What’s the Big Deal About Aaron Copland?

As the Paramount’s Aug. 24 “Tribute to Aaron Copland” draws near, some residents might be asking, “Why all this fuss about this Copland fellow? 1 mean he wrote music, right? Classical music. And he lived here in Cortlandt, right? But what’s the big deal?” Well, for those who are not regular frequenters of Lincoln Center this is a perfectly reasonable question and deserves a reasonable answer.

In the United States at the turn of the 20th century, classical music meant basically one thing: European music. Most Americans who cared about it were either European immigrants, who brought their interest with them, or wealthy natives who viewed an appreciation of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky as a sign of their high social status and cultural refinement.

Was any classical music composed in America? Yes, but for the most part, by people who had gone to Europe to learn how to write European music –– music that sounded like Brahms and Tchaikovsky. These poor folks were a sorry lot. They would return to the United States only to have their own music totally ignored, because, since it was written by an American, it wasn’t likely to be any good –– certainly not as good as the “masters.”

This was the situation when Aaron Copland came on the scene. He was born in Brooklyn in 1900, and, like others of his generation, went to Europe to learn how to write music. 
But, unlike most of his contemporaries, when he returned to the states during the early 1920s, he wanted to try something different. He heard the sounds of jazz and popular music in the air and he decided that it was about time American classical music had its own sound – – a sound that reflected qualities that were truly and distinctly American: the ruggedness, the spirit of individualism, the nervous, earthy excitement, and the affection for our pioneer history. He did this by adopting the latest modernist European techniques, infusing them with elements drawn from jazz and American folk music, and holding it all together by his own inner vision– what the spirit of America sounded like to him.

Initially, his efforts were met with horror by the staid classical music aristocracy. But many other musicians appreciated what he was trying to do and joined him in their own ways. However, it was important to Copland that his music be appreciated not just by other professionals or by the elite, but by ordinary folk as well. So, after a few years, he deliberately set about simplifying his music–  retaining the aspects that made it so distinctive, but eliminating elements that people found hard to understand or appreciate. Then, during the late 1930s and early 1940s he wrote music for ballets on American subjects– “Billy the Kid,” “Rodeo,” and “Appalachian Spring”– that really caught on with the public. Their success brought him offers from Hollywood to write the scores for some important films: “Of Mice and Men,” “Our Town,” and “The Red Pony,” among them.

The result of all this was that Aaron Copland’s music became for much of America the sound of the American “heartland.” And it was soon widely imitated by other composers –-especially those who wrote for film and television –-when they were called upon to provide music that suggested “the Old West,” or “small-town America,” or “the hardworking American,” or “the spirit of democracy.”

The truth is that most Americans, whether or not they know the first thing about classical music, have heard something by Copland in some context or other. And when they hear it, their automatic reaction is, “That’s the sound of America.” And that’s the big deal about Aaron Copland.

Remembering Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987)

Like Mozart, composer Vincent Persichetti began early. (“My parents kept me from serious music study until age five.”) Similarly, he turned to creative activity spontaneously and naturally, with a childlike sense of innocent joy and wonder that’ he retained throughout his life, regardless of the sophistication or complexity of the technical devices he utilized.

He imbued even his simplest music with this total sincerity. Though easy enough to be played by elementary students, his little piano pieces, for example, were not “teaching pieces,” devoid of artistic value. While expressing the childlike side of his personality, they represent an essential distillation of his mature, fully developed musical language. It is through these piano pieces that many first encountered Persichetti’s music. For others it was through playing one of his pieces in a junior high or high school band. Indeed, it is probably through his works for this medium that his name is most widely known. Several of his fourteen compositions for band have become classics, performed regularly throughout the world. The composer himself described how he never actually decided to write for band: he simply began writing some woodwind figures; a few brass chords entered, punctuated by percussion. But “the strings just never came in.” The result was his first piece for band, called Divertimento. Back when I was in junior high school, playing that Divertimento was my first exposure to Vincent Persichetti.

Those who discover Persichetti’s music tip more “adult” contexts are likely to encounter one of his more complex or (to use his own word) “gritty” compositions – works that may take several hearings to penetrate. From such pieces – and from his many years as a teacher of composition – Persichetti’s music developed a reputation for being somewhat “cold” and “academic.” But among those of us who first knew the “friendly” pieces, his music never sounds cold, because its grace and good humor always come through – even in the “grittiest” works.

Most composers and teachers tend to settle upon one way of writing music, rejecting others as unworthy, and insisting, implicitly or explicitly, that their students follow suit. But Persichetti saw validity in the dozens of different styles and approaches that developed during the course of this century, arguing in his  writing and teaching that the composer’s responsibility was to master these techniques and integrate them all into a comprehensive, versatile contemporary musical language. Often invited to speak at colleges throughout the country, he would present a type of lecturerecital uniquely his own. 

