Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
by Walter Simmons.
Scarecrow Press (Lanham, Maryland), 419 pp., $60.00 cloth, 2004.

book cover imageIn this persuasively argued and passionately committed book, musicologist Walter Simmons makes his discussion of six American composers the occasion for rebutting a full half-century of the musically correct denigration of a compositional style—or school or tradition—whose main purpose was and is direct emotional communication with the audience.

Under a title rich in allusion Voices in the Wilderness asserts that the “Neo-Romantic” musical aesthetic constitutes the genuine core of significant Twentieth-Century American composition; and that American composers working in that line do so rather more in continuity with the French and Slavic, than with the Austro-German, strand of Nineteenth Century music. Simmons insists on the genuineness of “Neo-Romanticism” because “Neo-Romantic” music not only aims at a direct affective connection with a non-specialist audience, but, in a remarkably consistent way, achieves such a connection when given the chance. The topic of “Neo-Romanticism” and its currency thus resonates with the larger issue of elite control over the common cultural vocabulary in the latter half of the Twentieth and again in the first decade of our own Twenty-First Century. It is an important element of Simmons’ presentation that the composers he takes as exemplars of the genre, although popular in their era, are today almost unknown to concert audiences or to the casual purchaser of classical music recordings. Avant-garde music never established itself with the music-loving public and has mostly disappeared from concert schedules, but the accessibly contemporary scores that avant-garde music initially displaced have not returned to their previous status in season programming. Is it a conspiracy that so much fine music should have retreated beyond the horizon of even the musically educated? It is something like a conspiracy.

Neo-Romanticism (let us remove the quotation marks) relies on the tonal organization of large-scale musical structures, using harmonic modulation for dramaturgic rather than for purely constructive or formal purposes. According to the conventions of the Austro-German tradition, a sonata movement is supposed to end in the same key with which it began, as in a Haydn or a Beethoven symphony. The formula achieves its effect by three stages: familiarization, alienation, and return to the familiar. Think of the way in which the opening paragraphs, so to speak, of a Beethoven sonata-allegro movement draw the audience into acceptance of the dominant chord. The development then moves farther and farther away from the “home key,” creating dramatic tension that every sensitive listener feels, as one says, in his gut. When the composer reasserts the home key in the coda, he creates the equivalent in music of the catharsis in Athenian tragedy. Now the French and Slavs tend to observe a less rigorous musical formula, but they too understand that musical catharsis depends on an awareness of harmonic departure and return.

In serial music, which arose somewhat spuriously in an intellectual (read elite) reaction against the original Austro-German Romanticism, which had supposedly exhausted itself, tonality stands entirely abolished. The term “musically correct”—my coinage, not Simmons’—refers to the strange, dogmatic predominance of the serial method of atonal composition in academic departments of composition and of musicology in the decades after World War Two; it also refers to the doctrinally motivated banishment of music not conforming to the prescriptive model. Influential figures like Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969) persuaded large numbers among the European and North American intelligentsia that, in the aftermath of the war, ennoblement and aspiration were out, and the only legitimate object worth representing in music was the horror of humanity recoiling from its own bloody deeds. The musical vocabulary of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Anton Webern (1883–1945), and to a lesser extent Alban Berg (1885–1935) seemed to Adorno to do this best, so it became a mandatory mode of expression to be taught to upwardly mobile young composers in the schools of music. Non-melodic, rhythmically jagged music would subvert the “bourgeois complacency,” as radicals always call it, which refused to come to terms, as the accusers saw it, with the guilt and wretchedness of Western civilization. The equivalent in literature would be the alienating, “existential” dramas of Jean-Paul Sartre or the Verfremdungstheater of Berthold Brecht, which again aimed at pulling up any traditional orientation—to morality, to the classical canons of beauty, to ordinariness—from its roots.

