KABELAC: Symphonies Nos. 1-8

KABELÁČ  Symphonies Nos. 1-8 —  Marko Ivanović, cond; Prague RSO  —  SUPRAPHON SU 4202-2 (4 CDs: 3:58:23)

Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-1979) is generally recognized within the Czech Republic as their most important composer from the generation following Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). However, his reputation seems barely to have extended beyond his homeland. There are a number of reasons for this, rooted in the political shifts that occurred during the years of his maturity. Kabeláč’s main composition teacher was Karel Boleslav Jirák, with whom he studied at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1931. In addition to composing, Kabeláč served as music director of the Prague Radio, and as the chief conductor of their orchestra. His mature compositions began to appear during the late 1930s, shortly before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. The following year they had established control of the country, and instituted their anti-Semitic policies. Kabeláč had married a Jewish woman, whom the Nazis demanded that he divorce. He refused, whereupon he was relieved of his position with the Prague Radio, while facing a complete boycott of performances of his music. Upon the War’s end in 1945 Kabeláč enjoyed a brief period of freedom, but in 1948 Czechoslovakia was seized again, this time by the Soviet Union, which attempted to impose its own notions of artistic expression. Kabeláč was not about to accept the imposition of ideologically derived aesthetic principles, but he managed to continue composing as he wished, though his works did not win the favor of the prevailing government, which regarded him with suspicion. But his music did attract the attention of the Czech musical community—especially the portion that was concerned with new music. During the period from the late 1950s until 1968 there was some relaxation of Soviet artistic dogmas; Kabeláč enjoyed a modicum of freedom, teaching at the Prague Conservatory, while continuing to compose. It was during this time that his music won a wider degree of recognition, with more frequent performances and recordings of some of his major works by such eminent figures as the conductor Karel Ančerl, who became a vigorous champion. But in 1968 the Soviets invaded Prague and replaced the relatively liberal policies of Alexander Dubček with a more repressive regime. From this time until his death in 1979, Kabeláč once again faced the complete suppression of his identity as a composer. His recordings were taken out of circulation, as were the scores to his works, and performances disappeared almost completely. Perhaps the highpoint of his international career occurred in 1971: Two French musicians—conductor Pierre Stoll and musicologist Paul Nardin—had become extremely interested in the music of Kabeláč; they arranged for a concert in Strasbourg that would be devoted entirely to his works, of which the centerpiece would be the premiere of the newly-commissioned Symphony No. 8, “Antiphons.” The concert took place on June 15, 1971, but the Czech government refused to grant Kabeláč permission to attend.

In view of the foregoing, this new release, featuring recordings of all eight Kabeláč symphonies, in brilliant, sensitive performances by the Prague Radio Orchestra under the direction of Marko Ivanović, is most welcome. For most listeners it will be an initial exposure to a representative sample of the works of one of 20th-century Europe’s most significant composers.

Kabeláč’s music is no walk in the park. It is all serious stuff—grim, bleak, and brooding, often breaking out into a relentless physical brutality. There is no levity. While listening to this music, it is hard not to be constantly reminded of the overwhelming adversities, both personal and political, that he endured throughout his career, although regarding his work as nothing but a statement of political resistance or protest is simplistic, to say the least. His eight symphonies (1941-1970) serve as a representative longitudinal survey of his work, illustrating the considerable evolution of his compositional voice over the course of that period, as well as the expressive elements that remained consistent throughout his career. One remarkable feature of his symphonic canon is the fact that each work is scored for a different array of performing forces. Perhaps the most prominent and consistent musical elements of his style are his frequent use of small melodic intervals, and emphatic, unwavering rhythmic patterns that evoke a sense of militant determination. There is also a constant emphasis on tonic minor triads or chords built upon minor triads (this became less obvious in the later works). At times this emphasis on the tonic is hammered to the point of an almost masochistic numbness. Initially, these minor triads appeared in a clearly tonal context, although as he matured they were treated with greater chromatic freedom. Unrelated minor triads often pivot via common tones. Much of the music is slow in tempo, although contrasting fast movements typically utilize triplet subdivisions.

A good deal of grim orchestral music emanated from Eastern Europe during the middle years of the 20th century. Much of it is gray and faceless. In contrast, Kabeláč had something very strong and powerful to say; his works are statements of great metaphysical and existential import. I believe that he stands among the greatest composers of his time and place.

Kabeláč’s Symphony No. 1 was composed during World War II, in 1941. In one sense it is a work very much of its time. It is scored for an orchestra of only strings and percussion—a scoring that calls to mind the Double Concerto (1938) for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani of Bohuslav Martinů. But more than this work, the symphony resembles other, roughly contemporaneous music by composers like Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger—a sort of freely chromatic neo-classicism to which many European composers of the time were drawn, with a more complex and dissonant harmonic language than is found in many of Kabeláč’s later works. Yet despite its affinity with general musical currents of the time, many of the elements noted above as consistent stylistic features of the composer can be found in embryonic form in this work. It is a large, serious statement—stern yet consistently compelling, with an unremitting sense of suppressed intensity that builds to tremendous epiphanies of anguish, although it finally achieves an affirmative conclusion. The work must be regarded among the great European symphonies of the World War II period.

The Symphony No. 2 was also begun during the War, but it was largely completed after the War’s end, in 1946. This is probably the symphony of Kabeláč that is most accessible to a general audience—a long (nearly 40-minute) post-romantic statement not likely to alienate anyone comfortable with, say, Shostakovich’s contemporaneous Eighth Symphony. In fact, if there is one composer who might be cited as a somewhat kindred figure, it is probably Shostakovich, though the latter was far more prolific and broader in his range of expression, while Kabeláč’s music is more concentrated in form and structure. (Kabeláč—like the American Peter Mennin—was one of those composers whose entire output is dedicated to a particular expressive attitude that remains constant throughout, although their means of articulating that attitude may have evolved significantly.) Actual audible similarities to the music of Shostakovich are few, but it is in this work that they are likely to be noticed. Yet despite such moments, those listeners who have gained some familiarity with the music of Kabeláč will find his characteristic features far more salient than occasional reminiscences of others.

Like much of Kabeláč’s music, the work begins with a bold assertion of force that rarely subsides. The second movement features the alto saxophone in a prominent role, suggesting the voice of vulnerable humanity attempting to be heard amid the clamor of a ruthlessly inhumane machine. The third movement is perhaps the most impressive of all—utterly uncompromising in its expressive intensity. No. 2 is a work of overwhelming power, and again warrants recognition among the most extraordinarily eloquent symphonic statements to emerge from Europe during the 1940s.

I have often observed that many—perhaps most—composers have a “sweet spot”—a period when their musical language has achieved its greatest clarity, and when they produced their most representative and fully realized compositions. For Kabeláč this period was the 1950s, when he produced most of his greatest works, one after another. One of these is a symphonic passacaglia with the intriguing title, The Mystery of Time. Possibly because of its title, possibly because of its striking musical quality, this has become the composer’s most celebrated work, although there has not been a recording since Ančerl’s monaural account from around 1960. (More about this later.)