I can remember attending one of these while I was in college. He began by describing the many stylistic resources available to the contemporary composer, effortlessly illustrating each through a brief excerpt at the piano. Finally, he invited the audience to offer a few notes that he might use as a theme. He then proceeded to improvise an entire piano sonata based on that theme, integrating into it all the various techniques he had just described. What made this demonstration so astounding was: 1) the improvised piece was no simple trifle, but a complex, fully developed work; 2) despite all the different techniques incorporated, it sounded like “pure Persichetti”; and 3) it was a terrific piece! 

Yet alongside all this sophisticated technical showmanship, the childlike aspect was ever present. I remember visiting him for an interview at his home in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. He and his wife were discussing in calm, adult voices, the recent visit of friends they referred to by name. How surprised I was to learn that the friends they were discussing wire a family of local raccoons! Perhaps that is why I was not surprised to learn, during the 1970s, that the subject of an opera he was writing – his first was the fable of Chicken Little. And when this opera, called The Sibyl, was finally premiered in 1985, there they all were, up on the stage: Chicken Little, Turkey Lurkey, Henny Penny, and friends. 

The Sibyl was No. 20 in a series of 25 compositions Persichetti called Parables. Most of the others were short pieces for unconventional media, such as solo tuba, or carillon, or two trumpets, or solo piccolo. Many were based on themes from others of his pieces – The Sibyl was based on themes from his Little Piano Book. In fact, there is so much subtle cross-referencing in his music, sometimes revealed by little code words printed as clues in tiny letters on the score, that the pieces almost seem like little creatures themselves, living within a busy fantasy-world, with minds and relationships of their own. And presiding over this fantasy-world for his own amusement is Vincent Persichetti, ventriloquist and stage director, enacting his own remarkable vision of life. 

No wonder that writing music didn’t seem like grown-up work to Persichetti. As he told interviewer Rudy Shackelford in 1970:

I’ve not yet decided what Ill do with my life. Perhaps I will concertize as a pianist, but, on the other hand, shouldn’t I bring audiences some of those neglected orchestral pieces? Then again I’d love to have a larger herb farm, if it weren’t for my keen interest in sailing. I know Id like the life of the Maine lobster fisherman, but my sculpting would keep me on solid ground. I’m too busy with composing to consider what my life’s work will be. I suppose, though, at some point I should decide to work for a living.

Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994): A Lost Voice

Nicolas Flagello died on March 16, 1994, the day after his sixty-sixth birthday. A few close friends and family attended the funeral the following day, and the New York Times carried a brief but respectful obituary, illustrated by a slick publicity photo. It began, “Nicolas Flagello, an American composer and conductor who played a busy role in this country’s postwar musical life, died yesterday in New Rochelle, NY.” Thus ended the tragedy of another composer–perhaps a great one–whose life passed largely unnoticed.

If Nicolas Flagello’s name is known to music lovers, it is chiefly by association with his younger brother Ezio, who enjoyed an illustrious career as a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera. Others may identify him as conductor of some rather perfunctory recordings released during the late 1970s with ad hoc Italian orchestras, primarily of Baroque and early Classical pieces. Many musicians from the New York area knew him also as a long-time member of the composition faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Far fewer still are actually familiar with his substantial body of work.

I first heard Flagello’s music about thirty years ago, encountering it on the radio, quite by accident. A number of LPs devoted to his work had just been released and (I later learned) the twenty-six-year old John Corigliano (who had been a student of Vittorio Giannini), working at the time for a noncommercial radio station in New York, had programmed these recordings for two or three consecutive hours. I listened spellbound to one piece after the other, and resolved to find out what i could about this totally unfamiliar composer.

During the following years I gradually became acquainted with Flagello’s entire output of some seventy-five works, and also came to know him personally. His music has enriched my life immeasurably and is quite capable, I believe, of having the same effect on many listeners, because, unlike many idiosyncratic creative figures championed in these pages, it utilizes a familiar musical language and embodies the aesthetic ideals represented by much of the beloved music in the repertoire. Yet despite his adherence to a conventional language, Flagello had his own “sound,” created by his personal use of these materials, and a consistent metaphysical vision that is reflected, in one way or another, in all his work. Furthermore, the standards of craftsmanship that he brought to bear on his materials in realizing this vision, and the seriousness of his dedication, resulted in a consistency of quality that is rare–even among the acknowledged masters. These are all characteristics generally associated with “greatness.” If Flagello’s music displays these qualities. then why, one may reasonably ask, has his music been given so little exposureand attention? Who was this person and what happened?

