MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas

MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-3 ● Zachary Lopes (pn) ● ALBANY TROY1771 (42:44)

This is a most welcome recording of Robert Muczynski’s three compelling piano sonatas—the first to appear since Laurel released its two-CD set of the composer’s own performances of his complete solo piano music. I should mention that though the latter recordings were originally issued on LP during the early 1980s, they were re-issued on CD (along with several chamber works) in 2000. Those Laurel CDs are still very much available, and admirers of Muczynski’s music will definitely want them too. Since Laurel CDs are not marketed through many of the usual channels, the most reliable way to access them is directly through the label’s website (

My colleague Myron Silberstein has done a typically astute job of describing Muczynski’s music, so I will discuss it in more general terms. I have often characterized Muczynski’s style, which remained largely consistent throughout his compositional career, as a kind of romantic neo-classicism. That is, it is modest, understated, devoid of extramusical encumbrance, its substance abstract and developed with great concision. Most of his attention was focused on music for solo piano and for small chamber combinations. There are remarkably few orchestral, choral, or vocal works in his catalog. On the other hand, his music is very appealing, with lively, vigorous rhythmic drive, propelled by syncopation and irregular meters, with an underlying lyricism and a subtle attention to mood. Muczynski’s craftsmanship is meticulous, and his taste is always impeccable. To describe his piano music as comparable in many ways to the piano music of Samuel Barber will give readers a sense of what to expect.

Muczynski was a professional-caliber pianist and his three sonatas (from 1957, 1966, and 1974 respectively) are imposing, highly demanding works that reveal a masterly command of the full range of virtuoso piano technique. The Sonata No. 1 comprises two movements, the first darkly dramatic, followed by driving, rhythmically propulsive material, and the second light-hearted and more extroverted. The Sonata No. 2 is a fine work, but—it must be admitted—is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Barber Sonata in many ways. I will argue that this doesn’t detract from its own individual merit, but knowledgeable listeners are bound to notice, so there’s no point in avoiding it. The Sonata No. 2, the most ambitious of the three, stands alongside the sonatas of Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and Peter Mennin—all composed during the 1960s—among America’s most distinguished works in that medium. The Sonata No. 3 is more lyrical than its predecessors, but all three works are clearly the fruits of a unified, integrated sensibility.

Zachary Lopes is an American-trained pianist, currently based in Kentucky. He has toured widely, featuring the works of Muczynski on many of his programs. He has this music well in hand and conveys its virtues with impressive conviction. Compared with Muczynski’s own recordings, Lopes’s renditions show somewhat greater confidence and polish, while Albany’s rich, spacious sonic ambience exceeds what was possible on an analog recording made during the early 1980s. That said, it would be unfair to assert that this new release supplants Muczynski’s own performances, in view of the composer’s mastery of his own music and the additional repertoire offered on the Laurel discs.

It is worth noting that many commentators have regarded the period 1955 through 1980 as the artistically barren nadir of American musical composition, a time when serialism and other experimental approaches attracted the majority of attention to new music, much of which has proven to be stillborn. But a remarkable quantity of music of the highest quality appeared during that period, by composers who refused to relinquish their belief in music as a means of communication from one soul to others who resonate with its spirit. Much of this music is only now gradually being discovered and recognized. There were more such composers than is generally realized, but four in particular—Dominick Argento, Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski—faced the difficult challenge of attempting to launch careers as composers during the period when such humanistic values faced the most flagrant disregard. These four virtual contemporaries fought in their own individual ways against an obscurity that continues to veil their contributions to a large extent. They produced much of their most distinguished music during that quarter-century identified above. Interestingly, Argento—a Pulitzer Prize-winner—is probably the one who has enjoyed the highest acclaim and visibility. On the other hand, it is probably Muczynski, pursuing his career off the grid in Arizona, who has drawn the least attention among musicologists and critics of the compositional scene. Yet it is also Muczynski whose music has probably been performed more widely and more frequently than that of the other three. His low profile can be attributed partly to the complete absence of “blockbusters” within his output. Pieces for flute and piano or saxophone and piano don’t often make the headlines, but ask a flutist or saxophonist about Muczynski and you are likely to elicit an enthusiastic reaction. (Especially perplexing is the fact that commentators and performers continue to decry the paucity of works for piano trio, while Muczynski’s three brilliant works for this medium remain largely in the dark. [I must draw the attention of curious listeners to Centaur CRC-2634, which features stupendous performances of his piano trios, along with his string trio.])

Today stylistic strictures have largely disappeared, and composers are free to pursue a wide variety of approaches. Listeners will derive much pleasure from pursuing the works of these composers who never abandoned their commitments to traditional musical values. This fine recording of Muczynski’s piano sonatas provides such an opportunity.

Thoughts on Evaluating Unfamiliar Music

I have been a musicologist and critic for almost 50 years now, during which most of my activity has involved the description, assessment, and–in some cases– advocacy of music composed since 1915. Since there really aren’t generally accepted criteria for such evaluations, most critics—not to mention armchair musicologists—offer their reactions and judgments on an intuitive, self-determined basis. Ultimately this becomes a discussion of “taste,” which is often held to be a subjective matter. Some people argue that since taste is basically subjective, the postulation of criteria for making judgments is essentially a misguided and futile attempt to make what is primarily an individual matter appear to be objective, i.e. to give one’s personal reactions the abstract generalizability of “facts.”

Before I became a musicologist and critic I was an insatiable reader of music criticism, spending hours in libraries, ploughing through years of journals and magazines, trying to derive the principles that shaped the reactions of dozens and dozens of commentators. This voracious devouring and analyzing of music reviews, one of the primary activities of my teen years, led me to the principles that formed the foundation of my own musical judgments. While I agree that taste is, ultimately, largely subjective, I do believe that it is possible to adduce certain criteria that provide some internal consistency to one’s judgments. In this way, a critic can become a reliable guide for those whose own listening experiences tend to align with that critic’s perspective, as well as for those whose don’t. One learns how to “read” a critic. But what I have observed over the course of decades are judgments—made by both professionals and amateurs—that are essentially invalid because they lack internal consistency or are predicated on false premises. Many of these are addressed in the Introductions to my two books: Voices in the Wilderness and Voices of Stone and Steel. Since my own taste tends to favor the 20th-century composers who sought continuity with the music that preceded them, these introductions challenge many of the precepts of Modernism that were at one time used to disqualify music that rejected those precepts from consideration as serious works of art. This essay attempts to elaborate and broaden the points made in those chapters so as to address a wider range of observations and fallacies that are rarely subject to close examination.

I start from the position that while taste may be largely subjective, there is a finite number of “tastes” that, while differing from one another, are capable of maintaining a degree of internal consistency. The more reliable and valid musical commentaries either state their criteria or make their points in such a way that the principles on which their judgments rest are clear to the reader. I will attempt to set forth some of the premises on which my own taste is predicated. I postulate three levels of musical apprehension: a) one’s reaction to the musical materials (e.g. harmonic language) with which the composer chooses to work; b) one’s reaction to the expressive content or meaning that is inherent in the work, which may or may not be intended by the composer; c) one’s assessment of the proficiency of the composer’s technique in using his/her chosen materials to communicate the expressive content effectively. In this schema, a) is largely subjective; b) is partly subjective and partly objective; and c) is largely objective. Even this simple schema is fraught with assumptions, of which perhaps the most controversial are that music is capable of “expressing” something, and that there is such a thing as musical “content.” There is a school of thought that rejects these assumptions while others fully embrace them. There may be value to both positions, and this is what I mean by the statement that there is more than one valid, internally consistent “taste.” My own belief is that music does express particular perspectives on many aspects of human existence and that these perspectives are what is meant by “content.” While the exact nature of these “perspectives” may be unclear and difficult to verbalize, and listeners may disagree as to just what the “content” is in a given work, these complexities do not negate the assertion that music “expresses” something, and that something is its “content.” It is the matter of “content” that is at issue when a composition is said to have “nothing to say” or is described as profound, trivial, or any other point on that spectrum.

For example, my own personal preference is for music that draws upon a full spectrum from tonality to atonality and from harmonic consonance to dissonance as means of achieving a broad expressive range. I typically don’t enjoy music that is predictably and uniformly tonal, nor do I prefer music that is consistently and doctrinally atonal, nor do I prefer a language that is largely consonant harmonically, or consistently dissonant. I also prefer music that strives for expressive consistency and structural economy; i.e. the music is “about” something (the “content”), and the progression of the composition contributes to or comments on that “something” throughout, although the surface of the music may exhibit sufficient variety in its specifics to avoid monotony. To use a literary analogy, it stays on the point, without extraneous digressions. I especially enjoy music in which rhythmic asymmetries propel the music forward as contrapuntal development elaborates the argument. I also appreciate expressive intensity, not as a sine qua non, but as a preference. My musical assessments are intuitively derived from these values. Other critics may have other legitimate values, to which they are entitled, and their musical judgments should reflect these values.

The role of the music critic itself is another issue about which there may be more than one valid position. The role that I have attempted to fill as a critic is one who is deeply familiar with the full range of compositions that fall within the area of the repertoire in which I profess to make judgments of relative merit. Some critics may see themselves more as generalists, while others are more concerned with the quality of performances of a repertoire that is sufficiently established that relative judgments of quality are generally taken for granted, while still others are more focused on the different approaches to interpreting music from eras of the relatively distant past. Within the area of the repertoire that forms my primary interest I attempt to identify meritorious works that are outside the familiarity of most music lovers—professional and amateur—and bring them to the attention of interested listeners by describing them in such a way that the reader can gain a sense of the work’s personal appeal. In doing so, I imagine my readers as those with at least a basic familiarity with what is generally identified as “Western classical music,” and with an interest in enriching their listening experience through new musical discoveries that will appeal according to the criteria that I have embraced. I address listeners who expect to be moved, inspired, stimulated, or otherwise touched personally by a musical work without the need to spend hours of repeated listening in order to derive any meaningful feelings along those lines, even though deriving the full import of such a work is not likely from one hearing. But a first hearing must offer something rewarding to listeners; otherwise, why would they care to delve into it more deeply? Such listeners seek both cultural recreation and spiritual enrichment, as opposed to, at one extreme, intellectual exercises requiring extensive study, or, at the opposite extreme, shallow entertainment that is essentially trivial rather than enriching and deeply moving.

While many composers profess to have little respect for music criticism, and some even refuse to read criticism of their work, composers can learn a great deal about how their music is perceived by others, if they can suppress their defensive vanity. A range of reactions from a number of critics—and from listeners as well—can be even more useful. They may prompt composers to ask themselves just what they are trying to accomplish through their music, as well as who comprises their intended audience, and do they appear to be reaching that audience. Multiple critiques that make much the same points are especially valuable. Again, many critics and composers do not address the audience I identified as my target: Some compose only to please themselves (so they say), others compose as a means of competing with or impressing colleagues, while still others are aiming for a commercial success, which takes precedence over the notion of an aesthetic success.

Another question that isn’t usually addressed is how familiar must one be with the totality of a composer’s output in order to make judgments about a particular work? There are a number of factors that affect the answer. For example, with lesser-known composers, few works may be available to hear, so that comprehensive familiarity may be impossible or especially difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that the definitiveness of a critic’s judgment should be seen as directly proportional to the comprehensiveness of the critic’s familiarity with the composer’s output. A related situation that arises is the absence of a “level playing field.” For example, negative criticism is much easier to write or state than positive criticism. The reason is this: A new or unfamiliar work is, in a sense, asserting itself as a contender for the “canon.” As such, rejecting such a work is the default position. Any number of reasons may be adduced to justify rejecting it from entry into the “canon.” But arguing on behalf of such a work requires the critic to take a certain risk in order to justify such acceptance. Rejecting such an advocatory stance is easy because the advocate can be portrayed as “falling for” something that those who seek to appear more sophisticated may regard with condescension. On the other hand, the negative position requires only that the nay-sayer remain unconvinced. For these reasons, when unfamiliar works are given public exposure, negative reactions are encountered more frequently than positive ones, with two exceptions: a) when financial interests contaminate the assessment process; b) when the composer or the work has already received significant praise from influential quarters.

There is another, less obvious reason that unfamiliar works are not really on a “level playing field” with those that are often heard: Composers who live to see their music performed with some regularity have the benefit of learning how effectively their music comes across to listeners. For example, they can hear for themselves whether their orchestration achieved the intended impact—only determinable by hearing an adequate rendition. They can gain a sense from the audience’s reactions whether the intended “content” has been perceived and appreciated. On the other hand, composers who have not attained wide visibility through frequent performances may continue composing for decades without having heard how effective their orchestration is, or whether their “content” is perceived. Furthermore, composers who have come to expect their works to be performed are aware that each new work will be heard in light of their previous output, with the expectation that there is a degree of diversity and growth from one to the next. On the other hand, a lesser-known composer who has written, say, a dozen orchestral works, may have heard only a few of them in performance, maybe once or twice before small audiences. That composer, perhaps responding to a commission, may feel that some worthy material in previously unheard works may be worth re-using in a new work that has a greater likelihood of being heard. In this way, less widely heard composers may display a certain redundancy because they have come to expect that little of their music will achieve enough familiarity for anyone to notice or care.

