Program Notes—ALAN HOVHANESS 75th Birthday Concert. Alleluia and Fugue. Avak the Healer. Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens”

Program Notes

Alan Hovhaness 75th Birthday Concert
Alleluia and Fugue
Avak the Healer
Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens”

My purpose is to create music, not for snobs, but for all people, music which is beautiful and healing, to attempt what old Chinese painters called spirit resonance in melody and sound.

Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness has pursued this ideal with a vigor matched by few contemporary composers. Functioning in his own esthetic realm, aloof from the musical mainstream and its ephemeral trends and fads, Hovhaness has produced a prodigious body of music including more than fifty symphonies and literally hundreds of other works of all dimensions, designed to be performed by an endless array of instrumental combinations from the beginning student to amateur groups and large-scale professional ensembles. Since his days as an isolated eccentric, who performed his exotic music for friends in the Boston area while living on a meager income earned as a church organist, up until today when he is regarded as one of America’s foremost composers, whose music is known throughout the world, Hovhaness has been guided by a dignity, humility, and integrity that have enabled him to make use of any available means and opportunity to pursue his own unique and uncompromising vision. As we celebrate the 75th birthday of this distinguished artist, we celebrate the independence of mind and courage of conviction that his musical life represents.

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1911, Hovhaness  gravitated toward music at a very early age, despite the absence of parental encouragement. He underwent a per­functory exposure to conventional music lessons and studied for a while at the New England Conservatory. This training, however, did not respond to his inner artistic needs as did the counsel and encouragement of two Boston mystics, the painters Hermon di Giovanno and Hyman Bloom, who urged Hovhaness to turn toward the culture of his ancestral Armenia as a source of inspiration both musical and spiritual. Renouncing the conventional approaches he had thus far followed in vain, he delved wholeheartedly into this cultural archeology and emerged with a new sense of artistic identity, having discovered a musico-philosophical realm with which he finally felt a kinship.

I was looking for a new direction that would be more expressive, and I found that direction in the church music of Armenian culture. That led me to a more ancient kind of Armenian music than ‘folk music,’ much of which has been tampered with; I also discovered the music of Komitas Vartabed, who was a very great man, and his development of Armenian music was the first influence I had.

This was the beginning of Hovhaness’ immersion in the ancient Western and Oriental musical cultures upon which he has drawn for the inspiration of most of his mature work, in a pursuit of the Confucian ideal of joining heaven and earth, East and West.

Somehow, Armenian music led me to India, when I heard the music of the dancer Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s brother, who brought along a group of musicians from India. This opened up a whole new world yet seemed very much related to the different modes of Armenian music. Also Japanese music and theatre had a strong influence throughout the 1940s. The visual and musical aspects of Japanese drama, and its wonderful way of handling stories, gave me a new outlook; I wanted to create a new kind of opera from that influence. Around 1950, an Armenian from Korea played me some ancient Korean court music and I found this terribly exciting. I thought this was the most mysterious music I had ever heard. That had a strong influence.

The harmony and concept of Gagaku, which came to Japan from China in the 7th century, could readily be applied to any kind of modal melodic line. It is a very original concept and a more natural way of developing modal music than anything ever done in Europe until recently: the whole idea of rhythm versus non-rhythm, of chaos versus complete control or partial control. While I am not interested only in turning to the past, I think music should be beautiful now, just as it always was, and more beautiful, if possible.

Alleluia and Fugue (1942)

Alleluia and Fugue dates from a period when Hovhaness’ work was marked by a fascination with the sounds and techniques of early Christian music. A hauntingly archaic quality pervades both sections of the work. The hymn-like Alleluia alternates between richly chordal organum-like passages and episodes featuring a mournful modal melody with simple canonic imitation. The Fugue follows with Handelian vigor, though its Dorian modality enables it to remain evocative of the distant past.

Avak the Healer (1946)

The cantata Avak the Healer combines qualities of ancient Western music with elements of Armenian liturgical music, most clearly represented by the cantorial lines of the trumpet. The composer’s own text, sung by the soprano, is filled with simple yet strangely abstract images that convey an aura of mystical adoration. The six sections of the work maintain a continuous mood of reverence and spiritual purity, devoid of the dramatic contrasts and conflicts common to Western music of more recent centuries. The entire work remains, in the words of commentator Robert McMahan, “suspended in some mysterious halfway world between the ‘here’ of the concert music repertory and the ‘there’ of timeless ritual.”

Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens” (1982)

Since the 1970s, Hovhaness has attempted to integrate elements inspired by the various traditions of Oriental music within a more expansive Western symphonic framework that embraces some of the richness of Romantic harmony and orchestration while retaining a purity of spiritual content. This more recent stage of development is exemplified by the Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens.”

The following commentary is adapted from program notes by the composer:

Since 1972 I have made my home near the sublime peaks of the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Years ago in my childhood I climbed many times the mountains of
New Hampshire, and I loved those ancient worn down mountains covered by forests with rocky peaks rising above the trees.

Now I live between the young volcanic Cascade Mountains and the oceanic Olympic Mountains with rain forests, and I find inspiration from the tremendous energy of these powerful, youthful, rugged mountains.

When Mt. Saint Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, the sonic boom struck our south windows. Ashes did not come here at that time but covered land to the East all across the state of Washington into Montana. Ashes continued to travel all around the world landing lightly on our house a week later after their journey all around our planet.

On August 7, 1980 we had to travel to Walla Walla. Before we began our journey I had a feeling that Mt. Saint Helens would erupt again, but as we drove across the Cascade Mountains the beautiful summer day made me forget my premonition. Then, after a while a strange darkness came over the landscape and the sun disappeared behind weird colors. Blackness covered the sky stretching from behind the Cascade Mountains, extending from the western horizon over our heads. People were taking pictures by the roadside of this new eruption coming from the direction of Mt. Saint Helens beyond the western horizon.

“SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography” By Don A. Hennessee

SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography. By Don A. Hennessee. 404 pp. Westport, CT: Green­wood Press, 1985. $39.95.

Don A. Hennessee is variously described both as “author” and “compiler” of this book. The latter term is far more appropriate because there is no evidence of true “authorship” here: no discussion, elucidation, or analysis based on a study of the composer’s body of work; no attempt to distill essential thematic issues for the benefit of the less experienced listener; no effort to delve into biographical matters in order to isolate personal themes that might have some bearing on the composer’s work; no point of view whatever. This “bio-bibliography” is essen­tially a book written by a computer; the human contribution is limited to secretarial matters. We know that Mr. Hennessee is Librarian Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, but for all one gleans from this book he could easily be no more than a research assistant who has spent hours collecting entries from the Reader’s Guide, without ever having heard a note of music.

