GRUENBERG Symphony No. 2. The Enchanted Isle. Serenade to a Beauteous Lady: March

by Walter Simmons

GRUENBERG Symphony No. 2. The Enchanted Isle. Serenade to a Beauteous Lady: March · Paul Freeman, cond; Czech National SO · ALBANY TROY-467 (51:17) 

Here is a recent release that, while not exactly heralding the re-discovery of a great but neglected genius, is a worthwhile curiosity for those interested in knowing just who were the American composers that the 20th-century left behind, hovering at the periphery of the main arena. For such listeners, this CD, which explores the legacy of the once-familiar Louis Gruenberg, is too intriguing to be ignored. Gruenberg’s residual reputation seems largely to be based on his having composed an operatic adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, which was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1933 (the year before they introduced Hanson’s Merry Mount, whose fate has been only a bit more salutary), and having composed a violin concerto in 1944, commissioned, performed, and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Others might also know that he was born in Russia in 1884, came to America at age 2, exhibited prodigious musical talent as a child, studied piano and composition in Germany and Austria while in his 20s, then came back to the United States, spending the latter portion of his career in the vicinity of Los Angeles, where he composed several Academy Award-winning filmscores, and died in 1964. He was known at the height of his career as one of the first “serious” American composers to incorporate elements of jazz and other types of Black music into his works.

The music on this CD, however, shows no influence of Black music that I could detect, and only minimal hints of its having been composed by an American. What we have, introduced via extremely perceptive and informative program notes by Fanfare’s Bernard Jacobson (but who, I think, over-estimates the importance of determining who influences whom), are The Enchanted Isle, a 17-minute symphonic poem completed in 1927, a short excerpt from a rather lightweight Serenade to a Beauteous Lady, dating from 1934, and an ambitious 30-minute symphony originally composed in 1941, revised in 1959 and 1963, but never performed within the composer’s lifetime. Apparently, during his optimistic younger years, Gruenberg described his compositional identity as “a bridge between the old and the new,” but by his later years he lamented, “The world of yesterday seems to have forgotten me, and the world of today does not know me.” (Ah, what a sad business, this composing.)

What is this music like? The Enchanted Isle is a retrospective reworking of older material, and reveals a rather vehement, extroverted musical personality, thoroughly European in orientation and quite competent in craftsmanship, who embraced the gestures, textures, and harmonic language of Impressionism—but not its usually passive temperament. I was reminded initially of such contemporaneous figures as Szymanowski, but also of more robust characters like Bax, and Novák (when I say “reminded” or “sounds like,” I am never concerned with “influence”—which is a largely meaningless, pointless concept usually used irresponsibly as a critical weapon—but rather with location on a hypothetical multi-dimensional grid of musical style, solely for the purpose of communicating an impression). The music is orchestrated with a lushness that occasionally borders on garish, and at others on bombast. There are also occasional moments that suggest—perhaps irrelevantly—the vernacular music of the time. I found it more of a curiosity than a work to cherish.

The “March” from the Serenade to a Beauteous Lady is rather routine and unremarkable, suggesting the genre of English light music, but with a tendency toward a noisiness that seems characteristic of the composer.

Symphony No. 2 is, of course, a weightier effort, but not at all inconsistent with the works just described. Again, suggestions of Americana are largely non-existent, again one notes a raucous, abrasive, or “noisy” quality, as if just too much has been thrown into the pot at one time. Compared to the music of, say, Ernest Bloch, for example—another contemporaneous figure, whose life paralleled Gruenberg’s in a number of ways—this music is much more outgoing and less subjectively emotional. In fact, it is rather diffuse and unfocused emotionally. However, what is most interesting—indeed, the most interesting music on the disc, without which I probably would not have bothered even to write this review—is the symphony’s central slow movement. When I read Jacobson’s description of it as “prophetic of minimalism,” and with a kinship to Messiaen, I must admit that I reacted with skepticism. But he was really pretty close to the mark. Seemingly out of nowhere come these strange ostinati, heralding an exotic, quasi-Southeast Asian intermezzo, perhaps most reminiscent of Henry Cowell’s early “world music” explorations. A strange central section does indeed suggest the music of the French mystic. Quite unexpected and refreshing. For the record, the first performance of the Symphony No. 2 took place in Bamberg, Germany, in 1965, under the direction of composer-conductor Jan Koetsier.

So, as I wrote earlier, not masterpieces but curiosities. The performances are adequate, if a little rough and ragged.