There is an important, but rarely noted, difference between a negative critique and an insulting critique. A negative critique is one that assesses a work according to the kinds of principles noted above, clearly specified, and finds it wanting. An insulting critique uses ridicule, demeans the integrity of the composer, or uses similes that relate the work to some inferior “class” of music (e.g. pop music, movie music, etc.). There is always a great temptation to write an insulting review, as the critic sees an opportunity to make him/herself seem superior to the composer and perhaps has thought of a clever way of doing so. But it is a rhetorical manipulation and there is no excuse for it. “Movie music,” in particular, is a simile to which critics often resort in order to assert the sort of superiority just described. How often recent music of dramatic character is disparaged as sounding like movie music! But a closer look reveals that to be a largely meaningless comparison. First of all, what is meant by the generic phrase ‘‘movie music’’ is usually the music composed for films between the 1940s and the later years of the 20th century. But even with this qualification, movie music is not one uniform style or ‘‘sound.’’ These filmscores were composed by individuals like Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and John Williams, along with myriad lesser luminaries. Most received orthodox musical training and developed styles of their own. Some, like Erich Korngold, already had considerable international reputations before they began composing for film. Their music tended to be rooted in the styles of the late 19th and early 20th century, though often intensified by increased levels of harmonic dissonance consistent with more recent stylistic evolution. However, in composing for films these composers were producing a subordinate element in a work of another art form, for the purpose of enhancing that work. As such a filmscore was not created as an autonomous work of art, with its own integral structure. For this reason, heard apart from the film it accompanies, the score is rarely satisfying; without its own abstract logic, without intrinsically motivated thematic development, it is an incomplete artistic experience. This is the chief aesthetic defect of filmscores—not the musical languages they embrace; there can be nothing ‘‘wrong’’ with a musical language. Therefore, the observation that a particular composition ‘‘sounds like movie music’’ begs the question as to whether its musical vocabulary or its formal structure is being so characterized. The former—which, in my experience, is usually the case—is simply a superficial matter of overlapping melodic, harmonic, and instrumental usages that are not unique to music for films. The latter, however, refers to a formal deficiency and is a more serious and quite legitimate criticism, but is rarely the basis of the disparagement.

This leads to the related concepts of “originality” and “influence.” Originality, in discussions of classical music, is often adduced as one of the primary touchstones of artistic value. It is usually used to refer to works that appear to define their own criteria, and stake a claim to being wholly or largely “new,” by rejecting the aesthetic assumptions and processes of the music that preceded it. When one looks back over the course of music history, it is clear that some composers pursued unique visions of their own, which may have entailed the use of unusual sounds and materials, as well as new techniques and forms that may have seemed strange and unprecedented when first heard. Others preferred to work with familiar materials in already-established forms, while developing a distinctive “voice” of their own. Composers of both types can be found in the pantheon of “great composers.” Examples of the former are Liszt, Wagner, and Debussy, while examples of the latter are Bach, Mozart, and Brahms. But since the 1920s the notion of “originality” has come to loom as one of the primary compositional values—a virtue in itself, and one whose absence is taken axiomatically as a mark of inferiority. As universal as this attitude has become, there is surprisingly little theoretical justification for its elevation among the qualities by which music is evaluated. Music that seeks to be original has a particular challenge to face: comprehensibility, given the use of unfamiliar materials, techniques, forms, and—most importantly—aesthetic principles. But the composer unconcerned with originality has an equally difficult challenge: to provide a degree of individuality, expressive power, and technical expertise to justify working within a musical language that has already produced accepted masterpieces. Being “original,” in itself, is not difficult to achieve. In 1952, when John Cage composed his piano piece, 4’33,” in which the pianist sits on the bench and plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the originality of his conception was not difficult to recognize. On the other hand, for a composer like Samuel Barber, a contemporary of Cage, to compose a tonal symphony that uses the same developmental techniques, harmonic language, and aesthetic principles that were used throughout the preceding century AND yet convey the sense of an individual and distinctive musical personality is quite difficult. The originality of Cage’s conception is obvious instantly; but the individuality of the Barber may take multiple hearings to become apparent to the listener. Yet the embrace of “originality” as an indication of artistic value remains unquestioned, and its validity inadequately articulated.

One of the obstacles to the acceptance of music that draws upon the aesthetic principles that preceded it is rooted in a concept from Gestalt psychology. A simple analogy is this: When one makes a new personal acquaintance, one’s reaction is often the noting of a resemblance—either physical or social/interpersonal—with individuals one knows well. It may take several additional meetings before the individual features of the new acquaintance become apparent, while the resemblance to previous acquaintances slips into the background. The same phenomenon occurs with exposure to a new piece of music: The listener’s first reaction typically involves the recognition of features familiar to that listener from the work of previous composers—if such are there to be found. If the music has clearly embraced a style with a rich past history, it will be similarities with previous examples from that history that are first noticed by listeners. Not until they develop familiarity with that work—and perhaps with others from the same composer—will its individual qualities emerge. When such a composer has eventually achieved that level of familiarity, the central features of that compositional personality will become dominant, while the resemblances to past composers recede into the background. One recalls the oftenrecounted response of Brahms to a critic who argued that his Symphony No. 1 seemed greatly influenced by Beethoven: “Any fool can hear that.” It is also the reason we don’t often find listeners complaining that Beethoven shows the influence of Haydn, or that Strauss sounds too much like Wagner.

The notion of “originality” has produced a number of related and equally misunderstood concepts. One of these is this matter of “influence.” What is actually meant by the term “influence” when applied to music? When a listener notes a similarity between two pieces of music, the next question is often, Which came first? If piece A preceded piece B, then piece A is often said to have “influenced” piece B. But what does that mean? Does it mean that when piece B was written, its composer had piece A in mind, and tried to imitate it? Or does it refer to a process that is unconscious? Is it assumed by the fact that piece A preceded piece B that the composer of piece B even heard piece A? Then what actually constitutes influence? Influence can exist at many different levels of abstraction. For example, Tchaikovsky adored the music of Mozart, and readily admitted the impact of the latter on his music. But does one listen to a Tchaikovsky symphony and think, “Ah, sounds like Mozart”? Not very likely, because the influence was more the matter of a perceived spiritual affinity than of an audible resemblance. In my experience, composers acknowledge the influence of predecessors based largely on abstract formal matters. For example, the influence of Beethoven on Brahms is more a matter of the latter’s adopting a similar notion of what a symphony should be expected to accomplish, as well as motivic and developmental procedures developed by the former, rather than by one’s “sounding” like the other. But what I have observed is that when a listener points to “influence,” what has frequently been perceived is something quite concrete: a turn of phrase, the pattern of a handful of notes that the listener identifies with a similar or identical pattern in the music of a preceding composer. Yet such momentary overlaps occur throughout the repertoire of music, whether or not the composer of one passage was familiar with the work of the other. But if by “influence” we mean that the creation of the later work was somehow dependent on the precedent set by the earlier one, then superficial and largely coincidental moments of overlap have no logical connection to what is meant by the term. This issue then begs the question, Is the apparent influence of one composer on the work of another a deficiency to be denied or avoided? Is Beethoven’s stature diminished by the fact that he was clearly influenced by Haydn? Is Bach’s stature diminished by the fact that he drew upon forms found in the works of Vivaldi? Few musicians would answer in the affirmative. Yet when an unfamiliar piece is introduced, resemblances to previous music are usually the first points to be observed, and are then held to indicate some sort of deficiency, often with a “gotcha” implication.

The evaluation of new or unfamiliar music is not simply a matter of intuitive, “seat of the pants” observations. It requires a thorough familiarity with centuries of musical repertoire, an understanding of the aesthetic principles upon which historical styles were predicated, and a comprehensive knowledge of the area of the repertoire in which one claims special expertise. It also requires a philosophical foundation reflected in the criteria used to evaluate a musical work, along with stringent analysis of and justification for those criteria. And it requires ruthless honesty—with oneself as well as with one’s readers. During the 19th century in Germany, the music world was strongly divided between those who championed the works of Wagner, said to be “the music of the future,” and those who defended the more traditionally-styled music of Brahms. The esteemed critic Eduard Hanslick took a strong position against the works of Wagner. The fact that Wagner was eventually hailed as one of the greatest composers of all time (as, however, was Brahms) tarnished the reputation of Hanslick and subjected him to ridicule for many years after his death. Perhaps the most negative consequence of the Hanslick phenomenon is that critics became so timid lest they fall victim to similar retrospective derision that they have “bent over backwards” to find virtue in any innovative music that appeared to be attracting attention and praise, while denigrating music that seemed content to retain traditional techniques, forms, and principles. It is this craven, thoughtless—and, in many cases, dishonest—exalting of innovation at the expense of traditional values that led during the 20th century to the vaunting of composers and compositional approaches that have proven to be stillborn—aesthetic dead-ends—and, ultimately, led to the estrangement of music lovers from the creative fruits of their own time, and their retreat into the endless re-hashing of a repertoire that was once stimulating, but has become moribund from over-exposure.

The situation with regard to “originality” has softened somewhat since the mid-1980s. A number of composers who appear motivated more by giving voice to their individual perspectives than on appearing “original” have won major awards and commissions, and their works have been rewarded by auspicious performances and recordings. Nevertheless, much prestigious attention continues to be directed toward those who can be proclaimed as doing something “new.” And many reviews continue to indulge in the same kinds of unquestioned assumptions in making their judgments. Although composers and performers are often fond of dismissing comments in the press as inconsequential and irrelevant, this is wishful thinking. The audience for classical music tends to be educated and well-read. Their responses to unfamiliar music are strongly shaped by the opinions they read and the assumptions underlying them, lacking in theoretical rigor though they may be. I encourage listeners to read such opinions critically, challenge those predicated on questionable assumptions, and hold critics to a higher standard in making judgments.

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October 2018

ROSNER: Nocturne, Op. 68; Tempus Perfectum, Op. 109; Symphony No. 6, Op. 64

ARNOLD ROSNER: Nocturne, Op. 68; Tempus Perfectum, Op. 109; Symphony No. 6, Op. 64

London Phiharmonic Orch., Nick Palmer, cond., TOCCATA Classics. All music available from the Estate of Arnold Rosner; For further information, visit

During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner (1945–2013) produced a body of work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalogue comprises compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and wind band, several large-scale choral works and many chamber, solo, and vocal pieces.

Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmonic and rhythmic devices of the polyphonic music of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. These roots can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in virtually all his music. To them he added a free triadicism and exotic modalities, intensified in some works by more contemporary harmonic dissonance, combining this language with the lavish orchestration and emotional drama of late-nineteenth-century Romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely an integration of earlier styles, is the way he shaped his unusual language to embrace an enormous expressive range – far broader than one might imagine possible – from serene beauty to violent rage. Illustrating the vast range of expression found in Rosner’s music, the works on this recording run the gamut: In Tempus Perfectum the connection to early music is obvious, despite certain anachronisms; in the fierce Modern Romanticism of the Sixth Symphony the connection is barely detectible; while the Nocturne reveals traces of early music within a conception that might be termed post-Modernist Impressionism. Yet despite its fusion of seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners.

Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Some sounds in particular appealed to him – juxtapositions of major and minor triads, as well as modal melodies – and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family, fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition, encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavours, and so he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of fifteen, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing: sonatas, symphonies, concertos and more – not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labours. His composer-heroes at the time were Hovhaness, Vaughan Williams and Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his earlier creative work.

Graduating from NYU before he turned twenty, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was in 1966, when serialism was the dominant style in university music departments, and young composers were often coerced, directly or indirectly, into adopting it. Rosner often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he would say that he ‘learned almost nothing’ from these pedants. Although most of his peers capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he had submitted as his dissertation. Realising that they would never accept the kind of music he considered meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation – the first ever – on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this task successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

He devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough Community College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death. During the course of his compositional career, his musical language gradually expanded from its idiosyncratic and intuitive beginnings, as the mature works on this recording illustrate. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.

Rosner composed his Nocturne in 1978, dedicating it to his former student Louis Blois, who later became a published authority on the music of Shostakovich and other Soviet composers. During the late 1970s Blois had been studying astronomy, so Rosner sought in this work to suggest the movement of planetary bodies within the vastness of space. The work begins by evoking a mysterious, swirling atmosphere, irregularly interrupted by sudden vehement outbursts. Gradually, melodic fragments begin to emerge, at first tentatively, then slowly taking shape within the ethereal backdrop. About halfway into the work, the melodic fragments coalesce into a passionate melody in the strings, still surrounded by the swirling gestures and textures. The melody develops further, achieving greater prominence by the support of the rest of the orchestra. After a climax is reached, the intensity of the music gradually recedes into the eerie atmosphere with which the piece began.

Tempus Perfectum is a term from the late Medieval period that referred to the rhythmic meter designated today by the time signature 9/8. This indicates a meter of three beats per measure, each of which is subdivided into three smaller units. Rosner’s piece, composed in 1998, is a modern adaptation of the instrumental canzona, a genre that existed—with evolving meanings—for centuries. The point of departure for this piece is the type of canzona that flourished in Italy during the late Renaissance. Hence this is a work in which the connections between Rosner’s style and early music are clearly evident.

Not surprisingly, Tempus Perfectum maintains a 9/8 meter virtually throughout the work, as the canzona theme pursues its course in a neo-late-Renaissance manner. However, what is most unusual are sequences of triads—often in a different tonality from the canzona theme—that are superimposed over that theme at various points during the piece. These harmonic sequences, though written so as to conform to the 9/8 meter, audibly contradict that meter, as well as conflicting with the tonality. Listeners familiar with Rosner’s Gematria (Toccata Classics TOCC0368) will recognize this technique from that work, where it appears in perhaps its fullest application. In Tempus Perfectum, these harmonic sequences follow a course of their own, as each reappearance is successively longer and more fully orchestrated, until a climax of sorts is reached, after which the music diminishes in volume and speed. 

Rosner composed his Symphony No. 6 in 1976, three years after its predecessor. The Symphony No. 5, an orchestral Mass based on the plainchant Salve Regina, is a work of transcendent spiritual ecstasy, an apotheosis of the composer’s unique adaptation of Renaissance polyphony (Naxos 8.559347). Its successor is largely the emotional and spiritual antithesis of that work—an expression of the rage and bitterness that were significant components of Rosner’s personality—musical and otherwise. Unlike much of his music, this symphony may be described as an example of the distinguished canon of American Neo-Romantic Symphonies, as represented by such composers as Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello. The symphony is replete with so many striking events that a description such as this can reveal only the broadest outlines.

The opening Allegro agitato is an overwhelming expression of emotional turbulence that offers virtually no respite during its ten-minute duration. Revealing only the most remote connection to traditional sonata allegro form, the movement displays some of the most ferocious and explosive music Rosner ever composed. The element of tonality—often irrelevant to his music—is largely absent. The movement opens with a bold statement of a motif (a) characterized by a chromatic angularity unusual for this composer, with prominent dotted-note rhythms. This motif immediately launches a free development that spins off several related motifs. Among the most significant of these are (b) which features the “Scotch snap” rhythm (a short-long pattern with accent on the short note), (c) a stepwise rising-and-falling motif, and (d) another stepwise motif that revolves chromatically around a pivot-note. These four motifs are the essential thematic elements of the movement and are subjected to extensive development. This development proceeds through sections displaying great dynamic contrasts, until a running passage builds gradually to a cataclysmic climax in which all four motifs are combined, with additional emphasis provided by generous contributions from the percussion. This is followed by a moment of relief featuring motif (c), before motif (a) brings the movement to a powerful conclusion.  