* * *

Flagello was born in New York City in 1928 into a family that had been steeped in music for generations. His father was a successful dress designer and amateur musician, and his mother had been a singer whose father had supposedly studied with Verdi. Nicolas began piano lessons with his aunt when he was three, and made rapid progress. He began composing when he was eight. and performed publicly on the piano a few years later. Although the family was living in the Bronx, they made frequent extended trips back to Italy, where relatives arranged for young Nicolas to give public recitals. This strongly bicultural childhood–not unusual among Italian-Americans of his generation–left him with a stronger identity as an Italian than an American.

During the late 1930s, friends of the family brought Nicolas to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, another American-born composer with strong attachments to Italy, who was at the time enjoying major successes in both the United States and Europe. Giannini took on Nicolas as a student in the manner of an Old World apprenticeship, teaching him the craft of composition through endless hours of drill and study, and imbuing him with the ethos as well as the principles of the grand European tradition, from Palestrina through Puccini, Debussy, and Strauss. This apprenticeship with Giannini developed into a close musico-personal relationship that lasted until the latter’s death in 1966.

Returning to the United States during the years of World War II, Nicolas attended high school in the Bronx, played violin in Stokowski’s All-American Youth Orchestra, and studied piano privately with Adele Marcus. Enrolling formally at the Manhattan School of Music in 1945, he continued to work with Giannini, joining the faculty himself while he completed his master’s degree. During these years he performed regularly as piano soloist with the Longines Symphonette, a radio orchestra featuring “light classical” music that became so popular during the 1950s that it made a series of national tours. Its conductor, Mishel Piastro, had been a violin student of Leopold Auer, and was another Old World character who became a father figure for Nicolas. Then, a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955 enabled him to study at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, where he was awarded an advanced diploma under the tutelage of the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti.

All these experiences kept Flagello far from the mainstream world of “modern music,” which, during the 1950s and 60s, was moving in very different directions. Led by European intellectuals who misguidedly associated Romanticism with Fascism, the Modernist movement, which extolled the virtues of originality, intellectual complexity, and experimentation, and scorned accessibility and traditionalism, came to dominate the music departments of the most prestigious American universities. Its influence spread throughout many levels of the music establishment, resulting in what amounted to a “blacklisting” of many of the more conservative composers who had developed substantial reputations during the previous decades.

By the time he turned thirty in 1958, Flagello had about 25 major works to his credit, including three operas, four concertos, and several large orchestral and choral pieces, as well as numerous solo piano pieces, songs, and other vocal music. What is this music like? It is unabashedly modeled on the rhetoric and forms developed by the masters of the nineteenth century–Puccini and Strauss in the operatic and vocal music, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov in the piano music. Sounding new, original, or different held no appeal for him, nor did the fashionable trends in composition at the time. He cherished the music of the past, and wanted to make his personal contribution to the heritage he loved, in the language that was most natural to him. But what keeps these early works of Flagello from sounding like pale imitations is their intense conviction and authenticity of expression, almost as if he were trying to outdo his predecessors at their own games. These are works that would thrill the most conservative audiences, overflowing with surging, romantic melodies and powerful climaxes whose immediate accessibility is supported by the most thorough attention to structural values–motivic economy, thematic unity, and true symphonic development, built upon contrapuntal substructures that reveal as much appreciation for the architecture of Brahms as for the passion of Puccini and the virtuosity of Rachmaninov. This was the Giannini manner, yet even here one can note characteristic usages–turns of phrase, a distinctive sad sweetness, and an explosive volatility of temperament that distinguish Flagello’s compositional personality from that of his teacher, and anticipate the works yet to come.

Flagello wrote all this music with little concern for practical matters. Part of the credo that Giannini imparted to his students was the belief that “true” creative musical talent was a gift bestowed by God and required dedication to the highest ideals of inner truth and personal authenticity, as well as unstinting diligence and profound humility and gratitude for having been thus chosen. Such dedication may result in neglect, misunderstanding, and temptations to compromise or to accept defeat. But to yield to such temptation is tantamount to a betrayal of God. Flagello embraced and attempted to adhere to this doctrine, following his inner voice, appending to each score the initials AMDG (Ad Maiorern Dei Gloria), and refusing to take any practical steps to promote the exposure of his works. As a result, virtually none of it was played, aside from a few readings by the performing ensembles of the Manhattan School. In fact, he expressed little interest when it was performed, insisting that he derived no particular pleasure from hearing it. Yet at the same time, contradictory as it may seem. he did crave both respect and recognition. But within New York City’s cultural climate, with its posture as cultural trendsetter, his music made little impact.

