W. SCHUMAN: Credendum. PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 4. GESENSWAY: Four Squares of Philadelphia

by Walter Simmons

W. SCHUMAN Credendum.  PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 4.  GESENSWAY Four Squares of Philadelphia –  Eugene Ormandy, cond; Philadelphia O – ALBANY TROY-276, mono/analog (68:14)

This new release presents three American works from the early 1950s — two of which represent the best of that period — through CD reissues of contemporaneous recorded performances. The fact that these performances were presumed to be definitive at the time may partly account for the fact that none of the works has ever been recorded again.

When William Schuman (1910-1992) was appointed president of the Juilliard School in 1947, he undertook a complete restructuring of the school’s curriculum, hiring an impressive roster of highly talented figures with compatible views to collaborate in its implementation. Among those he selected for the composition faculty were Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) and Peter Mennin (1923-1983). Although Mennin left Juilliard in 1958 to assume the presidency of the Peabody Conservatory, the three were linked together as composers in the minds of the public (or that portion thereof who knew that there were American composers), identified for better or (what became increasingly the case during the 1960s) worse as the musical version of the “East-Coast Establishment.” In truth, however, the three were highly individual personalities, and as composers, although there were occasional instances of some stylistic overlap, their outputs developed in markedly different ways, as is plainly evident to anyone who listens to a representative sample of each composer’s work. (However, interestingly enough, it was during the years 1950-1955, when they were all working together at Juilliard, that these occasional stylistic overlaps took place.)  Nonetheless, in their own individual ways, these three composers (with the addition of Samuel Barber) produced what is probably the finest, most durable American music of the 1950s, a body of work that has barely begun to be understood and appreciated.

A graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College, Schuman launched his career at age 25 when he joined the Sarah Lawrence music faculty, deeply imbued with an optimistic, Dewey-based belief in progressive education that represented the cutting edge of pedagogical thinking in America during the middle third of the 20thcentury. Not only did Schuman’s music exude this positivist mentality, but his own career paralleled in many ways the meteoric rise to success enjoyed by many of his contemporaries in the business world, as he went from director of publications at G. Schirmer to president of the Juilliard School at age 35, to founding president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (a term he coined) at 52. In a sense, Schuman represented the spirit of post-World War II America, especially as it extended into the Kennedy and Johnson years, when he was generally considered the most powerful figure in American musical life.           

Indeed, in his personal manner Schuman was rather like the CEO of a large corporation, displaying boundless enthusiasm and creative energy. As he aged, he became even more polished and “presidential” in his affable self-assurance and his gift for spontaneous public utterance. So there is something appropriate about his being commissioned in 1954 by the United States Government to write a symphonic work in honor of UNESCO. This was a very fertile period for Schuman as a composer, and the work he completed the following year, which he called Credendum, is, in many ways, a quintessential statement — not just for Schuman, in the way it captures what program annotator John Proffitt describes as his “humanistic faith in the power of Education, Science, and Culture to shape mankind for the better,” but also as an expression of educated post-war America’s view of what our arts should be addressing.

Proffitt describes Credendum as “one of Schuman’s most important, and characteristic, orchestral works.” I would agree with that statement, adding that it is also the easiest of Schuman’s mature compositions to appreciate, making it perhaps the ideal point of entry into his output as a whole. The work is in three connected sections: the first, “Declaration,” is brash and brassy, assertive and declamatory, with bold percussion punctuations and nervous, syncopated rhythms; the second section, “Chorale,” is based on a solemn — even poignantly sad and longing–hymn melody introduced by the strings — one of the most beautiful melodies Schuman ever wrote. The mood of the music is broadened through a series of clearly-defined variations; “Finale” is fast, based largely on material heard earlier, with irregular rhythmic patterns (and string pizzicati that many will recognize from subsequent works by Leonard Bernstein), polytonal harmony, searing counterpoint, and cumulative pyramid effects, all culminating in an affirmation of unashamed grandiloquence.

If “grandiloquent” is a word that can be applied to many works by William Schuman, it is virtually never applicable to music by Vincent Persichetti, a master of aphorism, small-scale structures, and lightness of touch. Unlike Schuman, Mennin, and many other American composers of their generation, Persichetti did not use the symphonic genre as the medium for his most significant or characteristic musical statements, although he did compose the obligatory nine (of which — as with Schuman and Mennin as well — the first two were withdrawn). (Persichetti’s twelve piano sonatas are much more representative and comprehensive.) Although the Fifth (for strings), Sixth (for band), and Ninth (for full orchestra) are masterpieces, most of his symphonies are far from the soul-baring, angst-ridden post-romantic prototype. James H. North has called Persichetti “a twentieth-century Haydn” (Fanfare 18:1), and no work could exemplify this more than the Symphony No. 4 of 1951, in many ways the consummate Neoclassical symphony. The work is virtually devoid of what we think of as “drama,” and is lightly and transparently scored throughout, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte.  As in so many Haydn symphonies, Persichetti’s Fourth opens with a slow, solemn introduction that proves to be the weightiest music of the entire work. The introduction is followed by a lively allegro, which bounces along with a playful, joyful exuberance. The second movement is tender and gentle, the third gracious and whimsical, while the finale is a brilliant whirlwind in perpetual motion, bringing most of the work’s thematic material together with a joie de vivrethat is irresistibly exhilarating.

I am sorry to report that in comparison to the two works just discussed, the third, Louis Gesensway’s Four Squares of Philadelphia, is of meager interest indeed. Gesensway (1906-1976) was a Latvian-born violin prodigy who spent most of his professional life as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. As an adult he studied composition with Kodály in Hungary. He composed the work at hand during the years 1948-51, attempting to capture or express in some way William Penn’s philosophical conception of the city, as well as a sense of its historical development and the character or spirit of its four distinct sections. The well-known Roman-born, Philadelphia-based music critic Max de Schauensee wrote, “What Respighi did for Rome in his tone poems, Gesensway has done for Philadelphia.” I can only attribute such a preposterous derogation of Respighi to local boosterism. While no expert myself on the character or spirit of Philadelphia, I can only say that, having played the work many times over the years (it was the flip side of the LP issue of the Persichetti), I have never been able to keep my attention focused on this incredibly drab, un-picturesque musical portrait, not a phrase of which has ever remained in my memory.

Albany is to be commended for making available many of the mono-era Columbia LPs that featured first-and-only recordings of significant American works. Many of these works disappeared from the scene with the arrival of stereo recording and the musicopolitical shifts of the 1960s. Some, like the Juilliard Quartet’s reading of Peter Mennin’s Second String Quartet and Persichetti and his wife’s rendition of his Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, are definitive performances of musical masterpieces. They have been sorely missed for years and one hopes that Albany is planning to make them available soon, so that they can be discovered by a younger generation of listeners. On the other hand, some of the Ormandy-led readings, while rendering the scores smoothly and accurately enough, lack the flair and conviction of truly great performances. The renditions of the Schuman and Persichetti discussed here are fine, so I don’t want to overstate the point, but they are not the last word, and leave plenty of room for more dynamic, sympathetic, and deeply felt interpretations.