mennin’s relatively small body of some 30 compositions centers around nine symphonies, a large dramatic work entitled Cantata di Virtute based on Robert Browning’s poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and several concertos. His output shows a preference for large, abstract forms, and is consistently serious–even grim–in tone and lofty in intent, with no trace of either frivolity or sentimentality. His music is characterized by nervous contrapuntal activity and an intense rhythmic drive, along with a propensity for cataclysmic explosions of violence, all of which became more severe in later works. However, despite the uncompromising character of his music, its fundamentally expressive orientation and its consistently meticulous craftsmanship have rendered it accessible to audiences. During the years since his death, Mennin’s work has increasingly been regarded as representing the American symphonic school of composition at its most distinguished.

Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas: A Romantic Opera for the Twenty-First Century

Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas:
A Romantic Opera for the Twenty-First Century

Classical music has always led a precarious existence in the United States. With historical roots in European aristocracy, it has served as a symbol of wealth and prestige for those who aspire to the sociocultural elite. Yet those very roots have led it to be regarded warily and with some distaste by populists who have always represented the dominant American attitude toward the arts. This uneasiness has been especially strong in relation to opera, with its relatively small canon of classics usually performed in a European language, its “unnatural” manner of singing, and its idiosyncratic requirements for suspension of disbelief, especially regarding the importance of physical attributes in casting decisions, not to mention a host of quaint customs known only to initiates. It is, of course, somewhat ironic that for much of its European history, opera was actually a populist form of entertainment.

Opera’s vitality as a living art form is further threatened in America by the unfortunate fact that its active repertoire effectively closed with the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1924. Not that there has been any dearth of new operatic compositions since then, but few if any have made an enduring impact on the public, in spite of a virtually endless parade of experiments that have sought to invigorate the increasingly alien genre. In America, these experiments have included performing standard operas in English, incorporating elements of the popular musical theater or rock music into the genre, creating new works that adhere to the styles and aesthetic values of the classics, or, at the other extreme, applying to them the “advanced” musical techniques espoused by the intellectual avant-garde. More recent attempts have included using “pre-sold” subject matter, such as items from recent news events (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer), or popular movies (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Man Walking), the use of English “super-titles” to facilitate comprehension, even when the opera is performed in English, as well as commissioning librettos from established playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein and Terence McNally. Understandably, some of these efforts have generated considerable publicity, along with enthusiastic reactions from more receptive, open-minded opera-goers. But such enthusiasm is typically short-lived, as few such efforts have demonstrated real staying power.

One recent opera that seems capable of achieving more than ephemeral acclaim is Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, scheduled for a return engagement this February, after its sensational Seattle premiere in 1998. Florencia had been commissioned jointly by the opera companies of Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, who introduced it in 1996, 1997, and 1998 respectively. When Houston’s David Gockley initially approached composer Catán, he had specified not only that he wanted a work in Spanish (as a welcoming gesture to Houston’s growing Hispanic population), but also that it be “nothing less than the most beautiful opera in the last fifty years.” Completing the work in 1996, Catán seemed to take Gockley’s demand to heart, producing what San Antonio critic Mike Greenberg called, “a score that is unabashedly, soaringly lyrical, its impeccably flattering vocal lines displayed in an orchestral jewel case of Puccini harmonies and Debussy colors and textures.” Some critics, like Los Angeles’s Mark Swed, patronized its accessibility, calling it “an opera meant to please—it is comfortable for singers, comfortable to listen to; it at least will not displease audiences.” Indeed, audiences were ecstatic, with word-of-mouth evidently spreading to Seattle so that the 1998 production outsold the previous two. Since then, the plethora of follow-up productions is almost unheard of for a new work—especially a work intended specifically to be performed in a foreign language. It has also been produced by Opera de Colombia in Bogotá, Opera Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and in Manaus, Brazil, whose opera house actually figures in the fictional libretto. Houston Grand Opera reported it to be the largest-grossing premiere in the history of the company, and, in 2001 revived the work by popular demand, in a production that was released on commercial recording the following year. Catán arranged an orchestral suite of excerpts from the work, which was introduced by the Madison (WI) Symphony Orchestra in 2003. A semi-staged version was mounted in 2004 by Opera Nova of Los Angeles. And now the opera is returning to Seattle, where Director Speight Jenkins states, “We have never had a new work that engendered so many requests for revival.”

