• A classic book review about worshipping the latest musical fad

    From Pluted Pup@21:1/5 to All on Thu Mar 23 21:16:21 2023
    Here's a memorable review from the American Record Guide
    from Sep/Oct 2011, written by Lehman. The review is more
    interesting than the subject:

    Critical Convictions

    Voices of Stone and Steel: the Music of William Schuman, Vincent
    Persichetti, and Peter Mennin

    by Walter Simmons, Scarecrow Press, 425 pages (+CD)

    As Walter Simmons points out in the introductory chapter of
    Voices in the Wilderness, his 2004 book on six American modern
    romantic composers (May/June 2004), the narrative outline
    directing the typical history of American concert music since
    1900 starts with provincial, tradition-bound imitations of
    European masters. As the new century progresses, American
    composers begin to find their own voice and assert their artistic
    independence and national pride. Copland, Harris, Gershwin, and
    others begin to incorporate homegrown vernacular music-jazz and
    folk tunes into their works. But by midcentury an influential
    "new music" arrives from post-War Europe. Even Schoenberg┤s
    dodecaphony appears outdated to the proponents of this movement,
    who claiming that tonality is "exhausted," that the old rhetoric
    is irrelevant to a post-War world adopt the austere, cerebral
    serialism of Webern as their touchstone. Stockhausen leads the experimentalists, Boulez the more severe and brittle
    pointillists. The "new music" is quickly taken up by university
    based composers and leads to an efflorescence of fragmentation,
    relentless chromaticism, kaleidoscopic instrumentation, sudden
    and extreme contrasts in dynamics and register, and all sorts of
    new performance techniques. Melodic lyricism and tonal harmonies
    - and the openly romantic emotion they convey - become passÚ,
    even scorned.

    Meanwhile, the turn-of-the-century innovations of Ives are
    rediscovered and canonized as adumbrations of the newly ascendant
    avant-garde, as are the somewhat later experiments of Cowell,
    Ruggles, Crawford-Seeger, and Varese. All of these native
    forerunners and European eminences are seen to lead, by an
    inexorable teleological progression, to the dominance of serial
    techniques and other kinds of "contemporary" procedures,
    culminating in the 1950s and 60s in the rebarbative, complex,
    atonal, special-effects-heavy works and their accompanying
    ideologies of such commanding personalities as Elliott Carter,
    Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and
    Conlon Nancarrow. No matter that audiences hate the avant-garde
    indeed, that┤s a big part of its validation; its best-known
    composers gain stature, fame, even notoriety; its lesser figures
    get professional approval and academic tenure.

    And what of the many unenlightened composers who continue to
    write old-fashioned tonal music using the hallowed forms and
    procedures? Their efforts are denigrated by musical ideologues
    and taste-makers as quaint, anachronistic, or obsolete; their
    place in the story of modern American music is diminished to the
    merely incidental. Such music is, the up-to-date feel, at best
    merely peripheral to the grand narrative outlining the
    historically inevitable march to modernist supremacy; it is not
    to be taken as "serious" or "important".

    Worship of the newest thing is very old, of course. In the 20th
    Century the high priest of musical modernism was Theodore Adorno,
    whose early and harshly doctrinaire promulgation of the view that
    tonality and traditional styles had outlived their usefulness (to
    be replaced by strict Schoenbergian dodecaphony) was hugely
    influential. Copland and other American "populists" merited only
    disdain, Adorno felt, in their hopeless pursuit of outworn
    ideals. By the late 1950s his dogmas had expanded their reach
    (and intensified their exclusivity) in such French critics as
    RenÚ Leibowitz and AndrÚ Hodeir, the latter excoriating anything
    not adhering to the brittle pointillism of Boulez and BarraquÚ,
    specifically singling out (in his polemical screed Since Debussy)
    almost all modern-era American music as hopelessly irrelevant and
    reactionary. Most of it, he claimed indignantly, was no better
    than the hackneyed rubbish spewn out by such dinosaurs as
    Shostakovich.

    Soon this denigration of tonal music spread to American critics
    wanting to keep up with the latest fashions. See, for example,
    the dismissal of Barber┤s "easygoing, sentimental" and "amusing"
    Violin Concerto in his 1966 High Fidelity review by the esteemed
    critic Alfred Frankenstein. Eric Salzman┤s widely used and
    admired 20th-Century Music: An Introduction (1967, revised
    edition 1974) endorsed this attitude with a bit more subtlety by
    simply concentrating on avant-garde developments. Everything else
    was secondary and therefore given only cursory (if any)
    attention. Academic journals such as Perspectives in New Music
    reflected the same bias for many decades. "New music" was atonal
    music, as any issue from the 1950s or 1960s will illustrate. (An
    added attraction was that serial techniques present seductive
    opportunities for impressively abstruse analysis.)

