by Walter Simmons
Music by PETER MENNIN (1923-1983)
- Fantasia for String Orchestra (1946)
- Symphony No. 5 (1950)
- Concertato, “Moby Dick” (1952)
- Symphony No. 6 (1953)
During the years immediately following World War II, most American composers were drawn either to the rigorous precision of serialism, to the familiarity of traditional romanticism, to the populist appeal of vernacular-based hybrids, or to the adventurousness of avant-garde experimentation. Not content to follow any of these approaches, Peter Mennin preferred to chart his own course, drawing from the principles and techniques — both old and new — that might serve his personal artistic vision. Born in 1923 in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mennin (who shortened his name from Mennini) began composing before he was seven years old. Independent-minded from the start, he preferred working on his own and later described himself as largely self-taught in composition. He entered the Oberlin College Conservatory in 1940, working under Normand Lockwood, whose aesthetics he found antithetical to his own. After a year or so he left to join the Air Force.
In 1942, having completed a 45-minute Symphony No. 1, Mennin entered the Eastman School, attracted by its policy of presenting readings of students’ orchestral works. There the self-described “renegade” studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson, completing a second and a third symphony, the latter serving as his doctoral dissertation. Before it was even accepted by the doctoral committee, the work was premiered by the New York Philharmonic, catapulting the 24-year-old Mennin to national prominence.
Upon receiving his degree, Mennin was appointed to the composition faculty of the Juilliard School. However, finding teaching a drain on his creative energy, he accepted a position in 1958 as Director of the Peabody Conservatory. In 1962 he was named President of the Juilliard School, a position he held until his death in 1983.
Mennin’s career as a musical administrator, compounded by his cool, business-like manner and his well-tailored appearance, belied for many his profound dedication to his own creative work. Indeed, during his years as President of Juilliard, his works at times received glib, peremptory dismissal from critics whose comments revealed flagrant misconceptions and distortions. (For example, one critic described his symphonies as “tasteful, three-piece-suit commissions.”) In fact, Mennin’s music is single-minded in its concern with powerful abstract drama, realized through the most meticulous craftsmanship. It is never light, frivolous, or sentimental, nor is it dispassionately intellectual either. His output of barely thirty works comprises large, absolute forms almost exclusively, of which nine are symphonies.
Although Mennin acknowledged no conscious musical influences other than the polyphonic techniques of the Renaissance, his earlier work calls to mind both the lofty grandeur of the Vaughan Williams symphonies (the Fourth, in particular) and the contrapuntal energy of Hindemith. In some ways, Mennin’s music also bears affinity with two European symphonists who charted their creative courses similarly independent of trends and fashions: Edmund Rubbra of England and Vagn Holmboe of Denmark, although Mennin himself was not aware of their work. Yet despite these affinities, there is no mistaking Mennin’s own individual stamp, which is apparent throughout his body of work. Even his thematic motifs display a certain characteristic gesture: boldly assertive, with a syncopated thrust that ends in an anapestic snap.
The most salient characteristic of Mennin’s mature symphonic style is the approach he adapted from Renaissance choral music: a continuous unfolding through imitative counterpoint, rather than the more conventional dialectical opposition and integration of contrasting themes. Indeed, counterpoint is emphasized above all other elements, with much use of imitation, canon, ground bass, stretto, cantus firmus, and the like. This approach is readily apparent in the noble, full-breathed lyricism of Mennin’s slow movements. However, its effect in faster music is vastly different from the calm spirituality of the 16th-century masters: a bustling undercurrent of rapid activity creates a constant sense of nervous energy, as the music proceeds with unswerving determination. Over the years, the linear aspect of Mennin’s music became increasingly chromatic, the harmony increasingly dissonant, and the rhythm increasingly irregular. His body of work thus stands as an inexorable progression, each entry grimmer, harsher, and more severe than the last. Yet the essential characteristics, discernible in the earliest works, remain present throughout.
The early Fantasia for string orchestra, composed in 1946, illustrates the essentials of Mennin’s style, as just described. Like most of his music from the 1940s, the melodic lines are largely diatonic, but inflected according to the darker modes. The titles of its two sections, Canzona and Toccata, are—like many of Mennin’s titles–direct references to instrumental forms in active use during the late 16th century. The slow Canzona develops a solemn motif through imitative counterpoint, very much in the Renaissance manner. About a third of the way through, the second violins introduce another motif, which is developed in a similar fashion. A climax is reached as the two ideas are brought together contrapuntally, after which the music comes to a quiet close. Though its form parallels that of the Canzona, the lively Toccata offers a vivid contrast in mood. A vigorous, strongly accented theme is presented in unison, then immediately subjected to a contrapuntal development in which its syncopated aspects are emphasized. A second idea—nervous and even more syncopated–is introduced and developed in a similar fashion to the first. The two ideas are then both developed together—at times simultaneously. Despite the music’s emphasis on purely abstract matters, frequent shifts in loudness and in textural density maintain a dynamic tension, until the work reaches an emphatic conclusion. Listeners to this recording may find the Fantasiaespecially illuminating, because it displays, simply and clearly, virtually all the principles upon which the three later works presented here are constructed. The Fantasia was first performed in 1948 by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Walter Hendl.
Hendl also conducted the premiere of Mennin’s Symphony No. 5, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1950, and performed by them that same year. Like all Mennin’s symphonies through No. 6, the Fifth is a three-movement work in a fast-slow-fast format. The first movement is based on three motifs, all heard within the opening moments: the first is a fanfare-like idea introduced by the woodwinds; the second, presented by the whole orchestra, is an emphatic idea whose first seven notes reveal an expanding sequence of intervals, outlining a wedge shape; the third is a syncopated motif introduced by the horns. The movement proceeds to develop this material with tremendous energy and forcefulness. Although the meter remains ¾ throughout, highly accented rhythmic irregularities give the music an “American” sound, despite the use of centuries-old contrapuntal techniques.