The second movement, Adagio, evokes a hushed atmosphere before introducing a mysterious introductory theme played by the English horn, answered by the harp, followed by the clarinet. This theme develops slowly, gradually building to the presentation of the movement’s emotional highlight, a mournful melody first suggested softly by a muted trumpet, then stated in full by the strings. A second section follows, with a subdued melody characterized by trills and other ornamentation. This melody bears a slight connection to the rising and falling motif of the first movement. As it develops, the melody builds to a statement of some grandeur before it subsides. The introductory theme returns, first in the horn, then flute. A dynamic eruption highlights the introductory theme, now forcefully stated by the trombones, leading to a passionate restatement of the mournful melody heard earlier, now building to a tremendous climax, extended considerably by a varied restatement of the introductory theme. As this recedes, the ornamented melody returns, bringing the movement to a hushed conclusion. Worthy of note are clashes of major vs. minor harmony—one of Rosner’s favorite effects—heard throughout this movement, as well as striking orchestral effects that contribute to the evocation of a mood of hushed solemnity.

The third movement, the most complicated portion of the Symphony, comprises several sections: Grave; Allegro; Grandioso; Grave. It opens with a full orchestral statement of a stern, stately theme, rife with major-minor conflicts. A variant of this theme is played softly by the flute, followed by a further variant by the solo trumpet. An Allegro follows, transforming the opening theme into a rapid pattern that starts with just a few instruments against an agitated running pattern that functions along the lines of a counter-subject. As other instruments enter, the first violins and trumpet initiate a fugato that builds in intensity and volume. After some development of the material the trumpets and lower brass follow with a canon featuring rhythmic augmentation of the main theme. The texture becomes more complex as additional elements are added, some in contradictory rhythmic patterns, as the fugal texture dissipates. Soon a more peaceful, flowing motif, hinted at earlier, is introduced by the English horn, followed by variants of both themes in the French horn, then trumpet, against a subdued background texture. These two themes are treated in alternation until the counter-subject reappears in stretto. Further development of all three ideas continues, leading to a grand return of the stately opening gestures, but with a remote variant of that theme, which increases in intensity until it stops abruptly. The final Grave section opens with a dramatic statement of anticipation, followed by an ethereal reminiscence of the movement’s various motifs. A series of strident, cataclysmic eruptions follows, in alternation with further hushed reminders of the previous themes in woodwind and brass solos. This alternation suggests a conflict between outbursts of rage and attempts at a self-soothing serenity. After a lengthy trumpet valediction, the symphony comes to a somber conclusion.

Walter Simmons, musicologist and critic, has written extensively on American composers who maintained an allegiance to traditional musical values. He is the editor of a series of books, ‘Twentieth-Century Traditionalists’, published by Rowman and Littlefield. He wrote the first two volumes himself (under the Scarecrow Press imprint): Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), which treated the lives and works of Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini and Hanson, and Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin (2011). As a staunch advocate of the music of Arnold Rosner, he is deeply familiar with much of his output; he and Rosner were close associates for more than forty years.

American Traditionalist Composers and the Music of Samuel Jones

Histories of American classical music in the 20th century typically begin with the bold experimentation of Charles Ives, who created sound collages using familiar American tunes. They then move on to the arrival of jazz and its great influence on American composers such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, who were seeking a distinctly American “sound.” Inevitably the subject of an alleged “crisis of tonality” is raised, a phenomenon that led many composers to explore a variety of radical new paths: serialism, indeterminacy, aleatory, microtonality, and others. These new directions were part of an avant-garde movement that became known as “Modernism”: an aesthetic perspective that influenced all the arts during and after World War I.

The Modernist position in music held that Romanticism—especially its focus on the emotional life of the composer—was no longer relevant to the concerns of the new century. Around 1920 Arnold Schoenberg devised his “twelve-tone” system—an alternative to the organizing principle of tonality, later developed into a more comprehensive approach known as “Serialism.” Schoenberg actually saw in twelve-tone composition a means of perpetuating the supremacy of Austro-Germanic music into the future, but many of his followers promoted this system as “international,” scorning the provinciality of more nationalistic approaches. Most public audiences, however, were unmoved by—even hostile to—the twelve-tone music they heard. From the outset atonality was aimed at, and appealed to, an elite, specialized group.

During the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression, composers who were unwilling to limit their work to a small group of specialists turned to recognizably American themes and musical styles. They were successful in reaching a broader audience and their music enjoyed a brief period in the limelight. Although the quest to create an American symphonic repertoire dated back to the mid-1800s, it was not until the 1930s and 40s that a distinctive American symphonic school of composition began to emerge. Most of the composers who participated in this movement—Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and others—were eager to find an appreciative audience for their work and attempted to evoke a sense of the “American character” or the “American experience” in a way that would be discernible to the untrained listener. Many incorporated jazz, folk, and popular elements in their work; others sought ways of reconciling modernism with more traditional approaches. These composers, too, enjoyed a brief period of attention, as well as popular and critical favor. A handful of composers—Copland and Samuel Barber, for example—developed prominent reputations that outlasted the brief period when these trends were in vogue, and their music is still heard today; however most enjoyed either a brief period of exposure or were overlooked completely.

During the middle decades of the 20th century, Modernists persuaded many influential critics and academicians that theirs was the logical next step. But the American music-loving public never accepted the music composed in the wake of the tonal system. In fact, many European composers at the time who did not embrace Modernism—Ravel, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and Rachmaninoff, for example—were achieving tremendous popular success in the United States, as well as in Europe. By the mid-1950s the Modernists—especially the twelve-toners—established influential power-bases in the music departments of Princeton, Columbia, and other major American universities, where composers were freed from the responsibility of having to win acceptance for their creative fruits in the marketplace of music lovers. Touting its “internationalism,” this approach, as articulated by provocative, outspoken European advocates like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and by Americans like Milton Babbitt, successfully pre-empted the American symphonic school. In 1952 Boulez wrote, “I . . . assert that any musician who has not experienced . . . the necessity for the [twelve-tone] language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”1

With an abundance of theoretical writing to elaborate its principles and support its claims, Serialism lent itself to the academic propensity for abstract rationalization, aligning itself with subjects like mathematics, linguistics, and philosophy. Scholars who embraced the Modernist view of musical history propagated it in their teaching and writing, and, by suppressing or discrediting alternative interpretations, succeeded in achieving intellectual hegemony. Composers like Elliott Carter and even Copland, who had embraced the nationalist/populist aesthetic during the 1940s, began to incorporate aspects of Serialism into their work during the 1950s. Recalling in 2000 the “fractious decades after World War II,” Anthony Tommasini described in the New York Times how university composers “seized the intellectual high ground and bullied their colleagues and students into accepting serial procedures as the only valid form of modernism. All those fusty holdouts still clinging to tonality were laughably irrelevant, the serialists argued. And if beleaguered audiences and even many critics recoiled from 12-tone music, well, . . . that was their problem.”2

 The contemptuous attitude of Modernist composers was crystallized in a notorious article, published with the title “Who Cares If You Listen?” by Serial composer Milton Babbitt.3 Sadly, force-feeding these nontraditional musical styles left the public increasingly uncertain of its own reactions and insecure in its own tastes, leading to a gradual estrangement of the audience from the music of its own time.

The piece of the truth that was suppressed during this aesthetic fiat was that there continued to be many American composers for whom the crisis of tonality was not a central issue, nor were the other issues that concerned the modernists. Yet few of the conventional accounts of American musical history included any but the two or three most prominent of these “Traditionalist” composers, leaving most of them in the lists of miscellaneous “others” typically found at the ends of chapters. Traditionalists were typically dismissed as shallow, unoriginal, or derivative, academic journeymen of limited talent, panderers to commercial interests, or guilty of some other deficiency of character or artistry. By 1979, Serial composer Charles Wuorinen went so far as to say, “the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers,” adding, “it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream,” having “been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.”4

The disparagement and suppression from about 1955 until about 1975 of new music that retained a connection to tonality was reflected in dismissive reviews, few performances, and a minimal number of recordings. The most celebrated figures had admittedly enjoyed sufficient popular success to ensure their works an enduring foothold in the repertoire and other traditionalists who had achieved substantial reputations as a result of their positions as administrators or highly regarded pedagogues were accorded the nominal respect typically associated with such positions. But the works of even these figures, not to mention those with less prominent reputations, were simply disregarded, their contributions denigrated and relegated to the periphery of the musical arena. By the late 1980s serialism had lost many of its followers. Yet, as recently as 2007, critic Alex Ross made no mention of the Traditionalist alternatives to Modernism in his widely-praised book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century.5

Some commentators do not accept the Modernist interpretation of musical history, nor many of the assumptions on which it is based. For example, while many theorists have argued that the tonal system served as a fundamental organizing principle for all Western classical music, this is really true only in the Austro-Germanic line of musical evolution; it is not so in the styles that evolved in the other surrounding countries, except insofar as composers in these countries chose to adopt the Austro-Germanic aesthetic. These commentators reject the belief that the evolution of the tonal system proceeded according to a linear progression that led inevitably to the dissolution of tonality altogether. More broadly, one might question the view that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of linear progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all contenders are racing—the prize going to the one who gets there first.

By the late 1970s, Modernist attitudes had begun to lose ground. Discouraged by the unwavering hostility and indifference of audiences to their works, an increasing number of Modernist composers—most notably George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, and David Del Tredici—began to question the linear view of music history that had served as their aesthetic premise. Many also acknowledged the intellectual snobbery, blind conformity, and self-serving careerism that underlay the agendas of many in the avant-garde and began to seek ways of achieving a meeting-ground with general audiences. Composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and, later, John Adams had been developing a defiantly tonal, if not simplistic, approach that became known as “Minimalism.” A radical repudiation of the intellectual complexity of Serialism, Minimalism aroused an astonishingly enthusiastic response from audiences; however, most of the composers who had maintained their commitment to traditional tonality all along were now largely forgotten. While the music of a figure as prominent as Samuel Barber was soon heard widely again, he was still identified more as an anachronism than as the most prominent example of a significant aesthetic alternative.

One could argue that the marginalization of these “alternative” figures deprived the listening public of an important and rewarding repertoire; that the value of music lies in the myriad temperaments, personalities, perceptions, and perspectives on life-and-the-cosmos reflected in it; that the most interesting composers are those whose music reveals the most rewarding perspectives, and does so through the means that convey them most effectively and convincingly. One might further argue that the compositional languages adopted by the Traditionalists of the 20th century allowed for a richer, subtler, more varied range of musical expression than ever before in history. By retaining the notion of tonality as a center of gravity—but not as a fundamental structural principle and without replacing it with another arbitrary system like Serialism—they freed tonality to function as an expressive parameter of the greatest nuance, in conjunction with other parameters like melody, rhythm, tone color, and so on. “Traditionalist” refers to composers who embraced the continuing viability of tonality, as well as the musical forms and developmental principles on which the body of Western classical music has been based. Some of the Traditionalists even used atonality as a legitimate expressive device within tonal works. The most distinguished Traditionalist composers created substantial bodies of work notable for their richness, variety, accessibility, and expressive power; their music reveals distinctive individual features, recognizable stylistic traits, and consistent themes and attitudes, as did the acknowledged masterpieces of the past. Much of this music had—and still has—the ability to bridge the gap between composer and audience, to enrich a musical repertoire that has become stagnant with the endless repetition of the tried and true, and to engage the enthusiasm of those seeking the adventure of discovering new creative personalities and their masterpieces, rather than merely the reassurance and soporific comfort of the overly familiar.6

Since the early 1990s, some have begun to reconsider the Traditionalist composers whose work has been languishing in the footnotes of mainstream textbooks. Dismissive judgments made decades ago are being re-examined. Conductors like Gerard Schwarz, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony for many years, undertook a series of highly praised recordings of American Traditionalists so that their music might enjoy a fresh hearing. These were composers who were more concerned with their own individual expressive purposes than with novel compositional procedures.7

In an attempt to create clarity in identifying the common aesthetic elements embraced, American Traditionalist composers can be divided into five main categories. As with all such schema, this categorization represents something of an oversimplification; it doesn’t apply to every Traditionalist, and there are some who created works that fall into multiple categories.

1. “Neoclassicists” sought to return to the textural clarity, emotional restraint, and formal symmetry characteristic of music from the 18th century, while adopting bracing harmonic dissonance. They were strongly influenced by composers like Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. Some of the best-known American Neoclassicists are Walter Piston and Robert Muczynski.8

2. “Nationalists” and “Populists” created a distinctly American sound that would appeal to a broad public. Some used elements of jazz and popular music while others used actual American folk tunes. The most prominent examples among this group are Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Roy Harris.

3. “Modern Traditionalists” continued to embrace traditional forms such as the sonata, symphony, and concerto, like the Neoclassicists, and they often employed harmonic languages that were quite dissonant. But unlike the Neoclassicists they did not necessarily aim toward clarity and restraint, but more often strove toward a brash, hard-edged monumentality. Many of the Modern Traditionalists displayed recognizably American qualities, but without using actual popular or nationalistic elements. Among the best-known representatives of this group are William Schuman and David Diamond.9

4. “American Opera Composers.” Although many of these composers share stylistic features with some of the other groups of traditionalists, they warrant a separate category because these figures have concentrated almost exclusively on the venerable operatic genre. Examples of this group include Gian Carlo Menotti, Carlisle Floyd, and Dominick Argento.

