I got interested in Modern American music as a teenager and well remember me and my high-school musical buddies gathering over the latest LPs of Schuman, Gershwin, Copland, and Foss. I read all I could, bought all the LPs I could, borrowed stuff from the public library, and peered at scores. Sometime in the 60s or 70s, I came across the writings of Walter Simmons, who had obviously heard much more than even a headbanger like me and had a conceptual framework I lacked. I learned a lot from him at a distance.
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.