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Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
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Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals; general readers. (Choice)
Numerous quotations as well as notes and bibliography reflect the author's painstaking research. Of special interest to record collectors, there's a discography of essential recordings for each composer...a special pleasure of Voices in the Wilderness is the remarkable precision and clear-sightedness of Simmons's analyses of his six composers' strengths and weaknesses. In sum, this is a scrupulous, detailed, thoughtful, enlightening, and much-needed book on an important group of modern American composers who've been until now much too easily dismissed as reactionaries and throwbacks. We're fortunate that someone with a lifetime of devotion to their music has written it... (American Record Guide)
The book's virtues shine. Simmons writes clearly and even eloquently…providing both an introduction for the novice and a deeper instruction for someone already acquainted with the music. (Schwartz, Steve Www.Classical.Net)
I can only cheer as Simmons delivers knockout punches to the serialist academics who ruled the world and American music scenes in the 1960s and 1970s...the author delivers some brilliant flashes of insight...This alternate version of a period of history of American music could hardly be better represented than by Voices in the Wilderness. (Fanfare)
Simmons' book should be a set text for students of music history everywhere. The marginalisation of some musicians, the primacy of fashion and the brutal interface between economics and arts make for provocative reading . . . Slake your enthusiastic curiosity with this well informed and poised book but be prepared to discover new enthusiasms and the nagging grains of fresh curiosity . . . do not be surprised if you come away with questions seriously disturbing to the concert and recording status quo. (Rob Barnett Www.Musicweb.Uk.Net)
As a work of music criticism, Voices is as close to a model of its kind as anything I have ever read....Simmons's introduction, in which he lays out the case for reconsidering these composers and the reasons for their neglect, is worth the price of the book by itself....I am in admiration of what he has achieved here. I am also immensely grateful for the in-depth treatment afforded to each of these six composers...The very hardest thing for a music critic to do is to put in words the 'meaning' of a piece of music. Simmons is particularly gifted in doing this, and it is what makes Voices so valuable. (Robert Reilly Crisis)
Numerous quotations as well as notes and bibliography reflect the author's painstaking research. Of special interest to record collectors, there's a discography of "essential" recordings for each composer...a special pleasure of Voices in the Wilderness is the remarkable precision and clear-sightedness of Simmons's analyses of his six composers' strengths and weaknesses. In sum, this is a scrupulous, detailed, thoughtful, enlightening, and much-needed book on an important group of modern American composers who've been until now much too easily dismissed as reactionaries and throwbacks. We're fortunate that someone with a lifetime of devotion to their music has written it. (American Record Guide)
A very thoroughly researched, well-organized, and well-written study…authoritative and, at the same time eminently readable for both the expert and the novice…That the work is a labor of love is evident at every turn, yet the obvious love of this music does not give rise to subjective bias. It is a scholarly, objective analysis of the material. Simmons demonstrates everywhere a deep and thorough knowledge of the works, their structure, and their thematic and melodic content. (Classical Voice North Carolina)
...useful and admirable for reasons other than its specific critical. To begin with, [Simmons'] introduction offers an impressively clear summary of the various ways in which the history of musical modernism is in need of correction and revision. His largely non-technical descriptions of the music discussed in Voices in the Wilderness are models of accessibility. Above all, he is a thoughtful, balanced critic whose respect for his subjects does not stop him from admitting their flaws; his analysis of Samuel Barber's musical style, for example, is exceptionally fair-minded and insightful. (Commentary)
...Simmons does a thorough job in sampling the critical evaluations of his subjects during different eras...[he] is both vivid in his own descriptions of the music and level-headed in his judgments. He is unafraid of challenging opinions he deems ill-considered...or of pointing out when his pet composers are not at their best...The lasting value of this book, however, lays not in its individual profiles, but in the way Simmons threads them together. (Michael Quinn The Gramophone)
Simmons examines the lives and music of Bloch, Barber, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Vittorio Giannini and Nicolas Flagello, a loyalty to tonality being the connecting factor. American musical history, Simmons argues, has tended to concentrate on composers who, in some way, rejected traditional harmonic language, and has marginalised those who stayed faithful to it. (Piano Professional)
This book is the first of a projected series of books by the distinguished writer on music, Walter Simmons. I've admired his writings for many years and had heard about this book from several friends who recommended it highly. I now see why....I for one am eager to read each of the five prospective books to follow this one....When this series is finished it will, on the evidence of this first volume, comprise one of the...most valuable overall studies of American classical music in print. Strongly recommended. (Scott Morrison Amazon.Com)
In 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....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. (Bertonneau, Thomas F. The University Bookman)
Musicologist and critic Simmons focuses on a group of composers born between 1880 and 1930 whose work is primarily concerned with evoking mood, depicting abstract or referential drama, and expressing personal and subjective emotion. He suggests that they may be the most conservative of the traditionalists, because they embraced many of the stylistic features of late-19th-century music. They are Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello. (Reference & Research Book News)
As a historical source, it is of value...It is commendable... (Music Reference Services Quarterly)
About the Author
Walter Simmons has received the National Educational Film Festival Award and the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism. He has contributed articles to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, American National Biography, Fanfare, Music Journal, and Musical America.
