Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin
by Walter Simmons.
Scarecrow Press, 2010
Cloth, 438 pages, $70.
In his epochal study Voices in the Wilderness (2008), musicologist Walter Simmons charted the careers and assessed the achievement of six American “Neo-Romantic” composers. Simmons, who describes his critical mission as “the discovery and dissemination of [twentieth-century] classical music that embodies traditional aesthetic values of beauty, clarity, and emotional expression,” made a case at once passionate and logical for the importance of music by the Swiss-born Ernest Bloch, the Italian-descended Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, and Nicholas Flagello, and for Howard Hanson and Samuel Barber. Simmons has taken a stalwart position that makes him a dissenter among contemporary musicologists. Insofar as a consensus exists concerning the “Neo-Romantics” of Voices, it consists of classifying them as second rate, as derivative, and as having failed to join in the narrow experimentalism that gradually alienated classical music audiences from new music during the long march through the middle of last century and beyond. The judgment, elitist in the most pejorative sense, finds fault with audiences for their having preferred communicable beauty to recondite displays of this or that compositional system while chastising composers who supposedly pandered to audiences.
Simmons does not articulate his judgment simply by opposing the entrenched, snobbish opinion. On the contrary, Simmons does not reject the avant-garde, whose music should be appreciated on its own often-considerable merits. Simmons points out that Bloch and Giannini sometimes judiciously incorporated chromatic scales and serial “rows” in their scores. In Voices, Simmons attacked—relentlessly but justly—an old prejudice: That the imported item is necessarily better, precisely for being foreign, than the locally built model.
In the new book, Voices of Stone and Steel, Simmons resumes his examination of American composers where he left off in Voices, with three composers who belong to the generation that followed the “Neo-Romantics:” William Schuman (1910–1992), Vincent Persichetti (1915–1987), and Peter Mennin (born Mennini, 1923–1983). Simmons coined the title Voices in the Wilderness in reference to Bloch’s composition A Voice in the Wilderness (1936) for Cello and Orchestra, Bloch having borrowed the phrase from Isaiah in the Old Testament. The “Neo-Romantic” composers of the earlier book shared a prophetic antipathy for the dehumanizing trends of modernity. A prophetic quality suffuses their music;they were artistic rebels against abstraction and aridity. The new title, Voices of Stone and Steel, already suggests the distinctive musical ethos of the three artists that the book takes under consideration. Without subscribing to doctrinaire methods and without disdaining the audience, Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin nevertheless wrote music more in line with a peculiarly modern aesthetic than did the “Neo-Romantics.” There is something in their music that resonates with skyscraper cities, colossal machinery, and the channeled energy of industrial civilization.
Simmons classifies his trio of composers as “Modern Traditionalists.” Their modernity is evident in the angularity of their thematic material and in the frequent massiveness of their musical textures, while their traditionalism is evident in their contentment with inherited forms and their refusal to relinquish tonal reference (not quite the same as stable key-signature) as a device for generating of meaningful drama in pure music. Simmons writes that, “embracing musical features similar to those found in the works of such early modernists as Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith, the Modern Traditionalists preferred generic forms to literary or extramusical hybrids [e.g., tone poems and program symphonies].” They were “sonata allegro” composers. The “Modern Traditionalists” also incorporated “harmonic dissonance for its value as sonority.” Although neither Schuman nor Persichetti nor Mennin sought an explicitly American sound in his music, the result in all three cases is nevertheless “recognizably American” by its “optimism, adventurousness, individualism, exuberance, brash vitality, emotional directness . . . and syncopated or otherwise irregular rhythmic patterns.”
Simmons finds a direct precursor to the “Modern Traditionalists” in a figure, hard to classify and difficult to judge, to whom another writer on American symphonic music, Nicholas Tawa, has likewise granted a kind of adjunct status in the development of a national idiom. Whereas in light of such works as Folksong Symphony (1939) and Kentucky Spring (1949), Roy Harris (1898–1979) might beg to be grouped with the “National Populists,” his purely instrumental symphonies of the 1930s—beginning with the Symphony 1933 and culminating with Symphony No. 3 (1939)—avoid quoting folkloric themes while suggesting purely abstract motivation executed in a constructivist spirit. Harris, who briefly taught Schuman, later faded in prominence, even as he collected or perhaps bullied his way into a steady stream of commissions for works that, once played, disappeared from the repertory more swiftly than spring snow. Schuman cannily took from Harris a fondness for contrapuntal procedures and a taste for stratified instrumentation in which the instrumental choirs keep largely to themselves, colliding and competing, but blending in amity only rarely. These traits impregnate the score that, at its premiere, brought Schuman immediate public recognition as a major voice in American music, his Symphony No. 3 (1941).