The body of the book comprises:

  1. Biography—10 pages
  2. Works and Performances (a complete list of works, with information on premieres and other “selected” performances)—70 pages
  3. Discography—47 pages
  4. Bibliography (excerpts from criticism concerning Barber and his music)—236 pages.

The brief biography, a model of timidity and lack of conviction, begins, “There is no way to predict the place of Samuel Barber in American music fifty or one hundred years from now.” (How’s that for an opener? We’re not taking any chances.) “It is possible that he may be completely forgotten.” (Anything is possible. Can’t go wrong there.) “More likely, however, he will be remembered by scholars and musicians as a composer with integrity, and his works will continue to be performed, some retaining their places in the repertoire of orchestras, opera companies, dance and ballet troupes, and soloists.” (Not too rash to assume, I suppose, that some of his works will continue to be performed, considering that about half are already in the standard repertoire. This really draws you in, doesn’t it?) Ten pages later, Hennessee concludes, “Three years after his death his music still appears frequently on programs from coast to coast and abroad. What is the secret? Perhaps it is a very simple one: to the average concert-goer, his music is listenable, it has beauty and can be understood. We can still be moved by Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and probably Samuel Barber would ask no more than this.” (Than what? That we can still be moved by Knoxville? He thinks that’s all Barber would ask? He’s got to be kidding!) These feeble platitudes encase a biographical sketch that contains nothing not al­ready known or easily accessible to anyone with enough interest in Samuel Barber to pick up the book in the first place. I will make the bold assumption that Mr. Hennessee knows some­thing about Barber’s music and likes it, because the money in writing books about modern composers is too small to motivate anyone. But one error—the attribution of The Lovers to 1979 (instead of 1971) and the consequent misplacement of it in the biographical overview—suggests that Mr. Hennessee has a rather tenuous grasp of the basic facts.

The Works and Performances section and the Discography do serve some modest but useful purposes, but, aside from the premieres, no criteria are given for the inclusion of “se­lected other performances.” The discography inevitably has its share of minor errors and omis­sions. Some entries are described in great detail, with duration, author of program notes, date of recording, etc., while others are given with very little information—even currently or recently available discs that are easy to find. Not terribly important, perhaps, but annoying nevertheless.

Obviously, the book’s major contribution is the compendium of critical comments. (Those of us who can enjoy sitting and reading music reviews for hours on end can appreciate something like this, but I suspect it is a specialized taste.) Again, the compilation is not “complete,” by any means; yet an awful lot of entries are included that offer absolutely nothing of any value or use to anyone whatsoever. It seems to me that “complete” should mean complete and that “selected” should mean selected for potential value to reader, researcher, etc. What is the value of an entry like, “For Barber’s Anthony O’Daly, Mr. Fountain let his group sing out dramatically.”? That is an entire entry. Or one that states, simply, “The program was featured principally by the music of Samuel Barber.” (Quite a sentence, isn’t it?) Again, one searches for evidence of an active intelligence behind all this. The entries in this section are grouped according to particular works. Then, within each group the entries are presented alphabetically, according to the author’s name. If someone wanted to read the critical reactions to a work like, say, Barber’s cello sonata, over the 50 years or so since it was composed (probably the type of item of curiosity which this book is most suited to satisfy), wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to present those critical comments chronologically, so that the reader might quickly sense the ef­fect of the passage of time and greater familiarity? But instead, because the entries are listed alphabetically, a 1958 entry follows a 1974 entry which follows a 1940 entry, etc. The reviews of the original version of Antony and Cleopatra are mixed with the reviews of the revised ver­sion, so that the marked change in critical reaction to the two versions is concealed. Or, a 1976 entry follows a 1980 entry by the same writer because the entries by a single writer are alpha­betized by title, preventing the reader from gaining a sense of a critic’s changing position over time. After all, in the case of a veteran like Irving Kolodin, for example, this is another point of interest. In lieu of a more useful organization, however, there is a busy cross-reference system that connects every work to every disc to every review excerpt—very neat, but not that necessary, I think. There are some reviews from foreign countries, especially England, but very few from elsewhere; but we know that Barber’s music has been played abroad frequently, including in Russia. It would be interesting to see what critics in other countries had to say. Reading through the review excerpts does give one quite a few glimpses of critical stupidity: the consis­tent reference to “serial procedures” in some of Barber’s music, for example. One would expect most critics to know that the use of a theme containing all 12 notes is not a “serial procedure.” One writer even talks about Barber’s use of “post-Webern” techniques. Unbelievable! We are also made aware of some nice examples of plagiarism from one Ph.D. dissertation to another. One more gripe—for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, the entity that “processed” all this material consistently changed the word “harmonies” to “harmonics”—dozens of times. Why? The two words mean very different things.

I don’t mean to be gunning down Mr. Hennessee here. It’s just that this is a non-book, the product of an age in which data-processing has become a major virtuoso activity and in which the exercise of knowledge, intelligence, and thoughtful judgment as means of providing com­municative insight have become increasingly obsolete. The best that can be said for this “bio­bibliography” is that it may be a time-saver for someone who one day wants to write a book about Samuel Barber.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 11, “All Men Are Brothers”. Armenian Rhapsody No. 1. Prayer for St. Gregory. Tzaikerk.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 11, “All Men Are Brothers”. Armenian Rhapsody No. 1. Prayer for St. GregoryTzaikerk. Royal Phil. Orch., Alan Hovhaness, cond (Symphony). Thomas Stevens, trumpet; Gretel Shanley, flute; Eudice Shapiro, violin; Crystal Chamb. Orch., Ernest Gold, cond. CRYSTAL CD 801 (compact disc)

One of the complaints voiced most often with regard to compact discs concerns playing time. While touted for their capacity for more than an hour of music, few releases from the major companies do more than merely duplicate the contents of their analog-disc counterparts. But inasmuch as the public response to CDs has been so strong, the large companies, which dominate the market almost exclusively, have little motivation to offer more. Now, as the smaller American companies begin to enter the market, some are wisely recombining the con­tents of earlier releases into new, longer programs. A case in point is this new CD from Crystal, featuring the music of Alan Hovhaness.