How is one to explain Florencia’s phenomenal success? With its unmistakably Italianate lyricism, the work may be described as “neo-romantic,” belonging to the category of new operas “that adhere to the styles and aesthetic values of the classics,” as noted earlier. But that in itself is not enough: There are plenty of neo-romantic operas that have not been welcomed so whole-heartedly by audiences. One factor that sets Florencia apart is the boldness with which it embraces its idiom, playing it to the hilt. Catán almost outdoes late Puccini in the shimmering, pulsating luminosity of his orchestration, creating a luxuriant cushion upon which the voices seem to float with an effortless sensuality. The orchestration is lent an exotic Amazonian touch by the subtle contributions of cow bells, a marimba, a steel drum, and a South American drum called a djembe. Catán’s vocal lines resemble Puccini’s in their fluid rhythms and the freedom with which they soar, in spontaneous, uninhibited expressions of emotion, in aria after aria, with little of the declamatory recitative that dominates most contemporary opera. Indeed, some critics have carped at Catán’s appropriation of a successful style from the past, calling it “derivative.” Los Angeles critic Alan Rich complained that “nothing [about it] would have shocked opera-goers a century ago.” 

But such cavils reveal a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between musical language and musical history: Composers do not copyright a “sound” reserved for them alone, nor is a particular style limited to a particular time period: A composer embraces a language that feels natural to him or her and well suited for conveying a certain type of feeling. Simply because a style emerged at a particular time doesn’t mean that style speaks only for and to that period. After all, if that were true, the classics of the past wouldn’t be as appealing today as they are. In Scene 3 of Florencia the Captain could be reflecting upon this very issue when he sings, “Things always move forward/In life, there is no going back/No one step is ever the same/no turn is ever a return.” But while many recent opera composers have adopted a lyrical style reminiscent of Italian opera, the results often seem apologetic and half-hearted. The music of Catán, on the other hand, is projected with full-throated conviction through long-breathed melodic lines. It is worth noting that when Florencia was revived in Los Angeles in 2004, Alan Rich acknowledged somewhat apologetically that his earlier comments had been “not particularly kind,” adding that this second look at the work “turned out not bad at all—rather more than that, in fact,” finally admitting, “All this turned out as stronger, shapelier music than I remembered.” Other critics have been less restrained. English opera specialist Graeme Kay wrote, “Catán deliberately set out to write ‘beautiful music’ and he certainly succeeded. The soaring melodic lines supporting the eminently singable Spanish libretto are of the most grateful kind for the singers, yet underscoring the music which one hesitates to call Pucciniesque (because Catán does have a distinctive voice) is an insistent and exotic rhythmic pulse—the ‘jungle’ music—in which the marimba is prominent. Catán successfully handles all the operatic building blocks—choruses, solo arias, duets, trios and ensembles … We will, I hope, hear and see a lot more from Daniel Catán.” Austin’s Michael Barnes opened his review by saying, “The tides have shifted in a favorable direction when the best thing about a late 20th-century opera is its music. The world premiere of “Florencia en el Amazonas” … will be remembered for Daniel Catán’s luxurious score, … “ and concluded that “it ought to enjoy a longer life than most late 20th-century operas.” While acknowledging the work’s embrace of a familiar musical language, Jerry Young, also from Austin, noted that “it somehow avoids seeming derivative or retro, and it certainly avoids the sort of righteous, calculated pandering one hears in works by so many business-minded neo-romantic composers…. The effort is terrifically daring in its modesty, making for beautiful vocal music that could make the most staid opera-goers change their minds about modern opera.” 

