Symphony No. 4
Capriccio For Harp
And String Orchestra
Three New England Sketches
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Review by Max Westler
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CD Number: Naxos 8559162 and Albany Records 515
As early as 1838, the critic George Bancroft had called for a truly "democratic" music: "If with us the arts are destined to be awakened into a brilliant career, the inspiration must spring from the triumphs of democracy." This was, of course, exactly the point Antonin Dvorak was trying to make when he based his "New World" Symphony on the indigenous folkloric themes he found during his visit to America. He wanted to give native composers a sense of what an "American" symphony might sound like, encourage them to found a "great and noble" national school of composition. But in spite of the best efforts of composers as varied as MacDowell and Ives, the example did not take. For as long as the American musical establishment was in the hands of rich patrons in thrall to all things Germanic, the newly established orchestras in Boston and New York did not encourage American composers or play their music.
But all that began to change in the 1930's, thanks largely to the radio and the phonograph record. All at once, serious music became available to a new audience. In short time, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the NBC Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera were all being broadcast weekly to the entire nation; and soon enough, Toscaninni, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, and Heifetz had become household gods. By 1940, there were nearly 300 symphony orchestras in this country. By 1953, the revenues from concert events of all kinds had surpassed those of major league baseball, 30 million paid admissions in all. Even during the early days of television, there was "Omnibus" and "The Bell Telephone Hour," and Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts." Both NBC and CBS commissioned or premiered operas by the likes of Martinu, Poulenc, Britten, Menotti, and Weil.
This revolution in taste and culture was also fueled by the populist spirit of the Roosevelt administration, and the idea that classical music was not the sole possession of its wealthy patrons, but should stand at the center of a truly democratic culture; there to be enjoyed by all Americans, rich and poor alike. In a period where Kirsten Flagstad welcomed the Valkyries home in the company of W.C. Fields and Bob Hope, and Bugs Bunny sang "Largo al factotum," suddenly many other things became possible; the careers of Leonard Bernstein, William Kapell, and Micheal Rabin among them. With the emergence of a mostly middle and working class audience for serious music, American composers, conductors, and instrumentalists were in demand. Significantly, it was Koussevitsky who went to a young Harvard teacher and composer named Walter Piston to ask why he hadn't yet written any symphonic music. "Because nobody would play it," Piston replied. "I will play it," answered Koussevitsky, thus initiating a relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that would last until 1965 when then music director Erich Leinsdorf conducted the premiere of Piston's Eighth and final symphony.
The symphony is one of the more public and challenging forms of musical discourse, and there's not much point in going to all that trouble unless there's at least some promise of an audience at the other end. Now there were conductors (like Koussevitsky, and later Mitropolous, Munch, Ormandy, Dorati, Hanson, and of course Bernstein himself) who regularly programmed contemporary American works, audiences who wanted (or at least felt a responsibility) to hear them, and institutions (like the Walter Naumberg Foundation) that commissioned (mostly young) composers to write them. These conditions sparked what was, in effect, a renaissance, and composers as diverse as Hanson, Shapero, Schuman, Diamond, Swanson, Fine, Menin, Blackwood, Creston, Hovhanness, Sessions, Barber, Still, Thomson (both Virgil and Randall), and Copland all produced symphonies of note, originality, and sometimes greatness. During this period, if an American composer felt he had something important to say, he would do so in the form of a symphony.
Of all that symphony-composing generation, Walter Piston and Roy Harris (born in 1894 and 1898 respectively) were the polar opposites. Piston was the circumspect Yankee, Harris the expansive (if not egocentric) Westerner. Piston was a formalist who believed in passionate expression; Harris a visionary Romantic, nonetheless fascinated with fugues and canons. Piston developed an abstract, "international" style and (with the notable exception of the too wonderful "Incredible Flutist" ballet) resisted programmatic content; Harris wanted his music to sound distinctly American, and often wore his patriotism on his sleeve.
Piston spent his entire career teaching composition at Harvard where he wrote influential textbooks (on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration) and numbered among his students Elliot Carter, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Irving Fine, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Pinkham, Frederic Rzewski, and John Harbison. (It certainly suggests something about Piston's virtues as a teacher that he could produce students who later came to represent so many different, if not incompatible musical styles.) Though he spent much of his later life teaching, a younger Harris led the kind of two-fisted life artists of his generation were supposed to lead. He was, for a time, a farmer, a truck driver, a construction worker, and a hobo. At the end of their long careers, both composers suffered a decline; but again, for different reasons. Piston kept paring and refining his thematic materials until almost nothing was left; Harris kept expanding his limited range of ideas to the point of inflation and repetitiousness. But they do have one thing in common: at their best, both produced great music that anyone interested in modern American music should know.