Simmons can make clear his analysis of a complex score in layman’s language as adeptly as Tawa in The Great American Symphony, no easy exercise. His discussion of Schuman’s Third offers a case in point. The first part of Schuman’s Third, as Simmons writes, involves a “wide-ranging theme [that] strongly suggests a tonic of A, although implication is soon negated.” Elsewhere Simmons perfectly describes the unmistakable Schuman style in orchestral works: In rhythm “breathlessly nervous, irregular, and highly syncopated, with a fondness for ‘chattering’ patterns often in intensely contrapuntal interaction”; and in texture employing “simultaneous planes of activity—often distinguished according to the instrumental family—the music of each plane seeming almost unrelated to the others.”
Simmons pursues in Voices in Stone and Steel a project not solely musicological. Simmons also offers substantial biographical treatment of his three composers. Such biographical treatment is necessary because all three men were private, each in his way, and with varying implications. In Schuman’s case, the obsession with privacy involves a paradox, since outwardly Schuman cut a public figure, even once appearing on the television game show What’s My Line? In succession, Schuman held positions of power in the musical world as president of the Juilliard School and later of Lincoln Center. Schuman authorized a biography, selecting Joseph Polisi to write it, but carefully controlled the text. Schuman emerges as something of a control freak in Simmons’s character-portrait: emotionally distant, obsessed with detail, prone to delegating but then also to micromanaging his delegates. The music—which, after World War II, becomes ever more abstract and inhuman—reflects these traits. Simmons characterizes Symphony No. 6 (1947) as “extremely serious . . . with little perceptible tonal focus, and a constantly high level of harmonic dissonance.” He also calls it “a harsh vision of searing intensity.”
But is the work an expression of or a commentary on the extreme seriousness and even the harshness that inform it? The work of Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, also contains long stretches of dissonant music, but such music always finds balance in quiet, consoling passages. Shostakovich identifies with the human side of his scores; the heartless music represents that which Shostakovich rejects.
Even in Credendum (1955), a United Nations–commissioned score that Simmons calls “the most accessible representation of [Schuman’s] mature style,” the listener cannot help but feel that the “belief” being celebrated in the clashing bitonality, thick orchestration in separate choirs, and machine-like rhythms is something other than the Jewish devotion to God or the Christian conviction that love is a supreme value. The music resembles modern architecture, embodying a preference for self-generating musical structures that seem to have composed themselves without the intervention of an author. Arthur Honegger could write thrilling machine-music in Pacific 2-3-1 that lasts about eight minutes, but the effect of Credendum, three times as long, is less like watching the locomotive roll past at close quarters than it is like being mowed down by the speeding great juggernaut. Simmons takes “driven”—the cover-all adjective used by Schuman biographer Polisi—as essentially descriptive of his subject. Insofar as Schuman’s music articulates the persona of a driven, a manic, civilization, the choice of diction remains apt.
Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin lived up to the celebrated musicality of their common ancestral patria, as did other American composers such as Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, and Nicolas Flagello. Like those others, Persichetti and Mennin composed mostly in the instrumental genres; neither wrote an opera. In Simmons’s account, both Persichetti and Mennin come across as more attractive, more human characters than the remote and self-protective Schuman—although Mennin, something of a Schuman protégé, did follow his mentor as President of the Juilliard School, embracing a managerial role. Simmons writes of Persichetti that, “he was beloved and admired as a teacher,” adding that, “he immersed himself in all aspects of music with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm devoid of pomposity.” Characteristically, Persichetti turned down the presidency of Juilliard when Mennin died although he did earlier accept a teaching position there, offered by none other than Schuman.
In musical tendency as well as in personality Persichetti differed from Schuman. In his massive pedagogical activity, Persichetti strove to familiarize his composition students with the synthetic possibility opened up by the range of extraordinary musical developments from the end of the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. He argued against narrow, doctrinaire methods of composition and advocated what he called “twentieth-century common practice.” Persichetti’s own music embodies this “common practice.” Mainly conventional, with strong neo-classical tendencies that reflect a fondness for F. J. Haydn, Persichetti’s symphonies and orchestral pieces, his large number of symphonic wind-band pieces, and his prolific output of instrumental scores (sonatas and solo studies) incorporate the full range of eighteenth-century contrapuntal devices, the home-key catharsis based on the Beethovenian practice, and, where required, the chromaticism and dissonance of the Second Viennese School. The result runs more flesh and blood than to stone and steel. The listener senses a person, not simply a composing prodigy, behind Persichetti’s works. “Grandiloquence,” Simmons writes, “was antithetical to his nature.”