The second movement, Canto, is both solemn and lyrical in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Bach. The oboe spins a long-breathed melody over sustained chords in the strings. Soon the oboe is joined by a flute, before the melody is passed on to the strings. A second idea is presented by the flute and clarinet, and both are developed together, as the movement grows to a climax of considerable breadth, after which the music comes to a quiet close.
The third movement, Allegro Tempestuoso, returns to the spirit of the first. Two motifs — closely related to each other — are presented at the outset. Both are built on the Locrian mode, a scale form favored by Mennin (but by few other composers) that creates a particularly dark effect. As the development proceeds, two other ideas are introduced into the crystal-clear polyphony. Driven by syncopated rhythms, rushing patterns, and various canonic devices, the energy of the music intensifies, only occasionally ebbing to “catch its breath,” so to speak, until it finally reaches a decisive conclusion.
After the Fifth Symphony, the tone of Mennin’s music began to take on a new grimness and sobriety, while the contrapuntal activity became almost compulsive in its unremitting agitation and frenzy. The works from this, his most fertile and characteristic, period reveal a bold vision of wild, massive forces in ceaseless turbulence and violent conflict, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality — all articulated through clear musical logic. Slow movements continue to loom as solemn oases of grave contemplation. The harmonic language is harsher in these works and there is greater chromatic freedom, although strong tonal centers are asserted at major structural junctures.
This new stage in Mennin’s development is apparent in Concertato, “Moby Dick,” commissioned by the Erie Philharmonic and its conductor Fritz Mahler. The work, written in 1952, when Mennin was still in his twenties, has proven to be one of his most widely performed compositions. Its popularity can probably be attributed to two factors: the work embodies Mennin’s full symphonic manner within a concise ten-minute duration; and it is unique in the composer’s orchestral canon in drawing upon an extramusical reference. Mennin insisted that Concertato, “Moby Dick” is “not a musical description of the action in Melville’s novel, but rather, a reflection of the novel’s overall effect on a particular reader, and develops naturally as a purely self-contained work.” Listeners unfamiliar with the body of the composer’s work are invariably struck by the effectiveness of the Concertato in capturing the spirit of Melville’s novel. Yet, in truth, its style does not deviate one iota from that found in Mennin’s totally abstract works from the same period. That the character of his music in general so parallels that of Melville’s novel points to the affinity felt by the composer for Moby Dick.
Concertato, “Moby Dick” falls into two sections. A somber Adagiointroduces the main motif in the strings, elaborated by a solo in the flute. This is developed to a climax, at which point the Allegro is unleashed, based on two motifs, both related to the material from the introduction: one, a spunky figure first heard in the upper woodwinds, followed immediately by the second, a more flowing line presented by the violins. This material is developed with a tremendous concentration of energy to new heights of emotional intensity, before achieving its grimly triumphant resolution.
Upon completing the Concertato, Mennin turned his attention to a commission from the Louisville Orchestra and its conductor Robert Whitney, producing his Symphony No. 6, the symphonic culmination of this stage in his development. The Sixth begins with a slow, solemn introduction, Maestoso, that presents three related motifs that will figure significantly throughout the work. The first is a descending line presented at the outset by the violins; the second follows on its heels in the cellos and basses; an important variant of the first is heard immediately in the clarinet and bassoon; and the third is played by the violins, in counterpoint with the preceding motifs in the other strings. The body of the movement, Allegro, then begins, introducing what serves as its main theme, a long, irregular line played softly, but with suppressed urgency by the strings. This theme drives the movement through its breakneck course, ever-increasing in intensity, and interacting in continual development with the three motifs from the introduction. When the level of intensity seems to have reached the breaking point, the music comes finally to a guarded, temporary repose.
The second movement, Grave, is similar in character to the corresponding movement of the Fifth Symphony — solemn and reflective, yet intensely lyrical at times — though the harmony allows for somewhat greater levels of dissonance. The movement, based largely on the motifs from the first movement, culminates in two climaxes before ending in the somber mood heard at the beginning.
The third movement, Allegro Vivace, functions as both Scherzo and Finale. It opens with a theme that was first heard in the violins toward the beginning of the second movement, though clearly derived from the main theme of the first movement. This is developed in whirlwind fashion, as familiar motifs are tossed around, building to a massive canonic treatment that then subsides into a quiet, peaceful interlude, Adagio Sostenuto. Not quiet for long, this too builds to a climax that ushers in the final section, Allegro Vivace, with a rapid diminution of the Scherzo theme. The energy builds and recedes, as most of the material of the symphony finds its way into the seething developmental cauldron. After much turbulence a tonal goal perceived in the distance comes gradually into clearer focus, as the symphony reaches its triumphant conclusion.
Paul Snook wrote in Fanfare, “The Sixth is the crowning summation [of a] prodigious spurt of youthful inspiration [that produced] a quartet of symphonies in quick succession which remain unsurpassed for their seriousness of argument, compactness of form, and ferocious kinetic charge. Deep underneath [its] tightly controlled and fluid surface of sound is a churning, chaotic mass of energy demanding release, of Manichean conflict seeking its ultimate, perhaps annihilating resolution. This is an obsessive, tragic, and metaphysical music, with a narrow range of reference but a deep cutting edge of significance, full of the destructive fury and enigma of American power which lies behind Ahab’s quest and what Henry James once called ‘the imagination of disaster.’”
After the Symphony No. 6, Mennin applied this approach to a cello concerto, a piano concerto, and a violin sonata. Not until 1963 did he enter the next phase of his compositional development with a trio of works that included his Symphony No. 7.