5. “Neo-Romantics” are those composers whose work is primarily concerned with the evocation of mood, the depiction of drama—either abstract or referential—and the expression of emotion—personal, subjective emotion, in particular. The Neo-Romantics embraced many of the stylistic features of late-19th century music, and they may be viewed as the most conservative of the traditionalists. In fact, the very term ‘‘Neo-Romantic’’ is less than ideal, as the prefix ‘‘neo-’’ implies the revival of a stylistic concept from the past. But the early Neo-Romantics were not reviving a style from the past—they were evolving along a continuum still very much alive. The composers who served as their chief sources of influence and points of departure were Richard Strauss, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Debussy, and Ravel. These composers were still active when the American arch-Neo-Romantic Howard Hanson began composing. And the younger Neo-Romantics viewed these same Europeans as their immediate antecedents. But while the term may not be 100% accurate, it has commonly been used to identify this group of composers.

Perhaps more than any other group among the American traditionalists, the Neo-Romantics have borne a stigma of disrepute. Certainly the general listening public is most readily drawn to music with the qualities associated with the Romantic aesthetic. But an implied assumption underlying much critical and musicological commentary suggests that a direct appeal to the emotions represents a lower form of artistic expression, as if accessibility somehow diminished the magnitude of a work’s aesthetic achievement. Such an attitude plagued the reputations of earlier Romantics like Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Strauss, and Rachmaninoff for years; indeed, it is only since the end of the 20th century that the critical community has acknowledged their greatness without significant reservations. Compounding the problem for the American Neo-Romantics are the additional stigmas of being Americans in a field still considered to belong chiefly to Europeans, as well as continuing to embrace a style whose time has allegedly passed. In 1978, when an interviewer inquired of Howard Hanson whether his famous “Romantic” Symphony perhaps appealed to a lower order of listener, the composer commented, “That’s what the intellectual would like to have you think . . . [but] I get letters to this day from those who are not morons saying that their favorite [symphonies] are the Fourth of Brahms and [my] Romantic Symphony.”10

As recently as 2002, a New York Times critic capped off a begrudging acknowledgment of the effectiveness of a neo-Romantic opera with the revealing statement that it “seems to be a solid work at the lower end of the artistic spectrum, like a piece of furniture from Ikea: secretly better than it’s supposed to be.”11 Similarly, just a couple of years ago Howard Hanson’s opera Merry Mount—a huge hit when it was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1934—was performed for the first time in New York since its premiere. Writing in The New Yorker, Alex Ross gave the performance only passing mention, describing the work as “entertainingly schlocky.”12

What does that mean? It seems Ross enjoyed it, but felt the need to protect himself from criticism by his peers by adding the word “schlocky,” derived from a Yiddish word meaning cheap, inferior, or trashy. Both these reviewers acknowledged the appeal of the works they were covering, but felt the need to deprecate their own favorable reactions.

There may be some truth to the claim that composers whose music appeals directly to the emotions may be less concerned with matters typically viewed as ‘‘intellectual,’’ such as formal coherence and structural complexity. But one may legitimately question why an appeal to the intellect necessarily represents an order of artistic experience superior to an appeal to the emotions (except insofar as it satisfies humanity’s vain quest to elevate itself above the animal kingdom). But perhaps a more important question is whether an appeal to the emotions must somehow compromise legitimate formal and structural values. One might argue that there is a Neo-Romantic ideal, in which the expression of emotion, depiction of drama, and evocation of mood are joined with, rather than opposed to, formal coherence, developmental rigor, and structural economy. Instead of representing mutually exclusive polarities, these two aesthetic objectives can complement each other in producing a heightened, intensified artistic experience. It is this ideal toward which the greatest Neo-Romantic composers have striven, and have, at times, achieved.

Like their European predecessors, the American Neo-Romantics tended to emphasize intense, passionate emotional expression, lavishly colored instrumental sonorities, and a rich, chromatic harmonic language derived from expanded triadic harmony. Though they may have been unapologetically conservative, there are points that distinguish them from their European predecessors. For one, most American Neo-Romantics use Classical forms more frequently, economically, and in a more disciplined manner than their European models, such as Mahler and Strauss. Second, they display certain characteristics often identified as “American”—chiefly a heightened importance of rhythmic drive, with patterns that are often irregular, asymmetrical, and syncopated—and, associated with this, a greater and more varied use of percussion instruments. Third, especially later in the 20th century, the Neo-Romantics expanded the language of their predecessors by raising the “dissonance quotient,” so to speak. Such harmony added richness, harshness, or both, thereby expanding the expressive potential of the language. Fourth, the later American Neo-Romantics used the flow between tonality and atonality as an expressive device, its relative strength or weakness contributing to a sense of emotional stability or lack thereof in the work at hand. Further, in these later Neo-Romantic compositions, a subjective perception of tonality may be absent altogether for periods of time, allowing for the expression of more extreme emotional contrasts. But even when a tonal center is barely perceived, subjectively experienced tensions rooted in tonal expectations serve as important expressive elements.

While the American Neo-Romantic approach emerged during the 1930s, it did not end with that generation of composers. As has been stated, many later composers followed this path, adopting the aesthetic values of their predecessors and extending them in their own personal directions. One of the most distinguished American Neo-Romantics of the “next generation” is Samuel Jones. Jones was born in 1935 and, now in his 80s, continues to actively compose. He was a composition student of Neo-Romantic pioneer Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned his Master’s and Doctoral degrees. Although his early compositions show Hanson’s strong influence— and one of his later compositions, A Symphonic Requiem, is based on Hanson’s best known melody—Jones has developed his own musical language, one that is considerably more technically sophisticated and varied in its expression than that of his mentor.

Jones was born in Mississippi, where he grew up and received his education through his undergraduate degree. In addition to composing, he has been active as both a conductor and a member of the academic world, in the dual roles of teacher and administrator. As conductor, he founded the Alma Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, led the Saginaw Symphony (also in Michigan), and finally served as Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic—a major orchestra in the city where he received his professional education. He held this position from 1965 to 1972. Perhaps his most distinguished academic accomplishment was founding the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in 1973, serving as Dean for six years, and remaining there in various capacities for 24 years. After retiring from the Shepherd School in 1997, he served for 14 years as Composer-in-Residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.13

But it is Jones’s compositions that represent his primary achievements. Over the years he has amassed a varied output of more than 40 works, including three symphonies, a touching opera based on Truman Capote’s well-known story A Christmas Memory, a religious oratorio, and even a children’s piece for narrator and orchestra based on a story by Eudora Welty. Among his most distinguished contributions are a series of six concertos, all written since 2006. These feature the tuba, the French horn, the cello, the violin, the trombone, and the flute. In many ways these concertos establish Jones’s place among contemporary composers as a mature, confident, and eloquent compositional voice. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and commissions from many of the country’s most auspicious musical organizations, and his works have been performed by some of America’s finest orchestras.14

Although Jones’s productivity as a composer dates back to the late 1950s—the period when twelve-tone music was dominating the compositional scene—he remained loyal to the Neo-Romantic ideal, and has continued to do so to this day. This can be observed in his rich treatment of the orchestra, as well as in his receptiveness to extra-musical influences, from the wedding anniversary of friends and the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas to the relationship between fathers and their daughters. But in keeping with the Neo-Romantic ideal, his use of extramusical sources of inspiration does not in any way compromise clarity of formal logic. Regardless of its program, each work stands as an abstract, autonomous entity that does not require an awareness of its source of inspiration in order for it to make sense. Jones’s music offers a generous flow of melody, the readily discernable expression of emotion, and a clear sense of tonality, despite a harmonic language that some might at times describe as dissonant.

Samuel Jones is one of the foremost American Neo-Romantics of his generation. His music displays a direct connection to those of his predecessors who followed this aesthetic path. Familiarizing oneself with his works and programming them in orchestral concerts is rewarding to conductors and performers, as well as to audiences, while demonstrating that American composers have continued to create appealing and deeply moving contributions to the repertoire.


  1. Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship, (New York, Knopf, 1968), 148.
  2. Anthony Tommasini, “Midcentury Serialists: The Bullies or the Besieged,” New York Times, July 9, 2000. 
  3. Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?” High Fidelity, February, 1958. 
  4. Charles Wuorinen, Simple Composition, (New York: Longman, 1979), 3. 
  5. Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).
  6. Walter Simmons, “Contemporary Music: A Weekend of Reflections,” Fanfare, May-June, 1981.
  7. Walter Simmons, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004). 
  8. R. James Tobin, Voices of Clarity and Restraint: Neoclassical Music in America, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 1-11.
  9. Walter Simmons, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 8-12. 
  10. David Russell Williams, Conversations with Howard Hanson, (Arkadelphia, AR: Delta Publications, 1988), 6. 
  11. Anne Midgette, “Opera Review: Finding the Musical Romance in a Chekhov Play,” New York Times, December 14, 2001.
  12. Alex Ross, “Climate Change,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2014.
  13. “Biography.” Samuel Jones, Composer. 
  14. “Samuel Jones.” Carl Fischer Music


 Babbitt, Milton. ‘‘Who Cares If You Listen?’’ High Fidelity (February 1958), 38–40, 126–       127. 
“Biography.” Samuel Jones, Composer
Boulez, Pierre. Notes of an Apprenticeship. New York: Knopf, 1968. 
Midgette, Anne. “Opera Review: Finding the Musical Romance in a Chekhov Play.” New    York Times(December 14, 2001). 
Ross, Alex. “Climate Change.” The New Yorker (May 26, 2014). 
___. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and     Giroux, 2007. 
“Samuel Jones.” Carl Fischer Music. 
Simmons, Walter. “Contemporary Music: A Weekend of Reflections.” Fanfare (May– June 1981), 22–23. 
___. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. Lanham, MD:          Scarecrow Press, 2004. 
___. Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti,    and Peter Mennin. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011. 
Tawa, Nicholas. American Composers and Their Public. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow    Press, 1995.
___. A Most Wondrous Babble. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. 
___. Serenading the Reluctant Eagle: American Musical Life, 1925–1945. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984. 
Tobin, R. James. Voices of Clarity and Restraint: Neoclassical Music in America.       Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 
Tommasini, Anthony. “Midcentury Serialists: The Bullies or the Besieged.” New York   Times (9 July 2000). 
Williams, David Russell. Conversations with Howard Hanson. Arkadelphia, AR: Delta Publications, 1988. 
Wuorinen, Charles. Simple Composition. New York, Longman, 1979.

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who has been intensely interested in 20th -century music since his early teens. Holding a master’s degree in theory and musicology from the Manhattan School of Music, he has contributed to several editions of the New Grove Dictionary of MusicAmerican National Biography, the AllMusic Guide, and scores of other publications, including the American Record Guideand Musical America. In addition, he was a regular contributor to Fanfare for 35 years. Simmons has been active as a radio host and producer, a program annotator, lecturer, and teacher, a repertoire consultant, and a producer of recordings and educational materials about music. Through his recording productions—as well as his recommendations to record company executives, conductors and soloists—he has made available commercially more than 85 works never before recorded or, in some cases, even performed. Simmons is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism and the National Educational Film Festival Award. In 2004 his book, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, was published by Scarecrow Press, a subsidiary of Roman and Littlefield. This was followed by a second book, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin (2011). Simmons is supervising editor of Rowman and Littlefield’s ongoing music series, Twentieth-Century Traditionalists. Hundreds of his writings can be found on his website:

Walter Simmons
© Journal of the Conductors Guild, Vol. 33

ROSNER: Five Ko-Ans for Orchestra; Unraveling Dances; The Parable of the Law

ARNOLD ROSNERFive Ko-ans for Orchestra; Unraveling Dances; The Parable of the Law. Nick Palmer, cond. Christopher Burchett, baritone; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Nick Palmer, cond. TOCCATA T0CC-0464

During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner (1945–2013) produced a body of work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalogue comprises compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and wind band, several large-scale choral works and many chamber, solo and vocal pieces.

Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmonic and rhythmic devices of the polyphonic music of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. These roots can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in virtually all his music. To them he added a free triadicism and exotic modalities, intensified in some works by more contemporary harmonic dissonance, combining this language with the lavish orchestration and emotional drama of late-nineteenth-century Romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely an integration of earlier styles, is the way he shaped his unusual language to embrace an enormous expressive range – far broader than one might imagine possible – from serene beauty to violent rage. The works featured on this recording reveal, perhaps to a greater extent than any previous recording of his music, the vast range of expression achieved by his remarkable creative personality. And despite its fusion of these seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners.

Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Some sounds in particular appealed to him – juxtapositions of major and minor triads, as well as modal melodies – and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family, fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition, encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavors, and so he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of fifteen, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing: sonatas, symphonies, concertos and more – not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors. His composer-heroes at the time were Hovhaness, Vaughan Williams and Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his earlier creative work.

Graduating from NYU before he turned twenty, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was in 1966, when serialism was the dominant style in university music departments, and young composers were often coerced, directly or indirectly, into adopting it. Rosner often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he would say that he ‘learned almost nothing’ from these pedants. Although most of his peers capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he had submitted as his dissertation. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of music he considered meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation – the first ever – on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this task successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

He devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough Community College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death. During the course of his compositional career, his musical language gradually expanded from its idiosyncratic and intuitive beginnings, as the mature works on this recording illustrate. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.

Rosner composed his Five Ko-ans for Orchestra, Op. 65, in 1976, during what was probably the most fruitful period of his creative life, and it is one of his most important works. A note in the score, provided by Rosner, defines the Zen concept of Ko-an as a “riddle, action, remark, or dialogue not comprehensible by rational understanding but conducive to intense or prolonged meditation (literally, from Chinese Kung-an, ‘public statement’).” The five movements that comprise the work may thus be viewed as musical statements whose meanings may be inferred and understood via intuitive perception. Entitled “Music of Changes,” “Ricercare,” “Ostinato,” “Music of Stillness,” and “Isorhythmic Motet,” the five pieces also serve as representations of five aspects of Rosner’s compositional personality. The first, “Music of Changes,” serves as both an introduction to and a summary of the work, as its eight minutes feature a contrasting array of psychological and musical visions: an eerie evocation of abject terror, ethereal serenity, tightly interwoven polyphony of Medieval martial cast, unearthly inscrutability, delicate folk-like simplicity, swirling gusts of chaos from which emerges a stern chorale, solemn reflection, an aggressive, frantic onslaught of vigorous activity, finally concluding in somber mystery. “Ricercare” is based on a polyphonic style that flourished during the early 1600s. This movement, evocatively spiritual in character, is closest to the origins of Rosner’s style. “Ostinato” (literally, “obstinate”) is built around a consistent, percussively emphatic pattern of crotchets (quarter-notes) in quintuple meter. “Music of Stillness” is a remarkable oasis of mysterious tranquility, centering on an enigmatic phrase that recurs throughout the movement, initially stated by the flute and vibraphone. “Isorhythmic Motet” is based on a technique used in Medieval music which Rosner adapted to his aesthetic needs in several of his works, such as his String Quartet No. 4 and his Cello Sonata No. 2. In essence, his adaptation of the isorhythmic motet comprises variations on a recurrent rhythmic pattern that embraces all the instruments. The rhythms remain unchanged, while the dynamics, pitches, and resulting harmony are altered freely. In this movement the isorhythmic pattern is thirteen measures long, and repeats seven times.

