Arnold Rosner (1945-2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Muczynski (1929-2010) Obituary.

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

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

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

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

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

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