in 1959, Flagello’s music reached a new level of maturity. Although in retrospect he professed no awareness of a change, the appearance of a new phase–an Italianate form of expressionism–is unmistakable. While hardly a concession to the values of Modernism, there is a greater astringency: Harmony is more dissonant, tonality is often quite unsettled. lyrical lines are doled out more sparingly, rhythm is less symmetrical. and forms are tighter. But the change is more than just a matter of language, but of content as well. The exuberant, sunny, joyful elements that had leavened his earlier music now all but disappeared. replaced by a dark, brooding quality at times turbulent, explosive, and cataclysmic. The result is music of tremendous emotional intensity and concentration of effect, as every element is tightly focused toward fullest realization of the intended expression. Though still constructed along traditional lines, with a basic adherence to the principles of tonality. the music often sounds more dissonant than it is, because the emotional content itself is so powerful. In some pieces there seems to be no sense of redemption at all, while others attain anguished epiphanies. This stylistic transformation can be readily discerned by comparing the Piano Concerto No. 2 of 1956 with the Piano Concerto No. 3. written just six years later (although the fact that neither work has ever even been performed might make this exercise a little difficult). The forms, means of development, and aesthetic principles are essentially identical, yet the works are entirely different in effect.

With the appearance of his mature voice, Flagello became both increasingly productive and increasingly consistent in both workmanship and taste. Between 1959 and 1968, he completed more than thirty works, of which virtually every one–even down to a five-minute contest piece for accordion–is a serious artistic statement. From this period came those works I consider to be his masterpieces: the Symphony No. I (the ultimate post-romantic symphony), an opera called The Judgment of St. Francis, the Te Deum for All Mankind, Capriccio for cello and orchestra, Contemplazioni de Michelangelo, Dante’s Farewell, the piano sonata, and the Piano Concerto No. 3. During this period, his productive drive was so consuming that he fell into the habit of leaving orchestral works in short score, planning to orchestrate them when a performance opportunity arose. Unfortunately, a number of major works remain in short score.

During the early 1960s, Flagello found himself embittered and alienated from the New York City musical scene. Now married and the father of two sons, he began to seek opportunities to develop a career as a conductor, especially in Italy. At about this time, he came to the attention of the late Paul Kapp, father of conductor Richard Kapp and one of the many curmudgeons who made the LP era so colorful. Kapp was starting a record company (Serenus) and a publishing company (General Music) to promote living composers whose music appealed to him. He chose Flagello as his flagship composer, as well as conductor for his own and others’ music, with an initial release of four all-Flagello discs. These recordings were very well received (a critic for The New Records wrote. “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.”). But Kapp’s cantankerous personality and his exclusive focus on unknown composers made distribution difficult, and Serenus records soon became almost impossible to find.

During these years Flagello tried to do anything and everything he could to establish himself professionally–conducting operas in Italy, orchestras in South America, recordings of movie themes, mood music, Baroque music, composing background music, TV commercials. ghostwriting for other composers, running a music festival in Italy, directing the Extension Division of the Manhattan School. But there was little interest or activity concerning his serious compositions.

At this point it must be acknowledged that certain anomalies within Flagello’s personality and behavior contributed to the difficulties he had in drawing attention to his work. Within the pscudocultured social aristocracy that constitutes the world of classical music–including much of the audience and many of the professionals–a fawning, epicene personal charm and elegant manner create the appearance of artistic genius far more convincingly than its actual manifestation. Flagello. like Mozart before him, was an unfortunate misfit in this social milieu. His personal appearance betrayed a fondness for flashy clothes and accoutrements, and his verbal expression was stilted and awkward, heavily inflected with vestiges of his Bronx-Italian background. To conceal his discomfort and insecurity, he cultivated a brusque, unapproachable manner. The resulting persona seemed more appropriate to a gangster movie than a concert hall. When musicians or listeners actually expressed interest or curiosity in his work, he often rebuffed them, exhibiting the self-defeating but not uncommon paradox, “If they don’t want my music, then they can’t have it.” Inquiries from soloists and conductors–including some quite celebrated figures–went unanswered. Among trusted friends he was exuberant, earthy, and spontaneous, and loved to recount extravagant tales of his own exploits. But presenting himself as a “serious composer” seemed to him an uncomfortable pretense, and he made little effort to interest friends and associates in his creative efforts. This casual, offhand manner left many of those close to him quite surprised when they finally encountered the uncompromisingly serious tone of his work. Flagello himself was aware of these inconsistencies, but had no explanation for them, appearing to be as bewildered by his own talent and the fruits it bore as were those around him. He would often say, “A composer has two sides to himself-one that he shows to others, and the other he brings out in his music.” And when asked why he composed, since he seemed so indifferent to having his work performed, he would shrug his shoulders and reply, “I don’t know–I can’t stop.