Unraveling Dances, Op. 122, was Rosner’s final orchestral work, composed in 2007. It is almost unique in his output — a high-spirited orchestral showpiece. The distinguished composer Carson Cooman, who was Rosner’s chosen archivist, provided a note that appears in the score: “The inspiration for Unraveling Dances came from both the slow-tempo Spanish/Latin dance of the bolero and Rosner’s own experience with heart arrhythmia. He initially conceived of the idea of an arrhythmic or ‘mad’ bolero in which the basic pulse is not kept completely steady but rather is subjected to a variety of transformations throughout. In the resulting work, the underlying pulse never changes, but the rhythmic groupings continue to get longer and longer, beginning in bars of 3/8 and ending in bars of 7/4.” That is, there are eleven variations of the theme, the meter of each successive variation one quaver (eighth-note) longer than the previous one. Through modal changes, the character of the variations embrace many of Rosner’s favorite compositional inflections, including suggestions of the Renaissance and early Baroque and of Middle-Eastern music, finally introducing a fragment of Ravel’s own Bolero. Much like that piece, “the overall progression of the work moves from the quiet stasis of the beginning to the fierce orchestral grandeur of the end. The title has several layers of meaning: 1) the music unravels with the extra 8th-notes added from one variation to the next; 2) any group of dancers would go crazy if trying to actually dance to it (the composer imagined them ‘unraveling their clothes’); 3) the embedded reference to Ravel, composer of the most famous of orchestral boleros.”

In 1993 Rosner composed a setting for baritone and orchestra of a portion of Franz Kafka’s enigmatic 1915 novel, The Trial, known as “Before the Law.” Rosner’s work is entitled The Parable of the Law, Op. 97, and depicts the quintessentially “Kafka-esque” plight of a man who spends years in senseless futility, awaiting entry to “the Law.” Though the entry door is intended only for him, he is never admitted, until it is finally closed forever. Rosner’s setting captures the futile persistence displayed by the man as he attempts to overcome the senseless refusal of the doorkeeper. The baritone soloist recounts most of the story with the eerily impersonal detachment so characteristic of Kafka’s terrifying tableaux. The work develops several motifs that are stated near the outset. Shortly after the beginning, the primary four-note motif is introduced with subtlety by the lower instruments, followed a few measures later by the horn, then by the clarinet. This motif dominates the work, which maintains a mood of ominous, grim foreboding throughout.

Parable of the Law
Franz Kafka
(translator unknown)

Before the Law there stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance unto the Law. But then the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the present time. The man, on reflection asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later on. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the present time.” Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual and the doorkeeper steps to one side the man bends down to look; the man bends down to peer into the entrance and when the doorkeeper sees that he laughs and says: “If you’re so strongly tempted, just try to get inside without permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowliest doorkeeper! From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other. And the sight of the third man is already more than even I can stand.” These are difficulties which the man from the country has not expected to meet. The Law he thinks should be accessible to any man and at all times, but when he looks more closely at the doorkeeper he decides that he had better wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. There he sits waiting for days and years. He makes many attempts to be allowed to enter and wearies the doorkeeper with his importunity. The doorkeeper often engages him in brief conversation asking him about his home and other matters but these questions are put quite impersonally as great men put questions, and they always conclude with the statement that the man cannot be allowed to enter yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, parts with everything he has, however valuable, in the hope of bribing the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts it all, saying, however, as he takes each gift, “I take this only to keep you from feeling that you’ve left something undone.” During all these long years the man watches the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets about all the other doorkeepers and this one seems to him the only barrier between himself and the Law. In the first years he curses his evil fate aloud; later, as he grows older and as he grows childish, he only mutters to himself. Finally his eyes grow dim, and he does not know whether the world is really darkening around him or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. But in the darkness he can now perceive a radiance streaming inextinguishably out from the door of the Law. Now his life is drawing to a close. Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole time of his sojourn condenses into one question which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper. He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend down so as to hear him, for the difference in size between them has increased very much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to attain the Law,” answers the man. “How does it come about then that in all these years no one has come, no one has come seeking admittance but me?” The doorkeeper perceives that the man is nearing his end and that his hearing is failing, and so he bellows in his ear: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you, and only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Walter Simmons, musicologist and critic, has written extensively on American composers who maintained an allegiance to traditional musical values. He is the editor of a series of books, ‘Twentieth-Century Traditionalists’, published by Rowman and Littlefield. He wrote the first two volumes himself (under the Scarecrow Press imprint): Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), which treated the lives and works of Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini and Hanson, and Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin (2011). As a staunch advocate of the music of Arnold Rosner, he is deeply familiar with much of his output; he and Rosner were close associates for more than forty years

PERSICHETTI: Selected Piano Music


Vincent Persichetti was one of the most widely respected American musicians of his generation. A prolific composer, brilliant educator and lecturer, and prodigious pianist, he composed more than 150 works in virtually all genres and for virtually all performing media, while serving for 40 years on the faculty of the Juilliard School, many of them as chairman of the composition department.

During his lifetime Persichetti influenced the musical lives of thousands of people from all walks of life, and his name came to signify a comprehensive musicianship virtually unparalleled among American composers. Countless young pianists were nurtured on his easier pieces, while many other young instrumental students first experienced serious contemporary music through his works for band; church choirs turned to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, while many young composers have found his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony to be an indispensable tool; among professional soloists and conductors his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Throughout his life Persichetti encouraged healthy, creative participation in music at all levels of proficiency, while shunning dogmas that advocated one compositional approach at the expense of others. He immersed himself in all aspects of music with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm devoid of pomposity.

Persichetti’s music illustrates what he saw as the future of music: a broad working vocabulary, or “common practice,” based on a fluent integration of the myriad materials and techniques that appeared during the twentieth century. In a sense, Persichetti’s vocabulary of gestures and figures and the somewhat detached way they unfold and interact form a kind of private language, from which he created his own personal expressive world. Seen in this way, the music begins to appear as a personal metaphor, with cross-references and elaborations of ideas from other pieces winking slyly at the listener, conveying enigmatic allusions that call for a particularly intuitive level of apprehension. All this is carried out with a light touch, free of solemnity or pretension, yet far from trivial. The music at times suggests an imaginary world, peopled by a large cast of cartoon-like characters, created by an eccentric master-puppeteer who amuses himself by portraying his own metaphysical vision through the interactions of his puppets. This characterization is illustrated throughout the pieces on this recording.

Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Persichetti did not turn to the symphony for his most important statements, although he did produce the requisite nine. But he was more inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are elaborate integrations of diminutive elements. Most representative are his works for piano—some 35 pieces, including twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, a concertino, and a concerto, plus works for two pianos, and piano, four hands as well. The music spans the years 1929 to 1986, and includes pieces for pianists at all levels, from the beginning student to the advanced professional. Perhaps no composer since Scriabin has produced a body of piano music that offers such breadth of meaning, such fluency of articulation, and such richness of invention—not to mention such comprehensive and imaginative use of the instrument’s resources. Indeed, Persichetti’s piano music embodies in microcosm the all-encompassing range of his expression and comprises the most penetrating lens through which to view his formidable output.

Persichetti’s creativity was often stimulated by poetry. During the late 1930s and early 40s Persichetti composed a series of what he called Poems for Piano—a collection of sixteen character pieces, each inspired by a single line, laden with imagery, taken from modern poetry—American, for the most part. Though composed when he was still in his twenties, before his mature language had fully crystallized, these brief sketches embrace a boundless array of moods, states of mind, and approaches to piano figuration, achieved with remarkable subtlety and economy of means. Their styles range from atonality—even atonal pseudo-jazz—to the immediacy of a popular song, yet with virtually no redundancy of either meaning or technique. Especially striking are two in particular: No. 10 (“Dust in sunlight and memory in corners,” T.S. Eliot) and No. 15 (“And hung like those top jewels of the night,” Léonie Adams). This latter is one of the composer’s most straightforwardly beautiful melodies.

Persichetti’s six sonatinas were written during the early 1950s, when the composer was concentrating most intensively on music for the piano. The first three sonatinas were composed in 1950, and are rather like miniature versions of the sonatas he was writing at the time. The latter three were composed in immediate succession in 1954, and are easier both to appreciate and to play.

The Sonatina No. 1 comprises three tiny movements. It is largely simple in texture, although its language is acerbic, with relatively dissonant and often polytonal harmony, fragmentary gestures and sonorities, and attenuated tonality. Sonatina No. 2 is perhaps the most fully developed and cohesive of the group. It is a single movement, beginning with a slow, stately canon unafraid of dissonant harmonic friction, followed by a brilliant developmental scamper, with motifs of its own darting in and out of the transparent contrapuntal texture. Eventually, elements of both sections are combined, leading to an exuberant finish in C Major. Sonatina No. 3 comprises two movements—the first, gently rolling, with subtle modal shifts; and the second, rhythmically playful and affirmative in character.

The Sonatinas Nos. 4 through 6 are among the many pieces that Persichetti tailored to the abilities of beginning pianists. An essential aspect of Persichetti’s compositional personality was his connection to the inner world of the child. He devoted many of his compositional efforts to capturing this world, often in pieces that are relatively easy to play and hence, manageable by young musicians. These pieces are integral to and aesthetically consistent with the rest of his creative work, revealing musical and psychological sophistication despite their economy of means. The limitation imposed on technical difficulty was just one more constraint of the kind within which his creativity thrived. These pieces are neither dull exercises nor the sort of trivial “children’s music” produced for commercial purposes by the music education industry; they were created with the same attention to expressive and formal details that the composer devoted to larger, more complex works. Drawing upon polychords and polytonality, modality, dissonant counterpoint, irregular and unusual meters, and even absence of meter, he captured the whimsy, impishness, tenderness, innocence, and silliness of the young personality, as well as its access to a free, non-linear imagination, with an eloquent precision and delicate beauty that is the province only of an artist whose “inner child” has not been sacrificed to the jadedness of maturity. The fact that many of these pieces provided the thematic material for Persichetti’s sole opera The Sibyl—one of his two most ambitious works—suggests the importance he placed on them.

In 1960, Persichetti’s wife Dorothea, a brilliant pianist and the explicit source of inspiration for his entire output. wrote a doctoral dissertation on Persichetti’s music, discussing all his works composed up to that time. Regarding Persichetti’s “teaching pieces,” Dorothea noted that “the composer vehemently denies that he ever wrote such a thing, maintaining that he writes music, all of which can be taught, but some to students younger than others. The idiom of the large and the small pieces is often the same, and some of the little pieces which seem most simple technically have unexpected subtle and musically sophisticated spots, realized in quarter notes in a five-finger position…. [T]he little works are distillations of a musical expression that has undergone clarification to the point of great simplicity…. He does not write ‘down’ to attain simplicity. Some of his music is large, and some small; some difficult, and some easy…. If [the latter] are successful, it is so because they are music, not because they are pedagogy.

Over the course of his career Persichetti composed a series of what he entitled “serenades.” There are a total of fifteen serenades for a variety of instrumental media. Nos. 2 and 7 are for piano solo. The Serenade No. 2, composed when he was 14, was one of the pieces composed “behind the back” of his primary composition teacher Russell King Miller, and contributed to his eventual expulsion from Miller’s theory classes. Its three movements last barely two minutes, and are entitled “Tune,” “Strum,” and “Pluck.” Despite their brevity, relative ease of execution, and conceptual levity, these terse, mischievous pieces are quite sophisticated, with acerbic secundal dissonances, sparse gestures, rhythmic irregularities, and long stretches of atonality—all general characteristics of his work. Serenade No. 7 was composed in 1952. Its six tiny pieces are more accessible than those in Serenade No. 2, and are much easier to play.

Among the sizable number of Persichetti’s piano pieces suitable for upper-elementary and intermediate-level piano students, perhaps the best known is the Little Piano Book, Op. 60, composed in 1953. This group of fourteen easy pieces of uncommon charm and beauty has become a classic of its kind. The composer described it as “a collection of simple pieces written for, or about, friends and relatives and acquaintances. One is a self-portrait. This is my music reduced to its essence; nevertheless these pieces do contain elements found in my larger, more complex works.” Dorothea felt that “they may be some of the composer’s best music.” Other such works are the slightly more difficult Variations for an Album, and Parades, the easiest to play of all Persichetti’s piano pieces.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin 
(Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), from which these notes were adapted.

SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty

SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty ● Documentary with commentary and performance excerpts, both contemporary and historical ● ZEN VIOLENCE FILMS, available from (DVD: 130:00)

Documentary director: H. Paul Moon

This is a most welcome documentary about American composer Samuel Barber. In a relatively leisurely fashion, it covers the scope of his creative output from Dover Beach through the late Choruses, Op. 42, via generous excerpts of representative works comprising a cornucopia of performances by superb, if less familiar, musicians from the Washington, DC, area, but also a few from notable historical performances. The former include, among others too numerous to name, violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, cellist Stephen Framil, soprano Melissa Fogarty, the respective symphony orchestras of Alexandria, Baltimore, the Washington Metropolitan Symphony, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and IBIS Chamber Ensemble, while the latter include Leontyne Price and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. Commentaries by both current notables, such as Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, and Thomas Hampson, and by important historical figures, such as William Schuman, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland, as well as by the composer himself, collectively create a richly nuanced, and sometimes insightful job of reviewing Barber’s biography and characterizing his artistic contribution, if somewhat less accurate in placing the composer within the context of the musical life of the time. That is, most of the commentators discuss Barber as if he were the only composer of his generation who ignored the compositional fashions of the time in favor of remaining true to his inner spirit. I am moved to point out that Barber was one of many such composers—some blessed by comparable creative gifts—but who lacked the tremendous privileges of affluence, supportive family, and highly placed social connections, as well as connections within the music world, which greatly facilitated Barber’s achieving the success he enjoyed.