In addition to the ardent lyricism and rich, luxuriant orchestration of the music, there is the subject matter itself. Catán wanted to make his opera a homage to the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who had heard Catán’s previous opera, Rappaccini’s Daughter, in Mexico City. At that time the Nobel Prize-winning writer, associated with the Latin-American literary movement known as “magical realism,” had expressed interest in working with Catán. (“Magical Realism” refers to a kind of fantastic surrealism that permits symbolic, unconscious elements to interact with more naturalistic action.) As plans evolved, the composer decided to base his opera on thematic elements from García Márquez’s work Love in the Time of Cholera, which the author approved on the condition that his student Marcela Fuentes-Berain write the libretto. She and Catán worked together for several years, and Florencia was the result. The story is set in the early 20th century, and takes place on a steamboat traveling from Colombia to Manaus, Brazil, in the mysterious heart of the Amazon jungle. On the boat (but traveling incognito) is FlorenciaGrimaldi, a world-renowned operatic diva, who is returning to her native city to re-open the opera house there. Her journey represents much more than that, however: She is seeking her spiritual roots, her soul, and her lost passion, symbolized by Cristóbal, a butterfly-hunter, the embodiment of her romantic ideal, whom she left behind to pursue the glory of an operatic career. (The butterfly, with its suggestion of ephemeral beauty, is a favorite symbol of Catán’s.) Also on board is Rosalba, a young journalist, at work on a biography of the great singer without realizing she is a fellow-traveler; the Captain; Arcadio, the Captain’s nephew, who is searching restlessly for life’s meaning, until he and Rosalba fall in love; and Alvaro and Paula, a bickering middle-aged couple who hope that this romantic journey might help them to rekindle their passion. The remaining character is Riolobo, a supernatural river creature with multiple identities, who re-appears throughout the opera, sometimes as a commentator on the action, at others as a kind of magician who intervenes in the action, almost like a deus ex machina. The journey is obviously a symbolic one, a voyage into the exotic unknown, during the course of which the characters face external dangers, while delving deeply into their hearts, ultimately to achieve profound transformation with the realization that love is the source of life’s meaning, or, in Catán’s words, “Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other.”

Although the story itself seems relatively simple and straightforward, its propitiousness for operatic treatment is almost self-evident. If opera requires an especially generous suspension of disbelief, then an exotic setting and magical atmosphere evoke the inevitability of myth, awakening the audience’s receptiveness to a truth greater than reality, and creating a fertile backdrop for the development of allegory. Add to this a character like Florencia, herself an opera singer in search of a lost love, two romantic couples, one younger and one older, and you have an ideal and virtually endless opportunity for romantic arias and ensembles, filled with longing and ecstatic passion. As Catán has said, “What opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion…. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one—that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: … It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that.”

Daniel Catán, a Sephardic Jew, was born in Mexico City in 1949. When he was 14 he went to England to study both music and philosophy. After receiving degrees in each subject, he came to the United States to pursue the study of composition at Princeton. There he earned a PhD in 1977, working under with Milton Babbitt, J.K. Randall, and Benjamin Boretz, the doyens of serialism during the 1960s and 70s, the most cerebral and audience-unfriendly of modernist approaches to musical composition. How did such appealing music result from such stringently anti-hedonistic tutelage? Catán explains that he found Babbitt and company to be less dogmatic than their reputations suggested, and relatively receptive to his own explorations. Furthermore, he adds, although his music may sound rooted in tonality, he attempts to apply to it the sort of abstract theoretical rigor that he learned as a student at Princeton. After receiving his degree, Catán returned to Mexico City, where he worked as a music administrator as well as a teacher. He admits that he reached compositional maturity rather slowly, spending many years on what he now considers “studies and exercises.” Most of the music that he considers “finished” and worthy of performance was written after he had passed the age of 40.

The success enjoyed by Florencia has been very gratifying to Catán. One peak experience was witnessing the production at the very Manaus Opera House that figures so significantly in the libretto. “It just felt, as I was listening to the opera in that theater, that life couldn’t get any better than this. It brought me everything I dreamt about and more. I felt like the happiest person in the world at that moment.” One observes with interest as opera-goers and CD-listeners continue to discover this still-very-new work. It is hard not to wonder whether Florencia en el Amazonas just might be the first opera from the turn of the 21st century that endures.

Florencia on Recording

In 2002 Albany Records released the previous year’s revival of Florencia en el Amazonas by the Houston Grand Opera on a commercially available recording. The cast features Patricia Schuman as Florencia, Mark S. Doss as Riolobo, Ana Maria Martinez as Rosalba, Chad Shelton as Arcadio, Susanna Guzmán as Paula, Hector Vasquez as Alvaro, and Oren Gradus as the Captain, all under the direction of Patrick Summers. Peter Kermani, the president of Albany Records, whose releases are largely limited to contemporary music, reports that relative to the company’s norm, Florencia must be considered a “best-seller.” It appeared on many critics’ “best-of-the-year” lists (including my own) and has elicited rapturous reviews from professionals as well as from “just plain folks” whose comments now appear on many websites. Following is a sampling of critical comments:
“On the operatic front, nothing has stayed near my player more than Daniel Catán’s brilliant Florencia …, an exuberant musical and dramatic journey that grips the listener from the first bar.” Tom DiNardo, Philadelphia Daily News, 12/19/03

