WILLIAM SCHUMAN: American Festival Overture

Program Notes

The American Festival Overture is one of William Schuman’s earliest works to achieve success and his first to be recorded. It was composed in 1939 at the encouragement of Serge Koussevitzky, who promised to perform it with the Boston Symphony. The title refers to a festival of American music that Koussevitzky had planned for the 1939-40 concert season. He led the orchestra in the premiere of the overture in Boston, in October of 1939. The piece is based entirely on a simple motif that Schuman identified as a familiar boys’ street call. Sung to the syllables “wee-awk-eee,” the motif consists of three notes, the first falling a minor-third, and the third a return to the original note. This motif, along with a sequence of perfect fourths, thoroughly permeates the overture. Schuman later stated, “The American Festival Overture is obviously a piece that could only have been composed by someone in his/her twenties or maybe thirties, but not an older person. This overture is a musical pep talk, brash and all those things.” Except for a brief passage of reflection, the work is vigorously rousing and emphatically exuberant. Yet despite its extroverted character, it is saturated with a profusion of brilliant developmental activity. Although much of the melodic content is simple and straightforward, there is a great deal of harmony built on the interval of the fourth, which imparts a bristling, modern surface. Shortly after the premiere, a 23-year-old Leonard Bernstein noted “an energetic drive, a vigor of propulsion which seizes the listener by the hair, whirls him through space, and sets him down at will.”

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Composer Profile

Program Notes

During the 1960s William Schuman was one of the most prominent figures in America’s classical music world—“probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music” and “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. He was also one of America’s most highly regarded composers throughout the middle third of the century. The story of his rapid ascent to a position of such eminence was legendary during his lifetime: Born in New York City in 1910, he was an “all-American boy” who spent his childhood consumed with baseball. Later he formed a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with his school chum Frank Loesser (subsequently a celebrated Broadway lyricist). After high school Schuman had enrolled in a commercial business course. Classical music meant little to him until, at the age of twenty, he attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini. The concert excited and inspired him, awakening an interest in a new direction he might pursue: the path of a serious composer. So he abandoned his focus on popular tunes, and turned his attention to more advanced musical study. His future wife, whom he met at this time, quickly realized his great potential, and strongly encouraged him in this direction.

Schuman made rapid progress toward his ambitious goal. In 1939, only nine years after embarking on his new career path, his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Six years later he was appointed president of the famed Juilliard School, where he promptly revamped the entire faculty and curriculum; in 1962 he became the first president of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all performing arts centers to follow. At the same time he continued to compose, receiving commissions, awards, and performances by the country’s foremost musical ensembles and arts institutions. After he retired from his Lincoln Center position, he continued to compose until his death in 1992.

Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Schuman’s music is its strongly “American” character, achieved without recourse to jazz, folk, or popular melodies or even to their general styles. This quality is deeply embedded within the tone and spirit of his musical personality, which may be described as bold and brash, declamatory, self-confidently assertive, tense, aggressive, nervously edgy, and, at times, contemplative, lofty, and even oratorical. His body of work comprises ten symphonies, two operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which were performed and recorded by the world’s leading artists and ensembles.        

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

BARBER: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Program Notes

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was one of the greatest popular successes of his later years. It was commissioned by his publisher G. Schirmer, in celebration of their hundredth anniversary, with a premiere to take place during the opening week of New York City’s imposing new cultural mecca, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in September 1962. Barber selected John Browning as his soloist and, as he often did, worked closely with the pianist during the process of composition.

Barber’s Piano Concerto is remarkable for its absorption of some of the sound and feeling of the then-fashionable “serial” style within an unabashedly neo-romantic composition. (This differs from such Barber works as the Sonata for Piano and the Nocturne, whose employment of twelve-tone material is utterly irrelevant to the serial style.) Without actually employing twelve-tone rows, Barber devised highly chromatic, nearly atonal thematic material, emphasizing wide-interval leaps, jagged, disjointed gestures, and irregular rhythmic groupings, and subsumed them within a conventionally structured virtuoso concerto, balancing such material with passages of lyrical passion and ferocious cadenzas, all of which culminate in dramatic climaxes.

The first movement is a tempestuous, but formally straightforward sonata allegro. The piano begins with a statement of angular, chromatic thematic material in the manner of a solo recitative. The orchestra then introduces a passionate, wide-ranging, almost atonal theme. After some development, the oboe presents a gorgeous, if more conventional, secondary theme, infused with typically Barberian poignancy. The development of all these ideas is unusually elaborate and complex for Barber, before a hair-raising cadenza and a full recapitulation lead the movement toward a decisive conclusion.

The second movement is an expansion of a nostalgic, thoroughly tonal Canzone for flute and piano that Barber had written in 1959. The expansion fully retains the expressive essence of its source, adding nothing significant beyond further ornamented repetitions of the pentatonic melody in different keys, clothed in varying textures and instrumentation. A bridge figure based on descending fourths separates the melodic repetitions.