Barber biographer Barbara Heyman and French biographer Pierre Brévignon are listed as “consulting producers,” and they provide the lion’s share of the commentary, especially the former, who essentially provides the narrative continuity. The viewer will come away with quite a rich understanding of the scope of Barber’s music, along with the essential elements of his biography, his temperament, and his personality. Even subjects that are often avoided, such as his homosexuality, his long-term relationship with Menotti and its heartbreaking collapse, and the background underlying the internationally publicized failure of his 1966 opera Antony and Cleopatra, are addressed and discussed with satisfying thoroughness.

But along with the enjoyment I experienced in hearing such a generous sample of Barber’s music, and the astute observations of many of the commentators, I also felt a certain frustration that most of what was said is already quite familiar to those who are conversant with the composer’s music. Truly, the documentary is best suited to those who are fond of the AdagioKnoxville, and perhaps the Violin Concerto, but don’t really know much about Barber’s life, his personality, or his other works. Such listeners are likely to find the documentary to be a revelation. Listeners who have never regarded Barber as a significant creative figure comprise another group of listeners who might find the film enlightening. But I think that those who are familiar with the extent of the composer’s output, and need no convincing as to its importance within the canon of American music, are likely to find most of the commentary rather obvious, and even somewhat superficial. Such viewers may feel that the perspectives of the individual commentators themselves are overly dominated by the works they have performed, rather than derived from an understanding of the totality of his contribution.

From today’s standpoint, I feel that it is well established that Samuel Barber was one of America’s greatest composers, and that a substantial portion of his output has carved an enduring place in the standard permanent repertoire, an accomplishment achieved by few of his contemporaries. Indeed, most of his works—the Cello Sonata, the Cello Concerto, the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the String Quartet, and others are—rightly or wrongly—generally considered to be the foremost American compositions within their respective media, perhaps to the exclusion of equally meritorious works by other composers.

All in all, it is good to see the appearance of a documentary that should consolidate a broader awareness of Barber’s contributions. I hope that it attracts considerable attention. H. Paul Moon is to be commended for pulling together so many gifted performers and such revealing historical footage in compiling this multifaceted presentation. 

ROSNER: Violin Sonata No. 1; Bassoon Sonata; Cello Sonata No. 2; Danses a la Mode.


During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner (1945-2013) produced a body of a work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalog contains compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and band, several large-scale choral works, and many chamber, solo, and vocal pieces.Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmonic and rhythmic devices of pre-Baroque modal polyphony, and this source can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in virtually all his music. To this he added a 20th-century freedom of modality and triadicism, intensified in some works by moderate dissonance, combining this harmonic language with the lavish orchestration and emotional drama of 19th-century romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely an integration of earlier styles, is the way he shaped his unusual language to embrace an enormous expressive range—far broader than one might imagine possible—from serene beauty to violent rage, with many points in between. And despite its fusion of seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners.

Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Certain sounds in particular appealed to him—juxtapositions of major and minor triads, as well as modal melodies—and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family—fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition—encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavors. So he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of 15, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, etc.—not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors. His composer-heroes at the time were Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his creative work.

Graduating from NYU before he turned 20, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was 1966, when the serial approach dominated university music departments, and young composers were often coerced into adopting it, either directly or indirectly. Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and refused to embrace it. He often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he wrote that he “learned almost nothing” from these pedants. While his peers may have capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he had submitted as his dissertation. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of music he considered legitimately meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation—the first ever—on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

Rosner devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough Community College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death. During the course of his compositional career, his musical language gradually expanded from its idiosyncratic and intuitive beginnings, broadening and deepening its expressive range. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, NY, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.

Rosner composed his Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Op. 18, in 1963, when he was 18 years old. (The Sonata No. 2, dating from 1972, serves alternately as his Sonata for Oboe and Piano.) As with a number of his early works, he later felt that the Sonata No. 1 could be improved without changing its overall character. In undertaking such retrospective revisions, Rosner was somewhat unusual. Many composers revise their works—often after a first performance or in anticipation of a second—shortly after completing them. Revisions much later are less common, as most composers’ styles evolve to the point where they no longer feel comfortable re-entering works from an earlier period. Rosner’s style evolved over time as well, as may be readily gleaned from this recording. But he never repudiated his earlier approach: Hence his revisions remain fully within the language of the original work. For example, when he returned to the Violin Sonata No. 1 more than forty years after completing it, he retained all the original thematic materials, while developing them with greater subtlety and sophistication. But there are no disjunctions in the basic musical language, which remains largely modal and consonant, as was the original version. In this way he was able to retain the freshness and innocence that characterized his earlier music, while providing a developmental complexity that gives the music added depth and interest. He dedicated the revised version to Emily Adele Vanderwerf, whose father had written the first academic dissertation on Rosner’s music.The first public performance of either version of Rosner’s Violin Sonata No. 1 did not take place until 2014, at a memorial concert in New York City on the first anniversary of his death. The violinist was Owen Dalby and the pianist was Margaret Kampmeier.

Rosner often asserted that his music was not “tonal,” by which he meant that he rejected the notion of “functional tonality,” i.e., the traditional view applied to 18th- and 19th-century music that tonality served as a primary unifying device within which deviations from the tonal center were understood as fundamental elements of a work’s structure. Most of Rosner’s music displays tonal centers that modulate freely throughout a composition without serving such structural functions. In his earlier works especially, some movements exhibit a central tonic, while others do not. The Violin Sonata No. 1 is an especially clear illustration of this. The vigorous first movement, Allegro molto, is freely modal and largely consonant, featuring the use of unrelated triads that was an enduring element of Rosner’s style. The movement is structured as a modified sonata allegro. Though it begins with a suggestion of D Dorian, that mode is contradicted freely by the second measure. This first theme introduces a profusion of motifs that provide the main material of the movement. A second theme is briefly suggested, introduced by sequences of perfect fourths, but the development focuses primarily on the motifs within the first theme. A third thematic idea characterized by repeated quarter-notes is introduced during the development. The recapitulation features the first theme in rhythmic augmentation in the piano, while the violin continues developing the movement’s main motivic material, until the final cadence in C-sharp.The second movement, Lento, is fervently lyrical and somewhat solemn in character. Most notable is an emphasis on the major-minor dichotomy, another harmonic feature that may be found in Rosner’s music throughout his oeuvre. The opening melody, freely modal, is accompanied by triads and perfect fifths, lending a slightly religious quality. A series of bell-like notes in the piano introduces a more unstable second section that ends with bell-like notes in the violin. The melody from the first section returns with a more elaborate accompaniment, followed by a return of the second section material, also accompanied by more active figuration. This pattern continues during a final restatement of the opening material. Major-minor conflicts recur throughout the movement, which largely maintains a modal tonality of C.  

The finale, Allegro, is suggestive of a spirited tarantella, as the unaccompanied violin introduces the main theme in G. The piano enters, abruptly shifting the tonality to the remote key of C-sharp. The material undergoes continual development during which the violin remains active while the piano accompanies with mostly open fifths. A second section, maintaining the C-sharp tonality, features a more subdued melody in the violin, while the piano now takes a more active role, drawing upon the first theme. This is followed by a development of both thematic ideas, often combined together. A coda accelerates the tempo, pressing forward to an emphatic conclusion, re-affirming the tonality of G.

Rosner composed Danses à la mode, Op. 101, in 1994, dedicating it to his friend Jan Naigus. In a note printed in the score, Carson Cooman comments that Rosner taught a variety of music courses during his years as a professor, including ethnomusicology. This latter experience led him to explore the music of a variety of countries and ethnicities, contributing to an already fledgling interest in the music of other cultures. These explorations found their way into some of his compositions, such as Danses à la mode. The title has something of a double meaning, referring on the one hand to the use of modal scales common to much ethnic music as well as to his own music. On the other hand it also alludes to his “lifelong interest in all matters culinary.”

Cooman notes, “The first movement À la Greque is in a fast 7/8 meter, with inflections characteristic of Greek folk music. Even before his teaching days, Rosner was interested in Indian music, and its influence appeared in a few of his compositions, including the second movement of this suite, as well as the concert band work RAGA!. a more extended exploration of the raga concept. The third movement, Sarabande, pays homage to the Baroque dance form. Musique du Nord evokes Scandinavian dance music.”The first performance of Danses à la mode was given by David Cowley in 1995, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as part of a festival devoted to Rosner’s music.

Rosner composed quite a number of sonatas and related works for solo instrument with piano. In fact, most standard instruments are represented among these pieces, and they comprise some of his most serious, deeply searching compositions. These works often sandwich a lighter, scherzo-like movement between two movements of somber, brooding character, and that is the case with the Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, Op. 121, composed in 2006. Compared with the light-hearted exuberance of the First Violin Sonata, the Bassoon Sonata—one of Rosner’s last works—maintains a mood of sober reflection throughout, even during the faster central movement. The work as a whole indicates the extent to which the composer’s language had expanded during his later years to embrace considerable tonal freedom.

The first movement, Adagio, opens with an unaccompanied line in the bassoon—highly chromatic, but not a 12-tone row by any means. This solo line embraces a number of short intervallic motifs that provide the source material for the movement—most prominently, a minor second and three scale-steps, both ascending and descending. (These motifs will appear prominently in all three movements.) Though the opening line suggests a tonal center of G, this is of little consequence. The piano enters, addressing the intervallic motifs and engaging them in counterpoint with the bassoon, while also providing an accompaniment largely of open fifths and triads. A continuous development follows with wandering tonality and soon the tempo quickens. This builds to something of a climax, followed by a return to the original tempo, as the bassoon clearly re-states a variant of the opening solo line, leading the movement to an unambiguous ending in D.

The second movement serves as a scherzo, marked Allegro energico ma serioso, although, as the marking indicates, the character of the movement is far from jocular. While mostly in 6/8 meter, there is much use of hemiola (“three against two”). The movement opens with arpeggiated open fifths in the piano with a tonality of G, followed by a stepwise rising and falling motif in the bassoon. Within this is incorporated a rising half-step figure that was a prominent motif in the first movement, treated here as an essential element as well, appearing in both ascending and descending forms. The movement unfolds as a free development of these ideas tossed back and forth chromatically between the two instruments, finally reaching a decisive conclusion in A.The third movement, Lento, is rather unusual in structure. It begins with a solemn solo in the bassoon, chromatic but suggesting a tonic of E-flat. Prominent in this solo are the rising and falling minor seconds that played a role in both previous movements. This solo is answered as a canon at the fourth treated in three voices, followed by a development of the motifs introduced thus far, with special attention to the rising and falling minor seconds. As the movement begins to draw to a close there is a reminiscence of the canon material, now abbreviated, in the piano, while further development gradually leads to a quiet conclusion in B-flat major-minor.The premiere of the Bassoon Sonata was given by the duo who perform it here, at the aforementioned memorial concert in 2014.

Rosner composed his Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, “La Divina Commedia,” Op. 89, in 1990. (The Sonata No. 1 had been composed in 1968; Maxine Neuman was the cellist for both its premiere and its first recording.) The work did not originally have a subtitle. The reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy was added several years later. Rosner left no information explaining his subtitle, so the listener is free to imagine what the connection might be.The first movement, Adagio, is an isorhythmic motet. This is a musical form that flourished during the Medieval Period, and one that Rosner used in several of his works, most notably the second movement of his String Quartet No. 4. As applied by the composer, a musical phrase is presented by all the instruments involved, each instrument contributing its own part. The rhythm of this phrase is then repeated over and over by the instrumental unit, while the actual pitches differ with each repetition. Hence it is easy not to realize that one is hearing repetitions of a single composite rhythmic pattern. In the case of the movement at hand, the phrase consists of ten measures, and is repeated ten times. The overall character of the music is rather severe—extremely so for Rosner, and the basic phrase is quite complicated rhythmically, harmonically, contrapuntally, and dramatically. Although the movement maintains an overall tonality of C, the elaboration is freely chromatic.  The second movement, Moderato, con rubato, is also unusual: a modal incantation of vaguely Middle-Eastern character (melismatic melody in the cello accompanied by open fifths in the piano, with roles reversed in the first return, and combined in the final return), heard in alternation with brief quasi-Renaissance dance episodes. The movement maintains a tonality of D, with modulations to the keys of A and C-sharp.

The finale, Allegro, is exuberant in character, with a formal structure that suggests sonata allegro but with only one theme group. Opening vigorously in G, the movement promptly introduces two main motifs, which permeate the movement while spinning off several subordinate motifs. The first main motif leaps up a perfect fourth, then turns back to where it started. The second main motif is focused on a descending stepwise triplet that repeats insistently. Both these motifs, along with related subordinate motifs, are subjected to extensive development, as triplet rhythmic figures propel the movement forward. Finally there is a recapitulation of the opening statement followed by further development. A coda leads to a decisive final cadence in G.

The premiere of the Cello Sonata No. 2 was given in 1991in New York City. The cellist was Dorothy Lawson and the pianist was Elena Belli. Rosner felt that the finale  was appealing enough in its own right that he planned to orchestrate it as an autonomous piece. He found the opportunity when he was commissioned in 1999 to write a piece to celebrate the approaching Millennium. He entitled the result A Millennium Overture.   

Walter Simmons, musicologist and critic, has written extensively on American composers who maintained an allegiance to traditional music values. He is the editor of a series of books, “Twentieth-Century Traditionalists”, published by Rowman and Littlefield. He wrote the first two volumes himself (under the Scarecrow Press imprint): Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), which treated the lives and works of Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini, and Hanson, and Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin (2011). As a staunch advocate of the music of Arnold Rosner, he is deeply familiar with much of his output; he and Rosner were close associates for more than forty years.