    The view that avant-garde music represents progress, that it is
    the only proper goal of a natural and beneficial aesthetic
    evolution, superseding hidebound tonal, traditional music,
    remains persistent in American music criticism still, in for
    instance Kyle Gann┤s American Music in the 20th Century,
    published in 1997. Even Alex Ross, in his eloquent and impressive
    2008 overview of modern music, The Rest Is Noise - which is
    particularly good in evoking the historical and cultural context
    of 20th Century music - is nevertheless strongly skewed toward
    "the progressive path from Debussy to Boulez and Cage" (as he
    puts it). American experimental composers are given far more
    space and attention than the more traditional figures, with the
    clear implication that they represent the dominant and more
    significant evolutionary strain.

    Walter Simmons┤s Voices in the Wilderness was the first in a
    series of books with the overarching title 20th Century
    Traditionalists intended to present a corrective to that story
    about modern American music. Simmons explicitly rejects both the
    teleological argument that "the evolution of the tonal system
    proceeded according to a linear progression that led inevitably
    to the dissolution of tonality" and the underlying assumption
    "that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of linear
    progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all
    contenders are racing". Simmons┤s history of American music
    instead places much more value on the intrinsic and particular
    virtues, as well as the effect on actual concert audiences, of
    the music written by the many American composers who (in
    different ways) maintained their allegiance to traditional
    melody, harmony, textures, and forms, as well as to the warmth,
    engagement, and immediate, visceral effect these elements convey.
    Those composers also, of course, made many innovations, as all
    imaginative artists do, but for specific communicative reasons,
    not in service of an ideology of "originality" for its own sake.
    They refused to abandon the time-honored musical virtues of
    shapely melodic lines, tonal-based harmonic tension and release,
    clear formal logic, sensuous instrumental color, and the
    expressive purposes to which these qualities have traditionally
    been put their frank appeal to pleasure, their immediate and
    obvious ability to arouse and ennoble human emotion.

    Before going on I should add that just the fact that audiences
    hated so-called "new music" doesn┤t mean that all of it was bad.
    Much was, of course - as indeed could be said of the music in any
    stylistic idiom however new-fangled or old-fashioned. But "new
    music" was, at first, almost impossible to judge, so
    undifferentiated did it sound to its earliest audiences. With
    time it became clear that the idiom┤s trademark excesses and
    extremes quickly degenerated into cliches and (unintentional)
    self-parody, especially when taken up by the legions of Boulez┤s
    inferior imitators. Furthermore, its most devoted practitioners
    tended to run out of worthy ideas and lapse into silence early in
    their careers. Nevertheless there are many well-made and
    expressive compositions that employ atonality and avant-garde
    techniques, even of the iciest and most forbidding mode. I┤m not
    arguing that a more traditional, tonality-based music is always
    or inevitably better - or somehow more "natural" or "proper" -
    than more difficult "new music". There are no doubt certain
    emotions that can only be conveyed by "contemporary" styles and
    devices. My point is that individual works in any and all styles
    should be judged, and their significance assessed, on the basis
    of their merits and not on rigid a priori ideological assumptions
    about what is or isn┤t fashionable or privileged by an imputed
    evolutionary inevitability. Nor should musical history be
    distorted by such assumptions. We need to take a longer view; no
    one today disparages JS Bach for being "old-fashioned" - which he
    was, by the standards of his own time.

    Just such a "longer view" is what Simmons tries to encapsulate in
    the notion of "20th Century traditionalist". This, in Simmons┤s
    use of the term, is a wide, encompassing category. There are many
    different "traditions" and so many different varieties of
    "traditionalists". Fervent romantics like Bloch, Hanson, Barber,
    Creston, Giannini, and Flagello (discussed in Voices in the
    Wilderness) are one kind. Others are nationalist and populist
    composers like Copland, Harris, Gershwin; "multiculturalists"
    like Hovhaness and Harrison, who drew on exotic modes and tried
    to transmit non-Western emotional states; neoclassic composers
    influenced by Stravinsky and Hindemith like Piston and his
    students Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, and Ingolf Dahl; "modernist traditionalists" like Schuman, Persichetti, Mennin, and Diamond,
    whose bolder harmonic vocabulary expanded their range of
    expressive possibilities; and so-called "new romantic" composers
    like George Rochberg and John Corigliano who have since the 1970s
    reasserted the late-romantic heritage of Strauss, Mahler, and
    Puccini.