The third movement is a propulsive five-part rondo in 5/8 meter, in the manner of a frenetic toccata. The main thematic idea is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Prokofiev. The movement is enormously difficult to play, but creates a brilliantly exciting effect. As was often the case with Barber, writing the finale had become a stumbling block for the composer, and was only completed some two weeks before the premiere! The concerto made a dazzling impact at its first performance, with the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

Barber’s Piano Concerto won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and the 1964 Music Critics’ Circle Award. John Browning recorded the work and performed it some fifty times between 1962 and 1964, stating that it was one of the most difficult concertos he had ever played. By 1969 it had enjoyed 150 performances. The work may be the most frequently performed American concerto for any instrument composed since 1950.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

HOVHANNES: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”

Program Notes

“Mysterious Mountain” is probably Alan Hovhaness’ most popular and often-performed orchestral work. It was commissioned by Leopold Stokowski, for his first concert as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1955, a performance that was televised nationwide. (Stokowski had begun to champion the music of Hovhaness during the 1940s, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.) This work by the erstwhile obscure composer achieved further widespread exposure through an RCA Victor recording released in 1958, featuring a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Fritz Reiner. This recording—the first of many—has remained available in one medium or another almost without interruption for more than 50 years. All these factors have contributed to its popularity, but not to be discounted is the character of the work itself: euphonious, serene, and contemplative throughout most of its 20-minute duration.

The Symphony No. 2 was originally entitled, simply, “Mysterious Mountain.” But around 1970, in an effort to provide some organization to his enormous and disparate body of work, Hovhaness added a number of his major orchestral works to his roster of symphonies, which eventually reached No. 67 (although their chronology remains inconsistent, to say the least). It was at this time that “Mysterious Mountain” became the subtitle of Symphony No. 2. One of the reasons for the confused chronology of Hovhaness’ works is the fact that he often re-purposed material from earlier works—modified or not—into later compositions. For example, the animated fugato in the second movement of the work at hand originally appeared in more primitive form in his String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1936.

Hovhaness intended his music to evoke spiritual states that transcended the concerns of mundane life. He accomplished this through an ever-evolving musical style that embraced the modal polyphony associated with the Renaissance, rich passages of hymnlike chorales, and religious incantations and dancelike styles of his ancestral Armenia. As time went on, he was to absorb elements of the musical styles of India, Japan, and Korea into his language. “Mysterious Mountain” is unusual among Hovhaness’ works in that Eastern musical references are largely absent from it. Mountains were a source of both awe and inspiration for Hovhaness: They seemed to suggest to him the immensity of the universe, and this impression was suggested in the titles of many of his works. Growing up in New England, he had ready access to mountain ranges, which he loved to explore; and he spent the last decades of his life among the mountains of Washington State.

The Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” comprises three movements. The first, Andante con moto, features rich, triadic, hymnlike chorales, with non-harmonic decorations played by the celesta. The overall effect is, indeed, celestial. The second movement, Double fugue: Moderato maestoso; allegro vivo, opens with a modal fugal exposition that suggests a Renaissance motet. This is followed by the exposition of an agitated subject introduced by the strings (taken, as noted above, from an early string quartet). Finally the two fugatos are combined contrapuntally in a majestic peroration. The third movement, Andante espressivo, begins quietly with a mysterious ostinato that builds gradually to a climax and then recedes. This is followed by a fervently spiritual hymn in the strings, and then, by a woodwind chorale. An ethereal passage, produced by subdivided solo strings, leads to a serene conclusion.

(Interested listeners are referred to the excellent Web site www.Hovhaness.com.)
Walter Simmons


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic with a particular focus on tonal American composers of the 20th century. While in his teens he maintained an ongoing correspondence with Alan Hovhaness. Simmons is the author of two books in Roman and Littlefield’s series Twentieth-Century Traditionalists, of which he is the supervising editor. Hundreds of his writings can be found on his Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

Program Notes—ALAN HOVHANESS 75th Birthday Concert. Alleluia and Fugue. Avak the Healer. Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens”

Program Notes

Alan Hovhaness 75th Birthday Concert
Alleluia and Fugue
Avak the Healer
Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens”

My purpose is to create music, not for snobs, but for all people, music which is beautiful and healing, to attempt what old Chinese painters called spirit resonance in melody and sound.

Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness has pursued this ideal with a vigor matched by few contemporary composers. Functioning in his own esthetic realm, aloof from the musical mainstream and its ephemeral trends and fads, Hovhaness has produced a prodigious body of music including more than fifty symphonies and literally hundreds of other works of all dimensions, designed to be performed by an endless array of instrumental combinations from the beginning student to amateur groups and large-scale professional ensembles. Since his days as an isolated eccentric, who performed his exotic music for friends in the Boston area while living on a meager income earned as a church organist, up until today when he is regarded as one of America’s foremost composers, whose music is known throughout the world, Hovhaness has been guided by a dignity, humility, and integrity that have enabled him to make use of any available means and opportunity to pursue his own unique and uncompromising vision. As we celebrate the 75th birthday of this distinguished artist, we celebrate the independence of mind and courage of conviction that his musical life represents.