There existed, however, in the United States a well established non-avant-garde school of composition that had entered the lists in the decades between the two wars, and whose practitioners wrote in a vocabulary that tapped a full range of emotions and existential states; these composers interested the “Middle Brow” concert-going audience, who found in their work positive points of contact. The same composers had their public champions in such podium maestri as Leopold Stokowski, Frederick Stock, and Serge Koussevitsky, who gave many premieres. Simmons’ sextet of journeyman symphonists and music-dramatists—beginning with Ernest Bloch, Swiss-born, and ending with the less well-known Nicolas Flagello, an American of Italian ancestry—typifies the phenomenon of compositional Neo-Romanticism, avoiding alike the inflation of the Wagner ethos and the pedantry of the sub-Schoenberg ethos. (By the “sub-Schoenberg ethos” I intend to describe those who made of particular elements of Schoenberg’s serial approach a petty doctrine, which they then raised to the status of orthodoxy.) In between Bloch and Flagello come Simmons’ other subjects: Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, and Samuel Barber. Educated people may recognize the names of Hanson and Barber, but will less likely have encountered those of Creston, Flagello, and Giannini.

Simmons explains in detail what I have hinted at above: why, for example, although Bloch’s name might belong in our gazette, we nevertheless lack familiarity with much of his large compositional production; or why, despite the quality of his orchestral and operatic scores, a Giannini or a Flagello remains nearly un-played in concert and only sparsely recorded. This is a situation only just now beginning slightly to change. What I have called musical correctness Simmons refers to as the formalist bias. Simmons says that a large mass of meritorious composition has either never entered the standard repertory or has disappeared from it because the formalist bias, a prejudice deeply ensconced in elite musical institutions in the middle of the last century, quite deliberately banished it. Voices in the Wilderness has points of contact with Henry Pleasants’ hard-hitting 1955 condemnation of musical correctness, The Agony of Modern Music, which one might profitably reread alongside Simmons’ study.

The proverbial vox clamans in deserto belongs to the Biblical prophet, who less predicts the future than he articulates the ethos of his people; the prophet is also, as Scripture puts it, friendless in his own land, an outcast, an eccentric, abused by the priestly guardians of propriety and scorned by those who shrink from his rebuke. In the moment of religious-aesthetic enthusiasm that launched him on his compositional career, Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) invoked that declamatory voice, telling a friend that he wanted to write music to express the soul of the Jewish people. Beginning around the time when “The War to End Wars” had broken out in the Europe, Bloch produced his “Jewish Cycle”: his three Psalm-settings for solo voice and orchestra, his Israel Symphony (1916), and the piece by which listeners know him best, the tone-poem for cello and orchestra Schelomo (1916). A companion piece to the last, penned some twenty years later, actually bears the title of Voice in the Wilderness (1936). Bloch had meanwhile emigrated from his native Switzerland to the United States, arriving in New York in 1916. New Yorkers attended the premieres of Schelomo and of Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1, reacting with sufficient fervency to propel the immigrant artist into the forefront of what took the form of a specifically American musical revival.

As the founder and director of two major conservatories and as a composition teacher, latterly on faculty at Berkeley, Bloch directly influenced two generations of serious music making in his adopted land. By an irony, one of his students, Roger Sessions (1896–1985), became a key figure in articulating and enforcing the formalist bias. As a composer, Bloch’s ability to connect immediately with audiences soon solicited from initially friendly critics a type of righteous response, which, by the 1930s, acquired the character of a reflexive anti-Bloch doctrine. Simmons writes:

During the 1960s, as contemporary musical fashion became increasingly polarized between the fashionable serialists and the outmoded traditionalists, Bloch’s reputation as a composer of rhapsodic, passionately emotional, richly scored orchestral canvases relegated him to the periphery of the contemporary scene. Less and less frequently was his name linked with other moderate Modernists still held to be “important,” like Stravinsky, Bartók, and Prokofiev.