    All of these in-one-way-or-another "traditionalists" adopted and
    adapted in their works time-honored structural patterns and
    procedures, including tonally-derived harmony and classic
    outlines - passacaglia, fugue, sonata, theme-and-variations,
    rondo, and aria and dance forms. That, after all, is a
    considerable part of what it means to be a "traditionalist". But
    each group had distinct and differentiating characteristics, as
    of course did the individual composers themselves. For Simmons┤s
    second volume in his projected series he has singled out three
    "modernist traditionalist" composers who came to prominence in
    the 1940s and 50s - William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and
    Peter Mennin - who he thinks exemplify (and indeed mark the
    summit) of this particular strand in tradition-based American
    composers of the past century. That all three were long
    associated (as teachers and administrators) with the Juilliard
    School of Music is a less important but by no means negligible
    point of connection among them.

    Though all three were heralded during the early part of their
    careers as bold, strongly profiled personalities and brilliant
    craftsmen (which they certainly were), they suffered from a kind
    of two-sided neglect as more avant-garde figures came to
    prominence. Like such renowned figures as Stravinsky, Bartok, and
    Hindemith (whose music they learned from), they were more
    "modern" and adventurous (especially in their use of dissonance
    and chromaticism) than the more melodious, openly romantic Barber
    and Hanson, but they abstained from the post-Webernian
    pointillism and more extreme "contemporary" effects and
    procedures of the avant-garde (including doctrinaire serialism).
    As a result, typical concert audiences found them too difficult,
    and on the other hand "sophisticated" audiences (such as there
    were) found them too old-fashioned and lacking in cutting-edge
    cachÚ. As Simmons points out, their explorations of a more
    searching and chromatic vocabulary and other recent techniques
    were disdained by the cognescenti as merely belated attempts to
    update their image, "while more conservative listeners failed to
    distinguish their work from that of the avant-garde and viewed
    such efforts as `selling out┤". As a result "their work was
    increasingly marginalized and supported by a dwindling number of
    advocates". Hence the need for a reappraisal of their
    achievement.

    As in Voices in the Wilderness, each chapter in Simmons┤s new
    book offers offers a detailed biographical sketch, a description
    of individual stylistic features of each composer, an assessment
    of the important and representative works that identifies both
    strengths and weaknesses, and a depiction of the larger social
    and cultural context out of which the music arose. There are many
    and extensive quotations from critical opinions (often at some
    variance with each other) and hundreds of citations in the notes
    for each chapter, as well as bibliographies and discographies for
    each composer - and even a compact disc with works by all three
    of them.

    Among the many pleasures and sources of enlightenment offered by
    the book are Simmons┤s penetrating (and sometimes surprising)
    comments about how the personalities of these composers were
    reflected in their music. He is particularly sensitive to the
    contradictions and mysteries that invest the complex relationship
    between the artist and his creations. Schuman, for example, like
    his music, was bold, assertive, confident of his own stature,
    impatient with academic dogma. He had both the inclination and
    assurance to compose large-scale, serious, imposing
    compositions-especially symphonies. There┤s no doubting the
    importance and striking individuality of his best works: the
    Third Symphony, Violin Concerto, and Fourth String Quartet all
    show his declamatory power, lofty eloquence, nervous tension,
    kinetic vigor, and the unmistakable stylistic fingerprints-the
    dramatic gestures, plangent clashing triads, rich yet transparent
    scoring, multi-layered polyphony-that make his music instantly
    recognizable. His muscular sprung rhythms and optimism are felt
    as "American", yet there is a strong tragic vein also in his
    music - for example, in the Sixth Symphony and The Young Dead
    Soldiers.

    On the other hand Schuman is not, as Simmons notes, immune from
    accusations of rhetorical posturing: some commentators have found
    the sonorous but gloomy Eighth Symphony (which I love) more
    grandiose and oratorical than authentically felt. It elicits
    reactions "divided between those who hear it as a profound
    abstract statement and those who hear it as...straining to sound
    profound [with] parts that are stunning in their impact and
    others...the backdrop for something striking that never occurs".
    Curiously, even in his most pessimistic or post-tonal, chromatic
    music, Schuman often ended his works - however peculiar and
    incongruous this became - with a major triad. "One can only
    speculate as to the meaning of this practice for the composer.
    Was it a statement of loyalty to tonality? An inability to
    relinquish hope, or a spirit of optimism?"