“Then, during the early 1970s, Flagello’s life began to fall apart. After twenty years of marriage –perhaps because of a sense of shame and personal failure–he left his wife, who fervently believed in his genius, and embarked on a course of self-destructive behavior that gradually destroyed his health and sanity, as his creativity dwindled. Ironically, during this time the “freeze” on traditional approaches to composition was thawing, and Flagello’s music began to attract attention. In 1974, James DePreist introduced The Passion of Martin Luther King, a large choral work, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, with brother Ezio as soloist; the reception was ecstatic. (DePreist has since performed the work a number of times, and recently recorded it; see review elsewhere in this issue.)

Not long afterward, Flagello was invited to conduct several performances of The Judgment of St. Francis in Assisi. A review in Musical America commented that its “robust emotionalism is unflinching in its conviction, and its intensity is sustained by a sure sense of pacing, a natural flow of expressive melody integrated throughout the musical texture, and an ability to use voices, chorus, and orchestra to their maximum effect.” Other conductors began to discover his music as well, including Semyon Bychkov, who performed several major orchestral works.

But Flagello was deteriorating, mentally and physically, and had almost ceased composing altogether. In 1977, he was forced to resign from the Manhattan School, after more than twentyfive years of service, which left him without a regular source of income. Friends helped to arrange for several commissions and encouraged him to undertake a number of major projects, some of which he managed to complete, including a full-length opera based on Eugene O’Neill’s early Pulitzer Prizewinning tragedy, Beyond the Horizon. In 1985, at the age of fifty-seven, he completed his final work, the Concerto Sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra, commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet. The premiere took place in Buffalo, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. The Buffalo News critic described it as “passionate, dramatic, and unremittingly serious, . . . with easily detected shape and a clear sense of purpose, with surgingly lyric lines, dense textures, and churning rhythms, . . .”–amazing–but not unprecedented–that a work written under such truly desperate circumstances could make such a powerful and coherent impression.

Days after this performance it became clear that Flagello was no longer able to care for his own needs. Before long he was confined to a nursing home, where he remained, mute and oblivious, until his death.

* * *

Over the years a number of Fanfare’s critics have argued passionately on behalf of composers who have shaped conventional materials in unique and distinctive ways. Henry Fogel has enthusiastically praised the tuneful accessibility of the music of George Lloyd; Paul Rapoport has awakened the music world to Allan Pettersson’s cosmic canvases of metaphysical angst; while Adrian Corleonis has eloquently documented a rich legacy of Romantic virtuosity, as conceptualized through the aesthetic prism of Busoni, as the culmination of musical tradition. Where is Nicolas Flagello’s place among these figures? Have I not described his contribution in similar terms?

Flagello’s music is not built on the cosmic scale of Pettersson’s, nor does his tunefulness convey the tasteful, well-mannered sense of propriety characteristic of Lloyd, nor is his adaptation of the Romantic gesture based on the notion of virtuosic elaboration as the manifestation of an intellectualized aesthetic ideal, as in the case of Busoni and his disciples. Flagello’s is an instinctive, personal language of grand, soaring passions, giving voice to the basic feelings of earthy, flesh-and-blood humanity–love, hate, sorrow, hope, dread, and faith–in all their visceral immediacy.

Flagello’s music is in many ways a lament of existential loneliness-the loneliness of a stranger in his own time, the last member of a dying race. But it also speaks with the defiance of one who refuses to relinquish long-cherished values, who struggles to maintain spiritual purity through artistic creation in a world filled with fraudulence and cynicism. Its recurrent themes–the often futile quest for human solace, the inevitability of mortality, the power of compassion in the face of ceaseless strife, and faith in God as the only true source of consolation and salvation–are clearly depicted in such works as The Judgment of St. Francis, The Passion of Martin Luther King. and The Piper of Hamelin–and canbe felt intuitively in most of his other works as well. It is not surprising that his most characteristic musical format is soloist-with-orchestra, representing the individual who bears witness to life’s spiritual and emotional torments, with the orchestra as empathic Greek chorus. On the one hand, I think he saw himself in Jesus, St. Francis, Martin Luther King, and–especially–in the Pied Piper. On the other hand, he spoke as a simple, sensitive soul, who happened to be blessed with the ability to express universal human emotions through music.