The Symphony No. 3 dates from this period, occupying Kabeláč from 1948 until 1957. The symphony is scored for brass, organ, and timpani, and represents a stark distillation of Kabeláč’s compositional style. During this time most of the musical elements and devices that linked him with contemporaneous compositional currents have been shed, leaving only the most idiosyncratic elements of his creative personality. This work, shorter in duration than its two predecessors despite comprising four movements instead of their respective three, is largely funereal in tone, from its intensely ominous opening until a stark, concluding brass chorale that suggests a sense of unyielding oppression. The language is quite a bit simpler than that found in the two earlier symphonies: There is relatively little harmonic dissonance and less textural complexity, while the obsessive focus on the tonic comes to the fore. During the period when Kabeláč was composing this symphony he also wrote two Fantasias for organ—among his finest works—and some of their material found its way into this symphony. It is one of his most characteristic works; while some listeners may find its militant obstinacy unyielding, relentless, and somewhat crude, others will be impressed by its indomitable power and sense of violent rage, suppressed under great duress. During the late 1980s Supraphon released a recording of this work (SU 0035-2 031), featuring members of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Libor Pešek. That was a superb recorded performance that is no less stunning than the one heard here.

The Symphony No. 4 is subtitled, “Camerata,” and is scored for chamber orchestra. It is apparently the composer’s most frequently performed symphony, most likely because of the smaller forces required. Completed in 1958, it is lighter in texture and spirit than any of the preceding symphonies, and follows the format of a sonata da chiesa. Still tenaciously tonal, it serves as the “neo-classical” entry in Kabeláč’s symphonic canon, with even some hints of Martinů-like exuberance. But these words are all relative, as is immediately apparent from the funereal opening movement. The second movement, however, is possibly one of the composer’s most cheerful creations, although the martial spirit never disappears completely. It is one of Kabeláč’s fast movements with triplet subdivisions. The slow movement is eerie and ominous, while the finale resembles the second movement somewhat, maintaining a more “objective” tone than the composer’s norm. In 1960 Supraphon released a recording (SU 3020-2 911) that featured the conductorless Prague Chamber Orchestra. That performance served its purpose, although it is far outclassed by this new recording from the perspectives of both playing and recording quality.

In 1960 appeared the Symphony No. 5, “Drammatica,” a 40-minute work that features a soprano vocalise with full symphony orchestra. Evidently this was Kabeláč’s own favorite among his symphonies, elaborating the notion of the human being crying out in defiance of oppression by an inhuman force. (This is similar to the use of the saxophone in the second movement of the Second Symphony.) The piece begs comparison with the popular Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki. My own preference is for the Kabeláč, as a more deeply penetrating work, but others may feel differently. One might say that Górecki sheds tears, while Kabeláč grits his teeth. In this work the musical language has become harsher and more dissonant, although the strongly tonal emphasis continues to prevail, despite more frequent modulations. Comprising four movements, the work opens with the composer’s characteristically intense seriousness. The second movement is like a scherzo, displaying Kabeláč’s propensity for rapid triplet subdivisions. The third movement displays a somber, melancholy beauty, while the finale reflects the suppressed rage that the composer evoked so effectively. Although there are long stretches when the vocalise is silent, there is a varied range of expression in the writing for soprano, without any sort of coloratura that might draw attention to the singer as a virtuoso, though her role is certainly difficult enough. Much of the credit for this belongs to the soprano herself, Pavla Vykopalová, who is able to call upon a subtle range of emotion and tone color. This will be especially notable to those who have heard the recording of the premiere, which took place in April, 1961, featuring soprano Libuše Domanínská—highly regarded in her time—with the Czech Philharmonic under the direction of Karel Ančerl. On this recording, released in 1993 on Praga PR 255 000, the soprano reveals a much less versatile instrument, which becomes strident at times, to a point approaching unlistenability. This new recording makes a much more convincing case for the work.

The Symphony No. 6, “Concertante,” followed in 1962. This work is scored for clarinet solo and orchestra, including two pianos. What is most remarkable is how the essential metaphysical content of Kabeláč’s music remains consistent and immediately recognizable, despite the considerably increased complexity of his treatment of harmony, texture, and tonality, not to mention the largely obliterated metrical pulse. One interesting feature is the use of a pre-recorded tape of sustained minor-seconds played by a muted string ensemble, which runs throughout the entire second movement. This device seems to underline the minor-second as a primary thematic element of the work. At times the symphony suggests a clarinet concerto, but there are long passages during which the instrument is silent. The solo instrument’s contribution is often melismatic, utilizing exotic modal scales, which were a longstanding source of fascination for the composer. But, as with the soprano in the preceding symphony, the instrument’s role always elaborates the essential expressive content, rather than drawing attention to the player’s virtuosity. On the whole, the work is relatively light in texture, without the heavy-handed bludgeoning that some might find hard to take in others of the composer’s works. There is also less driving forward motion; the second movement is especially static in effect.

It is especially difficult to write about the Symphony No. 7, as it centers around spoken passages, which are not even included in the accompanying program notes in Czech, not to mention in English translation. However the notes indicate that the text is drawn from the Gospel according to John and the Book of Revelation. According to program notes to a recent performance, written by Klára Mühlová and Vladimir Maňas, the text “does not feature a single verb, remaining a stream of bare meanings. The composer emphasizes the symbolic nature of words, leaving the making of connections between the propositions to the combining of music with words, and the explanation to the listener.” The work falls into three sections, entitled: 1) Eternity; 2) Humanity; 3) Eternity. In this work Kabeláč’s language has become totally dissonant and largely atonal. There is little sense of metrical pulse, and much cluster harmony, yet there is still a strong tonal sense. But most important, even without a printed text, the music conveys a sense of intense emotionality. The work was commissioned for the 1968 Prague Spring Festival, where it received its premiere. Kabeláč said, “The Seventh Symphony is my musical and philosophical credo.”

Kabeláč’s final symphony, subtitled “Antiphons” was commissioned as the centerpiece of the 1971 Strasbourg concert devoted entirely to his music. He scored the work for soprano solo, double mixed chorus, organ, and percussion ensemble, and selected the venue for the concert—St. Paul’s cathedral—specifically for the antiphonal effects that this Gothic cathedral made possible. As Kabeláč subsequently wrote to Karel Ančerl, “The symphony was written for a church, not perhaps as sacred music, but for its spatial possibilities …” By now Kabeláč’s language had become largely atonal and extremely dissonant, with some use of indeterminacy. But the emotional impact of the work follows so closely along the lines that his previous works had been pursuing that it is not hard to understand its expressive intentions.