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1911, Hovhaness  gravitated toward music at a very early age, despite the absence of parental encouragement. He underwent a per­functory exposure to conventional music lessons and studied for a while at the New England Conservatory. This training, however, did not respond to his inner artistic needs as did the counsel and encouragement of two Boston mystics, the painters Hermon di Giovanno and Hyman Bloom, who urged Hovhaness to turn toward the culture of his ancestral Armenia as a source of inspiration both musical and spiritual. Renouncing the conventional approaches he had thus far followed in vain, he delved wholeheartedly into this cultural archeology and emerged with a new sense of artistic identity, having discovered a musico-philosophical realm with which he finally felt a kinship.

I was looking for a new direction that would be more expressive, and I found that direction in the church music of Armenian culture. That led me to a more ancient kind of Armenian music than ‘folk music,’ much of which has been tampered with; I also discovered the music of Komitas Vartabed, who was a very great man, and his development of Armenian music was the first influence I had.

This was the beginning of Hovhaness’ immersion in the ancient Western and Oriental musical cultures upon which he has drawn for the inspiration of most of his mature work, in a pursuit of the Confucian ideal of joining heaven and earth, East and West.

Somehow, Armenian music led me to India, when I heard the music of the dancer Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s brother, who brought along a group of musicians from India. This opened up a whole new world yet seemed very much related to the different modes of Armenian music. Also Japanese music and theatre had a strong influence throughout the 1940s. The visual and musical aspects of Japanese drama, and its wonderful way of handling stories, gave me a new outlook; I wanted to create a new kind of opera from that influence. Around 1950, an Armenian from Korea played me some ancient Korean court music and I found this terribly exciting. I thought this was the most mysterious music I had ever heard. That had a strong influence.

The harmony and concept of Gagaku, which came to Japan from China in the 7th century, could readily be applied to any kind of modal melodic line. It is a very original concept and a more natural way of developing modal music than anything ever done in Europe until recently: the whole idea of rhythm versus non-rhythm, of chaos versus complete control or partial control. While I am not interested only in turning to the past, I think music should be beautiful now, just as it always was, and more beautiful, if possible.

Alleluia and Fugue (1942)

Alleluia and Fugue dates from a period when Hovhaness’ work was marked by a fascination with the sounds and techniques of early Christian music. A hauntingly archaic quality pervades both sections of the work. The hymn-like Alleluia alternates between richly chordal organum-like passages and episodes featuring a mournful modal melody with simple canonic imitation. The Fugue follows with Handelian vigor, though its Dorian modality enables it to remain evocative of the distant past.

Avak the Healer (1946)

The cantata Avak the Healer combines qualities of ancient Western music with elements of Armenian liturgical music, most clearly represented by the cantorial lines of the trumpet. The composer’s own text, sung by the soprano, is filled with simple yet strangely abstract images that convey an aura of mystical adoration. The six sections of the work maintain a continuous mood of reverence and spiritual purity, devoid of the dramatic contrasts and conflicts common to Western music of more recent centuries. The entire work remains, in the words of commentator Robert McMahan, “suspended in some mysterious halfway world between the ‘here’ of the concert music repertory and the ‘there’ of timeless ritual.”

Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens” (1982)

Since the 1970s, Hovhaness has attempted to integrate elements inspired by the various traditions of Oriental music within a more expansive Western symphonic framework that embraces some of the richness of Romantic harmony and orchestration while retaining a purity of spiritual content. This more recent stage of development is exemplified by the Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens.”

The following commentary is adapted from program notes by the composer:

Since 1972 I have made my home near the sublime peaks of the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Years ago in my childhood I climbed many times the mountains of
New Hampshire, and I loved those ancient worn down mountains covered by forests with rocky peaks rising above the trees.

Now I live between the young volcanic Cascade Mountains and the oceanic Olympic Mountains with rain forests, and I find inspiration from the tremendous energy of these powerful, youthful, rugged mountains.

When Mt. Saint Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, the sonic boom struck our south windows. Ashes did not come here at that time but covered land to the East all across the state of Washington into Montana. Ashes continued to travel all around the world landing lightly on our house a week later after their journey all around our planet.

On August 7, 1980 we had to travel to Walla Walla. Before we began our journey I had a feeling that Mt. Saint Helens would erupt again, but as we drove across the Cascade Mountains the beautiful summer day made me forget my premonition. Then, after a while a strange darkness came over the landscape and the sun disappeared behind weird colors. Blackness covered the sky stretching from behind the Cascade Mountains, extending from the western horizon over our heads. People were taking pictures by the roadside of this new eruption coming from the direction of Mt. Saint Helens beyond the western horizon.

Program Notes: THE SISTERS by Nicolas Flagello

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 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.) In 1955 he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori the following year 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, 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. More than forty of his works can now be found on some twelve compact discs on a variety of labels. Among today’s leading performers who have featured Flagello’s music are violin superstars Midori, Elmar Oliveira, and Setsuko Nagata, conductors James DePreist, Semyon Bychkov, David Amos, and John McLaughlin Williams, soprano Susan Gonzalez, and pianists Peter Vinograde, Tatjana Rankovich, and Joshua Pierce. These musicians have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.