For the past few years, Crystal has been distributing Poseidon Society discs, which are de­voted almost exclusively to the music of Hovhaness. This CD contains the entire contents of Poseidon Society 1001, in addition to selections from Crystal’s own all-Hovhaness disc (S-800), adding up to a rather diverse but representative program of the composer’s music, lasting 53 minutes (still less than the CD’s capacity).

Hovhaness is a composer one either accepts on faith or not. His pure, simple efforts to evoke states of mystical rapture have at times resulted in works of striking originality and great spiritual beauty, flavored with a captivating exoticism; at other times he has created music of such awkward, simplistic amateurishness and numbing banality as to boggle the mind and move one to question one’s more favorable judgments. The Symphony No. 11, “All Men Are Brothers,” a 32-minute work in three movements, can be viewed both ways. Ostensibly composed during the 1960s (the chronology of Hovhaness’ output is notoriously chaotic), the sym­phony is stylistically incongruous with the composer’s other works from that decade. In fact, the work’s first appearance on discs during the early 1970s was something of a shock, because its simple-minded chromatic melodies, accompanied by a crude sort of chromatic harmony, which culminated in grandiose romantic gestures and sonorities, harked back to the kind of music the composer wrote during the 1930s—music reputed to have been destroyed in a great, self-purging fire. To the bewilderment of Hovhaness specialists, this early style was to become the basis for the painfully inflated and phlegmatic music that the composer has produced since the early ’70s. Thus, the 11th Symphony may have anticipated this stylistic change. But the work contains features from other periods as well: The long, central movement contains a striking Armenian processional, with dance-like and fugal elements, and there is much of the Christian hymn-like music that was common during the 1950s. While there are moments in which the music’s fervent intensity is convincing, much of it is strenuous but empty bombast. Listeners’ reactions to Hovhaness’ music vary greatly; readers will have to decide for themselves.

Those whose interest is engaged by the foregoing should be encouraged to learn that the digital reprocessing of the original analog tapes and their transformation into CD format have resulted in sound quality that is vastly superior to the miserable old Poseidon pressings. The performance was always fine anyway, but now its effect is greatly enhanced by the absence of background noise and a fuller, more brilliant sonority. (Hovhaness enthusiasts will have much reason for excitement if the same treatment is accorded the Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate,” which is probably the best piece of music to be recorded by the Poseidon Society, if not the greatest of all Hovhaness works—and, I might add, perhaps the worst of all the Poseidon pressings.)

The three other pieces are relatively modest efforts from the 1940s, representative of the composer’s mainstream Armenian style. The Prayer of St. Gregory is one of his most popular pieces—a lovely hymn for trumpet and strings that has appeared several times on recording. The Armenian Rhapsody No. 1is one of the few Hovhaness pieces to use actual folk melodies, and is no more or less effective than other pieces of this kind. Tzaikerk is an 11-minute fantasy for violin, flute, and strings—pretty, but too long and drawn out for its material. These pieces hold few difficulties for the performers, who do a perfectly acceptable job.

More interest and value will be injected into the CD scene as other small companies enter the fray. Hopefully they will follow the practice exemplified here, of longer programs, created in ways that offer alternatives to the analog disc releases. My only complaint concerning the format of this disc is that the movements of the symphony are not tracked individually.

ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius.

ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius. Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Helen Watts, alto; Robert Lloyd, bass; London Philharmonic Choir; John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS-827246X (two LPs), produced by Christopher Bishop

The choral works of Sir Edward Elgar have not been absorbed into the mainstream international repertoire the way his orchestral works have, in recent years. The Dream of Gerontius, venerated as a classic in England, where choral music plays a central role, is still something of a rarity here. I have encountered a surprising number of aficionados of late-Romantic music who remain ignorant of this work, which Richard Strauss praised lavishly when he heard it in 1902. Elgar himself wrote, “This is the best of me,” and his esteemed biographer Michael Kennedy describes it as “wholly Elgarian in its fluency and its remarkable combination of grandiloquence, ecstasy, and intimacy,” while Sir John Barbirolli sensed that it was “written in a constant white heat of inspiration.” I myself am in the fullest agreement with these observations.

Probably its text and subject matter are responsible for its relative neglect in this country, as Cardinal Newman’s florid, elevated piety could hardly be less in keeping with today’s cul­tural climate. Concerning the journey of a dying man’s soul as it leaves his body and rises to face its judgment, in the company of a sympathetic Guardian Angel, who comforts it, discuss­ing its fears and uncertainties, this dramatic poem was viewed as anachronistic even when it appeared in 1865. Dvořak had intended to set the poem, but reconsidered in light of its con­troversial content. Elgar’s decision in 1898 to use it as the subject of a major work signified a public assertion of his own Catholicism, which had until then been a source of discomfort and embarrassment for him.

In music, however, religious sentiments that blaze with mystical fervor are usually more compelling than those (e.g., Brahms’ German Requiem) that are diluted by detachment and apologetic rationalism. The intensity of Elgar’s conviction results here in a work of consistent exaltation, nobility, and spiritual beauty, a work in which vocal solos, operatic in their melodic immediacy, are masterfully integrated with spacious choral writing and majestic but dignified orchestration. The sheer musical interest is so high that the work’s two long, unbroken sections, which treat this rarefied spiritual content with little contrast in pace or mood for more than 90 minutes, never lapse into dullness.

There have been four stereo recordings of Gerontius, all originating in England: one, from 1965, featuring tenor Richard Lewis and mezzo Janet Baker, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, at one time issued on Angel SB-3660, and still available from England as EMI SLS-770; Lon­don 1293, released in 1972, featuring the late Peter Pears and Yvonne Minton, and conducted by Benjamin Britten; CRD 1026/7, released in 1977, with soloists Robert Tear and Alfreda Hodgson, and conductor Alexander Gibson, available for a few years as Vanguard VSD­71258/9; and Boult’s 1976 recording, still in print as EMI SLS-987, but newly reissued in Musical Heritage Society’s easily accessible, bargain-priced, no-frills packaging (though with Michael Kennedy’s informative liner notes intact).

On the occasion of the Vanguard release in 1980 I compared all four versions (see Fanfare 3:5, pp. 74-76), finding the most satisfactory to be those conducted by Boult and Barbirolli. Both conductors had the benefit of close personal association with the composer’s own personal interpretation of the work. This is not necessarily an unqualified key to musical understanding, but in this case, at any rate, seems to have left the two with a more sympathetic attitude toward the work. Of the two, Boult’s recording is the more polished in almost every respect and is thus probably the more appealing to the casual listener: Nicolai Gedda offers the best Gerontius of all of them—the only one not disfigured by vocal flaws and mannerisms. Moreover, Gedda is the only one to imbue Gerontius with the human, flesh-and-blood quality distinctly indicated by Elgar. Robert Lloyd offers stunning renditions of the two bass solos, while Helen Watts is a fine, musically sensitive Angel. In addition, the sound quality is the best of the four, with a fullness and spaciousness that do justice to superb orchestral and choral performances.