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1. No one enjoys the music of the European-born Ernest Bloch more than I do, but I was very surprised to find him to be considered an American composer when he did not arrive in the United States until he was 36 years old. Simmons' reasoning for including him is a) "his musical output embodies.....central Neo-Romantic aesthetic values", b) "the overwhelming majority of his music was composed in the United States", c) he was "a seminal figure in the formation of two important conservatories", and d) "contributed significantly to music education in this country as well". All of these reasons are well and good, and in no way take away from an excellent biography and analysis of his works, but I couldn't help thinking that composers such as Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, and Korngold might also qualify as "American" along the same lines.
2. For each composer, Simmons includes a list of "Most Representative, Fully Realized Works". This is of course an excellent help to those wanting to explore a composer's sound world without knowing where to begin. While I myself am familiar with a large number of the recommended compostions, I was also surprised at the number of personal favorites that Simmons did not consider "most representative, fully realized". For instance, Bloch's Violin Concerto, Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony, Giannini's Piano Concerto, Creston's Toccata, and not one of Barber's concertos were considered worthy of designation. While I expect lists such as these to be entirely subjective, I was surprised that we agreed only occasionally. Perhaps terms such as "most representative" and "fully realzied" are not as self-descriptive as they seem.
3. Simmons writes in his Introduction that "the question of how much analytical detail is appropriate is difficult to answer" and that the use of "specialized terminology" will be minimized. While any author attempting to enlighten his readership by challenging the status quo will want to reach as large an audience as possible, the decision must be made somewhere along the line to appeal more to the scholar and connoisseur, or more to the general reader. With this book, the former receives much more recognition than the latter. Perhaps this is understandable as Simmons does have a master's degree in music theory and musicology, but the average music-lover might have to struggle through this text from time to time. For example, we're told that Hanson's Sixth Symphony "...lacks the qualities of organic development and dialectical continuity essential to a true symphony", that Giannini's Fourth Symphony has "a densely concentrated developmental fabric of contrapuntal interrelationships", and that Barber's Essay #2 owes its American flavor to "the pentatonic structure of the main theme and its emphasis on the intervals of the fourth and fifth". I certainly expect more of musical analysis than "it's a masterpiece" or "it sure is pretty", but the aforementioned examples (of which there are many throughout the book) seem to be written for graduate students writing dissertations on music theory.
I hope the preceding quibbles in no way deter any potential purchaser, as this is still an outstanding work that has something for almost everyone interested in the subject. My personal copy will no doubt be returned to time and time again, and I look forward to the possibility of future volumes, perhaps including Walter Piston, William Schuman, David Diamond, Frederick Converse, and Alan Hovhaness (admittedly these composers would stretch the concept of American Neo-Romanticism, but Simmons' biographical and analytical efforts would be greatly appreciated for these sorely marginalized composers).
Although I was already a devoted follower of the music of Paul Creston, Simmons' analysis added immensely to my understanding of the music. Flagello and Giannini had also been a passion, as had Ernest Bloch. I was forced to look overseas for a recordng of one Bloch work with which I had newly become familiar: "Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and Its People," a thoroughly enjoyable symphonic work.
Each section of Simmons' book follows a similar pattern: a BIOGRAPHY of the composer, followed by a discussion of the MUSIC, typically broken into three or more periods, a CONCLUSION, NOTES, SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY, and ESSNETIAL DISCOGRAPHY. For those intimidated by the cost of the book, consider the fact that it will serve as a constant reference and provide many many hours of absorbing reading. But be prepared to spend even more as you discover recordings of works you suspect you must have.
For those concerned about any technical jargon that might hinder comprehension, be assured that Simmons writes with eloquence in a way to help even the minimally musicologically educated reader to follow his analyses.
If you have even a minimal interest in American music, or in music that touches the heart while showing considerable knowledge of structure, you owe it to yourself to obtain this book. Make it number 1 on your wish list, or, as I did, take the plunge now. You won't regret it.
I for one am eager to read each of the five prospective books to follow this one. The subjects of the remaining books will cover American neo-classicists, American opera composers, American nationalists and populists, three traditionalists of the Juilliard School, and American traditionalists of the post-1930 generation. When this series is finished it will, on the evidence of this first volume, comprise one of the very most valuable overall studies of American classical music in print.