The Sisters, composed in 1958, was Flagello’s third opera. A one-act melodrama in two scenes separated by an orchestral interlude, The Sisters is based on an original libretto by Dean Mundy. Set in ‘‘a town off the coast of Massachusetts,’’ the opera depicts the jealousy and hatred that pervade a family of three sisters, two of whom are in love with the same man, and their brutal, controlling father who will not tolerate any disobedience from his daughters. The characters are archetypes  of melodrama: the sweet, innocent sister, the vicious, jealous sister, and the maternal, protective sister; the dashing, virile hero, and the cruel, tyrannically possessive father. Their behavior follows a disastrous course that ends as one of the daughters forces her sister off a cliff to her death.

The musical language of The Sisters veers between warm, ardent lyricism during tender, amorous moments, and more angular, irregular, dissonant passages when the father and the evil daughter are portrayed. The entire work is thoroughly integrated around a few short motifs. There is a poignant trio, a voluptuous love-duet, and several other lovely lyrical moments, as well as some solemn evocations of mood, such as the ‘‘Interludio’’ that separates the two scenes. (This “Interludio,” incidentally, has just been released on a new recording on the Artek label.)

The Sisters was first presented by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater in February, 1961, with the composer conducting and his brother Ezio (then a world-famous operatic bass-baritone) in the role of the father. Reviewing that performance for the New York Herald Tribune, John Gruen described the opera as “first rate,” adding, “Mr. Flagello has the gift of writing gratefully for the voice, and his music has melodic sumptuousness. His orchestral texture is crystal-clear, and he knows how to underline dramatic events.” Tonight’s  production is the opera’s first since the premiere 46 years ago.

PETER MENNIN: Folk Overture. Symphony No. 8. Symphony No. 9

PETER MENNIN:

  • Folk Overture
  • Symphony No. 8
  • Symphony No. 9

The 1930s and 40s, when Peter Mennin was coming of age as a composer, was a time of proud national identity for American music. During this period the federal government, through the Works Progress Administration, fostered the performance of an enormous quantity of American music, bringing the works of dozens of composers before the musical public. Many American composers, inspired by the ideal of democratizing the arts, began to forge a recognizably native musical language, accessible to the general listener. But this populist spirit was short-lived; by the late 1940s the federal government had curtailed its artistic involvement, and the notion of a broadly comprehensible musical language soon fell out of fashion.

During the following decades, the serial approach to composition was adopted by an avant-garde elite and was granted considerable status among influential academic circles. Many of the composers who had been associated with the populist approach now joined this internationalist movement, shaping what became the postwar American compositional mainstream. Others, still committed to a musical language based on indigenous materials, continued in the then unfashionable “Americana” vein 

For a third group, the populist approach had lost its appeal, but serialism appeared equally unattractive. These composers sought to develop distinctive personal styles by drawing upon aspects of traditional musical practice, resisting the pressure to conform to current trends. Some enjoyed high reputations, having attained them during the previous era. But their music was accorded little serious consideration, often receiving glib, peremptory dismissal from the critics. This body of music has remained one of the least known and least understood segments of the American repertoire.

Mennin is among the youngest and most notable members of this group of composers; his music brought him to national prominence during the mid-1940s, while he was still in his early twenties. Born in 1923 in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mennin (who shortened his name from Mennini, to distinguish himself from his older brother Louis, also a composer) began composing before he was seven years old. Independent-minded from the start, he preferred working on his own and later claimed to have been largely self-taught in composition. Entering the Oberlin College Conservatory in 1939, he worked under Normand Lockwood, whose aesthetics he found antithetical to his own. After a year or so he left to join the Army Air Force. In 1942, having completed a forty-five-minute Symphony No.1 (now withdrawn), he entered the Eastman School of Music because of its policy of playing through students’ orchestral works. There he studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson, earning a Ph.D. at the age of twenty-four, despite his self- described role as a renegade. By this time, he had completed two more symphonies, one of which had already been performed by the New York Philharmonic. Upon graduating, he was appointed to the composition faculty of the Juilliard School, where he remained until 1958, when he was named director of the Peabody Conservatory. In 1962 he became president of the Juilliard School, a position he held until his death in 1983.

Mennin’s career as an administrator, compounded by his cool, businesslike manner and his well- tailored appearance, disguised a profound dedication to his own creative work. As a composer, Mennin worked almost exclusively in large, abstract forms, completing barely thirty works, of which nine are symphonies. His music is never light, frivolous, or sentimental, but it is not dispassionately intellectual, either. Rather, it is an attempt to convey the inner drama of his own soul, by means of the finest craftsmanship of which he was capable.
Although he acknowledged no conscious musical influences other than the polyphonic techniques of the Renaissance, his earlier work (pre-1960) calls to mind both the lofty grandeur of the Vaughan Williams symphonies and the contrapuntal energy of Hindemith. Yet there is no mistaking Mennin’s individual stamp, which is apparent from his earliest works to his last, despite the considerable evolution that his style underwent.

