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The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin: Voices of Stone and Steel (Modern Traditionalist Classical Music) Hardcover – December 28, 2010
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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 premiere 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 excessive 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.
(Cvnc: An Online Arts Journal In North Carolina)
Each chapter in Simmons’s new book offers a detailed biographical sketch, a description of individual stylistic features of each composer, an assessment of the important and representative works that identifies both strengths and weaknesses, and a depiction of the larger social and cultural context out of which the music arose. There are many and extensive quotations from critical opinions (often at some variance with each other) and hundreds of citations in the notes for each chapter, as well as bibliographies and discographies for each composer—and even a compact disc with works by all three of them....Simmons’s extraordinary ability to advocate for these composers yet see them whole, with all their virtues, difficulties, and failings, is a triumph of sensitivity and a lifetime spent in thoughtful listening, research, and adjudication. He loves these men and their music yet makes careful, nuanced discriminations about them, raises questions about their accomplishments (sometimes unanswerable), and gives full credit to the intricate and unfathomable workings of personality and circumstance that bring forth artistic creation. Together with the many detailed and perceptive analyses of individual works (strictly verbal—there are no music examples) it is this celestial balance of judgment and mercy, knowledge and enigma, light and dark, that makes Voices of Stone and Steel indispensable for anyone studying or simply curious about the achievement of these three distinguished and emblematic “modern traditionalist” American composers. (American Record Guide 2011-09-14)
In his epochal study Voices in the Wilderness (2008), musicologist Walter Simmons charts the careers and assesses the achievement of six American “Neo-Romantic” composers…. 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? (The University Bookman)
Describing music with words is something every critic struggles with. Despite denying in his introduction that it can be done, Simons is a master at it. His analyses are consistently revealing, never too esoteric for the untrained reader (no scores, mere hints at harmonic analysis), nor too simplistic for the knowledgeable one. He advises us to listen as we read, yet-if one knows the music at all-it comes alive with only his descriptions. He devotes three dense pages to Schuman's Third Symphony, and every phrase, every note sounds and breathes. A well-loved symphony becomes all the more meaningful on next hearing. . . . One fervently hopes that Simmons' series will continue, and that he will champion neglected composers across the entire spectrum of American music.
This book. . . has been a labour of love for the author. Walter Simmons starts from the premise that the high watermark of American symphonic music in the years following the Second World War passed relatively unnoticed and undocumented, and that the vast contributions to American musical literature of three major figures during that period have largely been eclipsed by their other important, but less enduring, lifetime achievements… In this most interesting and absorbing book Simmons emerges as a persuasive advocate for those, myself included, who feel that the past few decades have witnessed unprecedented growth in American musical culture, the effects of which are only now starting to be assimilated. (Bret Johnson Tempo)
Through careful analysis of their music and insightful appraisal of their achievements, interspersed with enough biographical information to humanize his subjects, Simmons makes a solid case for their work and provides an enjoyable read in the process. . . . Overall the balance between biography and analysis is well judged. Simmons shows us enough of his subjects' feet of clay to remind us that composers are people, too, in a book that is primarily about absolute music. . . . With enticing recent recordings readily available. . . . there surely exists a new audience for this period of American music-an audience with open ears and fewer preconceptions. For them Simmons' book will be a godsend. (Fanfare Magazine)
A valuable book....What is of great value here is: first, the brilliant summaries of the style and substance of the considerable musical output of these composers; second, the many detailed descriptive analyses of individual compositions; third, historical reports of the critical and popular reactions to these musical works when first performed; fifth, information about the recording history of many of these works; and, finally, Simmons' highly informed evaluations of the strengths and weakness of the many works he writes about. . . . Highly recommended. (Classical Net)
At a time when these composers were all active, Stanley Cavell observed in a famous essay called “Music Discomposed” that “the task of the modern artist . . . is to find something he can be sincere and serious in; something he can mean” (“Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say? [New York: Scribner, 1969], p. 212). Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin succeeded admirably in this task. Simmons's book is a wonderful invitation to these composers and helps reclaim their reputations for a contemporary audience. (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism)
There is sufficient material here on all three composers to form an insightful view of their lives and work – both administrative and musical – and one would have to seek far and wide for greater insights into the legacies of all three men, who – together with Copland, Bernstein, Harris, Piston, Thomson and Ives – constituted the bulk of important American music in the 20th-century up to, say, 1960, by which time their most valuable works had appeared.
(Musical Opinion 2011-07-01)
This new contribution is most welcome. . . .There is still much to be gained from these musical examinations. . . .Voices of Stone and Steel is . . . a valuable entryway into a varied, compelling, and satisfying body of music. (American Music)
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. He is the author of Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow, 2004).
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This is the second volume of Simmons's alternative history of Modern American music. His first volume, Voices in the Wilderness, discussed six neo-Romantic composers -- Bloch, Barber, Hanson, Flagello, Creston, and Giannini -- most of whom hadn't earned that much ink in decades. Many musicologists and critics had written these men out of serious discussions, mainly because they didn't fit the narrative the fraternities had established. Simmons proposes a convincing revision of standard history -- convincing, because he doesn't just simply sound off. He has heard in detail a ton of music -- both that of his subjects and that of the mainstream histories -- and has the ability both to make sense of it and to communicate with a general reader. He built strong cases for all these composers. As a record producer and advocate, he has, importantly, disseminated their music on CDs.