The work is based on a famous episode from the Book of Daniel (Chapter V, verses 24-28). A message appears on the wall of Belshazzar’s Palace: mene tekel ufarsin. This is said to mean, roughly, “your days are numbered, you have been judged and found wanting, and your kingdom will be taken away.” These ominous words are counterbalanced in the text by three more uplifting words: amen,hosanna, and alleluia; all are repeated obsessively for their phonemic, as well as symbolic, value. As Pierre-E. Barbier and Paul Nardin wrote: “The last word sung, shouted, alleluia, is seen by some as an invocation to the Lord, a redeeming supplication, a heroic conquest of joy. Others, referring to the biographical particulars of the composer’s life, see the ultimate and long tenuto of the soprano as a final leap to avoid the void, hell … oblivion.” What occurred to me immediately was that this final statement in praise of God might have been, in 1971, Kabeláč’s ultimate act of defiance against the political regime.

The Symphony No. 8 falls into nine sections: five main sections, each separated by an organ interlude. The soprano soloist—Lucie Silkenová on this recording, who does an extraordinary job with a terribly taxing role—is required to sing absolute pitches, while the chorus sings relative pitches as well as microtonal passages. Percussion is used very actively, while the organ’s role is totally dissonant and atonal, yet conveys strongly emotional messages. Following an arch-form design, the fifth section is the climax of the symphony, and reaches a point, led by the solo soprano, verging on total hysteria. Essentially, the work is a stark drama of musical gestures, abandoning any semblance of classical moderation of any kind. It is the kind of piece—like many of those by Allan Pettersson, for example—that may be totally sincere, effective, and convincing in depicting an emotional attitude or state of mind, yet it may not find its way through one’s audio system very often.

In 1993 Praga Productions released a CD comprising the entire 1971 Strasbourg concert (PR 255 004—reviewed in 17:3). In addition to the symphony, included are two riveting Fantasias for organ, four Preludes for organ, and Eight Inventions for percussion. While the premiere performance of the symphony cannot compete with the refinement of this new performance or with its sonic impact, the earlier CD (very hard to locate now) documents an event of great significance to those for whom this composer holds appeal.

This new Supraphon release is an imperative acquisition for all those interested in European symphonic music of the twentieth century. The performances are all splendid, as is the sound quality. But I do have a few quibbles: One is that as delighted as I am to have this comprehensive release of Kabeláč’s symphonies, I fear that the prospect of a four-CD set is likely to overwhelm the non-Czech music lover who has never heard a note by the composer. Most people, I would think, would be more comfortable sampling one or two symphonies on a single CD, to see whether the music holds appeal for them. I would think that releasing the discs separately would have made more marketing sense. And speaking of marketing sense, how can Supraphon include two works with texts, without providing the texts, even in Czech? And third, as mentioned earlier, the work that has really begun to make an international reputation for Kabeláč is the orchestral passacaglia entitled, The Mystery of Time. Whether releasing one disc at a time, or the whole set of symphonies together, Supraphon might have considered adding a couple of “fillers,” including that one work, which is really more stunning than any of the symphonies, as fine as they are. In fact, I consider it one of the symphonic masterpieces of mid- 20th century European music, along with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra and some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, Holmboe, and Pettersson.


Some readers may be interested in the following personal recollections: I first encountered the music of Kabeláč in 1972. The all-Kabeláč concert in Strasbourg that the composer had been prevented from attending had taken place the preceding year. This concert was probably the most auspicious presentation of Kabeláč’s music during his lifetime, and perhaps ever since. What made it so auspicious was the fact that the concert was recorded and subsequently broadcast all over the world. In 1972 it was broadcast on New York City’s WRVR (whose music director at the time was the late Paul Snook). I happened to catch most of the concert simply by accident, having tuned in at a fortuitous moment. I was instantly struck by the music; the sense of an extraordinary compositional personality was apparent to me immediately. The next time I had the occasion to see Paul, I told him of my having discovered Kabeláč through that broadcast. Though he himself was not as taken with the music as I was, he loaned me his recording of the composer’s most notable work, The Mystery of Time. This piece clinched it for me: I felt that I had discovered an important compositional voice, and set about trying to acquire as many of his works on recordings and live-performance tapes as I could, and the more I heard, the more impressed I was.

In 1976 I was about to take my first trip to Europe, and decided that one item on the agenda would be a visit to Prague to meet Kabeláč. I wrote to the Czech Music Information Center, and expressed my interest in meeting the composer. Young and naïve about Eastern European musical politics, I was surprised when I received a gracious response from the Information Center, stating that they would be happy to receive me, and to direct me to other composers they thought would be more appropriate. I didn’t know just how to respond, but it was Kabeláč I was interested in meeting—not composers of their choosing with whose music I was totally unfamiliar. So I just pursued my plan, figuring I’d show up at this Information Center, and see what I could work out. When I appeared, I was curtly told that no one could facilitate my meeting Kabeláč, and if I wasn’t interested in the composers whom they had selected, they couldn’t help me. I did not expect this sort of reception, nor the general lack of cooperation everywhere I turned. I started to feel very intimidated, and was almost ready to just leave the country, when I passed a phone booth, and decided to simply look up Kabeláč in the phone directory, and call him on my own, without giving thought to matters of language. (I think I just figured anyone would be able to speak some English.) So I called him, and he answered the phone, and I introduced myself as an American musicologist and critic. In fact he spoke hardly any English, but somehow I managed to convey to him that I wanted to meet him, and he agreed to meet me that afternoon in the café at Smetana Hall.

We both showed up at the appointed time. At this point he was 68 years old, and displayed a very severe demeanor. It was clear that his English was so limited that communicating was going to be very difficult. But fortunately, his daughter soon arrived; she was more proficient in English and was able to act as interpreter. I began by expressing my enthusiasm for his music, and was surprised that he seemed to take this for granted, apparently assuming that his music was well known in the States. I told him how I had discovered his music by hearing that broadcast of the Strasbourg concert. This was very surprising to him; he had no idea that that concert had been broadcast so widely, and he grumbled about the fact that he had never received a cent from it. Then I began to ask him questions about his thoughts regarding trends in contemporary music internationally, other Czech composers, etc. But to each of these questions, he answered in heavily accented English, “Aha! You are a critic; you try to trick me. No, I will not answer these questions.” No matter how much I tried to reassure him of my innocent interest, it was clear that he was not going to open up to me in any way. Finally after about an hour or so, I thanked him and his daughter for meeting with me, and we said good-bye. I was extremely disappointed by the fruitlessness of the encounter, got into my rented car, and drove out of Czechoslovakia as fast as I could.  Later I learned that he had died three years later.

After I returned home I described my meeting with Kabeláč to my friends, as well as to people I encountered—over the following several years—who were either Czech themselves or of Czech background. I also pursued further research on my own. I gleaned from all this Kabeláč’s unfortunate personal history and the overwhelming challenges he had faced throughout his career. I realized that he had shown considerable bravery in agreeing to meet with me at all, without the authorization of government officials; and I learned that his paranoia was totally understandable under the circumstances. All this made his bitterness and suspiciousness far more understandable, while also shedding light on the violent intensity of most of his music.