    The precociously gifted, likable, easygoing, generous, witty,
    astonishingly fluent, stylistically chameleonic Persichetti
    presents a wonderful contrast to Schuman. There is no hint of
    self-importance in the man or his music, and though he wrote nine
    symphonies and many concerted works, big orchestral works don┤t
    dominate his output as they do for Schuman or Mennin. But
    Persichetti┤s facility and wide-ranging stylistic eclecticism
    (ranging from clear tonality to highly-fragmented atonality),
    along with a certain characteristic emotional coolness - a
    "classic" rather than "romantic" cast - have exacted a cost: his
    music lacks the strong individuality that would make it instantly
    identifiable, and as a result it┤s never gotten the attention
    from press, listeners, performers, and recording companies that
    Schuman┤s music has. Nevertheless there are riches in
    Persichetti┤s oeuvre that as Simmons points out are among the
    high-points in modern American music, including the cycle of 12
    piano sonatas, the Concerto for Piano Four-Hands, the Third
    String Quartet, and the Fifth Symphony. These works evince "a
    summation of modern classicism" combining "a spirit of
    spontaneous improvisation with the definitiveness of total
    premeditation. The result is highly cerebral music with charm,
    wit, grace, tenderness, and dynamism".

    Mennin, the third of this New York triad, is a very different
    sort of man and composer from both Schuman and Persichetti.
    Stern, aloof, and aristocratic in demeanor, he was a deeply
    private man. Behind his humorless, businesslike facade was an
    uncompromising dedication to his aesthetic goals; a seriousness
    and consistency of style, vision, and purpose; and a burning
    intensity (darkening into febrile obsessive mania and deep
    pessimism as he aged) that blazed forth in the rigorous,
    densely-woven counterpoint of his muscular allegros and grave,
    elegiac adagios. There is nothing frivolous about Mennin; he had
    absolutely no interest in writing "minor" or merely charming
    pieces, and his career exhibits a single-minded and "continuous
    process of compression and increasing intensification of
    expression" that, Simmons notes, recalls Bruckner (an astonishing
    comparison I would never have thought of, but - whatever one
    thinks of Mennin┤s symphonies - a very acute one). One
    consequence of Mennin┤s aesthetic and stylistic predilections is
    that he (unlike Schuman and Persichetti) doesn┤t sound
    particularly American, but instead is closer to such Europeans as
    Rubbra, Holmboe, and Simpson (and ultimately to Beethoven),
    composers who "develop abstract ideas logically and coherently,
    while seeming to allude to or address profound existential
    issues...without recourse to extramusical references, but as if
    from a lofty, somewhat depersonalized perspective". Mennin┤s
    symphonies are tough nuts to crack, for me as for many listeners.
    I still find them often impenetrable: too opaque and airless, too
    filled up with notes, and too lacking in clearly shaped and
    separated phrases that I can easily hold in memory. Still,
    Simmons┤s comments on his character helped me to approach them
    with a more open mind - and I┤ve come to admire Mennin┤s 1957
    Piano Concerto (recorded by John Ogdon) and his magnificent
    (though not yet commercially recorded) 1963 Piano Sonata.

    Simmons┤s extraordinary ability to advocate for these composers
    yet see them whole, with all their virtues, difficulties, and
    failings, is a triumph of sensitivity and a lifetime spent in
    thoughtful listening, research, and adjudication. He loves these
    men and their music yet makes careful, nuanced discriminations
    about them, raises questions about their accomplishments
    (sometimes unanswerable), and gives full credit to the intricate
    and unfathomable workings of personality and circumstance that
    bring forth artistic creation. Together with the many detailed
    and perceptive analyses of individual works (strictly verbal -
    there are no music examples) it is this celestial balance of
    judgement and mercy, knowledge and enigma, light and dark, that
    makes Voices of Stone and Steel indispensable for anyone studying
    or simply curious about the achievement of these three
    distinguished and emblematic "modern traditionalist" American
    composers.

    Lehman

    American Record Guide September / October 2011 pages 50 - 53

    --- SoupGate-Win32 v1.05
    * Origin: fsxNet Usenet Gateway (21:1/5)
  • From Dan Koren@21:1/5 to Pluted Pup on Thu Mar 23 21:53:44 2023
    So you read the "Americn" "Record" "Guide"? That is a
    well known admission and certificate of imbecility.