Mennin’s pieces from the 1940s, characterized by a brash assertiveness, strongly rooted in diatonic modality, and propelled by lively, syncopated rhythms, are linked to the American mainstream of their time. The most salient characteristic of Mennin’s mature style is already evident in the early Folk Overture, composed in 1945 while he was still an Eastman student. It presents a continuous unfolding through imitative counterpoint—as was practiced by the composers of the Renaissance—rather than through the more conventional dialectic between contrasting materials. This bustling undercurrent of rapid contrapuntal activity, vastly different in effect from the calm spirituality of the sixteenth-century masters, proceeds with unswerving determination, creating a constant sense of nervous energy, balanced somewhat by a full-breathed modal lyricism. 

By the early 1950s, with the appearance of the String Quartet No. 2, the Concertato for Orchestra (“Moby Dick”), and the Symphony No.6, Mennin’s music began to take on a new grimness and sobriety, with contrapuntal activity that became almost compulsive in its unremitting agitation and frenzy. These and subsequent works reveal a bold vision of abstract forces in ceaseless, violent conflict, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality. The slow movements provide oases for solemn contemplation, featuring long-spun melodies that unfold polyphonically with Bach-like dignity. The harmonic language is harsher in these works and there is greater chromatic freedom, although strong tonal centers are asserted at major structural junctures. 
Through the 1960s, Mennin’s works remained remarkably consistent in style, tone, and scope, despite a gradual increase in concentration and complexity—harmonic, contrapuntal, and rhythmic—that produced an overall intensification of effect. The output of works became like an inexorable linear succession, each entry grimmer, harsher, and more severe than the last. The high points of the 1960s are the Symphony No.7 (New World Records NW 258) and a starkly unsentimental cantata based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

From 1970 until his death in 1983 at age 60, Mennin completed only five works, but these reveal some significant evolutionary developments, substantive modifications of a musical language that hitherto had been remarkable for its consistency. The philosophical and emotional content remained unchanged, but the syntax became far more terse and uncompromising.
These new developments are apparent in the Symphony No.8, completed in 1973. Unlike those in most of Mennin’s other symphonies, each of its four movements bears an inscription, taken from the Bible, implying an expressive intent. The first movement, marked In principio, evokes a sense of stasis, perhaps suggestive of the beginning of time. In this movement, the gradual compression of polyphony, first hinted at in the 1960s, has finally led to the “verticalization” of linear ideas into seething, cluster-like chordal structures, orchestrated with uncharacteristic attention to sonority and texture. In the second movement, Dies irae, typical Mennin motivic fragments swirl wildly in frantic instrumental byplay enhanced by plentiful use of percussion, leading to explosive eruptions. The third movement, De profundis clamavi, is characteristic of the composer in its focus on somber linear polyphony, though not in its markedly reduced feeling of tonal center. The fourth movement, Laudate Dominum, conveys a tremendous sense of agitation, which finally culminates in a decisive tonal affirmation.

The Symphony No.9, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, was Mennin’s penultimate work, completed in 1981. The outer two of the work’s three movements are in much the same vein as the outer movements of the preceding symphony. The first, Lento non troppo, opens mysteriously, with tremulous textures, before building in power and rhythmic energy to massive climaxes which then subside, allowing the movement to end quietly. The third, Presto tumultuoso, is a representative Mennin finale, unleashing itself in a paroxysm of fury before consolidating its energy for a resolute conclusion. The most remarkable movement of the symphony, however, is the second, marked Adagio arioso. With a pure, elegiac melody, in uncharacteristically homophonic relief, it imparts a more ardently Romantic quality than the composer ordinarily allowed to emerge, even in earlier works. Although composed before the onset of the fatal illness that was soon to end his life, it is the sort of movement, appearing in a final symphony and suggesting a sense of profound grief borne with dignified restraint, that annotators seize upon as having valedictory significance. Perhaps not inappropriately, this was the music performed at his memorial service.

Program Notes: Psalm 130 By Vittorio Giannini

Program Notes

Psalm 130
By Vittorio Giannini

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was one of the many Italian-American composers who flourished during the 20th century, contributing to a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. However, the extent of Giannini’s contribution is little known today, his name and reputation kept alive chiefly by a few songs and a symphony for concert band that is a beloved staple of that repertoire. 

But during the first half of the 20th century Giannini played an important role as teacher as well as composer. He spent decades on the compositional faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. His students include John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri, among many others. Giannini’s creative work centers around more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, vocal, and chamber works. These works are notable for their warm immediacy of expression, their ingratiating lyricism, and their impeccable craftsmanship. Like many traditionalists, Giannini had no interest in being a trend-setter. His musical creed is perhaps best embodied by his statement that he was driven by “an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners.” 

Giannini was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family. His father was a successful operatic tenor, as well as the founder of both an opera company and a concert band; his mother had been a professional violinist. His three siblings were all musicians, the most celebrated of whom, his sister Dusolina, became one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos. Vittorio began taking music lessons from his mother when he was five; after four years he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he concentrated on both violin and composition. Returning to the United States, he continued his education at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied composition with Rubin Goldmark.