However, there is one unfortunate liability with this performance: the conducting of Sir Adrian himself. Although Boult is held in high esteem by many, my own admiration for him is limited to his bringing to the public so many of the glories of the 20th-century English orchestral repertoire—the music of Vaughan Williams and others. Indeed, I believe it is his almost exclusive association with this repertoire that is largely responsible for his high reputation. But I have always found him to be quite a dull, pedestrian interpreter, with very little to contribute in the way of musical insight. In those cases, as in Gerontius, where he attempted to offer more than a purely literal reading, the results could be awfully insensitive, with misgauged tempo modifications that distorted the work’s dramatic topography. Weaknesses of this kind are espe­cially destructive to the impression made by an unfamiliar work as they may easily go unno­ticed, their consequences attributed to the work itself. For this reason, I urge listeners to seek out the Barbirolli recording, at least as a second version. Here despite dated sonics, mediocre orchestral playing from the Hallé Orchestra, and a strident, sibilant (but musically intelligent) Richard Lewis, one encounters a deeply sensitive, profoundly loving conception. Barbirolli’s phrasing is meticulous, projecting the impact of the work with awe-inspiring eloquence. Moreover, with no slight intended toward the artistry of Helen Watts, Yvonne Minton, or Alfreda Hodgson, who grace the three other recordings with exceedingly fine renderings of the role of the Angel, they must all bow before Janet Baker (who, in a radio interview, aptly cited this recording as one of the greatest achievements of her career). Her incandescent portrayal offers a warmth and intimacy that becomes a true embodiment of the almost maternal devotion sug­gested by Elgar’s music.

So we are left with two almost complementary mixed blessings that, admittedly, create a problem for the listener contemplating a single version of this masterpiece. (I would recommend going for both of them.) One more warning must be raised regarding this MHS reissue: The surfaces of my review copy were quite poor; listeners with reasonably sensitive equipment are advised to proceed with caution.

RUBBRA: Symphonies: No. 5; No. 10. Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby. A Tribute. BLISS: Checkmate: Five Dances.

RUBBRA: Symphonies: No. 5; No. 10. Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby. A Tribute.  BLISS: Checkmate: Five Dances. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No. 5);West Australian Symphony Orchestra (Bliss); Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by Hans-Hubert Schonzeler. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS-827285Y (two discs), produced by David HArvey and Brian Couzens.

Edmund Rubbra died earlier this year, at the age of 85, one of the finest of those to carry on the true symphonic tradition into our time. Although record companies like Chandos and Lyrita have begun to make Rubbra’s contribution known to the “serious record collector,” the mainstream music world knows virtually nothing of his magnificent legacy, partly because major conductors, whose ignorance defines the limits of what is performed by the more visible orchestras, are largely unaware of his existence. This is especially regrettable because Rubbra is the sort of 20th-century composer whom the mainstream music world is presumably looking for: that is, a composer with a unique personal vision, capable of illuminating and enriching human experience, while using a language that is accessible enough not to obscure his meaning from the general listener. There is no great shortage of such composers, but Rubbra is one of the most rewarding, with 11 symphonies that document nearly half a century in the evolution of a deeply sincere and compassionate spiritual/philosophical perspective. Devoid of cheap tricks or meretricious effects, Rubbra’s music is consistently noble and lofty, yet never preten­tious (except to those for whom simply to strive toward a major metaphysical statement is a pretense). For these reasons, his music has often been compared with Bruckner’s, although I find that Rubbra offers an experience of broader dimensions.

As a (presumably unintentional) memorial, Musical Heritage Society is reissuing as a set two Chandos releases devoted largely to the music of Rubbra (Chandos ABR-1018, reviewed in Fanfare 6:6, pp. 158-59; Chandos CBR-1023/CHAN-8378, reviewed in Fanfare 8:3, pp. 233-34). The relatively large membership of the Musical Heritage Society is fortunate in hav­ing this music made so inexpensively and so readily available to them—especially because one of the works—the Symphony No. 5—is an ideal introduction to the Rubbra symphonies.

Composed in 1948, the Fifth represents something of a departure from Rubbra’s previous symphonies in its adherence to more conventional norms, its balanced contrasts of mood, and its more moderate emotional cast in particular. While perhaps not Rubbra’s most profound work, it is by no means shallow; but it does provide an especially accessible initiation to the procedures through which his symphonic structures are built: the slow, largely polyphonic un­folding of material whose identity is maintained through intervallic unity. Abrupt shifts in mood and sharp contrasts are avoided in favor of the gradual accumulation of energy and com­plexity. While the second and fourth movements approach an uncharacteristic levity that is less to my taste (which is admittedly peculiar in its preference for consistency of mood), the first and third movements reveal moments of an almost Mahlerian elegiac lyricism that haunt the listener long after the work is done.

The Symphony No. 10, composed in 1974, represents considerable further development, though it remains unmistakably the product of the same sensibility. It is a relatively brief (17 minutes) symphony in one movement, fully integrated by an overall consistency of vision and tone. It is more abstract and less overtly melodic than the Fifth, but direct and sincere at all times. One of the marvels of Rubbra’s mature work is its open-endedness, the sense of freedom and spontaneity with which it appears to unfold, but which never seems aimless or episodic thanks to the motivic discipline and logic that prevails. Listening to Rubbra’s music, one can­not fail to feel close to the spirits of Roman Catholicism and Buddhism that seemed to exert a strong influence on the content and tone of his work. His symphonies are reflections on the ebb and flow of life and the cosmos, delivered by a benign but somewhat removed observer—un­hurried without being prolix, improvisatory without being digressive. These contemplations may be tender or tempestuous, but they are always gracefully articulated. Their somber tone and lofty perspective are likely to suggest Sibelius, especially in the Tenth Symphony, where the similarity is quite strong. But Rubbra achieves a linear coherence that often eluded his Finnish predecessor.
In addition to these two symphonies, a couple of less important works are also included in the set. A Tribute was composed in 1942, in honor of the 70th birthday of Vaughan Williams. Similar in style to Rubbra’s contemporaneous symphonic movements, it consists of a solemn, long-breathed introduction, followed by a brief, rather stiff-edged quasi-scherzo.

Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby is a diverting suite constructed in 1938, along the lines of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances—light and refreshing in tone, but somewhat subdued in coloration, befitting the temperament of the composer-arranger.

In this context the suite from Sir Arthur Bliss’s earliest ballet, Checkmate (1937), seems a little out of place. The music is bright, cinematic, and colorful in its post-Elgarian, cosmopolitan, English urbanity, but its substance is quite trivial.

Conductor Hans-Hubert Schönzeler is known as a Bruckner specialist, so his attraction to Rubbra is not surprising. While his interest in the music is welcome, his performances tend to be a little stiff and cold. More flexibility, or perhaps a more polished orchestra, might help.

Chandos recordings are justly praised for their fine sound quality, which is reflected in this reissue. But Chandos is also known for its impeccable surfaces—among the best in the world—and Musical Heritage Society is not, unfortunately. This set is recommended, then, to those who want an inexpensive introduction to the music of Rubbra and don’t mind the risk of noisy surfaces. Others are urged to locate the still-quite-available Chandos originals, premium-priced, but premium-quality.

J. POWELL Sonate Psychologique. Variations and Double-Fugue on a Theme of F. C. Hahr

J. POWELL: Sonate Psychologique. Variations and Double-Fugue on a Theme of F. C. Hahr. Roy Hamlin Johnson, piano. CRI SD-505, produced by Carter Harman.

John Powell belongs to the generation of American composers that also produced Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Wallingford Riegger. Like Riegger, Powell was born in the South, but, unlike Riegger, he remained there (in Virginia) for most of his life, until his death in 1963 at the age of 81. There he developed a reputation as one of Virginia’s leading musical figures, known as a composer of works infused with the flavor of Anglo-American (and, to a lesser extent, Afro-American) folk music.

Like Griffes and Riegger, Powell spent the early years of the century in Europe. In Vienna he studied piano with Leschetizky and composition with Navratil, garnering some praise as a pianist. During these pre-World War I years Powell wrote a number of large-scale piano works, thoroughly European in stylistic orientation and accompanied by ponderous philosophical commentaries. (Powell seemed to have some strange interests: He founded a Fresh Air Society, dedicated to a doctrine of “Oneness,” supposedly epitomized by the Teutonic character, and a Society for the Preservation of Racial Integrity; he also achieved some note as an amateur astronomer for his discovery of a comet.) In recent years, pianist-musicologist Roy Hamlin Johnson has devoted much energy toward bringing this music to light. The culminating work of Powell’s early period is his enormous Sonata Teutonica, completed in 1913 and introduced in London by Benno Moiseivitch. Johnson abridged the work to a modest 42 minutes, recording it for CRI (SD-368) in 1977. Now Johnson offers two more of Powell’s ambitious piano compositions, the Sonate Psychologique of 1905 and the Variations and Double-Fugue on a Theme of F. C. Hahr of 1907.

These two works, displaying the same qualities found in the Sonata Teutonica, are consistently serious in tone, dense in texture, and expansive in scope, inhabiting a style formed from the languages of Liszt and early Brahms. Traces of Rachmaninoff may also be heard in the Sonate Psychologique, a work prefaced by the motto, “The Wages of Sin is Death.” What first strikes the listener is how thoroughly irrelevant and unrelated are Powell’s portentous philosophical appendages to the content of the music, which, despite its unrelieved solemnity, is ut­terly prosaic. At its best, in the more lightly textured passages, moments of authentic prettiness emerge, revealing faint traces of American melodic phraseology within the Lisztian filigree. Nor can one deny Powell’s competence in exploiting the full range of romantic piano figuration. But the overall effect is of thundering banality, overly labored, and devoid of personal flair.

F. C. Hahr was a student of Liszt and Scharwenka, who came to the U.S. to fight in the Confederate army. One of Powell’s piano teachers, Hahr was memorialized in a set of varia­tions with double fugue hewn with the dogged diligence reflected in the composer’s other works of the period. Similarly Germanic in style, the work was also performed by Moiseivitch in Europe, where it was received favorably.

Though these works cannot be said to prompt a major reassessment of the artistic stature or importance of John Powell, their historical value lies in further illuminating the still largely unknown repertoire of American concert music—past as well as present. In that context, Powell’s contribution holds some interest and, in bringing it to our attention, Roy Hamlin Johnson serves as a useful, informative authority. Powell’s music is not easy to play, however, and, though Johnson labors valiantly to bring it to life, his performances lack dynamism and contrast, emphasizing the music’s plodding quality and its tendency toward textural monotony. 

BLOCH: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. SARASATE: Introduction and Tarantella. PROKOFIEF: Sonata for Violin Solo.

BLOCH:   Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.   SARASATE:   Introduction and Tarantella.   PROKOFIEF:   Sonata for Violin Solo.   Mischa Lefkowitz, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. LAUREL LR-134 (digital), produced by rierschel 3urke Gilbert, $9.98. (Available from Laurel, 2451 Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, CA 90046)

Laurel, the remarkable record company run by the indefatigable Herschel Burke Gilbert, continues its landmark traversal of the major works of Ernest Bloch with a brilliant new performance of the composer’s 1938 Violin Concerto. The disc also marks the recording debut of young Latvian violinist Mischa Lefkowitz, winner of the 1983 International American Music Competition, among other awards and prizes.

Although it has always had its share of admirers, Bloch’s Violin Concerto has never been a favorite of mine. Its recurrent motto theme, ostensibly derived from American Indian sources but unmistakably Blochian nonetheless, proclaims itself in a way that sounds stubbornly dogmatic, the result of hewing too tightly to the tonic. The expansively rhapsodic first movement seems strained and rhetorical, drawing one’s attention to mannerisms used more effectively elsewhere in the composer’s output. The gently nocturnal second movement is the most successful portion of the work, projecting an ethereal aura strongly tinged with middle-eastern exoticism. The third movement introduces sunnier thematic material, similar to the Alpine pastoralism found in Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 and other works. This more optimistic disposition eventually triumphs, through a reconciliation with the turbulent material of the first movement. 