Paul Creston: A Genial Maverick

Since the Bicentennial in 1976, music lovers have been rediscovering the distinguished generation of composers who appeared on the American scene during the late 1930s and early ’40s. Most of this group tended to align themselves with one or another musical style, usually represented by a strong individual: the American neo-classicism led by Aaron Copland, the more symphonic Americana of Roy Harris, the sensitive, poetic group associated with Virgil Thomson, or the experimentalists led by Henry Cowell. However, some composers of this generation pursued a more independent course, neither connecting themselves with a group, nor encouraging a coterie of followers. One composer who has always been a maverick, in his own moderate, genial way, is Paul Creston, who celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday this October, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, is still active composing music, writing articles and books, and intensely pursuing a wide range of interests.

Creston’s career has been the result of single-minded adherence to an individual path, pursued unswervingly for an entire lifetime. Born in New York City in 1906, the son of a poor Italian. house-painter (the original family name was Guttoveggio), he was attracted to music at an early age. After taking piano lessons for several years from a mediocre local teacher, he soon became dissatisfied, craving a deeper understanding of music as an art, as well as better guidance at the piano. His solution to this problem was to learn on his own. Forced to leave school and work at the age of 15, he used his extraordinary energy and self-discipline to pursue his education by himself. “I taught myself many subjects. I did it through necessity, but in later life I did it by choice because I enjoyed working that way. When one says that he is self-taught, it means that he has been taught by all the great masters of the past and present. I was greatly assisted in my studies by that force which Rameau called `the invisible guide of the musician,’ a force which guided the to the right book or author for the answer to the engrossing question of the day. I did not, however, always accept without question or challenge every dictum of the authorities. The result of such intense scrutiny was to mold me into an iconoclast.”

Although later on he did take piano and organ lessons, Creston learned composition – and the associated theoretical disciplines – on his own, while working at clerical jobs during the day. His experience left him with a skeptical attitude toward traditional ways of teaching composition. “No composer ever learned rules first and composed later. His first urge is to put tones together whether he can notate them or not. Then he is advised tostudy theory and harmony, which means he is to learn the language of his ancestors and ignore what his contemporaries are saying or what he himself wants to say. Most important composers succeed not because of, but in spite of, training. Is it that contemporary music is so complex that no student can begin his studies with it? Not necessarily. In the study of contemporary composition one can proceed from the simple to the complex. One can begin with the major triad in contemporary as well as traditional harmony.”

Creston also decries the emphasis on 17th- and 18th-century choral technique, still the basis of most compositional study. “For the past hundred years or more, choral compositions have constituted a minor portion of creative efforts. Instrumental technique must be the fundamental basis of training and vocal technique a specialization to be delved into thoroughly only if the composer’s needs for expression demand it.”

As Creston was developing his musical style on his own, he was able to do something far more difficult for those who pass through the conventional academic procedures of apprenticeship. Rejecting all received opinion save that which he found personally convincing, he was free to evolve independently of any particular school of thought or teacher’s influence. He consciously formulated a philosophy of music based on those tenets he embraced voluntarily – among them, that music is a language for expression and communication of emotion; that music must achieve coherence through its own internal organization, rather than through extrinsic commentary; that any genre of music has validity to the extent that it accomplishes its purpose effectively; that extremes of all kinds are to be avoided. Thus, he developed a compositional style that embodied these principles as best he could.

In 1927, Creston began playing the organ in movie theatres, and later, in churches. About this time he married Louise Gotto, then a dancer with Martha Graham. Through her he was introduced to the art of physical movement, which awakened in Creston a deep appreciation of the importance of rhythm. This appreciation became the underlying basis of all his music and an endless source of fascination to him.

Although Creston had been composing from the age of eight, a competing interest in literary activities, as well as financial and time pressures, delayed his decision to become a professional composer until 1932. However, over the next ten years he won a Guggenheim fellowship, the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, and other honors that brought him national prominence virtually overnight. During the 1940s and ’50s, his five symphonies and other orchestral works were performed regularly by the world’s major ensembles and were championed by such conductors as Toscanini, Stokowski, Monteux, Rodzinski, Cantelli, and Szell.

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of Creston’s music, which has been presented enthusiastically by musicians and received enthusiastically by audiences. For despite the independent course of his development, the warmth and exuberance of the composer’s music itself is accessible to the listener even on a first hearing. At the same time, it has a “sound” that is instantly identifiable as Creston’s own, with a highly distinctive approach to harmony and rhythm. A good example is his Symphony No. 2, Op. 35, which created an international sensation, with dozens of performances extending as far as the Soviet Union. To this day, it remains perhaps Creston’s best-known and most representative work. Its two movements exemplify the composer’s belief that the foundation of music lies in Song and Dance. Thus, the first movement is a luxuriantly lyrical unfolding of the work’s main theme; the second movement takes that same theme through a dazzling array of rhythmic permutations, which are ultimately combined simultaneously in a stunning peroration.