Curtis Macomber is considered one of the most versatile violinists before the public today, equally at home in repertoire from Bach to Babbitt. His playing has been praised recently by the New York Times for its “thrilling virtuosity” and by Strad Magazine for its “panache”;  as a member of the New World String Quartet from 1982-93, he performed in virtually all the important concert series in the United States, as well as touring abroad. Mr. Macomber has for many years been recognized as a leading advocate of the music of our time. He has performed in hundreds of premieres, commissions, and first recordings of solo violin and chamber works by, among others, Carter, Davidovsky, Perle, Wuorinen, and Mackey. He is the violinist of Speculum Musicae and the Da Capo Chamber Players, and a founding member of the Apollo Trio.  His most recent recordings include: a solo recording (“Casting Ecstatic”), on CRI; the complete Grieg Sonatas on Arabesque; an all Steve Mackey record (“Interior Design”) on Bridge, and the complete Brahms Sonatas, also for Bridge.  Mr. Macomber is presently a member of the chamber music faculty of the Juilliard School, where he earned B.M., M.M., and D.M.A. degrees as a student of Joseph Fuchs. He is also on the violin faculties of the Manhattan and Mannes Schools of Music, and has taught at the Tanglewood, Taos and Yellow Barn Music Festivals.

Maxine Neuman is a cellist whose solo and chamber music career spans North and South America, Europe, and Asia. A grant recipient from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts and a shared Grammy Award winner, her biography appears in Who’s Who in the World. She’s a founding member of the Claremont Duo, Duo Cellissimo, the Crescent String Quartet, and the Belmont Trio, groups with which she has traveled and recorded extensively. She has appeared as soloist before a sold-out audience in New York’s Town Hall in the American premiere of Giovanni Battista Viotti’s only cello concerto, and for Austrophon, she recorded Schumann’s Cello Concerto in Count Esterhazy’s historic palace in Austria. She has also been heard in such diverse settings as the Montreux Jazz Festival, films of Jim Jarmusch, with Metallica and the Ron Carter Jazz Nonet. A longtime champion of contemporary music, she has commissioned and premiered works by many of today’s leading composers. Distinguished as a teacher as well as performer, Ms. Neuman has served as a juror for numerous international competitions, and she has taught at Bennington College, Williams College and C.W. Post University. She is on the faculty at New York’s School for Strings and Hoff-Barthelson Music School. Her cello is a J.B. Guadagnini, dating from 1772. A friend of Arnold Rosner for almost 50 years, she gave the first performance and made the first recording of his Cello Sonata No. 1, as well as this first recording of his Cello Sonata No. 2.

David Richmond is a bassoonist who has performed with orchestras, on chamber music programs, and in solo performances in North America, Europe, and Africa. A member of the Sarasota Opera Orchestra in Sarasota, Florida, he has also performed with orchestras throughout greater New England, including with A Far Cry, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Odyssey Opera, the Monadnock Music Festival, the Boston Pops, and the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. In addition to this recording, he may be heard on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2016 recording of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. In November 2016, Mr. Richmond was featured soloist with the Nairobi Orchestra in Kenya, and has spent increasing time in Nairobi, introducing young Kenyans to the bassoon and sharing his love of music with that city’s rapidly growing community of classical musicians. Mr. Richmond received his master’s degree in bassoon performance from the Rice University Shepherd School of Music, where he studied with Benjamin Kamins. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, he graduated from Harvard College with a degree in music, and also studied bassoon privately with George Sakakeeny on a Paine Fellowship from the Harvard music department. Mr. Richmond gave the first performance of Rosner’s Sonata for Bassoon and Piano.

Margaret Kampmeier enjoys a varied career as piano soloist, collaborative artist and educator. Equally fluent in classical and contemporary repertoire, she has concertized and recorded extensively. She has appeared with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic Ensembles, Kronos Quartet, Saratoga Chamber Players, Sherman Chamber Ensemble, Richardson Chamber Players, Mirror Visions Ensemble, Locrian Chamber Players and Peter Schickele. As orchestral keyboardist, she performs regularly with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and is a frequent guest of the New York Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As a recording artist, Ms. Kampmeier can be heard on the Albany, Centaur, CRI, Koch, Nonesuch, and Bridge labels. She teaches piano and chamber music at Princeton University and is Chair and Artistic Director of the Contemporary Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music. She has given lecture-recitals on a wide range of topics including, Preludes and Fugues through the Ages, Contemporary Keyboard Techniques, and Piano Music of Women Composers. She holds a doctorate from SUNY Stony Brook, where she studied with esteemed pianist Gilbert Kalish. She has both performed and recorded a great deal of music by Arnold Rosner, including serving as accompanist on a recording of his complete vocal music.

Carson Cooman is one of the most remarkable figures on the music scene today. He is active as a pianist as well as an organist, specializing in the performance of contemporary music. More than 150 new compositions by composers from all over the world have been written for him, and his organ performances can be heard on a number of CD recordings. He is also a composer whose catalog numbers more than a thousand works embracing a wide range of forms and styles—from solo instrumental pieces to operas, and from orchestral works to hymn tunes. His music has been performed on all six inhabited continents in venues that range from the stage of Carnegie Hall to the basket of a hot air balloon. His music appears on more than forty recordings, including more than twenty complete CDs on the Naxos, Albany, Artek, Gothic, Divine Art, Métier, Diversions, Convivium, Altarus, MSR Classics, Raven, and Zimbel labels. Cooman is also a writer on musical subjects, producing articles and reviews for a number of international publications. He serves as an active consultant on music business matters to composers and performing organizations, specializing particularly in the area of composer estates and archives. He is an avid admirer of the music of Arnold Rosner, with whom he developed a close relationship during the elder composer’s final years. Rosner chose him to be the curator of his musical archive.

“SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery Of Modern Music” By Robert R. Reilly

SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (Revised and Expanded Edition). By Robert R. Reilly, with Jens F. Laurson. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016. 510 pp. Softcover. $34.95

As noted in the accompanying interview, the original edition of Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty was published in 2002 by Morley Books. Its thesis was, essentially, that the dissolution of tonality in music that was promulgated around the turn of the 20th century, and the concomitant abandonment of traditional aesthetic values, corresponded to a breakdown of the centrality of spiritual order as understood and shared by most of Western civilization, and that this correspondence was no accident. The book consisted of a couple of essays that developed this idea, while affirming a belief in the sacred properties shared by the finest examples of serious art music, along with some 35 short essays on individual or related groups of composers who resisted this abandonment of traditional values despite facing derision and neglect as a result. Six interviews with significant composers and musicians followed.

This newly revised edition is nearly twice the length of the original. Its structure is essentially the same as the first edition, but with much new and updated material. It begins with a Foreword by critic Ted Libbey, taken from the first edition. This is followed by Reilly’s own Preface to the Second Edition: While re-emphasizing the neglect faced by those composers who remained loyal to traditional musical values, he points out how much the times have changed since the earlier edition. Those traditional values are no longer subject to such widespread scorn, and many younger composers have achieved success while embracing them. There are now 64 short essays on composers who illustrate Reilly’s thesis. (Many of the new entries are contributed by Jens Laurson.) These chapters range from the unfamiliar (Walter Braunfels, Günter Raphael, Geirr Tveitt) to the very familiar (Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius), and include figures who have entered the scene as recently as Kenneth Fuchs, Jennifer Higdon, and Jonathan Leshnoff. Reilly even includes a remarkably even-handed and fair-minded chapter on John Cage. Each of these short essays concludes with several recommended recordings. The chapters on composers are sandwiched between two abstract essays: One is called “Is Music Sacred?” and the other, “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In these Reilly takes the opportunity to develop and buttress the essential framework of his thesis, which I will discuss shortly. The six interviews from the first edition follow: the subjects are Robert Craft, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti. There is no index, the absence of which is a notable deficiency in a book of this kind.

The book (aside from the missing index) is quite “user-friendly.” Its tone is casual and informal (plenty of comments in the first-person-singular), making it pleasantly engaging, despite what some might find the severe absolutism of its fundamental message. There is no musical notation, no esoteric technicalities or expectations of advanced erudition. The book conveys the sense of one enthusiast who has made a number of exciting musical discoveries sharing that excitement with readers who may have been searching for just the sort of thing that Reilly has found. And at this he is excellent. His commentaries on Elgar, Finzi, Roussel, Shostakovich, Robert Simpson, Edmund Rubbra, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Bernard Herrmann, and Vagn Holmboe are just a few that display a vivid eloquence and penetrating insight that are truly enviable. He is able to capture their very essences in surprisingly few words.

In his essay, “Is Music Sacred?” Reilly presents and develops the essential foundation of his argument, which I will do my best to capture: Not surprisingly, he starts with the Greeks, discussing Pythagoras’s derivation of musical intervals and his belief that music was the organizing principle of the universe—the “music of the spheres”—already positing the notion that a stable cosmos was connected to a sense of musical stability and harmony. With the advent of Christianity, this notion of cosmic harmony was applied to morality and ethics: The harmony that governed the universe also governed both human life and music, and embracing this harmony elevated the human spirit. Since this eternal harmony preceded the arrival of human life, it could be seen as a first cause, a universal “purpose.” As such this harmony became linked to the belief in a single unifying figure, God, who governed through Christ. As music theory developed, the force that governed the harmonious property of music was codified into the principle of tonality—a dynamic force that provided the energy for musical expression while also permitting a central, unifying stability. Music thus became the pathway for experiencing the transcendent. Hence when doubt began to weaken religious faith in the late 19th century, culminating in Nietzsche’s notorious proclamation that “God is dead,” this also spelled the death of morality, the end of a governing order both to the universe and to the notion of a music of the spheres, and a concomitant weakening of the conviction that musical coherence requires a tonal center. Without such a fundamental spiritual core, music became mere technique, leading ultimately to serialism—a triumph of technique over content. Tonality was then viewed as merely one way of organizing music; other ways were possible and equally valid. Not surprisingly, the chief villain in all this was Arnold Schoenberg, although—to his credit—Reilly acknowledges that composer’s immense talent, as demonstrated in such works as Pelleas und Melisande and Gurrelieder. Other composers (e.g. Varèse) questioned the need for any sort of organizing principle at all; why not simply follow one’s impulses? John Cage’s idea of composing music by throwing dice was the logical next step, eliminating even the composer’s impulses. This sterile state of affairs was supported by a belief that the “exhaustion” of tonality was a historical inevitability. To resist this development was to deny the inevitable, and those who did so were backward, virtually by definition. This view persisted throughout much of the 20th century, until the late 1960s and early 70s, when composers like George Rochberg and others who had been taught that serialism was the only legitimate path had the courage to challenge this dogma, protesting that what they had been taught produced results that were devoid of the values that drew them to music in the first place.

Let me say at this point that I am in essential agreement with most aspects of Reilly’s thesis. The chief element that I question—which I mention because I suspect that many of today’s music lovers may have a similar reservation—is whether it is necessary to embrace a teleological theological foundation in order to share Reilly’s musical views. For example, not only do I agree that the dynamics of tonality are indispensable in creating music that has expressive meaning to listeners, but I greatly appreciate and enjoy music that strives to convey an emotional experience that might be termed “spiritual” or “transcendent”—because it aims to evoke an awareness of forces that reach beyond the experience of the mundane material world—without my necessarily adhering to any particular religious belief system. In short, can’t one experience that sense of transcendence without embracing a theology that “explains” it? Reilly himself seems to acknowledge this point when he writes, “… though not himself a believer, Vaughan Williams nevertheless imbued his works with a deep spirituality.” Another question—perhaps less fundamental—is whether a “loss of faith” is the best or only explanation for the breakdown of tonality; another explanation is that the group—originally, relatively small—who believed that tonality had run its course was motivated by a misguided sense of historical inevitability that supported a notion of “progress” (a notion largely alien to the arts). Then later came the view that music “should reflect its times.” But much is happening in the world at any one time; who’s to say which aspect of “its times” music should be reflecting?

In keeping with my cavil that one need not embrace every element of Reilly’s thesis in order to share his musical views, one also need not agree with every point he makes to appreciate his commentaries on specific composers. He does not “beat one over the head” with theology in each of these chapters. In fact, in some there is no reference to such matters at all. And in others, his introduction of a religious perspective raises some interesting points that are rarely encountered in discussions of these composers. But when—as in the chapters on Elgar, Franz Schmidt, Frank Martin, and others—the music is explicitly religious, Reilly certainly embraces that aspect head-on.

The later essay, “Recovering the Sacred in Music,” deals largely with Gorecki, Pärt, and Tavener, who found a way back in to both tonality and spirituality, while refuting Schoenberg’s claim that there was nothing “natural” about tonality. And I found the six interviews that follow especially interesting insofar as Reilly manages to elicit some meaningful commentary on the importance of religion from people like Craft, Diamond, and Rochberg—figures who were not often questioned about such matters, I suspect.

Surprised by Beauty—in this new edition—is a thought-provoking volume that offers an unusual perspective on the music of the past hundred years, exploring its underlying aesthetic and spiritual principles, while drawing attention to some truly great composers, most of whom remain largely unknown to most serious listeners, not to mention musicians, radio programmers, and concert promoters.

Interview with Robert. R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly has pursued a most unusual career. He was the music critic for Crisis magazine for 16 years, and continues to review concerts and operas for Ionarts, an arts blog that covers the Washington DC area and elsewhere. He has also written for such publications as High FidelityMusical America, and the American Record Guide. But, like most of us who write about classical music and are not on university faculties, he has earned his living in other fields. Reilly’s “day jobs” have included 25 years in American government. He served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, as well as in the U.S. Information Agency. He was the director of Voice of America, and has published widely on foreign policy and “war of ideas” issues. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind and other books.

As a critic Reilly’s chief interest is the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that is the subject of his 2002 book Surprised by Beauty. Readers may not associate the word “beauty” with 20th- and 21st-century music, and that offers a clue to the unusual perspective presented in this book. Now Ignatius Press has just issued a much-expanded and updated edition of Surprised by Beauty, with additional material provided by Jens Laurson, a close associate of Reilly’s and a former contributor to Fanfare. Having been acquainted with Reilly’s thoughtful and perceptive writing for a number of years, I am pleased to have the opportunity to interview him. (In the interest of “full disclosure,” I should add that he has commented favorably in print on my work, although we have never met.)