The reaction against Bloch ignored the fact that his work ranged among a variety of styles, centering perhaps on the rhapsodic “Jewish” style, but embracing such self-consciously “modern” techniques as a modified Schoenbergian serialism, which we find as a constructive principle in the Third and Fourth String Quartets (1952 and 1953 respectively) and in the Sinfonia Breve (1952). Simmons’ judgment of Bloch, that he wrote some of the most important scores of the mid-Twentieth Century, echoes one of the few English-language statements on Bloch to be written after the composer’s heyday in the 1930s. In the chapter on “Two Mystics: Bloch and Scriabin” in Chords and Discords (1964), British writer Colin Wilson argues that Bloch “is one of the finest composers of the century, and has produced more individual and immediately appealing music than anyone since Sibelius.”

The name of the redoubtable Finn points to another of Simmons’ six representative figures. Thus Howard Hanson (1896–1981), like Bloch, once towered like a colossus over American music, not only as a composer of symphonies that combine the Nordic brooding of a Sibelius with the discernible character of an American landscape, but as an administrator of musical life and musical education at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York. Hanson’s Second Symphony (1930), written in response to a commission from Serge Koussevitsky to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony, once served as an American signature in the world of serious music, immediately apprehensible and yet spiced with piquant bitonal harmonies that elevated it from potential insipidity into an unmistakably serious and modern statement. Writes Simmons, “Howard Hanson was a bold and outspoken advocate of music as a euphonious vehicle for untrammeled emotional expression during a period when the new-music community had become hostile to such a point of view.” Euphony is the central concept. A typical Hanson score, states Simmons, “is immediately identifiable as his own . . . offering the sort of emotional immediacy and visceral excitement that are engaging to audiences.” Simmons names Hanson’s Third Symphony (1936) as representing the composer “at the height of his power,” the score’s qualities embracing “the flowing modal counterpoint, throbbing melodies . . . radiant chorales, [and] lively rhythmic ostinati” at which the artist excelled.

In almost total eclipse at the time of his death, Hanson, again like Bloch, has enjoyed a revival with audiences through the medium of the recorded performance. Although Simmons does not delve into the sociology or politics of the issue, his reiterated narrative of how each of his sample cases enjoyed a revival of popularity post mortem hints at the role of technical innovation in altering the authority of elite tastemakers. The compact disc, which appeared in the 1980s, became the locus wherein independent minded conductors such as the Seattle Symphony’s Gerard Schwarz could make anew the argument for beloved favorites. Schwarz’s recorded cycle of the Hanson symphonies on the Delos label—like the performances of Bloch’s string quartets by the Pro Arte ensemble on the Laurel label—constituted a signal moment in the reawakening of music-lovers to a whole category of forgotten beauty.

Of Simmons’ six, Samuel Barber (1910–1981) fared better than the others, due perhaps to a single work, the Adagio, lifted from an early string quartet and given new guise as a string-orchestra piece. Played at the funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Barber’s Adagio for Strings became something of a national elegy; it migrated to movies in the soundtrack of the Oliver Stone film Platoon (1986), at about the time when the compact-disc revival of reputations-in-abeyance was getting under way. Even so, says Simmons, “at the time of Barber’s death his career and reputation had been at their nadir for fifteen years.” Considering the enthusiasm that had accompanied the appearances of Barber’s scores from the mid-1930s to the premiere of his opera Vanessa at the Met in 1958, the composer’s critical low estate in his latter years suggests the power of the formalist bias. Yet Barber also enjoyed the earliest of the revivals, never having disappeared in quite so complete a way as the others. Here Simmons cites explicitly the importance of the compact-disc revolution in recorded performance: Barber’s music was, in a way, “made” for compact-disc programming. He specialized—apart from his two operas—in brief works of loose symphonic structure, several of which could be assembled into a substantial program. Thus the conductor Leonard Slatkin, leading the Saint Louis Symphony, released a compact disc in 1991, which featured Barber’s three scores called Essay for Orchestra (1938, 1942, and 1978), the familiar Adagio for Strings, and the tone poem Medea’s Dance of Vengeance (1948). The disc became a best seller.