    On Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 9:16:33ÔÇ»PM UTC-7, Pluted Pup wrote:
    Here's a memorable review from the American Record Guide
    from Sep/Oct 2011, written by Lehman. The review is more
    interesting than the subject:

    Critical Convictions

    Voices of Stone and Steel: the Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin

    by Walter Simmons, Scarecrow Press, 425 pages (+CD)

    As Walter Simmons points out in the introductory chapter of
    Voices in the Wilderness, his 2004 book on six American modern
    romantic composers (May/June 2004), the narrative outline
    directing the typical history of American concert music since
    1900 starts with provincial, tradition-bound imitations of
    European masters. As the new century progresses, American
    composers begin to find their own voice and assert their artistic independence and national pride. Copland, Harris, Gershwin, and
    others begin to incorporate homegrown vernacular music-jazz and
    folk tunes into their works. But by midcentury an influential
    "new music" arrives from post-War Europe. Even Schoenberg┬┤s
    dodecaphony appears outdated to the proponents of this movement,
    who claiming that tonality is "exhausted," that the old rhetoric
    is irrelevant to a post-War world adopt the austere, cerebral
    serialism of Webern as their touchstone. Stockhausen leads the experimentalists, Boulez the more severe and brittle
    pointillists. The "new music" is quickly taken up by university
    based composers and leads to an efflorescence of fragmentation,
    relentless chromaticism, kaleidoscopic instrumentation, sudden
    and extreme contrasts in dynamics and register, and all sorts of
    new performance techniques. Melodic lyricism and tonal harmonies
    - and the openly romantic emotion they convey - become pass├ę,
    even scorned.

    Meanwhile, the turn-of-the-century innovations of Ives are
    rediscovered and canonized as adumbrations of the newly ascendant avant-garde, as are the somewhat later experiments of Cowell,
    Ruggles, Crawford-Seeger, and Varese. All of these native
    forerunners and European eminences are seen to lead, by an
    inexorable teleological progression, to the dominance of serial
    techniques and other kinds of "contemporary" procedures,
    culminating in the 1950s and 60s in the rebarbative, complex,
    atonal, special-effects-heavy works and their accompanying
    ideologies of such commanding personalities as Elliott Carter,
    Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and
    Conlon Nancarrow. No matter that audiences hate the avant-garde
    indeed, that┬┤s a big part of its validation; its best-known
    composers gain stature, fame, even notoriety; its lesser figures
    get professional approval and academic tenure.

    And what of the many unenlightened composers who continue to
    write old-fashioned tonal music using the hallowed forms and
    procedures? Their efforts are denigrated by musical ideologues
    and taste-makers as quaint, anachronistic, or obsolete; their
    place in the story of modern American music is diminished to the
    merely incidental. Such music is, the up-to-date feel, at best
    merely peripheral to the grand narrative outlining the
    historically inevitable march to modernist supremacy; it is not
    to be taken as "serious" or "important".

    Worship of the newest thing is very old, of course. In the 20th
    Century the high priest of musical modernism was Theodore Adorno,
    whose early and harshly doctrinaire promulgation of the view that
    tonality and traditional styles had outlived their usefulness (to
    be replaced by strict Schoenbergian dodecaphony) was hugely
    influential. Copland and other American "populists" merited only
    disdain, Adorno felt, in their hopeless pursuit of outworn
    ideals. By the late 1950s his dogmas had expanded their reach
    (and intensified their exclusivity) in such French critics as
    Ren├ę Leibowitz and Andr├ę Hodeir, the latter excoriating anything
    not adhering to the brittle pointillism of Boulez and Barraqu├ę, specifically singling out (in his polemical screed Since Debussy)
    almost all modern-era American music as hopelessly irrelevant and reactionary. Most of it, he claimed indignantly, was no better
    than the hackneyed rubbish spewn out by such dinosaurs as
    Shostakovich.

    Soon this denigration of tonal music spread to American critics
    wanting to keep up with the latest fashions. See, for example,
    the dismissal of Barber┬┤s "easygoing, sentimental" and "amusing"
    Violin Concerto in his 1966 High Fidelity review by the esteemed
    critic Alfred Frankenstein. Eric Salzman┬┤s widely used and
    admired 20th-Century Music: An Introduction (1967, revised
    edition 1974) endorsed this attitude with a bit more subtlety by
    simply concentrating on avant-garde developments. Everything else
    was secondary and therefore given only cursory (if any)
    attention. Academic journals such as Perspectives in New Music
    reflected the same bias for many decades. "New music" was atonal
    music, as any issue from the 1950s or 1960s will illustrate. (An
    added attraction was that serial techniques present seductive
    opportunities for impressively abstruse analysis.)