During the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s, Giannini’s compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs, all in a highly romantic, even sentimental, vein. One of his earliest songs became his most famous, “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” written in 1927, and later championed by Leonard Warren, Mario Lanza, and, more recently, by Thomas Hampson. He had two major operatic successes in Europe during the 1930s, Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter, the latter with his sister Dusolina and Hans Hotter in the leading roles. Although the New York Times critic called it “a milestone in the history of American opera,” it has never been produced again. However, several years later CBS commissioned Giannini to compose two short operas for radio—Beauty and the Beast and Blennerhassett—both of which have been produced on stage a number of times. Giannini’s most enduring operatic success, however, is a buffa adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

During the early 1940s Giannini began to turn his attention to instrumental music. His compositions became clearer, more concise in design, and less inflated by romantic rhetorical extremes than his earlier works. Many of the pieces from the 1940s and 50s are light and diverting in character, and easier and more practical to perform. During the 1950s and early 60s he composed five symphonies, of which No. 3 (1958), scored for concert band, is the perennial favorite mentioned earlier.

Around 1960, another side of Giannini’s creative personality began to emerge, perhaps prompted by a serious heart attack that brought the realization that his life was likely to be cut short, followed by the dissolution of his second marriage. These late works are dark, even tragic in character, revealing an emotional depth and intensity hitherto unexplored by the composer. With a markedly attenuated sense of tonality and an increased level of harmonic dissonance, they reflect a considerable advance with regard to density of texture and concentration of activity, and represent the most profound and fully realized works of his career.

Among these compositions stands the Psalm 130, for double-bass and orchestra, composed in 1963 for double-bass virtuoso Gary Karr. Karr later recalled that the work was written “during the period when his young wife was divorcing him. He told me that he was so much in love with her that he found it impossible to sleep, so during those agonizing nights, he poured his heart out into this work.” An abstract, rhapsodic commentary on the Psalm (“Out of the depths my soul cries out …”), it presents the solo instrument as a tortured protagonist, crying out against the orchestral backdrop, somewhat similar in conception to Bloch’s Schelomo. The work is based largely on a motif-presented at the outset-that outlines a minor-seventh chord, and may have had some sort of coded autobiographical significance, as this same motif appears prominently in the Variations and Fugue composed for band the following year. Despite the improvisatory effect created by its rhapsodic structure, Psalm 130 falls roughly into three sections-the opening and closing, proclamatory, agitated, and anguished, while the central section is poignant and meditative. It is one of Giannini’s most personal, deeply moving, and fully realized utterances, and was first performed by Karr in August, 1963, at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Contributor, The New Grove
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by Vittorio Giannini

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by Vittorio Giannini

Background

As we follow the political thaw in Eastern Europe known as Glasnost. it is fascinating to observe another form of glasnost taking place — this one in the arena of American musical politics. For about a decade we have been witnessing the gradual re-emergence of a group of composers — most born between 1890 arid 1920 — whose music had been suppressed and whose reputations had been anathematized for more than a quarter of a century. This suppression was the result of their seeking a continuity with the past by embracing traditional forms, techniques, and musical values, rather than dissociating themselves from the past.

After World War II, contemporary music in the United States came under the sway of a militant form of Modernism that called for the repudiation of tonality and other traditional principles . The prohagonists af this position espoused it as the sole, inevitable path toward musical progress; those composers who failed to follow jt could be safely 19nored as irrelevant and worthless. Though this position found very little resonance among the musical public. it was embraced by prominent spokesmen who. in turn. influenced — or at least intimidated — composers. scholars. students. performers. and members of the press into accepting their notions of historical inevitability and the imperatives of artistic progress.

This orthodoxy. which dominated the music world from about 1950 through the mid-1970s. had a number of very significant consequences: One was a loss of rapport. of “good faith,” between living composers and the listening public that has led to a near-fatal stagnation of the repertoire; another was the virtual disappearance from concert halls and recordings of music by dozens of talented, well-established creative figures whose aesthetic aims did not conform to prevailing doctrines. This unofficial boycott was so effective that many composers who had attained considerable prominence during the 1930s and 40s suddenly found themselves, in effect, “blacklisted.” Many lived to see their music fall into oblivion and their names all but disappear from the standard reference books. One highly distinguished victim of this boycott was Vittorio Giannini.

However, much of the music produced during the mid-twentieth century by the fashionable avant-qarde has proven to be stillborn, and the aesthetic notions that supported it to be sterile. Musicians have begun to take a second look at some of the more traditionally conceived music that was once so summarily dismissed; works that lay unheard for decades are now suddenly being hailed by both audiences and critics.

Vittorio Giannini

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was an avowed conservative, whose considerable output of fifteen operas, seven symphonies, and numerous other works largely ignored Modernist assumptiorts. Instead, Giannini dedicated himself to mastering the musical practices of the preceding certturies and embodying them in music that expressed his own personal-feelings. “A composer’s duty,” he said, “is to express what is in him with the utmost sincerity.” For him, “beauty” was “the ultimate goal of composition.” From this perspective, “originality” was a presumptuous:display of arrogance. Echoes and reminiscences of other composers indicated a sense of homage, rather than an unintentional “derivativeness.” (One is reminded of Brahms’ famous reply to a listener who observed that his Symphony No. 1 showed the influence of Beethoven: “Any fool can see that.”)