Creston’s treatment of the rhythmic element is the fruit of a lifetime of reflection and research, and is probably his chief contribution to the world of music theory and pedagogy. He has written a 10volume series of graded etudes, called Rhythmicon (Belwin-Mills), designed to help the piano student build a solid rhythmic foundation. His Principles of Rhythm Mills, 1964) is regarded as a definitive text on the subject, and the recent Rational Metric Notation (Exposition Press, 1979) pursues and refines some of the more problematical issues. These books present a framework for systematizing and analyzing the rhythmic practices of the past several hundred years, as well as correcting some common fallacies and misconceptions that have plagued music theory for nearly as long. The listener can discern this emphasis in Creston’s own music: the rhythmic aspect is never taken for granted; even in the most sedate moments, there are subtle, unexpected interrelationships. Several different rhythmic patterns are almost always at work, their various accents interacting in delightfully asymmetrical ways. Of course, this technique is most exciting in the dancelike movements (Creston’s music is eminently danceable and has been choreographed Ay a number of major companies), when wild percussion batteries launch cumulative orgiastic climaxes.

Later on in the 1950s, as the academic avant-garde seized control of so many outlets for modern music, Creston, along with many of his contemporaries, began to be ignored by the large performing organizations. Yet he continued working vigorously, following his own convictions. During the 1960s and ’70s his music retained a following among the many bands, choruses, and orchestras in high schools and colleges around the country – an entire subculture that has become the most fertile proving-ground for new music in this country. Additionally, his works for unusual instruments – saxophone, marimba, trombone, accordion – have become established as classics within the repertoires of those instruments.

After retiring from his position as Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence at Central Washington State College in 1975, Creston and his wife moved to an attractive home in Rancho Bernardo, a quiet area on the outskirts of San Diego. In the past several years, with the inevitable fluctuation of musical fashion, Creston’s stature as one of the leading American composers of his generation has been acknowledged anew. In 1980, the Mirecourt Trio introduced his Piano Trio, Op. 112, as part of an all-Creston program at Grinnell College. Iowa Public Television taped the event for a documentary on the composer, which has now been shown on public television stations around the country.

A small, energetic man, with twinkling eyes and an open, disarming grin, Paul Creston exudes the same youthful, exuberant vitality that one hears in his music. His disciplined regimen of diet, exercise, and creative activity, and the careful planning of his time recall the days of his youth when he used to smoke coffee beans to stay awake as he pursued his nocturnal studies. Though he professes adherence to no organized religion, Creston has been a devotee of Vedantic and Rosicrucian philosophy since his teens, and considers these mystical writings to be a fundamental source of his inspiration. He is also a firm believer in naturopathic medicine, and attributes his remarkable vitality and good health to an assortment of herbs and vitamins, as well as to his lifelong devotion to the Pythagorean ideal of moderation.

Today, as he approaches his 75th birthday, Paul Creston is as active as ever. The U.S. Army Band recently premiered his Festive Overture, Op. 116, commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the American Bandmasters Association. This past spring, Lawrence University in Wisconsin presented a Creston festival, featuring a major retrospective of his compositions, culminating in a digital recording of five works for symphonic band (on the Golden Crest label). His latest work is’ Sadhana, inspired by a book of Rabindranath Tagore. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, it will be performed by that group on October 3. In the future are a work for organ and orchestra, requested by the American Guild of Organists, and a piece for two pianos commissioned for the 1983 convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs.

Beyond these, there is a long list of projects Creston is eager to tackle, including articles on: modern techniques in the music of Bach; the interpretation of Chopin’s music; the duodecimal system of note-values, and the hermetic law of opposites in music. “As long as I have something worthwhile to say, the ability to say it, and excellent health, I shall say it in music and in words.”

As several of our most notable elder statesmen in music have retired from creative work to become living institutions, it is refreshing to find one with the youthful vigor and the appetite for new challenges demonstrated by Paul Creston. 

Contemporary Music: A Weekend of Reflections

Recently the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City devoted two full days to an intensive exploration of the current status and direction of contemporary music. Luminaries from many facets of the new music scene attended the series of panel discussions. In each session, a paper was presented, followed by reactions from panel members, and then from members of the audience. Topics ranged from the philosophical to the practical, and included approaches to composition in the 1980s, the composer as performer, the heritage of American music from the period between the two World Wars, opportunities for foundation support of new music, and issues pertaining to the performing, broadcasting, and recording of contemporary music.