    The view that avant-garde music represents progress, that it is
    the only proper goal of a natural and beneficial aesthetic
    evolution, superseding hidebound tonal, traditional music,
    remains persistent in American music criticism still, in for
    instance Kyle Gann┬┤s American Music in the 20th Century,
    published in 1997. Even Alex Ross, in his eloquent and impressive
    2008 overview of modern music, The Rest Is Noise - which is
    particularly good in evoking the historical and cultural context
    of 20th Century music - is nevertheless strongly skewed toward
    "the progressive path from Debussy to Boulez and Cage" (as he
    puts it). American experimental composers are given far more
    space and attention than the more traditional figures, with the
    clear implication that they represent the dominant and more
    significant evolutionary strain.

    Walter Simmons┬┤s Voices in the Wilderness was the first in a
    series of books with the overarching title 20th Century
    Traditionalists intended to present a corrective to that story
    about modern American music. Simmons explicitly rejects both the teleological argument that "the evolution of the tonal system
    proceeded according to a linear progression that led inevitably
    to the dissolution of tonality" and the underlying assumption
    "that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of linear
    progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all
    contenders are racing". Simmons┬┤s history of American music
    instead places much more value on the intrinsic and particular
    virtues, as well as the effect on actual concert audiences, of
    the music written by the many American composers who (in
    different ways) maintained their allegiance to traditional
    melody, harmony, textures, and forms, as well as to the warmth,
    engagement, and immediate, visceral effect these elements convey.
    Those composers also, of course, made many innovations, as all
    imaginative artists do, but for specific communicative reasons,
    not in service of an ideology of "originality" for its own sake.
    They refused to abandon the time-honored musical virtues of
    shapely melodic lines, tonal-based harmonic tension and release,
    clear formal logic, sensuous instrumental color, and the
    expressive purposes to which these qualities have traditionally
    been put their frank appeal to pleasure, their immediate and
    obvious ability to arouse and ennoble human emotion.

    Before going on I should add that just the fact that audiences
    hated so-called "new music" doesn┬┤t mean that all of it was bad.
    Much was, of course - as indeed could be said of the music in any
    stylistic idiom however new-fangled or old-fashioned. But "new
    music" was, at first, almost impossible to judge, so
    undifferentiated did it sound to its earliest audiences. With
    time it became clear that the idiom┬┤s trademark excesses and
    extremes quickly degenerated into cliches and (unintentional)
    self-parody, especially when taken up by the legions of Boulez┬┤s
    inferior imitators. Furthermore, its most devoted practitioners
    tended to run out of worthy ideas and lapse into silence early in
    their careers. Nevertheless there are many well-made and
    expressive compositions that employ atonality and avant-garde
    techniques, even of the iciest and most forbidding mode. I┬┤m not
    arguing that a more traditional, tonality-based music is always
    or inevitably better - or somehow more "natural" or "proper" -
    than more difficult "new music". There are no doubt certain
    emotions that can only be conveyed by "contemporary" styles and
    devices. My point is that individual works in any and all styles
    should be judged, and their significance assessed, on the basis
    of their merits and not on rigid a priori ideological assumptions
    about what is or isn┬┤t fashionable or privileged by an imputed
    evolutionary inevitability. Nor should musical history be
    distorted by such assumptions. We need to take a longer view; no
    one today disparages JS Bach for being "old-fashioned" - which he
    was, by the standards of his own time.

    Just such a "longer view" is what Simmons tries to encapsulate in
    the notion of "20th Century traditionalist". This, in Simmons┬┤s
    use of the term, is a wide, encompassing category. There are many
    different "traditions" and so many different varieties of
    "traditionalists". Fervent romantics like Bloch, Hanson, Barber,
    Creston, Giannini, and Flagello (discussed in Voices in the
    Wilderness) are one kind. Others are nationalist and populist
    composers like Copland, Harris, Gershwin; "multiculturalists"
    like Hovhaness and Harrison, who drew on exotic modes and tried
    to transmit non-Western emotional states; neoclassic composers
    influenced by Stravinsky and Hindemith like Piston and his
    students Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, and Ingolf Dahl; "modernist traditionalists" like Schuman, Persichetti, Mennin, and Diamond,
    whose bolder harmonic vocabulary expanded their range of
    expressive possibilities; and so-called "new romantic" composers
    like George Rochberg and John Corigliano who have since the 1970s
    reasserted the late-romantic heritage of Strauss, Mahler, and
    Puccini.

