SCHUMAN: American Hymn. SCHWANTNER: Magabunda

by Walter Simmons

SCHUMAN: American Hymn. SCHWANTNER: Magabunda. Lucy Shelton, soprano (Schwantner); St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. NONESUCH 79072

This is a most provocative and rewarding new release—both symbolically and empirically. The showcasing by a major American record label of one of today’s most exciting orchestras and its brilliant conductor in performances of two major works they commissioned, composed within the past three years by distinguished American composers of entirely different generations, each of whose music has established its importance beyond a small coterie of colleagues—This is a phenomenon that has not been witnessed in quite some time, proclaiming an awareness of and pride in the vitality of new music in America today, while demonstrating its expressive power in performances that reveal care and commitment. So much for the flag-waving (of which every word is meant wholeheartedly); now on to the music.

Particularly fascinating is the way the combined impact of this music is enhanced by the juxtaposition of two composers of such divergent musical backgrounds and frames of reference. Of course William Schuman is now an elder statesman, who helped to define and create the modern American symphonic genre during the 1940s. As practiced by Schuman, the symphony was a powerful vehicle through which to explore the developmental possibilities of a musical idea, in a manner predicated on the late works of Beethoven, but imbued with a distinctly American vision through the precedent set by Roy Harris (whose importance, I believe, lies much more in his influence on other more talented composers than in the questionable merit of his own works). The result was a kind of symphony geared toward the highest standards of absolute music defined by the great European works of the past, but expressed in a language filled with terse gestures, brittle sonorities, and jagged rhythms that gave the music a distinctly American and unquestionably modern tone. Schuman reached the zenith of his symphonic achievements in his mature Symphonies Nos. 6 through 9 (1948-68; see Fanfare VII:4; VIII:2). More recent works have often seemed somewhat anticlimactic or redundant.

Thus the American Hymn, completed in 1982, is quite a pleasant surprise, in that it seems to reveal some further evolution in the Schuman style, especially in the realm of tone color. The work is a complex and highly integrated set of variations on the composer’s setting from the 1950s of a poem by Langston Hughes. While retaining the flavor of the melody throughout much of the work, it undergoes a continuous variation procedure very close to an ambitious symphonic development. Schuman has always demonstrated an individualistic approach to gesture and sonority—indeed his most distinctive fingerprints are visible in these areas—but in this work the attention drawn to sonority is extraordinary. I recall hearing Schuman observe in a radio interview a couple of years ago that the rich and varied use of percussion instruments by younger composers had impressed him greatly and that he had tried to absorb some of these sounds into his most recent music. In fact, this interview may have preceded a broadcast of American Hymn—I am not sure—but in any case the extraordinarily imaginative use of percussion is probably the most striking aspect of the music on first acquaintance. The sonorities are at times most delicate and subtle and at others, such as the brilliant central portion of the work, positively orgiastic, as in what Schuman describes as “a sounding sea of steel.” One minor annoyance is the use of “American” in the title, which does not seem at all intrinsic to the essence of the work and is the kind of self-conscious nationalistic reference that has been rather overdone by Schuman through the years. Nevertheless, overall the work is a demanding, provocative, but rewarding statement with a refreshing vitality that encourages one to return to it again and again.

Joseph Schwantner, on the other hand, is just the sort of younger composer whose exploitation of percussion sonorities might have been in Schuman’s mind when he made the statement noted above. Magabunda, completed in 1983, is a group of settings for soprano and orchestra, of four poems by Agueda Pizarro. By now, the musical language of Joseph Schwantner has become quite familiar, as he has been the beneficiary of an astonishing number of major recordings in recent years (see Fanfare IV: 3, VI:l, VIl:2, VIl:6). Starting from a Crumb-flavored academic serialism, Schwantner has gradually refocused his language for greater accessibility, embracing fanciful, highly evocative titles, a sort of psychedelic “new age” approach to musical sensation, and the innocent simplicity of Peter Schickele and Joshua Rifkin pop arrangements from the 1970s. Moreover Schwantner has an uncanny knack for finding poets—like Agueda Pizarro and Ursula LeGuin—who seem to be aiming for the same sort of spaced out pop-fantasy images that he seeks to evoke in his music. Moment to moment the result is mouth-watering—especially in this quite ambitious recent work—making more and more cogent the notion that, given the opportunity, Schwantner could easily be the most exciting film composer in Hollywood today. One wonders whether he has something like this in mind, especially with John Williams having exhausted whatever talent he had. However, as I have stated before in these pages, as delicious as Schwantner’s music can be, it lacks something crucial that William Schuman’s music has in abundance, as can be gleaned from this disc: a comprehensive contrapuntal structure. If Schwantner can create sounds with an orchestra that would cause Berlioz to fall off his chair in amazement, he has returned musical structure to the groping ineptitude of a Liszt tone-poem. I do not understand how listeners whose tastes have been conditioned by works that stimulate the intellect and the imagination and the emotions and the sensations can be expected to take seriously music as simplistic as this—except as “dessert.” One has the feeling of being seduced by someone who looks beautiful and makes a great first impression but who lacks character or substance; and this particular juxtaposition of pieces—each of which represents its composer “on a good day,” as it were, and by a major effort—makes the point so clearly—makes all the points clearly: the similarities between the composers as well as their differences. American Hymn, while not inducing a state of rapt ecstasy throughout its duration, creates an anticipation of many hours of enjoyment and discovery ahead; Magabunda, which can take your breath away on first hearing, begins to diminish with the third, because it is all there in one glance, like the cover of a sci-fi paperback. If Schuman has learned something from Schwantner, in the realm of sonority, the latter has returned the compliment in the realm of harmony, as one can hear in the final portion of Magabunda, which recalls several lamentational moments in Schuman’s music.

Lucy Shelton, it should be noted, has devoted a great deal of attention to Schwantner’s vocal music, and the performance she gives here is quite stunning in its evocation of images of female sorcery (term-paper topic: Compare Magabunda with Jacob Druckman’s Lamia; see Fanfare II:6, p. 15).

The orchestra performs brilliantly in both works, and the recording conveys a sense of presence that is truly incredible (although there was a strange technical defect in the Schuman—sounding like a rattlesnake at two or three points). I must corroborate my colleague Roger Dettmer’s remarks concerning Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (see Fanfare VII:5, pp. 225ff). In addition, it comes as a real shock to hear two new works performed as if the conductor actually wanted to perform the music. In a world where, coast to coast, orchestras play contemporary music with the same gusto with which people pay their income tax, the presence of a conductor who actually picks the stuff, and seems to know and care how it is supposed to sound, because maybe he actually likes it—this presence can be felt, and gives this record a sense of identity, immediacy, and excitement.