WILLIAM SCHUMAN: American Festival Overture

Program Notes

The American Festival Overture is one of William Schuman’s earliest works to achieve success and his first to be recorded. It was composed in 1939 at the encouragement of Serge Koussevitzky, who promised to perform it with the Boston Symphony. The title refers to a festival of American music that Koussevitzky had planned for the 1939-40 concert season. He led the orchestra in the premiere of the overture in Boston, in October of 1939. The piece is based entirely on a simple motif that Schuman identified as a familiar boys’ street call. Sung to the syllables “wee-awk-eee,” the motif consists of three notes, the first falling a minor-third, and the third a return to the original note. This motif, along with a sequence of perfect fourths, thoroughly permeates the overture. Schuman later stated, “The American Festival Overture is obviously a piece that could only have been composed by someone in his/her twenties or maybe thirties, but not an older person. This overture is a musical pep talk, brash and all those things.” Except for a brief passage of reflection, the work is vigorously rousing and emphatically exuberant. Yet despite its extroverted character, it is saturated with a profusion of brilliant developmental activity. Although much of the melodic content is simple and straightforward, there is a great deal of harmony built on the interval of the fourth, which imparts a bristling, modern surface. Shortly after the premiere, a 23-year-old Leonard Bernstein noted “an energetic drive, a vigor of propulsion which seizes the listener by the hair, whirls him through space, and sets him down at will.”

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

ROSNER: Piano Concerto No. 2; Gematria; Six Pastoral Dances; From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow

ROSNER: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Peter Vinograde, piano); Gematria; Six Pastoral Dances; From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow (Peter Riegert, speaker)London Philharmonic; David Amos, cond.  TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC-0368

Liner Notes

During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner 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 harmony and rhythmic devices of pre-Baroque modal polyphony. To this he added a 20th-century freedom of modality and triadicism, and combined this harmonic language with the orchestration, drama, and scope of 19th century romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely a homogenization 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. This remarkable expressive range is well illustrated by the four works presented here.

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 else 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 work 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 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 Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 30, in 1965, shortly after graduating from NYU, and before receiving professional instruction in composition. As such it is an excellent representation of the roots of his musical language; it is also quite unlike any other piano concerto in the literature. Among its unusual features are its use of a scherzo as an opening movement, its lack of focus on virtuoso showmanship, and its avoidance of the sense of opposition between soloist and orchestra that characterizes the standard concerto. Instead it is dominated by melody—melody that resembles no other music, yet is readily accessible, irresistibly memorable, and instantly identifiable for those familiar with his music. 

The first movement, Scherzo: Allegro, is oriented in the key of G, with a strongly mixolydian flavor, and conveys a sense of joyful exuberance. The harmonic language is almost completely consonant, with interest generated by a free use of chromatically-related triads. Although the movement begins softly, its volume level reaches considerable peaks. This opening section is followed by a Trio: Allegretto. Relatively subdued at first, this section is based on a modal melody that hovers around G minor, and reveals some intervallic reminiscence of the scherzo melody. The tempo presses forward as a variant of the melody leads to a huge climax. A hushed transition then leads to a re-statement of the scherzo.

The second movement, Largo, begins very slowly and softly with another melody, again largely consonant, but in constantly-shifting modes. This melody is developed contrapuntally, and some striking major-minor dissonances are heard as it proceeds. Its serene, almost religious, character is transformed as the movement builds toward a gigantic climax with violent tone-clusters in the piano. As the climax recedes, the movement concludes as it began, in quiet serenity.

The third movement, Presto, returns to the lively, high-spirited tone of the opening movement. A loose rondo design, it is based on a syncopated modal melody that hovers around a tonal center of E. A secondary melody of similar character follows, leading back to a variant of the initial theme in triplet figuration. The solo piano introduces a second section, with a ponderous theme in triple meter, strongly related to the main theme of the first movement. Once this theme reaches a climax, a transition leads to a modified return of the first section, which then evolves into a variant of delicately ethereal character, featuring a continuous pattern of arpeggios in the piano’s high register. A fragment of the theme highlights its major-minor features in thundering octaves and triads. This builds to what feels like the work’s final peroration, as the delicate variant heard earlier is now stated with monumental grandeur. The movement’s main theme returns briefly in a form similar to its initial statement before leading to a coda based on yet another variant of the theme, which builds once again to a grandiloquent conclusion.

When the opportunity for a performance of one of his earlier works appeared, Rosner would typically review it to eliminate impracticalities and other symptoms of his inexperience. For this reason, before this concerto was recorded, composer-organist Carson Cooman edited it to adjust details of orchestration and piano figuration. 

Rosner composed a number of works that suggest the spirit of music from the Elizabethan period, such as his Five Meditations, Op. 36, and A Gentle Musicke, Op. 44. These have become among his most popular compositions. Six Pastoral Dances, Op. 40, scored for woodwind quartet plus strings, mines a similar vein, while incorporating a few distinctly modern touches. The opening “Intrada” sets the Elizabethan tone. The “Waltz” that follows is built upon a slightly mischievous melody heard first in the clarinet. In the middle a distinctly Rosnerian use of chromatically related triads is heard. The stately “Pavana” is richly polyphonic, with much use of suspensions and appoggiaturas that resolve in a manner reminiscent of music from the 17th century. The movement concludes with some piquant chromatic dissonances. The “Gigue,” is built around continuous triplet patterns, and is probably the movement with the most modern flavor, featuring perky dissonances and unorthodox parallelisms. However, the central section brings forth a more strongly Elizabethan touch. The final cadence is quite uncharacteristic for the composer, ending quizzically on a sub-dominant triad in second inversion. The warmly polyphonic “Sarabande” returns to the spirit of a 17th-century motet, leading directly into the finale, “Galliard and Reprise.” This lively movement begins with the composer’s characteristic treatment of triadic consonance, leading directly into a triumphant but abbreviated restatement of the opening “Intrada.” Six Pastoral Dances was composed in 1968, and was first performed the following year by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Spierman, to whom it is dedicated.

Conductor David Amos discovered Rosner’s music during the early 1980s, and soon became one of his most vigorous champions. Conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Amos led the first recording of Rosner’s orchestral music. Between 1986 and 1993 he commissioned four works from the composer, each of which he premiered with his own Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego. The first of these was From the Diary of Adam Czerniakow, Op. 82. As will be evident to the listener, this work represents considerable maturation of Rosner’s musical language. He provided the following note, included at the front of the score:

Adam Czerniakow was the chairman of the Judenrat, or Jewish local government in the Warsaw ghetto from 1939 (the beginning of the German occupation and administration of the ghetto) until 1942 when he took his own life during the time of mass deportation of the population to death camps in the east. In this capacity, Czerniakow kept a secret diary which recounts considerable detail about the ghetto and its history, and also reveals the growing awareness and torment in Czerniakow himself as the Nazis moved deviously, carefully, and inexorably towards including the Jews of Poland in the “final solution.”