The concerto was introduced the year of its completion by Joseph Szigeti, who recorded it shortly thereafter. That performance, with Charles Munch leading the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire, is still available on Turnabout THS-65007. Others who have recorded it include Roman Totenberg, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Vladimir Golschmann (Vanguard VRS-1083) and Yehudi Menuhin, a staunch advocate of Bloch’s music, who recorded the work in 1963 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki (Angel 36192).   All three of these performances have much to recommend them — accuracy, sensitivity, sympathy with the music — although none of them is notable for tonal beauty, tending instead toward a rather thin, wiry quality.  In the face of this competition, Lefkowitz acquits himself quite well, with the most incisive and tightly focused interpretation of all, as well as the most tonally refined. However, the strongest feature of this recording, in comparison with its predecessors, is the quality of the recording itself, which has a richness and vividness that distinguish it as a recording of the 1980s, giving it a distinct advantage. The London Philharmonic under Paul Freeman’s direction provides adequate support.

Also included on the disc is what is billed as the first recording of the orchestral version of Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella. The lack of musical content in this sort of showpiece enables the violinist to relax and “show his stuff” to those in the audience who regard music like this as the test of a performer. Such listeners will find no fault with Lefkowitz’s execution.

Presenting another side of his artistry, Lefkowitz tackles Prokofiev’s 1947   Sonatafor unaccompanied violin. Prokofiev was too essentially a melodic-homophonic type of composer to be really successful at this sort of piece which requires either a contrapuntal or a concentratedly motivic conception in order to be of substantial interest. Instead, the result gives the impression of an accompanied piece in the composer’s cheerfully neoclassical vein, minus the accompaniment.While providing a challenge to the performer, it fails to satisfy the listener’s appetite for what Prokofiev does best. Nevertheless, here as well Lefkowitz presents a vigorous and acutely accurate performance. I look forward to hearing him in further explorations of adventurous repertoire — and to further entries in Laurel’s Bloch cycle. Most urgently needed are two inexplicable overlooked pieces: the symphonic suite Evocations and Two Last Poems for flute and orchestra. 

BLOCH: Symphony in C# minor

BLOCH: Symphony in C# minor. St. Louis Philharmonic conducted by Robert Hart Baker. ERNEST BLOCH SOCIETY EBS-001 [free with $15 membership in Ernest Bloch Society, 34844 Old Stage Road, Gualala, CA 95445].

Here, for the first time on records, is the long-awaited Symphony in C-Sharp minor of Ernest Bloch. Upon hearing the Z1-year-old composer render it at the piano, Eugene Ysaye exclaimed, “This is beautiful, large, powerful, of immense scope…. the work of an artist and poet.” Romain Rolland wrote, “Your symphyony is one of the most important creations of the modern school. I do not know of any other work in which is revealed a more opulent, a more vigorous, a more impassioned temperament…. I guarantee that you will become one of the master musicians of our time.”

Bloch composed the work in Munich in 1901, shortly after completing his studies with Iwan Knorr in Frankfurt. Its first complete performance took place in Geneva in 1908, under the direction of Bernhard Stavenhagen. There were several subsequent performances, but the large, demanding work had not been played in more than 30 years-nor for nearly 60 years in this country. Then in January 1984, the symphony was presented by the St. Louis Philharmonic, an amateur ensemble that Eugene Ormandy described as “the finest nonprofessional orchestra in the world.” This recording derives from that performance.

Many composers have concluded their period of apprenticeship with a particularly ambitious statement. On rare occasions, such a work proves to be a masterpiece, e.g., Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder; but usually not, e.g., Stravinsky’s Symphony in Eb. But in either case, such works are fascinating, because they usually reveal, with little camouflage, the formative stylistic influences and aesthetic standards operating on the composer as his identity is being formed, as well as the extent of his mastery of the technical matters required in order to meet these standards. It is also fascinating to contemplate the degree and manner in which the issues and concerns set forth in such a work are retained and developed in the composer’s maturity.

All these factors make Bloch’s Symphony in C# minor an important — indeed, indispensable — item for those who regard Bloch as one of the seminal musical figures of the first half of this century. The work, scored for large orchestra, lasts 46 minutes. The spirit of the symphony is made clear from the beginning of the first movement, a throbbing, portentous introduction that builds to a huge climax before the appearance of the main allegro agitato. Bloch initially entitled this movement, “The Tragedy of Life — Doubts, Struggles, Hopes”; I am sure that the reader can already begin to imagine the music — a vehement late-Romantic drama of metaphysical conflicts, in which the sense of struggle is relieved only by a subordinate theme of ardent lyricism.

While the experienced listener will have no difficulty identifying the work as to time and place, there are no indications or earmarks identifying it as a work of Bloch. Only in the third movement do elements of the composer’s mature style emerge at all. The music does not really resemble the style of any composer in particular, but does suggest a generalized sense of turn-of-the-century German music with a French touch — not Debussy, though, so much as d’Indy.

The second movement is the weakest, in which a melody of Mahlerian tenderness is overdeveloped, becoming mawkish in the extreme, and culminates in a grandiose apotheosis that is intolerably blatant. One might mention at this point that while he was writing the symphony, Bloch was still (eagerly) awaiting his first exposure to the music of Mahler. This took place in 1903, when he heard the “Resurrection” Symphony in Basel. He described it as “a titanic work…. among the greatest ever born of human genius…. His music, everywhere expressive, is a means of recreating life, of crystallizing joy, suffering and all human emotions……”  Considering these comments in light of the symphony he had written two years earlier, one realizes that Bloch, always a fervent proponent of music as a vehicle for emotion, must have seen Mahler as a kindred spirit, whose independent pursuit of similar goals must have confirmed for him the legitimacy of his own strivings. Ultimately, owing partly to biographical circumstances — his longevity among them — Bloch developed a broader, more fully evolved musical personality. 

The third movement is a driving scherzo, somewhat Brucknerian in tone, but with tritones and augmented triads featured prominently, which provide the only evidence in the work of Bloch’s mature style. Contrasting material features the kind of Swiss Alpine pastoralism also found in Helvetia and the third movement of the Concerto Grosso No.1.

The fourth movement is (what else?) a large symphonic fugue, based on a subject whose angularity again suggests Mahler. After a diligent workout, the entire symphony culminates in a reprise of the two elements of faith and hope: the second theme of the first movement and the melody of the slow movement, now inflated to a level of grandiloquence exceeding anything heard earlier in the work.