“This is an opera that rings with romantic gusto and Puccini-inspired grandeur…. Catán proved why he is the great new hope for 21st century opera.” William Gregory, Great Lakes Den, 2003

“Catán’s remarkable consistency of inspiration, his melodic gift, and his orchestral craft all keep his music from being derivative, and instead make it gripping. Florencia may be a genuine masterpiece.” Henry Fogel, (Fanfare, Nov/Dec 2003)
“The music is intensely emotional in Catán’s sincerely adopted Puccinian approach … but there is also a touch of Korngold about this vibrantly lush and imaginative writing…. I detected no weak links among the cast. In particular Patricia Schuman is magnificent…. I must also praise the great Houston orchestra…. This is a potently Puccinian opera and is not to be missed by those thirsty for mystery, grandeur and emotional staying power.” Rob Barnett (Classical Music Web, 6/03)

Florencia is a beautifully crafted work…. There is a stunning ensemble in Scene 8 … as well written as anything in the best of 19th-century opera…. The music glistens like sun on the river; it is graceful and ravishing…. I bought it hook, line, and sinker, including the redemption-through-love and journey-into-your-soul business—and so has everyone I’ve played it for. It’s not an opera you can excerpt—it flows and flows, uninterrupted…. Patrica Schuman sings Florencia as if she believes every word, … The sound is as lush and big as the jungle, but decidedly unmurky…. Search as I may for an outlet for my cynicism, I can’t locate it; I’m too enchanted. This is a gorgeous, fascinating, familiar-yet-new experience, and I recommend it to everyone.” Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com, 7/5/03)

Here are some consumer comments, found on Amazon.com:

“I saw this opera four times when it premiered in Los Angeles and loved every minute of it. I have been waiting years for a recording. Loved this recording!”

“I first discovered this opera during a car ride on a Saturday afternoon…. After I heard the title, I called a friend of mine who was in the process of calling me to tell me he thought I would love this new opera. Both of us were held captivated by this unusual music.”

Florencia … is, in a word, beautiful…. It comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure, unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace, voices entwine around each other like lovers, and not a line feels clumsy or out of place…. Its subject matter, too, is worth a few words of praise: it is a delight to see a modern opera so full of innocence and wonder; and if the soprano has to die in the end, then what’s wrong with transforming into a giant butterfly? Florencia … stands as a hopeful reminder that love, faith, and beauty can be liberating powers in a world all too trapped in its own cynicism and irony.”

“Buy this recording to familiarize yourself with the lush score and intriguing story. Then book a flight to Seattle for winter 2005 to see it.”


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in traditionalist approaches to contemporary music. A contributor to The New Grove, he is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism, and his reviews have been appearing regularly in Fanfare Magazine for almost 30 years. He is the author of Voices in the Wilderness (Scarecrow Press, 2004), a study of neo-romantic composers.