I guess that my first question stems from my curiosity about your dual careers. I would think that working in government doesn’t put one in contact with many people who are as focused on the arts—and on classical music in particular—as you are. Are the people with whom you have worked aware of the musical side of your life? Have you found others who share your passion? (I once ran into Newt Gingrich in the men’s room during the intermission of a Washington production of Barber’s Vanessa, so I guess you’re not totally isolated.)

(That’s very amusing, as I recently ran into Newt Gingrich and his wife at the Washington National Opera production of Götterdämmerung.)

Government and classical music are, as you indicate, often unrelated, if not antithetical to each other. I remember that, at Fort Lewis, it created some puzzlement in my armored cavalry unit when I went to hear Joan Sutherland sing Turandot at the Seattle Opera. Eyebrows were raised. However, sometimes music and government can be good partners. Early in the Reagan administration, from my US Information Agency office, concert pianist John Robilette began the Artistic Ambassadors Program. The program was John’s inspiration, and he conducted it brilliantly for seven years. My principal contribution was to urge that a new piece of American music be composed for each artistic ambassador who went on tour for USIA. John and I spent hours in my home listening to records of American composers to select the commissions. The government wasn’t used to doing this kind of thing, or at least hadn’t been doing it for some years. So it was with some amusement that we sent composers like George Rochberg, Morton Gould or Lee Hoiby government purchase orders for “1 each, piano music, 10 minutes” or for other kinds of compositions. In any case, the program was very successful overseas and represented our country very well as one with a vibrant musical culture. There is now a significant collection of the manuscripts of all the works commissioned for this program at the Library of Congress. The program died along with the heedless destruction of USIA in 1999.

When I was the VOA director, I had the privilege of working with Robilette again. (By the way, Fanfareinterviewed him around this time in its September/October 2001 issue.) I asked John to arrange a series of live recitals at the Voice of America’s beautiful auditorium in honor of the VOA 60th anniversary. These we recorded and broadcast all over the world. John attracted such notable artists as Byron Janis, the Jacques Thibaud String Trio, and tenor Robert White. They were given only token honoraria, as we had no real funding to do this. I should also mention that composer Steve Gerber, who became a dear personal friend, wrote the Fanfare for Voice of America that was premiered in the same auditorium. He later incorporated it into his Second Symphony. Steve was very excited that there was to be a separate chapter on his music in this edition of Surprised by Beauty. I was very grieved that he was taken by a virulent form of cancer last year and did not live to see it in print.

In any case, if the government has a functioning brain, it should harness classical music to help represent this country at its very best. Unfortunately, it has suffered from a bipartisan lobotomy. As I began my short tenure as VOA director, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which exercises executive power over VOA, decided to eliminate our Arabic service, which was aimed at adults, and substitute for it a new all–pop youth music station with J Lo, Eminem and Britney Spears. That was a very interesting thing to do in the middle of a war. And what a way to help win the war against the terrorists! Just keep those Arabs dancing. The condescension implicit in this approach was felt in the Middle East, as I know from my personal experiences there. Also, I might add, as I departed VOA for the Defense Department, the Board eliminated the concert series I had begun with Robilette, canceling the scheduled appearance of the Tokyo String Quartet. In another mindless act, though one taken earlier and not directly by the Board, Rich Kleinfeldt’s excellent classical music program on VOA was eliminated. (It is lucky for us in the Washington DC area that Rich continues to broadcast at WETA-FM classical station.)

One other anecdote – this one in a more lighthearted vein: I was meeting with conductor José Serebrier and his wife Carole as they were having lunch with the lady who was, at that time, the manager of the Washington National Opera. When she learned that I was at the Defense Department, she said that she knew Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was an opera aficionado, and asked exactly what I did at DOD. I answered, “I am his musical advisor.” I didn’t even personally know Rumsfeld, but at least it got a good laugh.

I know that one question that often arises in the minds of classical music aficionados with regard to critics with dual careers is: Does this person have any formal training in music? Care to comment?

Outside of some piano lessons in grade school and some choir boy singing, I have not had formal training. My graduate studies were in political philosophy. Like George Bernard Shaw (with whom I would not compare myself in any other way), I have largely learned on the job, with the help of musician and composer friends, as well as a great deal of personal study. I hasten to add that that study went on for 15 years before I began to write about music. (I should add that I have been an avid Fanfarereader since vol. 1, no. 2.) I have been driven to put into words what I love or admire in what I hear . French poet René Char wrote that the “grace of the stars resides in
their compelling us to speak.” This music compelled me to speak. I want to understand it and for others to listen and love it, as well. That’s how I see myself, as a music missionary, more than as a critic.

As you know from having read the book, there is not a lot of technical language in it. Most of it should be accessible to the educated layman. In my many conversations with composers over the years, by the way, I found that they seldom speak in technical language. If anything, they are more likely to use metaphysical or philosophical language to get at what they are trying to express. The way they compose really is directed by their conceptions of reality. You can clearly see this in the composer interviews in the last part of the book.

Anyway, I don’t write for experts because I’m not one. I’m simply a lover who is trying to sing in words what really can only be sung in music. You yourself know how difficult this is, as you have done it so well in your books and reviews.

Thanks very much. Can you describe for us just how you became so interested in classical music—and of the past hundred years, in particular?

I think I was about 19 years old when, quite by accident, I heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. I was seized by it. It changed my life. Sibelius famously said, “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” That is what I heard. It lifted me so far outside of myself, I was never the same afterward. I had not known human beings were capable of such things. Classical music immediately became my avocation. I bought a portable record player and would make friends sit down and listen to Sibelius. Had I only heard the Fifth Symphony earlier in my life, music would’ve become my vocation in some form. In any case, that started my rampage through the world of classical music.

Mozart was really my window onto every form of classical music. I hadn’t initially been attracted by opera until I listened to Mozart’s operas. (One of the thrills of my life was playing
Pasha Selim in a Metropolitan Opera Studio production of The Abduction from the
Seraglio.) The same is true of chamber music. I then began to listen to music of every genre and period. I found myself eventually gravitating to late 18th/early 19th century music, and to 20th century music.

I was fascinated by 20th-century music not only because I found much of it immediately attractive, but also because it underwent such profound transformations and, in fact, at least partially, a derailment. Why would someone want their music to sound like a catastrophe in a boiler factory? I wanted to understand what was behind these transformations. I also wanted to know how some composers held up under the pressures of the avant-garde to continue their vocation of beauty. As you know, there were many of them – far too many to include in my book. I avidly followed what composers said about their music, read their books, and then sought some of them out to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing. Some composers contacted me after reading my reviews. It enriched my life incomparably that some of them became my friends.

Your book presents a rather unusual point of view, hinted at in your title, and it is one that I share to a large extent. I think that we both agree that music of the past hundred years is not uniformly ugly, atonal, or anti-musical; that there have been many composers who have pursued the traditional musical values of emotional and spiritual expression, seek to communicate those values to listeners, and have done so by drawing upon the formal processes that have served as the foundation of Western classical music for some 500 years.  But the additional notion that you add, quite explicitly, is that the dissolution of tonality proclaimed by some composers coincided chronologically with the breakdown of religious faith, and that that correspondence is no accident. Would you agree with that summary of your central thesis?

Yes, I would generally agree with that, except it is not simply my thesis but what many composers have told me, including those who do not consider themselves particularly religious. And I wouldn’t necessarily tie it to loss of a specific religious faith as I would to a loss of the transcendent, coupled with a metaphysical breakdown of the teleological order in nature. John Adams sensed this when he related that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”

Here is another way to put it. If there is a natural order to creation, you will be impelled to write a kind of music that reflects it. You will search for the “harmony of the spheres.” If there is no such order, there will be a different kind of music, if one can call it music at all when it reaches a certain point of disintegration. If there is no “harmony of the spheres” to approximate, you will most likely end up with some kind of organized or unorganized noise – in either case it will be arbitrary. I am alluding here, of course, to the centrifugal forces unleashed by Arnold Schoenberg, who held that tonality does not exist in nature and, therefore, we can be habituated to hear dissonance as consonance. However, as Aristotle observed, no matter how many times you throw a stone in the air, you cannot habituate it to fly upwards. It will always drop down. Likewise, Schoenberg’s system neither achieved the supremacy of German music for another century, as he claimed it would, nor succeeded in habituating us to dissonance. The reason is because there actually is a natural order to things, and tonality exists as a kind of natural law in the world of sound.

Some music critics have gotten quite upset because of what I have said about Schoenberg’s serial system. They insist that it’s just another technique, like any other technique. That’s certainly not how Schoenberg thought of it. My criticism of Schoenberg is more against his faulty metaphysics than it is of his music. Of course, the one reflects the other – that is my point.

Throughout the 20th century and today, there has been and is a broad range of composers attesting to the connection between the spiritual and the musical. Sibelius – not what you would call a traditional believer – said that, “The essence of man’s being is his striving after God.” Therefore, composition, according to him, “is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance.”

I know some composers who have left the faith to which they once belonged or even to which they at one time converted, but who nonetheless retain a very deep sense of the spiritual and the transcendent. Scottish composer James MacMillan recently said, “in spite of the retreat of faith in Western society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred.” So my thesis is not sectarian in a religious sense, though as a Catholic I am very much aware of the musical treasures that Christianity has inspired, including, say, McMillan’s Seven Last Words.

Now let’s talk for a moment about the word “beauty,” because of its importance in your title, and because it can mean different things to different people. For example, I think that for many people “beauty” is used to describe the sort of warm, slightly poignant serenity exemplified by, say, the second movement of Barber’s Violin Concerto. Others think in terms of Keats’s line, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth,” which opens the word to a wider interpretation. I’m inclined to reserve the word for the Barber sort of expression, but I consider other qualities in music equally valid, in the Keats sense; I just don’t use the word “beauty” for them. I think of the highest musical values as authenticity and depth of emotional and often spiritual expression, as articulated through meticulous craftsmanship. I think of this as a broader concept than “beauty,” which may, of course, be one manifestation of such expression. Can you speak more about what the term “beauty” means to you?

I understand the distinction you’re making, but I would take the word beauty farther in the Keats sense. I’ve always liked Dostoyevsky’s statement that “beauty will save the world.” In other words, beauty is in some way salvific. In this sense, beauty means more than the second movement of the Barber Concerto. Beauty can pierce; it can slay; it can upset the soul and engender wild longings. It provokes wonder. It can also, in a way, redeem. The great German theologian Josef Pieper spoke of the “recollecting power of the fine arts, for the emotional shock brought about by eros and caritas – in short, through the attitude rooted in the mysterious experience that Plato called theia mania.” Plato knew that all beauty is reflected beauty and that beauty is a sign of, and a path to, ultimate goodness.

I think that’s what George Rochberg was after when he told me “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness.” He said, “but what do I mean by what is beautiful? I mean that which is genuinely expressive, even if it hurts… I know that what is really beautiful hurts.” Then he exclaimed, “Music remains what it has always been: a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence.”

I think music was derailed in the 20th century when it lost this sense of beauty as its mission. The loss of vocation is powerfully reflected in Schoenberg’s statement that he was “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” One can imagine how Dostoyevsky or Plato would’ve reacted to that remark.

It’s clear that a religious or spiritual core is very important in your understanding of a composer’s work, and when it’s relevant in the case of a particular composer it becomes your central focus. Yet there are some composers whom you have highlighted whose music—from my standpoint—has no particular connection to spiritual concerns at all. The most striking example to me–without making a qualitative judgment of my own—is Morton Gould. Can you comment on that?   

The highest vocation of any art is to make the transcendent perceptible, and I think music is uniquely suited to this hieratic goal. As the great Swiss mystic Max Picard said, “In sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit, and this is seen at its most sublime in music.”

But not all music has to be sublime. Not everyone has to be at the top of Mount Parnassus – there are ascending slopes or steps. Mozart reached the heights, but he also wrote wonderful divertimenti for entertainment on social occasions. Dvorak composed most of his music in the kitchen, and its great warmth and domesticity reflect this. In music, the good is not the enemy of the great. If all we listened to was Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Second and Nielsen’s Fourth, etc., we would probably suffer from acute altitude sickness.

Morton Gould was certainly a very good composer who mastered a number of colloquial musical styles. He had great fun with them, which is why it is such fun to listen to him. In terms of my general theme, I think Gould clearly demonstrated that tonality was not exhausted. He worked within the traditional tonal frames of reference, and produced works that still sound fresh. In some of his compositions, I think he also caught that sense of yearning in the American soul. He clearly had an appetite for beauty. I think it’s a big mistake to condescend to composers writing his kind of music. That’s why he and others of his ilk are in the book.

I suppose it is inevitable that I would find some of the composers you highlight less worthy of attention than others who would seem to illustrate your thesis through music of the highest caliber, yet are not included by you. I am thinking, for example, of Daniel Catan, Joly Braga Santos, Nicolas Flagello, Andrzej Panufnik, Arnold Rosner, Lee Hoiby, Samuel Jones, and Alan Hovhaness, who seem conspicuous by their absence. I’m especially surprised by the omission of Peter Mennin, as his approach to musical composition shared so much in common with that of Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe, both of whom you treat with great respect and understanding.

You have touched a sore spot. My publisher was panicking at the size of the book, which is slightly more than 500 pages as it is, and unfortunately I had to cut 28 composers out of it, including a number of those you mention. Taking them out was heartbreaking. If all the Fanfare subscribers will buy the book, perhaps then I can persuade the publisher to bring out a new edition that would include everyone you mention, plus the others who ended up on the cutting room floor – like Havergal Brian, William Alwyn, Boris Tchaikovsky, Paul Juon, Harold Shapero, Joseph Jongen, etc. As for Mennin, I am not sure I would have the nerve to write anything after the brilliant job you did concerning his music in your book, Voices of Stone and Steel.

Thank you for such kind words. I hope to be worthy of them.

Walter Simmons 
© Fanfare 2017