    All of these in-one-way-or-another "traditionalists" adopted and
    adapted in their works time-honored structural patterns and
    procedures, including tonally-derived harmony and classic
    outlines - passacaglia, fugue, sonata, theme-and-variations,
    rondo, and aria and dance forms. That, after all, is a
    considerable part of what it means to be a "traditionalist". But
    each group had distinct and differentiating characteristics, as
    of course did the individual composers themselves. For Simmons┬┤s
    second volume in his projected series he has singled out three
    "modernist traditionalist" composers who came to prominence in
    the 1940s and 50s - William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and
    Peter Mennin - who he thinks exemplify (and indeed mark the
    summit) of this particular strand in tradition-based American
    composers of the past century. That all three were long
    associated (as teachers and administrators) with the Juilliard
    School of Music is a less important but by no means negligible
    point of connection among them.

    Though all three were heralded during the early part of their
    careers as bold, strongly profiled personalities and brilliant
    craftsmen (which they certainly were), they suffered from a kind
    of two-sided neglect as more avant-garde figures came to
    prominence. Like such renowned figures as Stravinsky, Bartok, and
    Hindemith (whose music they learned from), they were more
    "modern" and adventurous (especially in their use of dissonance
    and chromaticism) than the more melodious, openly romantic Barber
    and Hanson, but they abstained from the post-Webernian
    pointillism and more extreme "contemporary" effects and
    procedures of the avant-garde (including doctrinaire serialism).
    As a result, typical concert audiences found them too difficult,
    and on the other hand "sophisticated" audiences (such as there
    were) found them too old-fashioned and lacking in cutting-edge
    cach├ę. As Simmons points out, their explorations of a more
    searching and chromatic vocabulary and other recent techniques
    were disdained by the cognescenti as merely belated attempts to
    update their image, "while more conservative listeners failed to
    distinguish their work from that of the avant-garde and viewed
    such efforts as `selling out┬┤". As a result "their work was
    increasingly marginalized and supported by a dwindling number of
    advocates". Hence the need for a reappraisal of their
    achievement.

    As in Voices in the Wilderness, each chapter in Simmons┬┤s new
    book offers offers a detailed biographical sketch, a description
    of individual stylistic features of each composer, an assessment
    of the important and representative works that identifies both
    strengths and weaknesses, and a depiction of the larger social
    and cultural context out of which the music arose. There are many
    and extensive quotations from critical opinions (often at some
    variance with each other) and hundreds of citations in the notes
    for each chapter, as well as bibliographies and discographies for
    each composer - and even a compact disc with works by all three
    of them.

    Among the many pleasures and sources of enlightenment offered by
    the book are Simmons┬┤s penetrating (and sometimes surprising)
    comments about how the personalities of these composers were
    reflected in their music. He is particularly sensitive to the
    contradictions and mysteries that invest the complex relationship
    between the artist and his creations. Schuman, for example, like
    his music, was bold, assertive, confident of his own stature,
    impatient with academic dogma. He had both the inclination and
    assurance to compose large-scale, serious, imposing
    compositions-especially symphonies. There┬┤s no doubting the
    importance and striking individuality of his best works: the
    Third Symphony, Violin Concerto, and Fourth String Quartet all
    show his declamatory power, lofty eloquence, nervous tension,
    kinetic vigor, and the unmistakable stylistic fingerprints-the
    dramatic gestures, plangent clashing triads, rich yet transparent
    scoring, multi-layered polyphony-that make his music instantly
    recognizable. His muscular sprung rhythms and optimism are felt
    as "American", yet there is a strong tragic vein also in his
    music - for example, in the Sixth Symphony and The Young Dead
    Soldiers.

    On the other hand Schuman is not, as Simmons notes, immune from
    accusations of rhetorical posturing: some commentators have found
    the sonorous but gloomy Eighth Symphony (which I love) more
    grandiose and oratorical than authentically felt. It elicits
    reactions "divided between those who hear it as a profound
    abstract statement and those who hear it as...straining to sound
    profound [with] parts that are stunning in their impact and
    others...the backdrop for something striking that never occurs".
    Curiously, even in his most pessimistic or post-tonal, chromatic
    music, Schuman often ended his works - however peculiar and
    incongruous this became - with a major triad. "One can only
    speculate as to the meaning of this practice for the composer.
    Was it a statement of loyalty to tonality? An inability to
    relinquish hope, or a spirit of optimism?"