(c) Seattle Opera Magazine, Winter 2004/2005

Recordings that Changed My Life

In order to apply this intriguing concept to my own personal experience, I must alter the terms somewhat, and discuss five groups of recordings that affected my life significantly. The first group would be those 78 rpm records that my parents owned when I was a child. My parents enjoyed classical music and listened to it regularly. As the story goes, by the time I was three, I was already reacting strongly to this music, and indicating distinct preferences. Within a year or two, my parents decided to give me direct access to the phonograph, and taught me how to use it. (Obviously, given the fragility of 78s and the clumsiness of a four-year-old, their collection dwindled quickly, and many items had to be replaced.) I spent hours listening to these records over and over, as I watched the strange shapes that appeared on the labels as they spun around, and I still remember most of them. My very favorite, and the first piece of music I really loved, was Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony—especially the third and fourth movements, which excited me to the point of near hysteria. This recording was part of a series my parents purchased as some sort of  premium offered by a newspaper, as I recall. The performers were identified only as, “The World’s Greatest Orchestras under the direction of the World’s Greatest Conductors.” (I remember seeing the provenance of this series discussed in these pages by a colleague more discographically knowledgeable than I.) Other pieces we had in this series included Beethoven’s Fifth, Schubert’s “Unfinished,” and Wagner’s “Forest Murmers,” (which was very hard to appreciate, as the music rarely rose above the level of the surface noise). Aside from this series, we also had Lawrence Tibbett singing two Schubert Lieder in English, Leonard Warren singing the famous arias from Carmen and The Barber of Seville, Rubinstein playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, Szigeti playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto, Strauss’s Don Juan, and Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. I loved all these pieces and soon came to know them inside-out. However I was somewhat less taken with the “Immolation Scene” from Götterdämmerung (my mother loved to tell an anecdote about this last selection that involved my as-yet-incomplete toilet-training, but would turn in her grave if I put it into print) and Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite (which I HATED). Although I later learned to play several musical instruments, I always felt that the phonograph (as it was then called) was my main instrument, and that my personal response to the content of the music was always my primary aesthetic mechanism. So there is no question but that these first recordings influenced the course of my life, which has followed pretty consistently along the lines recounted here.

When I was about seven, during the early 1950s, we bought our first phonograph that played “long-playing records.” My parents, eager to encourage and feed my young appetite, signed up for a series of “Music-Appreciation Records,” which were being marketed by the Book-of-the-Month Club, I believe. These releases consisted of a complete performance of a work on one side of a disc, with an analytic commentary on the other. I recall that we had the 4th, 5th, and 6th Brandenburg Concertos, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with analyses read by the rather prim and pinched-voiced Thomas Scherman (of the Little Orchestra Society). But the releases that made the biggest impression on me were Beethoven’s Eroica and Dvorak’s New World Symphony with analyses presented by none other than Leonard Bernstein. (Once he began his series of television programs on Omnibus, he became a household name and one of my first heroes.) I found these recordings (and others, too — especially one with Ezio Pinza singing Mozart arias) absolutely captivating and devoured them all — music, commentaries, and printed program notes. I enjoyed most of the music, LOVED the Eroica (still do), HATED Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (still do), and began to organize all this data together in my mind, developing my own mental biographical-chronological-geographical-stylistic musical data matrix.

Around the age of ten — maybe it was the approach of puberty and peer-awareness — I became satiated with classical music, and traded in Mozart for Elvis Presley. I just couldn’t get excited about my old favorites anymore. (My parents and relatives were heart-broken that their precious prodigy had joined the ranks of the sneering, greasy-haired hoodlums.) Then, just a month before my 13th birthday, while returning home from a visit to relatives, I heard a piece on the car radio that sounded as if it came from the dawn of time, and was the very music that my soul had been seeking. Afterwards the announcer identified it as Alleluia and Fugue, by Alan Hovhaness. I had never heard of him of course, and assumed he was some figure from ancient history. The following day I went to the New York Public Library to research this name (which I had no idea how to spell). Eventually I encountered the name Hovhaness. I was surprised to learn that this composer was still alive, although the description I read did refer to an affinity with music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. So the next thing I did was to search for this recording in one store after another, but no one had it in stock. I was told that the record I sought had been on the MGM label, but that that label’s entire classical series — which included lots of music by Hovhaness — had just been removed from circulation the previous month! I was devastated, unable to believe that all these recordings had suddenly disappeared completely — and just before I had discovered them! I could not accept this and pursued my quest in too many different ways to recount here. But in the process I learned of a library that owned many of the MGMs and allowed patrons to sit and listen to them on the premises. So week after week I would take the railroad into New York City and spend the day listening to the library’s collection of Hovhaness MGMs over and over. I also discovered a small shop that sold out-of-print LPs and had many of the MGMs, but at the outrageous price of $13.98 each. (This was a time when most classical LPs sold for $4.98, and I received an allowance of $1.00 per week, so this dealer’s price seemed outrageous.) But I gradually saved my money and eventually bought a number of them. (Of course, I was somewhat less than thrilled when, several years later, these LPs were re-issued semi-privately at a price of $1.49 apiece, although at least I was able to buy fresh copies.) Later I learned that this MGM series had been the brain-child of Edward Cole, who must have been quite a fellow. I realized that there were many other first-rate but little-known composers that he had featured on his short-lived series—composers like Vagn Holmboe and Karl-Birgher Blomdahl. There were also more familiar names, who were, however, as yet unknown to me, such as Ernest Bloch and Howard Hanson. And the program notes, which Cole wrote himself, were notable for both their erudition and their enthusiastic advocacy. What ever became of Edward Cole and the original master-tapes?