For representative items of Persichetti’s enviably large creative activity, Simmons cites the period 1949–1950, “when he produced dozens of pieces of varying dimensions, aesthetic purposes, and degrees of difficulty.” Among these are the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (1953 and 1956), the Quintet for Piano and Strings (1954), and the String Quartet No. 3 (1959). From the same period comes a copious music for piano and piano-duo, including pedagogical pieces, and works for harpsichord, an instrument capable of a panoply of adjustable color, whose use Persichetti sought to revive. Simmons describes Symphony No. 5 as “one of the composer’s masterpieces,” a work both of “unity and diversity,” showing its author’s capacity for “tightly focused development of purely musical ideas” and indicative of his “ecstatic delight of the developmental process.” Where Persichetti wrote Symphony No. 5 for strings alone, in Symphony No. 6 he eschews the strings to give the score entirely to the wind choirs. Symphony No. 6 balances “polytonal exuberance” with “joyful exuberance,” as Simmons says. As such, it expresses an American artistic ethos of the mid-twentieth century free from ideological burdens whether aesthetic or political. Simmons deplores the fact “of [Persichetti’s] considerable output . . . little [has] been heard” since his death.
With Peter Mennin, Simmons brings his readers back to the realm of “stone and steel,” although Mennin’s musical aesthetic is not quite so divorced from human warmth as Schuman’s and he is perhaps less apt to employ dissonant counterpoint than is Persichetti. Mennin attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester under the directorship of its founder, Howard Hanson. The Eastman School had from its beginning something of the character of that most quintessentially American innovation, the assembly line, turning out every year numerous composer-graduates who would become in turn professors of composition at colleges and universities around the nation. It redounds to Mennin’s credit that he stood out in his day among the multitude of peers. On the other hand, Mennin’s music might strike the listener as a shade close to the purely “synthetic” style than Persichetti’s, although in long passages from, say, the symphonies, it might prove difficult to distinguish Mennin from Persichetti. Both have recourse to what can seem relentless contrapuntal elaboration, as it were on automatic; both occasionally blaze forth in Sibelius-like brass exclamations for which the middleman was likely Hanson himself.
Simmons’s summary judgment of Mennin begs citation. At his death, Mennin’s obituary-writers remembered him less for his artistic achievement than for his administrative activity “as president of Juilliard.” Simmons goes on to note that, “of the three composers discussed in this volume, Mennin has enjoyed the least widespread posthumous revival of interest in his work,” which he explains, in part, by reference to Mennin’s “penchant for secrecy and privacy” and his “refusal to engage in public self-promotion.” Nevertheless during his lifetime Mennin enjoyed considerable acclaim. Conductors Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Walter Hendl promoted him on long-playing records; patrons commissioned him for occasional pieces, including symphonies. Simmons describes the features of Mennin’s music making with precise diction: “A continuous unfolding of polyphonic lines through imitative counterpoint . . . counterpoint above all other elements . . . with much use of imitation, canon, ground bass, ostinato, Stretto, cantus firmus, and the like.” Simmons writes that “A bustling undercurrent of rapid activity creates a constant sense of nervous energy.”
As in Persichetti’s case, Mennin’s heyday was undoubtedly the 1950s, before he became absorbed in his managerial career. The best of his symphonies, the genre central in his oeuvre, come from that decade—Symphonies Nos. 3, 4 (“The Cycle”), 5, and 6. A remark made by Colin Wilson in his perceptive book Chords and Discords (1964) comes to mind. Wilson is writing about the proliferation of young American composers, writing in a conservatory style, after World War II. “Most of the musicians of twentieth-century America have been men who went to music school, then did a few years in Europe studying with Nadia Boulanger, then returned to write commissioned symphonies for various subsidized orchestra.” Noting that, “this not how real music is created,” Wilson concludes that, “while many American composers strike one as having individual voices—Piston, Sessions, and Riegger, for example—they fail to impress as creative individuals.”
Simmons’s three case studies were men of genuine talent whose work should not perish in the oblivion of indifference and “presentism.” Where it concerns Mennin, however, as in, say, his Symphony No. 5, as recorded by Hanson in the late 1950s, what Simmons calls the composer’s “cool, businesslike demeanor,” seems to sap the music of some deal of its bloodedness. To quote again from Wilson on American symphonism: “On a first hearing, one says, ‘Ah, here is a true American symphony, with broad American themes. But with successive hearings it becomes less and less satisfactory; if one tries to think of it as a totality, it becomes elusive.”
Perhaps the important unstated thesis in Voices in Stone and Steel—a thoroughly readable, fascinating, and necessary book—is the de-vivifying effect of professionalization on all creative and visionary endeavors in the American world since World War II. What would Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin have achieved composition-wise had they been as independent, both in their careers and their worldviews, as the great eccentrics who pioneered a genuine American art-music, such as Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Henry Cowell? Or what, simply, might the three men have achieved had they lived in a more human age than the Age of Ideologies?
Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego’s English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.