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