Readers who know something about Bloch and Hanson will find Simmons’ chapters devoted to them full of new material and illuminating analyses of key works. Simmons has chosen not to write a musicologically erudite book, but a reader-friendly one, and yet he does not avoid musicological explanation. The chapters on Vittorio Giannini (1903–1966), Paul Creston (1906–1985), and Nicolas Flagello (1928–1994), which will whet the appetites of the musically curious, also reflect on the slightly odd predominance of New York born composers of Italian derivation in American composition during the middle of the last century. Creston has enjoyed renewed currency through recordings since his death: his music assimilates the potency of jazz rhythms to the symphonic surge that seems to betoken so much of American composition. Flagello and Giannini remain ghostly figures. Simmons undoubtedly hopes that by publicizing them, with descriptions of important scores, he will help to bring them to actual notice once again. We all ought to hope so along with Simmons.

Students of Soviet history will recognize the name of Andrei Zhdanov (1896–1948), a Stalin henchman in charge of cultural and artistic matters in the 1940s. In a notorious gesture in 1948, Zhdanov severely reprimanded a number of Soviet composers who, in his terms, had fallen into the error of “formalism” or “bourgeois formalism.” Among those condemned were Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Moses Vainberg, and Nicolai Miaskovsky. These outstanding artists enjoyed conspicuous popularity with Soviet audiences of the day and their music continues to appeal to contemporary Western listeners. Being serious composers, Shostakovich and the others made use of standard techniques and forms such as fugue and passacaglia, which go all the way back to Bach and his contemporaries. According to Socialist Realist strictures, as interpreted and enforced by Zhdanov, such “intellectual” music affronted the proletarian audience by imposing “bourgeois complacency” in lieu of socialist cheerfulness. Therefore the composers in question would need from now on to write music accessible to the people: simple marches and mass-songs suitable for Party rallies and other official occasions, and film scores. There was an unspoken but very real threat of death for non-compliance. Similar condemnations had been leveled at Jewish and other “cosmopolitan” composers under the National Socialist regime in Germany.

By an ironic twist, a parallel event happened in the cultural life of North America, not by any means so severe or frightening for those involved as the Goebbels or Zhdanov dictates (no one feared legal penalties, let alone a midnight knock at the door), but as effective in its way in silencing the dissenters. The mandate came not from any governmental agency, but its institutional basis—it originated ex cathedra in the musical branch of the academy—is undeniable and it thus possessed a quasi-official character. We should note that those disadvantaged, such as Simmons’ six, had to deal with real, life-affecting consequences, such as being written out of music histories and seeing the number of performances fall towards zero. The phenomenon suggests a certain inverted Stalinism: the traditionalists stood accused of offending the anti-bourgeois taste of the avant-garde hierarchs (a self-defining elite) by writing music that could be understood by ordinary listeners. Certainly the démorale of Samuel Barber’s last years, during which he ceased to be productive and descended into alcoholism, stemmed in part from the monolithic critical snub against his communicativeness. Hanson and Creston also experienced bitterness; although Hanson’s long-standing institutional ties buffeted the worst effects of anti-communicative elite taste mongering. Appropriately, the mechanism that restored the repressed reputations was the market, that most minimal and most bourgeois of institutions, through which producer-advocates found that they could bypass ensconced prejudice to speak directly to an audience willing to put its money where its taste lay. Among Simmons’ many accomplishments in Voices in the Wilderness is to show just how adult that taste was and how discerning it remains. It could find its way to the chromatic stridency of Bloch’s First String Quartet and to the motivic compression of a Barber Essay.

Simmons has done an inestimably important service in making a cogent case for the Neo-Romantic Aesthetic. It is to be hoped that, through his book, the burgeoning case for his six exemplary composers will be sustained.

Thomas F. Bertonneau is a Visiting Professor at SUNY Oswego.