About a year after my discovery of Hovhaness, when I was 14, I was browsing through an issue of the Saturday Review at the home of my piano teacher, when I saw a full-page ad for a series of recordings featuring new works commissioned by and performed by the Louisville Orchestra. If one signed up to receive their bimonthly new releases, one was offered as introductory premium a choice of six prior releases, all for the price of one. Since one of the prior releases included a work by Hovhaness, and others included composers whose names had become somewhat familiar to me, I decided that this was a deal worth pursuing. For my six introductory records, I chose the Hovhaness work, of course, and those releases with composers’ names I had encountered before. I found myself with lots of new music, much of which I cannot recall at the moment. But in addition to the Hovhaness Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra, the works that made the deepest impression were Creston’s Invocation and Dance, Mennin’s Symphony No. 6, Persichetti’s Symphony No. 5, William Schuman’s Judith, and Robert Muczynski’s Piano Concerto. These pieces prompted an immediate visceral reaction in me, and I now felt compelled to delve into this music, and learn all I could about it. (I also decided that I must become acquainted with all these composers personally, in order to understand their music better, but that’s a subject for another essay.) And so the direction and focus of my musical identity was formed.

The fifth batch of discographic discoveries that changed my life took place several years later, when I was about 17. Browsing around the FM dial, I encountered some music that seemed to grab me by the throat. At the end, the composer’s name was announced. It was a name I had never heard before, nor could I find it in any of my reference books. The piece on the radio was followed by another by the same composer, then another. Each work gave me the same feeling: as if this music (at the risk of sounding psychotic) had been composed just for me, that it was the music of my soul. The composer’s name was Nicolas Flagello, and what I was hearing were the first three releases from a brand-new record company called Serenus. I went out and bought all three the following day, and Flagello’s name joined the others about whose music I had come to feel passionately. Over the course of the following decades, I am sorry to say, I did outgrow my enthusiasm for Hovhaness’s music. But my feelings about many of the other composers mentioned here have only deepened.

“Nicolas Flagello” (biography)

Nicolas Flagello was one of the last composers to develop a distinctive mode of expression based wholly on the principles and techniques of European late-Romanticism. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977. During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression.  This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years.  However, gradually Flagello’s works began to win enthusiastic advocacy.  

In 1964, when a group of recordings first introduced Flagello’s music to the broader listening public, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.”  (More than a decade later, Fanfare selected these same recordings for its “Classical Hall of Fame.”)  In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The work was subsequently recorded, and has since been performed throughout the United States and Canada. And in 1982, his opera The Judgment of St. Francis was produced in Assisi, Italy.  

During the years since his death, Flagello’s music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, introducing his work to a new generation of listeners.  Violin superstar Midori is just one of today’s leading performers who have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.  The following is a sample of recent critical comments:

“…direct, communicative ideas, strong emotional content,”

Bill Zakariasen, The Westsider (6/23-29/94)

“The music throbs with vitality.  It can be exciting or turbulent, sweetly melancholy or tragic—but it is always openly and fiercely passionate.”

Mark Lehman, American Record Guide (July/Aug, 1996)

“…one of the most shamefully neglected and …misconstrued members of his generation.”

Paul Snook, Fanfare (July/Aug, 1996)

“…manic brilliance saying important things.”

Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare (Nov/Dec, 1996)

“These are large-souled creations of eloquent and tragic power.”

Mark Lehman, American Record Guide (Sept/Oct, 1997)

“Here is something that resoundingly, unerringly, hit its goal.  A standout.  A landmark.  An adventure.  Enthusiastically recommended.”

Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare (Sept/Oct, 1997)

 The New Grove describes Flagello’s music as:

. . . marked by brooding despair and violent agitation, which find release in massive climaxes of shattering impact.  Despite its emotional effusiveness, the music is closely argued and remarkably skillful and imaginative in its handling of subtle instrumental colours.  Flagello’s later compositions (post-1958) are highly chromatic and dissonant, while retaining the earlier propensity for heartfelt melody and harmonic richness, and showing a clear anchoring in tonality at structural peaks.