Despite the moods of pessimism, hopelessness, and martyrdom that usually pervade discussions of modern music, some positive signs were evident. A theme that recurred often throughout the conference was one introduced by George Rochberg during the first address: the recognition that the dominant emphasis since World War 11 on structural manipulation at the expense of expressive, spiritual, or emotional content, and the concomitant renunciation by composers of their rich aesthetic heritage, have destroyed rapport between composer and performer and between composer and listener. Rochberg offered his own attempt to re-embrace this heritage, reconciling past and present in a broader musical language, as a positive example for consideration. Rochberg would have demonstrated more magnanimity, however, had he acknowledged the dozens of composers who, for the past three or four decades, have practiced precisely what he now espouses — and at a time when doing so often brought instant dismissal from serious consideration. As it is, Rochberg’s posture as reformed sinner has brought him tremendous publicity for the past few years. But his address, which reiterated the obvious with extraordinary verbosity, drew a good deal of antagonism from his colleagues on the panel, who included Hugo Weisgall, Morton Subotnick, and Jacob Druckman. Each of them protested with pompous indignation a perceived prescriptiveness in Rochberg’s own personal alternative, but all were essentially in substantive agreement with him, in spite of themselves, concerning the general issues. Only Subotnick objected to Rochberg’s admission of “failure” on the part of contemporary composers, insisting that failure only implies either an absence of commercial success or a betrayal of one’s own creative satisfaction and integrity. But Subotnick revealed the solipsistic arrogance characteristic of so many composers in his refusal to acknowledge that the inability to achieve artistic communicationa prime concern-is also a form of failure.

An important corollary that emerged during the course of the proceedings was a revelation of the coerciveness with which the “traditional” wing of 20th-century music has been suppressed by the academic musical establishment, and the degree to which dissent has been silenced through subtle forms of intimidation. For example, Gregory Sandow, composer and critic for the Village Voice, confessed to being unable to admit to himself an admiration for the music of Benjamin Britten until respected academics like Rochberg openly accepted it. And after Samuel Lipman ofCommentary presented a paper extolling the wealth of musical treasures to be discovered among American composers of the generation that produced Hanson, Cowell, Barber, Schuman, and others, Peter G. Davis of the New York Times admitted a long-held admiration for these composers that he had been afraid to confess publicly. The intensity of this de facto censorship was evident in an incident related by conductor Gerard Schwarz, in which he described being severely ostracized by the contemporary-music ensemble Speculum Musicae, of which he had been a member, when they learned that he had chosen Samuel Barber as recipient of a major commission. Even Arthur Weisberg, conductor of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, reportedly claims that he disliked most of the modern works he performed, but was responding to socio-political pressure. With such cowardly submission to a party line rampant, it is no wonder that audiences have become conditioned to an automatic skepticism concerning contemporary music. As Schwarz emphasized, it is foolish to expect audiences to appreciate music presented and performed with feigned conviction. Performers must exercise freedom in selecting contemporary music that they can present with honest pride, and Schwarz knows that there is plenty awaiting discovery and exposure.

One cannot help but be struck by the pathetic assumption expressed by Polygram’s Guenter Hensler, in the discussion that appeared in Fanfare IV: 3, that only a small, finite number of classical works is capable of generating a meaningful public following. Unfortunately, the problems raised by Hensler and Shepard about the musicians and their union — the greedy “artists” who willingly strangle their own art form to death in a quest for ever more exorbitant salaries — are outside the context of this commentary. But the fact that the public is able to accept an umpteenth brand of breakfast cereal or cigarette but not new musical repertoire is a devastating indication of the lack of imagination and creativity exhibited by performers, record companies, and their related agencies. An art form that is not continually infused with new works is a dead art, and embalming is only a temporary cosmetic measure. The answer is not simply, “New music? We did some new music and .the audience hated it (or they refused to buy it). So it’s back to Beethoven.” The responsibility is with the performers and producers to find new music that will succeed, and if they can’t find it, then they don’t know how to do their jobs.

An atypical attitude was expressed at the conference by Steve Reich, who seems to have bypassed many of the problems that plague most of the new-music crowd. He has developed an ensemble of musicians, in which he himself performs, and they play his music with tremendous refinement, precision, and conviction. Reich spoke with the confidence that comes with success, emphasizing the constructive virtues of a composer’s taking responsibility for earning his living directly from his own music. While acknowledging that performing was neither possible nor necessary for all composers, he cited the important benefits of a composer’s immersing himself in the actual communication process. Reich has acquired a large, enthusiastic following, not limited to the institutional classical music scene, and his performances are regularly packed. He has also turned a rare business acumen, praised enviously by Lukas Foss, to his decided advantage. I am not proposing Steve Reich as a musical model for contemporary composers, but he does represent a phenomenon from which there is much to learn.

If there is indeed some sort of honest, large-scale re-assessment taking place, it is important for listeners also to re-evaluate their positions, and to give a chance to those composers, performers, and commentators who indicate a sensitivity to these issues and a sincere commitment to values they can share.