The unique artistic opportunity conveyed by the Diaries is its combination of two otherwise irreconcilable perspectives—the viewpoint of a mass of victims, which portrays the magnitude of the events, and that of a single tragic individual, which better portrays the human pathos of those events. Czerniakow was, after all, both a very tortured victim in his own right, and in a very real sense, a conduit—sometimes in spite of himself—between the oppressors and the thousands of Jewish victims in occupied Poland.

The work … is scored for full orchestra and one narrator, reading Czerniakow’s words. These diary entries are spoken only; there is no singing in the entire piece. The music is in one continuous movement, befitting something of an extended stream of consciousness, and the actual style migrates from symphonic, to coloristic, to cantorial, according to the spirit of the historical events.

The English translation of Czerniakow’s material was made by Raul Hilberg and Stanislaw Staron, in collaboration with Josef Kermisz of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The composer has applied for and received permission from all of these for the use of the material…. [The text has been further edited for concision by Walter Simmons.]

The first performance of this work took place in 2010. The score bears a dedication to Lee and David Amos.

The second of the Amos commissions is Gematria, Op. 93. During the early 1980s Rosner began exploring an approach he called stile estatico. Partly influenced by the “minimalism” that had become a popular style among living composers, but which Rosner felt was not sufficiently developed by any of its most prominent practitioners, stile estatico entails the simultaneous use of multiple ostinati. But these repeated ostinato patterns each follows a rhythmic cycle of its own, and are thus of different durations; hence the patterns overlap each other, as each starts and stops at different points. While these ostinati are unfolding, a more distinctive element may appear in the foreground. Gematria, composed in 1991, is probably the work in which Rosner employed the stile estatico most fully and with the greatest complexity. Of course the greatest challenge in composing a piece of this kind is to achieve meaningful overall coherence as each ostinato pattern repeats according to its own individual rhythmic cycle. In a note that appears in the score, Rosner writes:

Although found elsewhere, Gematria is most fully developed as an esoteric aspect of Judaism, particularly of Kabbalah mysticism. Numbers are systematically substituted for letters, resulting in complex hidden ideas, cross-references and double-meanings in otherwise apparently straightforward texts. This work does not apply a similarly schematic approach to music, but attempts a fitting mood and richness by means of complicated cross-rhythmic overlays of colors and harmonies. This work was commissioned by David Amos and the Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego.

The premiere of Gematria took place in 1992. The work is dedicated to the members of the Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego.

WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Composer Profile

Program Notes

During the 1960s William Schuman was one of the most prominent figures in America’s classical music world—“probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music” and “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. He was also one of America’s most highly regarded composers throughout the middle third of the century. The story of his rapid ascent to a position of such eminence was legendary during his lifetime: Born in New York City in 1910, he was an “all-American boy” who spent his childhood consumed with baseball. Later he formed a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with his school chum Frank Loesser (subsequently a celebrated Broadway lyricist). After high school Schuman had enrolled in a commercial business course. Classical music meant little to him until, at the age of twenty, he attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini. The concert excited and inspired him, awakening an interest in a new direction he might pursue: the path of a serious composer. So he abandoned his focus on popular tunes, and turned his attention to more advanced musical study. His future wife, whom he met at this time, quickly realized his great potential, and strongly encouraged him in this direction.

Schuman made rapid progress toward his ambitious goal. In 1939, only nine years after embarking on his new career path, his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Six years later he was appointed president of the famed Juilliard School, where he promptly revamped the entire faculty and curriculum; in 1962 he became the first president of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all performing arts centers to follow. At the same time he continued to compose, receiving commissions, awards, and performances by the country’s foremost musical ensembles and arts institutions. After he retired from his Lincoln Center position, he continued to compose until his death in 1992.

Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Schuman’s music is its strongly “American” character, achieved without recourse to jazz, folk, or popular melodies or even to their general styles. This quality is deeply embedded within the tone and spirit of his musical personality, which may be described as bold and brash, declamatory, self-confidently assertive, tense, aggressive, nervously edgy, and, at times, contemplative, lofty, and even oratorical. His body of work comprises ten symphonies, two operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which were performed and recorded by the world’s leading artists and ensembles.        

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

BARBER: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Program Notes

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was one of the greatest popular successes of his later years. It was commissioned by his publisher G. Schirmer, in celebration of their hundredth anniversary, with a premiere to take place during the opening week of New York City’s imposing new cultural mecca, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in September 1962. Barber selected John Browning as his soloist and, as he often did, worked closely with the pianist during the process of composition.

Barber’s Piano Concerto is remarkable for its absorption of some of the sound and feeling of the then-fashionable “serial” style within an unabashedly neo-romantic composition. (This differs from such Barber works as the Sonata for Piano and the Nocturne, whose employment of twelve-tone material is utterly irrelevant to the serial style.) Without actually employing twelve-tone rows, Barber devised highly chromatic, nearly atonal thematic material, emphasizing wide-interval leaps, jagged, disjointed gestures, and irregular rhythmic groupings, and subsumed them within a conventionally structured virtuoso concerto, balancing such material with passages of lyrical passion and ferocious cadenzas, all of which culminate in dramatic climaxes.

The first movement is a tempestuous, but formally straightforward sonata allegro. The piano begins with a statement of angular, chromatic thematic material in the manner of a solo recitative. The orchestra then introduces a passionate, wide-ranging, almost atonal theme. After some development, the oboe presents a gorgeous, if more conventional, secondary theme, infused with typically Barberian poignancy. The development of all these ideas is unusually elaborate and complex for Barber, before a hair-raising cadenza and a full recapitulation lead the movement toward a decisive conclusion.

The second movement is an expansion of a nostalgic, thoroughly tonal Canzone for flute and piano that Barber had written in 1959. The expansion fully retains the expressive essence of its source, adding nothing significant beyond further ornamented repetitions of the pentatonic melody in different keys, clothed in varying textures and instrumentation. A bridge figure based on descending fourths separates the melodic repetitions.