Although Giannini was born in Philadelphia, his musical roots were firmly planted in Europe. At the age of ten, he won a scholarship to study in Milan, where he remained for five years. Then, after concentrating on both the viulin and composition for several years at the Juilliard SchoOl, he returned to Italy as the recipient of three consecutive Prix de Rome. Giannini deeply absorbed the European musical ethos, particularly as filtered through the sensibility of late-romanticism. His music during the 1920s and 30s exhibited an ingratiating melodic warmth rooted in the bel canto tradition, enriched by the chromatic harmony of Wagner and the sumptuous textures of Debussy. His predominantly lyrical emphasis was reflected in a concentration on vocal music — severaloperas and dozens of songs, a number of which appeared regularly on recital programs (the most popular being Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky).

Giannini’s first opera, Lucedia, was introduced in Munich in 1934 via a major production that starred the composer’s sister, Dusolina. Reviewing the premiere in the New York Times, Herbert Peyser wrote:

There is enough beautiful music in Lucedia to outfit a second opera. I can think of no operatic work by an American… that approaches this one in melodic lavishness and lyric fluency, in spontaneity, in whole-souled sincerity, in consummate mastery of musical means. .

Four years later, The Scarlet Letter was produced in Hamburg, under the direction of Eugen Jochum, with Dusolina Giannini and Hans Hotter in leading roles. Peyser found this work to be

something of a milestone in the history of American opera, . . . a wholly sincere expression of a nature refreshingly true to itself, that scorns to force its growth and development by recourse to idioms and agencies foreign to it. And it is music which flows spontaneously, which sings and invariably ‘sounds.’

These early operas also won the praise of Richard Strauss, who hailed Giannini as the most talented American composer known to him. During the same period, Giannini’s Piano Concerto was premiered in New York, with no less than Roslyn Tureck as soloist. Returning to the United States, Giannini joined the composition faculties of the Juilliard School (1939), the Manhattan School (1941), and, later, the Curtis Institute (1956) . During the 1940s and 50s, he expanded his compositional range, increasing his output of orchestral and chamber music and devoting attention to the rapidly growing symphonic band medium. In addition, he developed a fondness for imbuing Baroque forms with a neoromantic touch. It was during this period that Giannini composed his opera buffa based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

During the early 1960s — the last years of his life — Giannini developed a darker, more intense vein of romanticism, characterized by a concern with more serious subject matter, tighter structural procedures, a more attenuated sense of tonality, and a greater use of dissonance. But by this time there was little interest in his music and many of his later works were never performed. Known then primarily as a composition teacher, he became in 1965 the first director of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he served until his death the following year. When he died, Giannini was working on his sixteenth opera, Edipus Rex.

During the years since his death, Giannini’s music has been all but forgotten. Most of the operas and songs are out of print or otherwise unavailable. Virtually no recordings of his music have appeared. Yet the time for a revival may have arrived. The John Brownlee Opera Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew is the third major Giannini performance to take place during the 1990-91 concert season in New York City alone. When the soprano Johanna Meier performed the four-movement monodrama The Medead with the Manhattan Symphony last September, the Times’ James Oestreich called it “an impressive creation” by

a skilled composer in a conservative post-Romantic idiom that fell out of fashion at mid-century but might thrive in today’s climate if given wider exposure.

Last month, the American Chamber Opera produced Giannini’s Last Blennerhassett, a work originally written in 1939 for radio. Bernard Holland noted in the Times that

the operas of Vittorio Giannini may be due for a comeback. . . . The vocal lines pour as thickly and smoothly as sloe gin. The climaxes are perfectly calculated. There is not a single stumble during the dramatic interchanges of this five-person cast. . . . far cry from the clumsiness of some of his colleagues today.”

The Taming of the Shrew

Composed in 1950, The Taming of the Shrew was Giannini’s eighth opera. The composer fashioned the libretto himself, with the help of Dorothy Fee. Although most of the words are Shakespeare’s own, some of the lines (in the love-scene between Lucentio and Bianca) are taken from Romeo and Juliet and one of the sonnets.

The Overture sets the buoyant, ebullient tone of the opera right from the start, and introduces most of the themes and motifs that pervade the Ylork and provide its basic material. Despite the sparkling Rossinian exuberance that characterizes much of the opera — especially Act I — the music is subtly conceived throughout, the orchestra creating a continuous symphonic development into which the voices — while dominating the sonority — are thoroughly integrated. This is the essence of Giannini’s operatic style: free and uninhibited Italianate lyricism emerging from and soaring above a richly Straussian orchestral fabric intricately woven from a small number of unifying motivic elements. In keeping with the work’s cheerful good humor, the harmonic language is straightforwardly tonal — even diatonic much of the time — although moments of romantic ardor expand with lush, chromatic opulence.

