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Book Review

The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin

Voices of Stone and Steel by Simmons

Voices of Stone and Steel

Walter Simmons
The Scarecrow Press, 2011. 425 pages
ISBN-10: 0810857480
ISBN-13: 9780810857483 (cloth; alk. Paper)
Includes a CD of complete recordings of Schuman's Judith; Persichetti's Concerto for Piano, Four Hands; six movements of Persichetti's Serenade #10 for flute & harp; and Mennin's Symphony #6.
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Wowed again.

After my musical childhood, where I listened indiscriminately to Cab Calloway, Mary Martin, Bach, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Dixieland, the usual Fifties pop crud, and others, I fell out of love with most of the standard repertoire (Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mozart) and hard for Modern music, particularly American, Russian, French, and British music. I liked the fact that it sounded different than the usual crowd, which I found harmonically predictable and melodically and rhythmically very uninteresting. Of course, there were always exceptions. However, my teen-age jukebox featured Bach, Mussorgsky, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland, Griffes, Barber, Schuman, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Prokofiev, Bernstein (except for West Side Story, naturally), Foss, Bloch, Mennin, Persichetti, Thompson, and Thomson. I heard all of them "naïvely," with an innocent ear. I had little idea how the innards all went together. I didn't care. Somehow, all this music got a jump out of me. I burned to do the same thing, but there is, unfortunately, such a thing as talent. I did the next best thing. I heard (and bought) as much as I could. I read whatever came my way, including textbooks and studies of individual composers and eras.

Walter Simmons continues his maverick history of Modern American music. I say "maverick" because of his groupings and of his selection of subjects. He began with Voices in the Wilderness, a study of six composers – Bloch, Barber, Hanson, Flagello, Creston, and Giannini – whom the musicological and critical establishment tended to ignore (see my review). He also proposed a convincing revision of standard history, which usually "reads out" all these men. Furthermore, he didn't just simply sound off. He knew not only this music in detail and in extenso, but also the music in the consensus histories. However, he didn't just write history. He made strong cases for each of these composers. I can't say that he single-handedly revived the careers of any of them (although he got me to radically revise upward my view of Flagello), but Simmons doesn't confine his efforts to books. He produces recordings. He advocates in articles for the general listener and in liner notes. I've known his work for decades, and much of what I know of American music comes from him. He has taken on a mission. Through the Google, I've recently found out we're the same age (I'd assumed he was at least ten years older, because of when I started reading his work). I've frittered away my life, in comparison.

For his second volume in the series, Simmons keeps to the general organization of the first. Why not? It's a good structure. It contains the sprawl that easily could overtake such a work. Each composer gets a chapter. Each chapter breaks into life and career, a list of "most realized" works, a more detailed section on individual pieces, and a summing up. New to this volume is the inclusion of a CD containing works by all the composers. I can't praise this highly enough, and I commend Scarecrow Press for fighting through the nightmares of licensing and such and for bringing the CD to fruition. Essentially, the CD gives you a representative taste of each composer's music. I hope it leads readers to seek out more for themselves.

Since I knew a bit about the career of each composer already, I spent most of my time in the sections on individual works. I've collected recordings of them all for years, so I could listen as I followed many of Simmons's discussions. I should add that, except for obsessives like me, readers probably won't plow through this book straight through, although they could. Simmons's organization allows you to drop in as you please.

I found particularly interesting the commentary by the critics at the time. It's changed very little over the years. I strongly suspect that many critics haven't heard the works recently and that they simply repeat what they've read. Significantly, most of the favorable criticism comes from recent CD reviewers (including, in the interests of full disclosure, me, as well as fellow ClassicalNet-man Karl Miller). The "big-paper" critics, like the staff of the New York Times, brought too many preconceptions of what the composer should have written to the table. Perhaps the pressure of a deadline explains this, but most of their judgments simply don't jibe with what I hear.