The third movement is a propulsive five-part rondo in 5/8 meter, in the manner of a frenetic toccata. The main thematic idea is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Prokofiev. The movement is enormously difficult to play, but creates a brilliantly exciting effect. As was often the case with Barber, writing the finale had become a stumbling block for the composer, and was only completed some two weeks before the premiere! The concerto made a dazzling impact at its first performance, with the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

Barber’s Piano Concerto won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and the 1964 Music Critics’ Circle Award. John Browning recorded the work and performed it some fifty times between 1962 and 1964, stating that it was one of the most difficult concertos he had ever played. By 1969 it had enjoyed 150 performances. The work may be the most frequently performed American concerto for any instrument composed since 1950.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

GIANNINI: The Medead and songs by other composers

GIANNINI: The Medead ● Irene Jordan (sop); Henry Sopkin, cond; Atlanta SO (World  Premiere: 10/60); Paul Paray, cond; Detroit SO (1/4/62); songs by other composers ● JORDAN YSL T-343 (mono, analog); 2 CDs: 118:01 (Available from www.norpete.com)

I am grateful to Joel Flegler for permitting me, as critic-emeritus, to emerge from my retirement lair in order to submit this review of a release of singular importance. The Medead, by Vittorio Giannini, is one of the greatest works of the 20th-century never (until now) documented on a recording available to the public. It is remarkable that the piece has had to wait more than half a century for this to happen, and even now, it is a first release of live recordings dating from the 1960s, rather than a freshly recorded performance by one of today’s leading sopranos and with up-to-date sonic felicities. But now that the work is available in this incarnation, perhaps other performers will be inspired to provide fresh new renditions. The Medead is a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra that tells the story of the ruthless Medea from her own perspective, through a text written by the composer; in a sense it is a hybrid of a symphony and a dramatic monologue. I might describe the style as derived from the language of Wagner and Strauss (in his Salome and Elektra vein), but with an Italianate passion and emotional immediacy, disciplined by a 20th-century concentration of focus and formal economy. Its emotional intensity is maintained almost without interruption for some 35 minutes. But as great a work as I consider The Medead to be, it is not for everybody. If the notion of a hyper-intense, post-Wagnerian composition for soprano and orchestra makes you want to head for the hills, that is probably a good idea. On the other hand, if my description makes you wonder whether you have been missing out on a real masterpiece, and you are able to enjoy a work such as, say, Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, I would suggest that you waste no time in getting hold of this recording.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family: His father and two of his sisters were professional singers of considerable repute. He himself enjoyed a modest reputation during the 1930s and 40s as a composer of highly romantic operas—many in a buffa vein—as well as concert songs (his “Tell Me, O Blue, Blue Sky” was performed by Eileen Farrell, Mario Lanza, Leonard Warren, and many others, and still appears frequently on recital programs today). He also wrote a number of utilitarian instrumental works, many of them lending a warmly romantic touch to Baroque forms. Such compositions, among them his Concerto Grosso, Prelude and Fugue for Strings, and Variations on a Cantus Firmus for piano solo, contributed to his reputation as a staunchly conservative traditionalist who created a body of benignly academic works of no great import. His most successful opera was a delightful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Giannini’s craftsmanship was reputed to be meticulous, and he taught dozens of budding composers while serving on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute, and, ultimately, as founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts. During the late 1950s and early 60s he shrewdly fed the voracious appetite for original works for wind band, promoted by William D. Revelli in Michigan and Frederick Fennell in Rochester. With the intense irony endemic to the classical music world, these band works are the chief source of Giannini’s reputation today, and one of these, his Symphony No. 3, is among the cornerstones of the symphonic wind band repertoire. But what has remained much less well known is that during the early 1960s the composer, diagnosed with terminal heart disease and devastated by the failure of his second marriage, began to explore more serious—often Classical—subjects, treating them with a darker, harsher harmonic language and an astringent, less comforting lyricism than he had employed before, as well as tighter, more complex formal structures. Among these late works are most of the composer’s masterpieces, including his Symphony No. 5, Psalm 130 for double bass and orchestra, the dramatic monologues The Medead and Antigone, the opera Edipus, and the late piece for band Variations and Fugue. Some of these works have yet to be played even once; others are performed only occasionally. But among those who are conversant with Giannini’s body of work, The Medead is usually mentioned as his greatest accomplishment.

The Medead was one of the fruits of a commissioning project launched in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, under the aegis of W. McNeil Lowry. What was unusual about this project was that, in order to avoid adding to the dustpile of anonymous, justly maligned “foundation style” works, distinguished performing artists were invited to select composers of their own choice to write works for them, which they would then perform with a number of major American orchestras that had agreed to participate. Among the other works that resulted from this project were the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Paul Creston (chosen by Michael Rabin), Song of Orpheus by William Schuman (chosen by Leonard Rose), the Piano Concerto of Elliot Carter (chosen by Jacob Lateiner) and the Piano Sonata of Peter Mennin (chosen by Claudette Sorel). Soprano Irene Jordan, then about forty and at the height of her rather unusual career, chose Giannini.

What qualities lead me to value The Medead so highly? One is its consistent and unerring accuracy of emotional tone, relative to the text; another is the concentration of focus I noted above, with no musically or dramatically irrelevant digressions; especially significant is its formal structure, based on the initial presentation of two or three motifs whose development weaves a texture that is as musically lucid as it is dramatically coherent; equally important is the fact that while there are inevitable passages of non-melodic declamation, the dramatic highpoints draw the various musical elements into soaring, searing melodic apotheoses that direct and satisfy the listener’s attention; and, finally, the work embodies a whole tradition of bel canto operatic representation, exemplified most saliently by a “pastorale” section in the third movement, and the solemn ground bass that undergirds the shattering finale.

While the initial appearance of The Medead—in two different performances—is for me the main point of interest in this recording, the primary concern of the purveyors of the disc—which contains virtually no documentation other than the dates of performance—is soprano Irene Jordan. There is, quite strangely, very little information available about her in convenient sources. As far as I’ve been able to determine, she is still alive at this time, though in her late 90s. It is worth quoting from two reviews that appeared in Fanfare 23:3, commenting on what seems to be the precursor of this release. James Miller wrote, “What becomes of singers who seem to possess the goods but whose careers never seem to ‘take-off’? The name Irene Jordan is probably one unfamiliar even to most vocal buffs. She sang in the American premiere of Peter Grimes,… had a brief career as a Met comprimario, then, discovering that her mezzo-soprano voice was evolving into that of a dramatic soprano, she left the Met for further study and life as a dramatic coloratura. Although she ended up having a varied, interesting career, she got back to the Met for only one single performance, as the Queen of the Night. In his comprehensive history, The Metropolitan Opera, Irving Kolodin mentions ‘the breadth and weight of [her] dramatic sound,’… but says she was ‘erratic in pitch and insecure in skips.’…. Listening to this CD of live performances spanning 17 years, beginning in 1953, one listens in vain for that erratic pitch and insecurity, and hears, instead, a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence…. In addition to her technical finesse, she shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling hers until Joan Sutherland showed up.… Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can’t say.” John W. Lambert added, “Jordan’s approaches to standard-repertoire items demonstrate that she was, in her day, far superior to a lot of people who now masquerade as vocalists. Today, a voice like this would make news even in papers that rarely cover the arts. One can only wonder.”

What is most striking about the soprano we hear in The Medead is her power and intensity, unblemished by ugly moments of loss of control or of imprecise pitch—and these are live recordings! One realizes that Giannini and Jordan fully understood the expectations each held of the other. This became abundantly clear to me after I had heard the attempts of several other sopranos to present this piece. The Atlanta premiere is of interest largely in demonstrating Jordan’s comprehensive mastery of the work from the start, while the orchestra—a far less imposing ensemble than it is today—scrambled to keep up under Sopkin’s tentative direction. But the 1962 performance, with the Detroit Symphony—also a far less supple and dexterous ensemble than it is today—enjoyed the leadership of Paul Paray, one of several French conductors whose distinguished artistry and musicality were slow to be recognized. Paray grasps precisely the tempo, the pacing, and powerful dramatic arc of The Medead, while Jordan is as acute in negotiating the work’s demands as she was in Atlanta, if not more so. But under Paray’s direction Giannini’s monodrama emerges as an indisputable masterpiece.