Among the work’s high points are the effervescent three-part fugato among Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello in Act I; Lucentio and Hortensio’s respective attempts to court Bianca while disguised as tutors in Act II, Scene 1; the passionate love-scene between Lucentio and Bianca, also in Act II, Scene 1; Katharina’s aria in Act III; and the glorious finale of the opera, beginning first with a male quintet in a confused melange of mistaken identity, which is then resolved in a richly lyrical sextet involving the two couples and the two fathers, Baptista and Vincentio, and finally concluding with an ardent love duet between Katharina and Petruchio.

The Taming of the Shrew was first performed in 1953 by the Cincinnati Music-Drama Guild and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Thor Johnson. Virgil Thomson, who attended the premiere, commented on the work in the New York Herald Tribune:

[Giannini’s] talent has long been known as phenomenal, and now in his fiftieth year he writes like a master. . .with such fine skill and such pretty taste that no one can deny him a place among the authentic composers of our time. By following none of the contemporary aesthetic trends, in fact, he has arrived at a highly individual position.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is a strong work, a practical work; a highly professional achievement that holds the attention by musical means and that communicates dramatically. I suppose this is the definition of an opera, a real opera. . . a perfect opera. It has a good plot and its words are Shakespeare’s. But it tells its story through music, vocal and instrumental; …

It also represents an achievement in the field of today’s major operatic need, which is English-language opera. In this sense it is a work of “advance,” in spite of its stylistic old-fashionedness. . .

The libretto. . . is compact, expeditious, seems to have no major faults. His musical setting also has a clear trajectory, falls in a virtually perfect curve from its farcical beginning to its romantic close, and the effectiveness with which its dramatic line is sustained is due. . . to the composer’s skillful ex:ploration and equilibration of the musical opportunities offered. But the air-borne quality of the opera is most of all a result of sustained musical inspiration. . .

A sort of symphonic continuity involving thematic developments and transformations gives formal coherence, makes a musical shape of each scene, each act, the whole work. This thematic and orchestral elaboration points up the story, of course, colors its emotional content and underlines its dramatic syntax. The vocal lines chiefly follow rather than lead it, though they do become the center of attention in tenderl moments. . .

Dramatically it is strong and musically it is masterful. . . . its melodic charm constant, its orchestral sound delicious. It is a professional piece of work that communicates and is built to wear. Oner suspects that it might stand up even in the great houses. It rather asks for grand execution, in fact. . . It is also by its vast energy and high musico-dramatic competence and by its sweet warmth sentiment born for big time. . . . For Giannini’s possession and exuberant exercise of all these qualities let us today be thankful. . . .

(In view of Thomson’s enthusiasm, it is interesting to note that Giannini’s name does not even appear in the composer-critic’s book, published in 1970, American Music Since 1910)

The following year, The Taming of the Shrew was presented on NBC-TV, in a production conducted by Peter Herman Adler, with John Raitt and Susan Yager in the leading roles. This presentation too was a popular and critical success. (Olin Downes, writing in the New York Times compared the opera favorably with Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Proqress.) The work was mounted by the New York City Opera in 1958, and then elsewhere around the country. Its last New York production was in 1983, when it was presented by NYU’s Reimann Opera Studio.


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who writes regularly for Fanfare magazine. A recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism, he is also the author of the entry on Vittorio Giannini in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.

Flagello: Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet

NICOLAS FLAGELLOConcerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet (1985) (NY Premiere)

  • Allegro non troppo
  • Lento movendo (quasi all barcanola)
  • Allegro giusto

Manhattan School of Music Philharmonia, Lawrence Leighton Smith, conductor. The New Hudson Saxophone Quartet.

Nicolas Flagello, one of the last of America’s neoromantic traditionalist composers, was associated with the Manhattan School of Music for most of his professional life. Born in New York City in 1928, he began composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a child, he was introduced to Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), a distinguished composer and member of the MSM composition faculty. Giannini took on young Nicolas as a private student, fostering a long and intensive apprenticeship, as the maestro imbued his talented young student with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. When he was 17, Flagello enrolled at MSM, earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 1949 and 1950, respectively, then joining the faculty upon graduation. He continued to teach composition, theory and conducting at MSM until 1977.

Flagello composed prolifically throughout most of his life. 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 20th century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994 at the age of 66.

Flagello’s body of work includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber and vocal works, all of which embody his view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable position, 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, yet he held to his views with unswerving conviction, forging a unique creative voice shaped by his own temperament and perspective on life. Today, Flagello’s works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy, as his music is recorded and performed with increasing frequency.

The Concerto Sinfonica for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra was the last work that Flagello completed. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in 1985 with the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, who has championed a number of Flagello’s works.

Although the character of Flagello’s music is often dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge or awareness in order to understand and appreciate. Its title indicates the composer’s conception of the works as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the voice of a hypothetical protagonist.

The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme — a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme — is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows, beginning with a fugato played over an irregular rhythmic ostinato. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and love, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, bringing the movement to a defiant conclusion.

The second movement, Lento movendo, is a darkly mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This barcarolle gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central section that culminates in a chilling explosion, which Flagello likened to “the voice of God”. The central section ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement.

The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with the three-note motif, played by the timpani, cellos and basses. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque “trio” section. Then the scherzo material is subjected to a thorough development, which eventually builds to another stark proclamation from “the voice of God,” followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work’s main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.