The symphony proclaims itself as a work of apprenticeship through a consistent tendency toward overelaboration: that which could be suggested or implied is always spelled out completely. Of course, if this is the work of an apprentice, he is a talented and accomplished apprentice, indeed: attention is paid at all times to matters of motivic development, harmonic richness, melodic growth, formal balance, contrapuntal interest, splendor of orchestration — nothing is overlooked. The tone is serious and sincere. But, unfortunately, there is nothing in the entire work that is really surprising, that takes one’s interest from the musicological to the purely musical. It simply does not proceed in any direction that one hasn’t predicted beforehand, nor is the thematic material really striking in any state of transformation or development. In trying to place the work for the reader, the closest I can come is the Symphony No. 2 of Scriabin, composed at about the same time, and sharing many of the very same stylistic and structural traits. But even in that work the quality of Scriabin’s thematic material is far more distinctive. (Yes, Scriabin was eight years older at the time.)

It is difficult to evaluate this performance with any sense of fairness. First of all, we are deeply indebted to the orchestra and to its conductor Robert Hart Baker for making available a work that knowledgeable listeners have been clamoring to hear for years. At the same time honesty compels one to concede that there is no way a nonprofessional orchestra can play a work as demanding as this without sounding exactly like what it is. Typically, passages in the extreme registers are badly out of tune and ragged — the players are clearly strained. But the totality does hold together; it does not require great imagination to conjure in one’s mind what a performance of the work by the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, might sound like. Baker, who is barely 30 years old, has won great praise for his ambitious programming of difficult and lesser-known works. His conception of the piece is quite convincing, and the orchestra realizes that conception without stinting in its efforts; it is this that enables one to fully grasp the work in spite of deficiencies in execution and sonority.

This private release was recorded with high-quality equipment and pressed by Europadisk, using direct metal mastering, so that the quality of the record itself is superb. Extensive and highly informative program notes are included. This is a release of unquestionable musicological importance, and I am grateful that it has been made available.   

SHOSTAKOVICH Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99

  • I. Nocturne: Moderato
  • II. Scherzo: Allegro
  • III. Passacaglia: Andante
  • IV. Burlesca: Allegro con brio

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Dmitri Shostakovich did not emigrate from the Soviet Union, but chose to remain there his entire life. Recognized as the leading Soviet composer, as well as one of the twentieth century’s most important musical creators, he left a body of work that demonstrates the continuing viability of such traditional musical genres as the symphony, the string quartet, and the concerto.

But against the backdrop of his great international reputation, his own life represented a profound compromise — musically as well as morally. For in order to protect himself and his family in a society in which his own eminence made him especially vulnerable to attack, he was forced to yield to continual pressure that he adopt artistic principles rooted in political objectives and suppress any personal artistic impulses that deviated from these principles. Thus accepting the role of Soviet artist, he numbly mouthed platitudes he did not believe, and resignedly composed much empty patriotic music that he loathed. At the same time, he developed a personal code–a double language through which he could express himself, seeming to say one thing while meaning another. He conveyed these deliberate ambiguities through subtle incongruities and sarcastic implications that are not always easy to decipher, thus contributing to much of the confusion and ambivalence that has always surrounded  Shostakovich’s musical reputation.

Such “code languages” are common among oppressed peoples, such as American blacks and Jews throughout history. Itis probably his awareness of this that accounted for Shostakovich’s great sense of kinship with the Jews and for his use of Jewish motifs as important symbols in his music. In his memoirs, Testimony, he is quoted as saying, “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me … It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality … is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music.”

It is illuminating to bear these thoughts in mind while considering Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, one of his most important and deeply profound works and a concerto that stands today among the masterpieces of the violin repertoire. The late 1940s was one of Shostakovich’s most difficult periods, a time when he was enjoying unprecedented international celebrity while being subjected to official condemnation at home, a time when his music was played everywhere in the world but in Russia, where his colleagues denounced him to their advantage. During this period Shostakovich kept his most serious works to himself, while releasing only the safest sort of rousing, patriotic bluster.

Thus, though the First Violin Concerto was completed in 1948, it was not performed until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, when it was introduced by David Oistrakh, to whom it was dedicated. The orchestration of the work is somewhat unusual, omitting trumpets and trombones, while featuring the celesta and xylophone prominently. This lends a particular delicacy and transparency to the overall sonority. In four movements, rather than the typical three, the concerto resembles a symphony in many ways, especially in its predominantly serious mood. The first movement is entitled Nocturne, and unfolds like a brooding, hauntingly contemplative soliloquy.

This is followed by a scherzo movement. Despite an initially jocular appearance, this movement builds in intensity to a wild and bitter dance with a distinctly Jewish flavor, recalling the quotation cited above. This movement also includes a motif derived from Shostakovich’s own name–a sort of musical signature that appeared in many of his most intimate compositions. The scherzo is followed by another slow movement–a passacaglia, a traditional form associated with the most solemn and profound type of expression. One of Shostakovich’s most deeply beautiful movements, it leads directly to an extended cadenza. Rather than providing merely the expected exhibition of virtuosity, this cadenza maintains the level of intensity while offering a thorough development of the concerto’s motivic material. The cadenza then leads directly into the finale, a raucous Burlesca that parallels the sardonic quality of the scherzo. Throughout the work there is a tense duality between a deeply personal emotional expression and an obligatory sense of cheerfulness, the latter always undercut by a fierce sense of bitterness. This is the central issue in the work of Shostakovich.

“SERENADING THE RELUCTANT EAGLE: American Musical Life, 1925-1945” By Nicholas Tawa

SERENADING THE RELUCTANT EAGLE: American Musical Life, 1925-1945.  By Nicholas Tawa. 261 pp.  New York: Schirmer Books, 1984, $19.95.

Few books on the subject of American concert music provide much of either value or interest.  Most tend to fall into one of two categories: those that aim toward comprehensiveness but become little more than compendia of names, dates, places of birth, and random lists of titles, with little or no attention to musical content or critical evaluation; and those that focus on a limited number of presumably representative composers.  In books of this kind (like Rockwell’s All American Music) the selection of composers is rarely made from a truly informed perspective, but rather from a superficial awareness of that portion of the spectrum currently in the limelight.  This approach would not be so misleading were it not for the fact that in this country the limelight has always had a focus both too narrow and too shallow to be of any value and its force is determined by factors that are more political than artistic; hence books of this kind are no more illuminating than official texts on contemporary music in the Soviet Union.  Furthermore, succeeding generations of books on American music have tended to inherit the errors, omissions, and misunderstandings of their predecessors, while contributing a few more of their own.  Thus it is somewhat astonishing to encounter in Nicholas Tawa’s Serenading the Reluctant Eagle a real awareness of the context in which American music has developed, knowledge of the music itself, and even a concern for the situation just described with regard to the literature on the subject.  Tawa is a musicologist from the University of Massachusetts in Boston who has focused on the issue of music in relation to American culture, and it is this perspective that he brings to the subject. Concentrating on the period between the two world wars — a period that has been called “The Golden Age of American Music” — Tawa analyzes a number of the cultural and political attitudes that underlie the situation, influencing the course of events in the public arena.