The second CD offers a series of songs recorded during several recitals much later on. Their main attraction lies in displaying the remarkable durability of Jordan’s voice, not to mention her musicianship. Of the eight items, the last four were taken from a 2004 recital, when she was 85! While they do require certain allowances from the listener, and in some of the eight—the Schubert in particular—her concern seemed directed more toward accuracy than toward expression of the text, these are not easy ditties. The Ravel, for example, is fairly demanding. Jordan’s renditions, even at this late age, are more remarkable for the virtues they offer than for those they lack.

In short, this is a release of interest to both vocal specialists and to those interested in uncovering the great American masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s that were buried during the stylistic skirmishes of that fractious period.

HOVHANNES: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”

Program Notes

“Mysterious Mountain” is probably Alan Hovhaness’ most popular and often-performed orchestral work. It was commissioned by Leopold Stokowski, for his first concert as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1955, a performance that was televised nationwide. (Stokowski had begun to champion the music of Hovhaness during the 1940s, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.) This work by the erstwhile obscure composer achieved further widespread exposure through an RCA Victor recording released in 1958, featuring a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Fritz Reiner. This recording—the first of many—has remained available in one medium or another almost without interruption for more than 50 years. All these factors have contributed to its popularity, but not to be discounted is the character of the work itself: euphonious, serene, and contemplative throughout most of its 20-minute duration.

The Symphony No. 2 was originally entitled, simply, “Mysterious Mountain.” But around 1970, in an effort to provide some organization to his enormous and disparate body of work, Hovhaness added a number of his major orchestral works to his roster of symphonies, which eventually reached No. 67 (although their chronology remains inconsistent, to say the least). It was at this time that “Mysterious Mountain” became the subtitle of Symphony No. 2. One of the reasons for the confused chronology of Hovhaness’ works is the fact that he often re-purposed material from earlier works—modified or not—into later compositions. For example, the animated fugato in the second movement of the work at hand originally appeared in more primitive form in his String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1936.

Hovhaness intended his music to evoke spiritual states that transcended the concerns of mundane life. He accomplished this through an ever-evolving musical style that embraced the modal polyphony associated with the Renaissance, rich passages of hymnlike chorales, and religious incantations and dancelike styles of his ancestral Armenia. As time went on, he was to absorb elements of the musical styles of India, Japan, and Korea into his language. “Mysterious Mountain” is unusual among Hovhaness’ works in that Eastern musical references are largely absent from it. Mountains were a source of both awe and inspiration for Hovhaness: They seemed to suggest to him the immensity of the universe, and this impression was suggested in the titles of many of his works. Growing up in New England, he had ready access to mountain ranges, which he loved to explore; and he spent the last decades of his life among the mountains of Washington State.

The Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” comprises three movements. The first, Andante con moto, features rich, triadic, hymnlike chorales, with non-harmonic decorations played by the celesta. The overall effect is, indeed, celestial. The second movement, Double fugue: Moderato maestoso; allegro vivo, opens with a modal fugal exposition that suggests a Renaissance motet. This is followed by the exposition of an agitated subject introduced by the strings (taken, as noted above, from an early string quartet). Finally the two fugatos are combined contrapuntally in a majestic peroration. The third movement, Andante espressivo, begins quietly with a mysterious ostinato that builds gradually to a climax and then recedes. This is followed by a fervently spiritual hymn in the strings, and then, by a woodwind chorale. An ethereal passage, produced by subdivided solo strings, leads to a serene conclusion.

(Interested listeners are referred to the excellent Web site www.Hovhaness.com.)
Walter Simmons


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic with a particular focus on tonal American composers of the 20th century. While in his teens he maintained an ongoing correspondence with Alan Hovhaness. Simmons is the author of two books in Roman and Littlefield’s series Twentieth-Century Traditionalists, of which he is the supervising editor. Hundreds of his writings can be found on his Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

Arnold Rosner (1945-2013)

American composer Arnold Rosner died in his Brooklyn apartment on his 68th birthday, November 8, 2013. Rosner was born in New York City, where his father owned a candy store. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, NYU, and the University of Buffalo, where he earned the first doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York. Rosner had been on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College (CUNY) for several decades. He leaves behind a sister, Irene.

Rosner was one of the true maverick composers of his generation. In some ways it is easier to define his approach to music by what he shunned than by what he embraced. Rosner rejected all the compositional styles that seized the limelight during the course of his career. Though in many ways a staunch traditionalist, he didn’t align himself with more conservative approaches either. While he decried what he saw as the sterility of the serialists and the experimentalists, as well as the mindlessness of the minimalists, he also loathed the sentimentality of the neo-romantics and the dry formalism of the neo-classicists. He developed his vision of a musical ideal around the time he entered high school, and, though he refined and elaborated this vision throughout his life, he never repudiated it, and paid a significant price for his stubborn adherence to it.

Rosner’s music was predicated on the modal polyphony of the Renaissance and early Baroque, as well as on the pre-tonal harmony of late Medieval dance music, and the free triadicism and rhythmic phraseology of that music underlay his entire output, regardless of how far from those sources he ventured. He saw a world of difference between the free triadicism of, say, Monteverdi or Gesualdo, and the major-minor dualism of Classical 18th-century tonality, which he despised and found insipid.  He seasoned these rather austere elements with a pinch of Judaica, and combined them with the rich luxuriance of 19th-century orchestration and a Romantic sense of drama. In some works he displayed a Hindemithian vigor and in others the stark brutality of Shostakovich. These basic elements may seem antithetical to each other in many ways, but therein lies the remarkable individuality of Rosner’s music. When he discovered pieces such as the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams, Mysterious Mountain by Alan Hovhaness, the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, and the Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich, he regarded them as precedents that justified the ideal vision he sought to realize. But what makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely a homogenization of earlier styles, is the way that his unusual language is capable of embracing 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 to even untutored listeners.

Fiercely independent, Rosner shunned any of the institutions or organizations with which he might have aligned himself. Although he earned his living in an academic setting, he never took advantage of the opportunities open to academic composers. As desperately as he sought acceptance, he would have it only on his own terms. Without his cultivating opportunities for performance, his music initially attracted the attention of only a small number of equally independent-minded musicians and music lovers. As the years passed, his works gained no foothold within the world of professional musicians, and he became increasingly embittered. Deciding simply to bypass the conventional music institutions, he began to produce recordings of his music and make them available to the public. These recordings, where a sizable portion of his output may be heard, were highly praised by most of the review media, and Rosner began to develop a modest following of committed enthusiasts who recognized the value of his unique voice.

