by Walter Simmons
SCHUMAN On Freedom’s Ground. A Free Song. Prelude. American Festival Overture ● Ian Hobson,Fred Stoltzfus, conds; University of Illinois Chorale and Oratorio Society, Sinfonia da Camera; Ricardo Herrera (bar); Ingrid Kammin (sop) ● ALBANY TROY1280 (71:33)
SCHUMAN A Free Song. SOWERBY Canticle of the Sun. COPLAND Appalachian Spring ●Carlos Kalmar, cond; Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus ● CEDILLE CDR-90000 125 (74:00)
William Schuman’s “secular cantata” A Free Song was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1943—the first such prize given for a piece of music. I have often described this work as one that is mentioned in print far more often than it is heard. For despite its having achieved such distinction almost 70 years ago, it has never appeared on a recording. But the unpredictable has happened once again: Suddenly two different performances of this work on two different recordings have been released at virtually the same time. (Detail mongers may be interested to know that while both releases proclaim themselves “world premiere recordings,” the Cedille was actually recorded about four months before the Albany.)
Turned down for military service because of a neurological condition, Schuman decided to make his contribution to the War effort by composing several works that would convey the sentiments he felt were appropriate to the circumstances. A Free Song was written in 1942, and was scored for chorus and orchestra with baritone soloist. Its two parts, setting portions of Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, last about 15 minutes. The first section decries the horrifying casualties of war, while the second is a patriotic exhortation on behalf of perseverance in the name of “liberty.” The work is an example of what might be termed “social Gebrauchsmusik,” a kind of national populism that enjoyed a brief period of fashion shortly before and during the War. But from today’s perspective, the impact of the piece is dated and somewhat heavy-handed. The choral writing is largely homophonic, so as not to over-tax amateur choruses. The second section begins with an orchestral fugato that is the most interesting portion of the piece, as well as the part most characteristic of the composer (who else would introduce a fugue subject on the bass clarinet?). However, the work suffers—as do several of Schuman’s choral compositions—from a lack of interesting melodic and harmonic material. The result is a certain stiff, mechanical quality, and fails to support the sentiments expressed by the poetry. The work was introduced by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, along with choruses from Harvard and Radcliffe. The performance was broadcast widely, and was largely well-received at the time. However, Schuman’s devoted advocate Aaron Copland, who had heard the broadcast, wrote the composer that he liked the instrumental portions, but found the choral writing “not my dish, giving the whole a somewhat forced impressiveness.” I think that despite the strong patriotic emotions rampant at the time, Copland clearly saw the work’s areas of strength and weakness. Today A Free Song appears very much of its time, its interest largely of a historical nature.
Both these new performances are worthy efforts, and I hate to choose one over the other. However, I would have to cite the Chicago performance (on Cedille) as richer, fuller, and more refined. Both baritones are acceptable, though the (unidentified) soloist on this recording is a little more secure than his counterpart on the Albany release. Furthermore, Albany does not designate separate tracks for the work’s two sections.
But the Albany release is indispensable to Schuman enthusiasts in offering the first recording of On Freedom’s Ground, one of the composer’s most ambitious works, an “American Cantata” in five linked sections of 40 minutes duration, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. During the years leading up to 1976, the much-heralded American Bicentennial, Schuman, who loved the role of “musical statesman,” had been counting on a major commission that would give him the opportunity to make a large statement of national significance. But no such commission was forthcoming, much to his disappointment. However, ten years later marked the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. To commemorate this event, a large consortium of orchestras and choruses offered Schuman a commission that would provide the opportunity he had been waiting for. Schuman arranged for an original text to be commissioned from the noted poet Richard Wilbur, who eagerly agreed to collaborate with the composer.
Schuman completed the work in 1985, and it was introduced the following year by the New York Philharmonic and the Crane Chorus from SUNY/Potsdam, conducted by Zubin Mehta, with Sherrill Milnes as soloist. The text for the five sections deals respectively with the nation’s pre-colonial origins, its philosophical roots in England, mourning the deaths of those who gave their lives on behalf of the nation’s ideals, as well as the ways in which the nation betrayed those ideals (the longest, most serious portion of the work), a light-hearted review of popular dance styles from the preceding century, and, finally, a commitment to providing a home for the immigrants of the future. Each section begins with an extended orchestral introduction, and these are undeniably the most compelling portions of the work. At the very beginning a theme is stated, rather like the melody of a chorale prelude, which has been called the “Liberty” theme. This motto appears in a different guise in each movement, serving as a unifying element.
Despite the more than four decades that separate the appearance of this work from A Free Song, the two compositions share much in common. Both are clearly the products of a “musical statesman,” in their fervent articulation of national ideals expressed from a collective perspective, while both—in the choral portions—display a dry, expressively neutral, largely homophonic harmonic treatment, especially dissonant in the later work, although Schuman was clearly passionate in his embracing of these ideals; and both are most interesting in their instrumental portions. Many of Schuman’s familiar devices can be found in the later work—his treatment of words as syncopated rhythmic elements, his generous use of percussion, and his weakness for triumphant endings, which sometimes seem totally forced. The fourth movement, with its sequence of dance styles, is clearly the most immediately appealing, and provides much-needed relief after the very grim and serious third movement.