    The precociously gifted, likable, easygoing, generous, witty,
    astonishingly fluent, stylistically chameleonic Persichetti
    presents a wonderful contrast to Schuman. There is no hint of self-importance in the man or his music, and though he wrote nine
    symphonies and many concerted works, big orchestral works don┬┤t
    dominate his output as they do for Schuman or Mennin. But
    Persichetti┬┤s facility and wide-ranging stylistic eclecticism
    (ranging from clear tonality to highly-fragmented atonality),
    along with a certain characteristic emotional coolness - a
    "classic" rather than "romantic" cast - have exacted a cost: his
    music lacks the strong individuality that would make it instantly identifiable, and as a result it┬┤s never gotten the attention
    from press, listeners, performers, and recording companies that
    Schuman┬┤s music has. Nevertheless there are riches in
    Persichetti┬┤s oeuvre that as Simmons points out are among the
    high-points in modern American music, including the cycle of 12
    piano sonatas, the Concerto for Piano Four-Hands, the Third
    String Quartet, and the Fifth Symphony. These works evince "a
    summation of modern classicism" combining "a spirit of
    spontaneous improvisation with the definitiveness of total
    premeditation. The result is highly cerebral music with charm,
    wit, grace, tenderness, and dynamism".

    Mennin, the third of this New York triad, is a very different
    sort of man and composer from both Schuman and Persichetti.
    Stern, aloof, and aristocratic in demeanor, he was a deeply
    private man. Behind his humorless, businesslike facade was an
    uncompromising dedication to his aesthetic goals; a seriousness
    and consistency of style, vision, and purpose; and a burning
    intensity (darkening into febrile obsessive mania and deep
    pessimism as he aged) that blazed forth in the rigorous,
    densely-woven counterpoint of his muscular allegros and grave,
    elegiac adagios. There is nothing frivolous about Mennin; he had
    absolutely no interest in writing "minor" or merely charming
    pieces, and his career exhibits a single-minded and "continuous
    process of compression and increasing intensification of
    expression" that, Simmons notes, recalls Bruckner (an astonishing
    comparison I would never have thought of, but - whatever one
    thinks of Mennin┬┤s symphonies - a very acute one). One
    consequence of Mennin┬┤s aesthetic and stylistic predilections is
    that he (unlike Schuman and Persichetti) doesn┬┤t sound
    particularly American, but instead is closer to such Europeans as
    Rubbra, Holmboe, and Simpson (and ultimately to Beethoven),
    composers who "develop abstract ideas logically and coherently,
    while seeming to allude to or address profound existential
    issues...without recourse to extramusical references, but as if
    from a lofty, somewhat depersonalized perspective". Mennin┬┤s
    symphonies are tough nuts to crack, for me as for many listeners.
    I still find them often impenetrable: too opaque and airless, too
    filled up with notes, and too lacking in clearly shaped and
    separated phrases that I can easily hold in memory. Still,
    Simmons┬┤s comments on his character helped me to approach them
    with a more open mind - and I┬┤ve come to admire Mennin┬┤s 1957
    Piano Concerto (recorded by John Ogdon) and his magnificent
    (though not yet commercially recorded) 1963 Piano Sonata.

    Simmons┬┤s extraordinary ability to advocate for these composers
    yet see them whole, with all their virtues, difficulties, and
    failings, is a triumph of sensitivity and a lifetime spent in
    thoughtful listening, research, and adjudication. He loves these
    men and their music yet makes careful, nuanced discriminations
    about them, raises questions about their accomplishments
    (sometimes unanswerable), and gives full credit to the intricate
    and unfathomable workings of personality and circumstance that
    bring forth artistic creation. Together with the many detailed
    and perceptive analyses of individual works (strictly verbal -
    there are no music examples) it is this celestial balance of
    judgement and mercy, knowledge and enigma, light and dark, that
    makes Voices of Stone and Steel indispensable for anyone studying
    or simply curious about the achievement of these three
    distinguished and emblematic "modern traditionalist" American
    composers.

    Lehman

    American Record Guide September / October 2011 pages 50 - 53

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