Rosner’s final output comprises more than a hundred compositions: three operas, eight symphonies, six string quartets, three a cappella Mass settings and a large Requiem Mass, three piano sonatas, and a host of other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. Two of his symphonies have been released by Naxos, and six CDs of his music can be found on the Albany label. At the time of his death he was in the middle of a project with the University of Houston Wind Ensemble to record all his music for wind band. Performance materials for Rosner’s music are available from Carson Cooman, www.carsoncooman.com.

Link: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/in-memoriam-arnold-rosner-1945-2013/

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8. • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conductor; Louisville Orchestra. • ALBANY AR011 [AAD]; 65:50. Produced by Howard Scott and Andrew Kazdin.

For those who missed them during their days as Louisville LPs, this CD provides the opportunity to become acquainted with three of the later symphonies of Walter Piston. Piston, who belonged to the generation that also included Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland, was the foremost symphonist of the group—at least according to the highest standards of the genre as articulated convincingly by such specialists as the brilliant musicologist-composer Robert Simpson and his followers. Indeed, in “The Symphony in America,” included in The Symphony from Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin Books, 1967), a most valuable compendium of essays edited by Simpson, Peter Jona Korn writes, “Piston is without question America’s most mature composer. … He is a composer of moderation, in the most positive sense of the word— moderation that is the result of discipline and control, not of limitation. . . . There is . . . nothing extraordinary about him—except, perhaps, the strong possibility that his symphonies may well turn out to be the most durable written in America today.”

While I am not ready to embrace this assertion to the letter, this CD has given me the opportunity to refresh my thinking about a composer whose works have often left me rather lukewarm. Piston’s earlier symphonies, such as Nos. 2 and 3, which launched the composer’s stylistic profile to the listening public, are characterized by an exuberant optimism propelled by vigorous syncopated rhythms, set off by slow movements displaying a tender lyrical warmth. A hearty extroversion pervades, epitomizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the American symphonic “sound“ of the 1940s: solid, well crafted, engaging, but essentially glib, facile music of limited psychological or spiritual depth. 

However, with the Symphonies Nos. 5 (1954) and 6 (1955), Piston began to probe more deeply. The ingratiating lyrical flow and congenial bounce at times gave way to more serious moments of introspection. Of the two symphonies, I prefer No. 6, a work commissioned, premiered, and recorded (brilliantly) by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. The Fifth Symphony, a fine work nevertheless, seems somewhat less fully consummated. Perhaps this impression is weighted by the fact that the Louisville Orchestra during the mid-1960s (their weakest period, when this recording was originally made) was a far cry from the BSO. Yet their performance, while lacking panache and flair, does represent the work adequately. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 7 of 1960 represents a significant step forward from the two-dimensional provinciality of the earlier works to a universal utterance of the highest stature. Here is displayed not only the consummate mastery of compositional technique for which Piston was renowned, but revealed also are noble vistas of sober grandeur, articulated through the graceful and spontaneous yet logically controlled unfolding of abstract musical ideas. This is the work of a symphonist of the highest order, the kind of music that justifies the assertions of Peter Jona Korn quoted earlier. However, lacking overt drama or sentimentality, a work like this can easily appear impersonal and emotionally detached to the general listener. It is inevitable, perhaps, that such music must remain limited to a relatively small audience, although there is nothing in it that is the least experimental, “avant-garde,“ or antagonistic to the listener. In fact, the third movement, though treated with considerable sophistication, recalls the characteristically American exuberance of the finales of the composer’s earlier symphonies. Those patient enough to become familiar with this work are likely to agree that it is one of the great American symphonies of the mid-twentieth century. 

The Symphony No. 8 was composed five years after its predecessor and shares with it many stylistic features. As strong as it is, it does not, I find, match the earlier work’s elevation of content or concentration of design, falling at times into a drab monotony. There is, however, much to admire in it for those who are willing to devote the necessary concentration. 

By the mid-1970s, when this recording was originally made, the Louisville Orchestra had become a more polished group. Hence, the performances of Piston’s last two symphonies, under the direction of Jorge Mester, show a greater confidence and expressive flexibility than the Whitney-led reading. 
Albany Records, under the leadership of the delightfully feisty and indefatigably ambitious Peter Kermani, is to be recommended and encouraged for reviving some of the landmark recordings from the Louisville series, which was responsible for the first and only recordings of many of the finest American orchestral works. Future reissues are eagerly awaited. 

Picks of the Year: 2013

During the past year there were three recordings that met my criteria for Want List inclusion: a) little-known music of the past hundred years, b) in impeccable performances, and c) represented via the finest audio technology. The last criterion is not hard to achieve these days, but the first two are as elusive as they have always been.

The three composers are American, and range in age from 40 (Leshnoff) to 56 (Moravec), and all might be considered neo-tonal postmodernists. Leshnoff is based in the Baltimore area. His music, largely traditional in style, has only recently begun to surface on CD. The pieces I have heard—especially the pieces on this CD (reviewed in this issue)—display a soulfulness and sincerity that make a strong impression. The work that left me with the deepest impact of all his works that I’ve heard is the Double Concerto (violin and viola with orchestra). All the performances on this CD are excellent. I recommend it highly.

Paul Moravec is a considerably more established figure. I have included recordings of his music on previous Want Lists. He has developed an exuberant, mercurial compositional personality resembling that of no other American composer I know, although some may notice a peculiar and probably irrelevant similarity to the voice of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. What is especially appealing about this recent release (reviewed in 36:5) is that it features largely magnificent performances of four substantial orchestral pieces, including the Cello Concerto, one of the composer’s most impressive and deeply moving works.

A totally new discovery for me was the music of John Fitz Rogers, a versatile composer based at the University of South Carolina. Although he has a background in both jazz and rock, those genres are largely absent from the works on this CD (reviewed in 36:4), which chiefly follow the same sort of neo-tonal traditionalism as the two others discussed above. Also like theirs, Rogers’s music is expertly crafted, expressively meaningful, and meticulously performed. While strongly recommending this release, I look forward to hearing more of Rogers’s work, as well as acquainting myself further with the music on this disc. Leshnoff, Moravec, and Rogers are all composers whose music is rewarding on first hearing, and more deeply satisfying with greater acquaintance.

Although it was discussed at considerable length in 37:1 by me and four of my colleagues, and my own involvement in the production precludes my adding it to my Want List, I would just like to mention Naxos 8.573060, which features two symphonies for wind ensemble—one by Nicolas Flagello and the other by Arnold Rosner—that are essential listening for all enthusiasts of the wind band medium and its repertoire. Three additional pieces by Flagello are included as well, all in fine performances by the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Bertman.

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1. Rush ● Wetherbee/Díaz/Stern, cond/IRIS O ● NAXOS 8.559670

MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Krakauer/Haimovitz/Rose, cond; Boston Modern O Project ● BMOP 1024

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed ● Various chamber ensembles ● INNOVA 707 (65:54)