Contemporary Music Media Review Print

Walter Simmons Studies the American Modern Traditionalists

June 27, 2011 - Williamsburg, MA:

Walter Simmons, The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin: Voices of Steel and Stone; Lanham, MD, Toronto, CAN, Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press, © 2011, ISBN 978-0-8108-5748-3, Pp. xii + 425, CD incl., TT 78:01, $69.95.

This book has only four chapters: a 21-page introduction followed by one essentially stand-alone essay each for the three composers, in the order established by the title, which is chronological by date of birth (they died in reverse order), of varying lengths to accommodate their life spans and the number of their compositions, with Persichetti’s the longest. Each of those concludes, after the end notes (381 for Schuman, 391 for Persichetti, and 154 for Mennin), with a "Selected Bibliography" and an "Essential Discography." A good 12-page Index follows, making the book an excellent reference tool, with a single-paragraph bio of the author completing the material.

The characterizing term Simmons sets forth in the first chapter for this group of 20th-century American composers (where we also find these terms for other groups: "Neo-Romantics" [treated in his previous book that I reviewed in 2004], "Neo-Classicists," and "National Populists") is "Modern Traditionalists." They are defined as composers who did not reject tonality or traditional forms, procedures, or techniques, but instead used features similar to those explored by such early 20th-century Modernist composers as Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. For the most part, they viewed music as entirely abstract and did not seek inspiration in extra-musical forms, with a few exceptions frequently resulting from specific commissions. Neither did they view music as representing emotional states or being an expression of a national ethos or vernacular sound, although their works would never be mistaken for being from anywhere else. Their compositional structures and tonalities are more elastic and fluid. Dissonance often plays a significant role in their music without dominating it. It is, therefore, not immediately appealing to the average listener, and often demands concentrated attention.

Simmons ranks some of the works of each of these composers as among the greatest produced in 20th-century America, yet they have essentially disappeared from the repertoire of performers and presenters. I am quite certain that I have never heard, either in concert or on the air, a work of Peter Mennin (born Mennini, 1923-1983), for example, and few of those of Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987), other than his ubiquitous ones for band, and William Schuman (1910-1992), who receives perhaps the greatest exposure of the three. He was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 1943 for A Free Song, a work for chorus and orchestra composed as his contribution to the war effort because a neurological disorder prevented him from serving in the military (p. 72), which has never been recorded until recently: it will be released on 28 June on the Çedille label; a review will be forthcoming.

Each composer chapter develops in the same fashion: a brief biography opens, followed by a brief characterization of the music, followed in turn by a detailed but succinct description of each major (not necessarily related to its size) work, and wraps up with a brief conclusion. The descriptions of each work are grouped by period for Schuman’s approximately 80, by type (keyboard, orchestra, band, chamber, opera, choral, vocal) for Persichetti's 167, and simply by chronology for Mennin, who composed barely 30. There are some variations to accommodate differences in careers, although all three were involved with Juilliard as teachers, and two (Persichetti declined the offer) as its administrator. Persichetti wrote a major textbook: Twentieth-Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice in 1961, still in use now 50 years later (pp. 185-188). Schuman was the first president of Lincoln Center, and was responsible for The Juilliard School’s move there.

The most immediately striking characteristics of this volume are its comprehensiveness, thoroughness, and scholarship. Simmons seems to have read everything ever written by and about these composers. He has researched everything concerning each work from its genesis to the score to the première and the reactions, pro and con, of the public and the critics, repeat performances and reactions to them, recordings, critical reactions to them, and their current availability, all carefully documented in the end notes, and generally maintaining a scholarly distance and objectivity. He gives a detailed and penetrating analysis of each with a cogent evaluation of its merits at the end. I was repeatedly impressed with his obvious professional integrity, with one phrase jumping off the page at me, when he wrote: “…for reasons unknown to me” rather than its common form without the final two words; after all, someone might know the reason. The breadth and depth of his information are impressive. The chapter may not constitute the definitive study of the composer but it is surely the definitive summary of him, his work, and his importance.

Simmons’ writing is succinct, precise, and incisive; every sentence is packed with information with next to no excessive verbiage, and often in felicitously expressive phrasing. Each work is described blow-by-blow from beginning to end. He quotes heavily from critics as well as summarizing their evaluations. He describes objectively but also evaluates astutely himself both the works and the critics’ writings about them, aiming for a synthesis viewpoint. His style is straightforward, eminently readable, and pleasant; no pomposity comes with his scholarship and erudition. Like every writer, he has his quirks: he likes to construct sentences on contrasts and contradictions and enjoys the word “however"; on page 388, I found two succeeding sentences that begin with it! I found only one typo, in a quote, so Simmons and his editors may not be responsible; this speaks volumes for his meticulous care. One curiosity bothered me, however: the poet e. e. cummings' works were published with his name in all lower case letters, and this is the form most people expect to see, but Simmons always uses E. E. Cummings, thus introducing an unnecessary surprise.*

The selections on the CD, one each for Schuman (Judith) and Mennin (Symphony No. 6), two for Persichetti (Concerto for Piano, Four Hands and Serenade No. 10 for flute and harp), arranged in the order of the book, seem well chosen for giving representative samples in their strongest forms. With one exception (the Serenade), all are complete works, much preferable to snippets, and there is internal variety among orchestra, chamber, and keyboard works, but band, choral and vocal are absent. We look forward to the next book in this series.

*Edited/corrected 6/29/11 in response to a reader's inquiry.