One is forced to conclude that, as with A Free Song, the eloquence of Schuman’s music in On Freedom’s Ground simply does not match its high-minded ambitions. Ultimately its importance is probably greater for what it represents within Schuman’s compositional career than for its value within the 20th-century choral/orchestral repertoire. This University of Illinois performance is quite respectable, while Ricardo Herrera is adequate as baritone soloist. Inexplicable to me is Albany’s failure to provide individual tracks for the five sections of this lengthy work.
Prelude for Voices is a short a cappella work composed in 1939, originally for women’s voices, but arranged for mixed voices three years later. The text is based on portions of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, but it is not included in the program booklet. Though the piece may not win the listener’s sympathies immediately—especially without the text at hand—it has subtleties that become quite haunting with greater familiarity. Working against its immediate appeal is Schuman’s oddly synthetic treatment of melody and harmony (with intervals contracting and expanding in a contrived, almost schematic manner, rather than springing from a spontaneous impulse). But there are also some very affecting passages, most notably one in which a solo soprano (here the lovely-voiced Ingrid Kammin) soars floridly above the massed voices.
The disc opens, appropriately enough, with the rousing American Festival Overture, also from 1939. This is perhaps the earliest work in which the familiar earmarks of the composer’s mature style are evident, although the influence of Roy Harris is equally apparent. Although the work is exuberant and light-hearted in tone, it is busy with contrapuntal complexities, which may have militated against its achieving a more wide-ranging popularity. The performance here is OK, but no match for those conducted by either of the two Leonards—Bernstein or Slatkin.
I don’t mean to slight Ian Hobson here. He is an extraordinarily versatile musician—both pianist and conductor—whose repertoire embraces an enormous range. Born and educated in England, he has developed—among his many other interests—quite an affinity for American composers, and for William Schuman in particular. Currently on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, where this recording was made, he is clearly the motivating force behind it. The Sinfonia da Camera, which he founded, is a competent ensemble. While a group of this kind may not measure up to the standards of the major professional orchestras, it can play a valuable role in introducing and familiarizing serious listeners with works not otherwise available—as it has here, together with the equally adept Chorale and Oratorio Society.
In turning to the remainder of the Cedille recording, I must confess to finding various aspects of it rather perplexing and frustrating, and these aspects soured my reaction somewhat to a disc that—taken on its own terms—offers extremely fine performances of three Pulitzer Prize-winning works. The disc is entitled “The Pulitzer Project,” although, according to conductor Carlos Kalmar (interviewed in the previous issue) there are no plans for this to be an ongoing series. The program features three works that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1943, 1945, and 1946. But, taking a closer look at the contents, one cannot help but wonder what happened with the 1944 Pulitzer Prize—wasn’t one awarded? Yes, it was, to Howard Hanson’s Fourth Symphony, subtitled “Requiem.” Not only was it awarded the Prize, but it remained the composer’s own favorite among his symphonies. Although Hanson himself recorded it, back in the early 1950s, and Gerard Schwarz did so in the early ‘90s, it certainly hasn’t suffered from over-exposure. Which brings us to Copland’s Appalachian Spring, winner of the 1945 Pulitzer—in its original scoring for 13 instruments. But that is not what is recorded here: What we have is the familiar suite for full orchestra. Let me be clear—this is a warm, sympathetic, and polished rendition of the score, worthy of consideration alongside the best of the many other recorded performances. But I cannot imagine the market to whom this recording is directed: Of those American music connoisseurs who might be interested in the relatively obscure works by Schuman and Sowerby, who will want to be stuck with the umpteenth recording of Appalachian Spring? Such listeners may well be annoyed—as was I—that a third of the available space on this recording was wasted on a superfluous reading of this chestnut. Not only would I have preferred a new recording of the Hanson, there are any number of other American works of the first rank that have never been recorded. And which beginning collectors, ready for their first recording of the Copland ballet, wouldn’t rather have such comparably popular works as El Salon Mexico or Rodeo or Billy the Kid filling out the disc? Though I may be faulted for focusing on what the disc isn’t, rather than what it is, I think these points are relevant—especially for those trying to find profitable ways of recording unusual repertoire, as well as for those who comprise the natural market for a release like this.
This brings us to the largest selection on the disc, The Canticle of the Sun, composed in 1944 by Leo Sowerby. Based on the famous prayer of St. Francis, it is a work for chorus and orchestra in 11 sections, each devoted to a verse of the prayer. The entirety is more than half an hour in duration, and inhabits a generally neo-romantic style that falls somewhere at the intersection of, say, Vaughan Williams and Walton, with a sense of sonority that somewhat resembles the choral works of Howard Hanson. Though I think of the spirit of St. Francis as one of self-abnegation, and renunciation of the material world in favor of a life of utter simplicity, Sowerby’s work is filled with grand gestures, rich textures, and full sonorities, although the varied character of its different sections covers a broad range of expression. Initially I found the impact of the music to be limited to an impressive surface, but without substantive melodic or harmonic interest. However, with repeated listening the work seemed to blossom for me, its varied sections offering increasing gratification. While its overall spirit may not be the true spirit of St. Francis, I am glad to have made its acquaintance. The performance offered here—of both chorus and orchestra—is quite stunning. In conclusion, I would say that one’s degree of curiosity about Sowerby’s work may be the determining factor as to whether or not one chooses to acquire the recording.