KELLER: Symphony No. 3. SIEGMEISTER: Symphony No. 3. GOEB: Symphony No. 4

KELLER Symphony No. 3.  SIEGMEISTER Symphony No. 3.  GOEB Symphony No. 4. – William Strickland, Akeo Watanabe, conds; Japan PO; Elie Siegmeister, cond; Oslo PO – CITADEL CTD-88121, stereo/mono, analog (60:54)  

The greatest composers are usually driven from within to create a mode of expression that is personal, distinctive, and unique. Therefore it is often the lesser figures who provide the clearest picture of the musical materials, concerns, and values characteristic of a particular time and place. During the mid-1950s, America’s greatest music was being produced by three composers of distinctly divergent musical personalities– William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin–who happened, not wholly by accident, to inhabit the same institution — the Juilliard School in New York City. But their music is far more revealing of their own personalities than of the times in which they lived. This recent CD, on the other hand, offers three highly competent works (reissued from old CRI LPs) that provide an illuminating view of the aesthetics of the American symphonic mainstream, at a time when that approach was about to be supplanted by the domestic operatives of the international serialist junta.

These three works — all composed within the years 1954-1957–share in common a view of the symphony as a medium for a major statement generally extroverted and objective in tone, abstract in form, yet unmistakably American in character. The works of Siegmeister and Goeb exemplify a Modernism descended from Stravinsky via Nadia Boulanger and exhibit the bristling harmonic language and relatively severe temperament associated with that approach. Keller’s symphony utilizes a friendlier, less abrasive language, more compatible with the generally straightforward, uncomplicated nature of all three works, making it the most successful of the group.

Of the composers represented on this disc, Homer Keller is the least well-known. Indeed, I know little about him other than that he was born in 1915 and studied with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers at the Eastman School. His five-movement Symphony No. 3 is the only work of his known to me, although I am quite curious about his other major efforts. While not pretending to offer new insights into the human condition, Keller’s Third is — not unlike the comparable (and recently reissued) Symphony in D of John Vincent  — a truly delightful example of the American populist symphony. With an exuberant optimism that has “1950s middle-America” written all over it, the work proceeds with irresistible swagger and forward thrust, balanced by two tenderly heartfelt slow movements. Its harmonic language is basically consonant and diatonic, inflected by “blue-notes,” and enlivened by jazzy rhythmic syncopations. While offering no distinctive personality of its own, neither does it reveal obvious reminiscences of others. Unfortunately, the performance here sounds rather tired and flabby, but there is no doubt that a reading with more enthusiasm and precision would be a real show-stopper.

Although he never earned comparable recognition, Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) occupied a place similar to Morton Gould’s on the multidimensional matrix of American composers, with contributions ranging from music appreciation texts directed to students and laymen to folksong arrangements, from musical shows to serious abstract instrumental works. A very social/political character, he was from early on an active participant in organizations that advocated for the American composer and, even during his later years, was a familiar figure at concerts in the New York area when American works were performed (even when his own were not included — a rare phenomenon indeed!). Like Gould, he was committed to the use of vernacular materials in virtually all his music — even in works of considerable severity and complexity. An example of this is his Symphony No. 3, a vigorous, solidly constructed work in which recognizable American folk elements are elaborated and developed within a texture of angular, chromatic polyphony. However, its sophisticated workmanship seems disproportionately complex relative to its paucity of really significant content.

The same may be said of Roger Goeb’s Symphony No. 4.  Born in Iowa, Goeb (1914-1997) studied agriculture before turning his attention to musical composition. His symphony exhibits the syncopated rhythmic bounce that is one of the dominant characteristics of American music, but here it is combined with an even higher level of dissonance than Siegmeister’s Third. Again, disproportionately severe dissonance and complex polyphony in the service of mundane expressive content is pointlessly abrasive.

Performances and sound quality are below par for the early 1960s, when the original recordings were made. Recommended for its documentary value, rather than for listener enjoyment.