Simmons reaffirms his take on Modern American musical history. First, he sees it as rich and varied, while the usual view emphasizes neo-classicism and home-grown "radicals" leading to the adaptation of European avant-garde techniques, eventually giving way to whatever it is we're doing now. Much of the difficulty Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin endured from critics stemmed from the insistence on viewing them as neoclassicists. I admit I've tended to pin this label on them, but Simmons makes me reconsider. Persichetti may come closest to that term in some works (he seems to have mastered whatever technique interested him), but Schuman and Mennin definitely never fit. Simmons shows them as men whose music expressed their individual artistic personalities. They weren't part of a crowd. They remained stubbornly themselves although they certainly extended their language. We can see this in Simmons's grouping them together. He admits that the main thing that ties them (other than their prominence during the Forties and Fifties) is their association with Juilliard, hardly a purely aesthetic criterion.

Of course, I don't agree with every one of Simmons's judgments, but I don't expect to. I believe I think more of Schuman's music than he does, for example. I also get annoyed by his use of the word "atonal," when he simply means "highly dissonant." Then again, I have a hard time hearing atonality in anything, including Webern. Apparently, I subconsciously assign a tonic.

More importantly, I have misgivings about Simmons's suspicions of "statistical density," in Frank Zappa's phrase – über-complexity of rhythm, counterpoint, tonality, and argument. Although this concern appears throughout the book, the following passage about Persichetti crystallizes Simmons's point:

Page's comment raises once again the issue of those works of Persichetti that are constructed with exquisite attention to subtleties of musical expression and narrative coherence yet maintain a consistently severe demeanor, lacking sufficiently poignant and memorable turns of phrase that might elicit a visceral impact from the listener. ... A relevant question is whether this austerity, or "coldness," pervades a large portion of the composer's work or merely a small number of lesser – or perhaps more demanding – efforts. This issue is complicated by the fact that many pieces that appear to lack expressive warmth on initial acquaintance gradually "blossom" for the listener as they become more familiar. But one may then ask, with some justification: If there is nothing that compels one's attention initially, why would one return for more? This, of course, is the enduring challenge faced by Modernist approaches to musical composition since their first appearances early in the twentieth century, and continues to remain unresolved.

Simmons seems to yearn for the eternally True and Beautiful. Historically, there hasn't been such a thing, except for works that nobody really listens to any longer. After all, we take Euripides for a classic, and yet how many of us have read him in translation, let alone in the original Greek? Furthermore, works of art go in and out of notice all the time and not just in Modern music, either. Delius has occasional boomlets before he fades again. Britten has flared and dimmed and flared again. The late works of Brahms took decades after his death to gain anything like repertory status. Even today, we can find listeners perplexed by Brahms. I can remember when the Brahms symphonies literally put me to sleep. The Met Opera will never make money off me, since they do almost nothing I want to see or hear (and the fact that I live at least 1000 miles away). It probably says more about me than about Brahms or Donizetti.

In any case, what do we do with a listener who dismisses not just a particular work or composer, but all classical music? How does this really differ from a listener confronting Modern music? In response to the general indifference, we first ask what the listener has heard and how often he has listened to it. Even here, we assume listener persistence. Of course, nobody likes everything. I kept at Brahms first, because I could hardly avoid him, and second, because many other people did like him. On the other hand, it took a very long time for one of our greatest music critics, George Bernard Shaw, to arrive at a positive estimation of Brahms, so I was at least in exalted company. Modern composers usually do not have the luxuries of repeat performances and wide dissemination. So in a sense, Simmons is correct in pointing out the need for a composer to grab a listener right away, at least as far as traditional venues are concerned. Furthermore, technology has allowed listeners to explore as much as they can or stay put, as they wish. Most wish to stay put. The download has aggravated this trend. At any rate, Simmons's comment can and does apply to all music, not just knotty Moderns. You need to find a general solution, if you think that it indeed poses a problem.

But these ultimately come down to quibbles. The book constitutes a major achievement. Just to have heard all of the stuff Simmons has would require years of looking, let alone listening. Furthermore, the details never swamp the larger views, whether of the composers' artistic characters or of music history itself. A great book and, I hope, an influential one.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.