The second volume in the series keeps to the successful general organization of the first. Its hierarchy contains the sprawl that easily could overtake such a work. Each chapter focuses on one composer -- Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin. Each chapter begins with life and career, provides a list of "most realized" works, moves to detailed discussion of individual pieces, and then sums up the composer's significance. New to this volume is the inclusion of a CD containing works by all the composers, a canny bonus. It offers the reader a taste of each man's work and affords the opportunity for more exploration. How he persuaded Scarecrow Press to do this, I can't think.
Unless you're a super-fan like me, you probably won't read this book straight through, but dip into it here and there, as you wish. The book's modularity makes it easy.
One of the scandals the book raises comes from the critical commentary at the time. It pigeonholed each of these men and then griped when their works didn't fit the slots that had been set up. Furthermore, this consensus has frozen, to a large extent. So William Schuman, for example, becomes an administrator who lacked the soul to compose, a laughable statement to anybody who's heard the Violin Concerto, the Ninth Symphony, or even the semi-popular New England Triptych. This points strongly in the direction of people repeating what they've read. Significantly, most of the favorable criticism comes from recent CD reviewers including, in the interests of full disclosure, me. Simmons cites not just me, but other CD reviewers, as well as various critics and musicologists who stand at some remove from the composers themselves.
What we get from this book is a view that sees American music not as three strands, but as the product of many more. Furthermore, Simmons emphasizes the individual composer. Much of the critical difficulty Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin suffered from critics stemmed from the insistence on viewing them as neoclassicists. Of the three, Persichetti fits that label best, but only in some works. After all, he mastered whatever technique interested him, and his compositional outlook strives to include and assimilate everything he can. However, the label never fit Schuman or Mennin at all. None of these men moved in a crowd. Schuman led. Persichetti persuaded through his teaching and writing. Mennin remained idiosyncratic, unconcerned with how he fit in or what his influence was.
I disagree with Simmons here and there, both on individual works and on various points, but that's inevitable in a study of this size. I probably rate Schuman's music more highly than he does, for example. I do get annoyed by his use of the word "atonal," when he simply means "highly dissonant." However, I have a hard time hearing atonality, even in music avowedly atonal. I seem to almost always hear a tonic. It upsets me to encounter the word "atonal" in print, because many take it as a license to simply not listen to the work itself. Take it from me: There's atonality and there's atonality. Some atonal works have actually become mini-hits, even pop hits, but not because they proclaimed their atonality. You can write a boring piece of tonal music just as easily as an atonal one. Tonality or its lack is beside the point.
Simmons wonders about the viability of music as complex as serious Modernist scores. On the other hand, I wonder about the viability of all "high" art. It seems to me the same problem in general as in the special case. Serious art requires an actively-engaged audience. The general audience has become increasingly passive (decline in general music education hasn't helped), aided by technology. If you can download whatever, why would you download Sessions's Second Symphony when you could download (to really skew the comparison) Justin Bieber? For that matter, why would you download Mahler or Brahms or even Beethoven?
My disagreements are really just the equivalent of speed bumps and rise from a naturally argumentative nature. The series so far, however, I consider a major achievement. Merely to have heard all the music Simmons has in order to write the thing is a staggering, years-long job -- without taking into account all the time he has spent thinking about what he's heard. Furthermore, the details never drown the larger views. It's geared for people who have some acquaintance with the composers and would like to learn more. Simmons has the gift of being able to write intelligently about music without resorting to technical jargon. Recommended.
Perhaps one of the strongest properties of Simmons's writing (notable because it is so rarely present in music writing) is a willingness to engage with the catalogs of these composers in a detailed and hierarchical way, by providing a map through the stronger and weaker works. Most books on composers treat every composition as if it were equally great (or important) -- which is not only untrue, but supremely unhelpful when trying to get a handle on a body of work.
I had the privilege of reading this marvelous book in its final draft, and I strongly recommend it to anybody interested in American music or in discovering (or simply learning more) about these three fine composers. Unlike "Voices in the Wilderness," this book comes with a CD recording, providing a very convenient aural introduction to the music right in the back pocket of the book itself.
Simmons follows the same pattern as in the earlier book. Each composer has a long section devoted to him and his music. First there is a biography, then an extensive review of the pertinent aspects of each composer's individual works that includes beautifully clear analytic descriptions in language perfectly understandable to the non-professional. He uses quotes from critical assessments of each work from both newspapers or magazines and from scholarly publications, followed by extensive references to available recordings. The book includes a CD with performances from the following works:
Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony
Persichetti: Concerto for Piano Four, Hands
Georgia and Louise Mangos, duo pianists
Persichetti: Serenade No. 10 (six excerpts)
Samuel Baron, flute; Ruth Maayani, harp
Mennin: Symphony No. 6
David Alan Miller, conductor; Albany Symphony Orchestra
It is hard to imagine that anyone reading this book won't feel the need to go out and buy recordings of unfamiliar works herein extolled. I found myself making a wish list.
In conclusion, I will say that I learned more in reading this book than I could have imagined possible. I found my respect and admiration for Schuman and Mennin had grown, and that I had fallen in love with Vincent Persichetti all over again.