As is certainly the case with Piston's Fourth Symphony, one of his most characteristic and appealing works. The Fourth does just about everything that you would expect a Piston symphony to do. The first movement moves at a leisurely tempo and takes an achingly beautiful opening theme through a surprising, and sometimes dramatic development. Piston called the athletic second "a dancing movement," and is it ever. A slaphappy, syncopated theme gives way to flowing, fast-moving waltz that soon yields the floor to a foot-stomping jig propelled by wild country fiddling. Piston's slow movements are always revealing and deeply felt, for it is there he permitted himself the widest expressive range. Here a melancholy theme progresses to a imposing climax in one long, songful arch. The final movement, like the second, is breathlessly kinetic: a rugged, edgy rhythmic figure leads directly to a more characterful march-like tune, then to a percussive, brass-stoked coda.
In a sense, it's unfair to compare the Second Symphony of Roy Harris to the Piston Fourth, for the latter is a completely mature statement by a composer at the height of his powers; while the former, impressive as it is, suggests a composer still in the process of discovering his own voice. Of course, Harris would do just that three years later in the Third Symphony, the work that would make him famous. What's so fascinating is that all the elements Harris would put together in the Third are already present in the Second: long-arching melodies, dark string sonorities, a freely moving structure based on canons and fugues.
But in the Second, Harris was still trying to compose something like a traditional symphony, and that limits (and at times confuses) his ability to develop his sometimes very compelling ideas. Later Harris would work up the courage to discard traditional models and reconstruct the symphony on his own terms. In the Third, this turned out to be a single movement in seven sections, tightly woven together into one unified (and tragic) utterance. But here one often senses his frustration in trying to move gracefully from place to place.
Though not a great work, the Second Symphony is nevertheless adventurous listening. In the first movement, entirely structured on a sharply aggressive four note motive, Harris takes as his model the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth. Though the results are mixed, one cannot fault his ambition. The lovely second movement, however, needs no apology; a gorgeous lyric theme is subjected to a set of ingenuous and dreamlike variations. The third movement is (for me at least) the most problematic, a mishmash with some good and bad ideas competing for attention, and in the end not fitting comfortably together.
The fillers on both these CD's are substantial. Alternately tart and breezy (in the best French manner), pointillistic in the utter clarity and radiance of its orchestration, the "Capriccio for Harp and Strings" is one of Piston's most genial and purely entertaining works. "Three New England Sketches" is a different story altogether. Though Piston characteristically downplayed the programmatic nature of the piece and its symphonic character, it is as dramatic and concentrated a work as he ever composed. Each of the three "sketches" (notice: "sketches," not the more concrete "pictures") has its own distinct profile: "Seaside" is appropriately restless, then terrifying; "Summery Evening" a edgy nocturne, and "Mountains" grandly dramatic. In fact, the ascending figure in C accompanied as it is by volleys of fierce percussion reminds me of Carl Ruggles' "Suntreader." Or the opening of the Brahms First Symphony.
Morton Gould's Third Symphony fills out the Harris disc, and it is a wonderful surprise. Gould was a prolific composer, especially adept at turning out winning and deservedly popular scores: "Fall River Legend," "Latin-American Symphonette," and "West Point Symphony," to name only three of my favorites. But the Third Symphony is different--at once more personal and serious, and also more daring. In his willingness to shift tone, defeat his listener's expectations, Gould seems more like the young Shostakovitch at his most irreverent, not the second-rate Gershwin his detractors often mistook him to be. There are jazzy and popular tunes here, as one might expect, but there is also a sense of anguish and grandeur that makes this work unique even given Gould's huge catalogue. If, in the end, the symphony falls short of Gould's ambitions, it is nevertheless fascinating from first to last, and (audiophiles take note) the third movement will give your system an ear-popping workout.
In the late 80's and 90's, Gerard Schwarz led the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in a distinguished series that included complete (or near complete) cycles of symphonies by Hanson, Piston, Creston, and Diamond. Originally released by the now defunct Delos label, these recordings are being reissued as part of the American Classics series by Naxos. This is extremely good news for those wanting to sample this fascinating repertory because they can now do so at bargain prices. Schwarz is a knowing and sympathetic guide, the Seattle Orchestra well-drilled and responsive, and the excellent sound (recessed but very clear and wide-ranging, with a prominent and well-defined bass) has been largely preserved from the originals.
David Allan Miller, who seems to have taken up where Schwarz left off, has made distinguished recordings of music by Creston, Harbison, Helps, Lees, Menin, and Schuman. Though both the Harris Second and the Gould Third have troiubled histories, you would never guess that from these performances. Miller is so deep inside the music that every gesture sounds completely natural and persuasive. The Albany Symphony is not the New York Philharmonic, but shows what miracles careful preparation and commitment can bring about. Besides, one has to wonder if the Philharmonic could have summoned this degree of freshness and enthusiasm for music so unfamiliar. I found the SACD sound extremely realistic--detailed, vivid, and (in the Gould especially) absolutely thrilling. We certainly owe Miller, his fine orchestra, and the Albany label a debt of gratitude for resurrecting these worthy scores that would have been otherwise forgotten. I anxiously await future discoveries.