The book is organized along two dimensions: One is chronological.  Tawa sets the stage by describing a musical culture so intent on justifying itself according to snobbish European attitudes — both social and intellectual — that it was more than willing to alienate its legitimate constituency — its audience — in the process.  While our cultural patriarchs scorned American vulgarity from a pose of aristocratic gentility, spokesmen for the avant-garde derided middle class standards from a perspective of haughty intellectual superiority.  Since it is a truism of human communication that people cannot be won over by being denigrated, during the 1920s the American public responded by withdrawing from the music of its own culture, understandably finding it irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

During the 1930s composers began to recognize their cultural irrelevancy and attempted to embrace a more populist approach.  This new attitude found intellectual legitimacy as a corollary of the leftist political styles then in vogue.  From this perspective avant-garde experimentation was viewed as irresponsibly elitist.  Many of those who had denounced bourgeois taste most contemptuously a few years earlier were now bending over backwards to appeal to the “common man” through accessible works that often drew upon vernacular musical idioms.  Whatever its roots in vain intellectual fashion, this attitude resulted in a number of constructive steps — constructive, at least, according to the democratic notion that drawing people in is more desirable than alienating them — culminating in the WPA Arts Project of the late 1930s.  Though short-lived, this project poured large sums of money into an effort to bring concert music — especially American concert music — to a broad-based public.  During a period of four years, 6,000 works by 1,600 American composers were performed all over the country, reaching and involving people from all walks of life.  Tawa calls this period “one of the highest points in American cultural history.”

However, World War II and a philistine political backlash brought this program to an end.  Moreover, many of the refugees who fled to this country from Europe were prominent musicians who espoused “internationalism” in artistic matters, which really meant a reinstatement of European attitudes and techniques and a virtual boycott of those American composers who resisted this line of thinking — at least of those who had not gained enough of a foothold, as had Barber and Copland, for example, to achieve immunity.  The period of rapprochement between composer and audience was over and the attitude of mutual suspicion returned, remaining until the mid 1970s, when composers once again began to address the question of their own accountability.

Simultaneously with this chronicle, Tawa has divided his book into chapters that focus on the attitudes expressed, respectively, by composers, by intermediaries (performers, critics, boards of directors, arts patrons), and by audiences, before summarizing the actual musical contributions of the most prominent composers of the era — with particular attention to the way they were received in the concert halls.  Organizing the book in this way inevitably entails returning repeatedly to the same issues, viewed each time from a somewhat — sometimes only slightly — different perspective, but such a format has its virtues.  Tawa has drawn his perspective from documents of the time, often written by those who, over the years, have gone on to achieve considerable prominence.  Many of these individuals would probably be embarrassed to see their views expressed without the veneer of moderation that comes with the responsibility of eminence.  But these documents reveal to the reader too young to have lived through the period the attitudes, expressed with brazen arrogance, that have underlain and influenced many of the aspects of American musical life that we have come to accept as “the way it is,” without realizing that “the way it is” now is the result of the self-serving behavior of individuals whose interests lay elsewhere than in the development of a healthy musical culture and that those individuals have been the chief beneficiaries of “the way it is.”

Tawa concludes with a number of proposals for improving the situation surrounding contemporary music in this country.  In keeping with his own orientation he encourages a continued examination of the relationship between composers and their culture, rather than viewing music in a social vacuum.  He urges that music be viewed as a form of two-way communication between composer and listener, entailing a degree of mutual responsibility and mutual accountability.  Of course he encourages us to cease neglecting our own music, a pathetic situation that remains to this day unabated as we continue to welcome foreign conductors and soloists utterly oblivious to the bulk of American music as well as to their obligation to learn about it. (Tawa quotes Koussevitzky’s comment that American audiences “would never understand American orchestral compositions until they heard them conducted by American-born conductors,” a remark that is more appropriate today than it was decades ago, when we had conductors of the stature of Koussevitzky, Stokowski, and others far more able to penetrate the spirit of American works than are the exotic manikins at the helms of most of our major orchestras today.) Tawa underlines what ought to be obvious, but somehow isn’t: that we allow our musical life to be manipulated in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the democratic ideals that underlie (at least vaguely) most of this country’s institutions.  And to those who fatuously argue that artistic quality is inherently undemocratic one can only point to what we hear — the quality of most of the recent compositions that are performed and the general quality of musical performance as evidence that something other than high artistic accomplishment is certainly the operative factor.  Somehow or other the American public has been intimidated into accepting the authority of self-appointed aristocracies regarding their musical life that they would never countenance in other areas and that no other country would countenance in this area.  Tawa urges that federal support of musical institutions be contingent on performance of a certain quantity of American music — a proposal I thoroughly endorse (although I would increase his suggested quota from 12 or 15% to something along the lines of 30%) and which has never been refuted with any cogency.  Tawa even goes so far as to urge that representatives from the general audience participate in the selection of composers to receive grants and awards and that audience polls concerning repertoire policy be a regular practice.

Serenading the Reluctant Eagle boldly confronts many important issues that are rarely addressed in print — largely because of the pervasive timidity of most of those who chronicle our musical life. (Other important issues remain to be addressed: the relevant consequences of ethnic background and sexual preference among musicians and composers, for example.) One may or may not agree with some of Tawa’s particular beliefs — I, for example, do not share his commitment to the necessity of nationalistic musical styles, nor do I believe that most composers cantailor their music to the audience’s level of sophistication. (Composers seem to be at their best when they write from within themselves in the language that is most natural to them.  But if the result is meaningless and irrelevant to most listeners, then it is the responsibility of the “intermediaries” to recognize this and to turn to music that is meaningful and relevant and not allow disgruntled composers to blame listeners for their own failures or to browbeat others into being subjected repeatedly to music they do not enjoy.  There has never been a shortage of high-quality American music capable of reaching listeners, but there have been many factors preventing listeners from hearing that music — as there continue to be today.) But the issues and ideas that Tawa raises are interesting, provocative, and long-overdue in our ongoing public dialogue.  Moreover, his book is written in a direct, conversational style accessible to anyone interested in the subject.  One can only look forward to further studies of this kind — by Tawa himself and by others in the field.  Not only is there room for more examination of the period between the wars, but there is a need for similar analyses of the period since World War II.