I live 50 miles from Tanglewood, but I’ve never been there until today. Not my kind of crowd – too much Mozart and Carter, not nearly enough Glenn Branca and Eliane Radigue. But I’ve also never heard Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony live until today, and the temptation smashed my resistance. “Age of Anxiety” is kind of a piano concerto, and I worked on the piano solo part in high school because I loved it so much. My old friend, former student (from 20 years ago), and sometime employer Tony DeRitis got me a ticket for the Boston Symphony concert conducted by David Robertson with his pianist-wife Orli Shaham, and as soon as Tony read me the program I canceled my previous engagements and went. Also on the concert was Roy Harris’s Third Symphony, one of the most important works in my life, which I had only heard live once in a desultory performance, as well as Virgil Thomson’s quirky but dignified Five Blake Songs and three Barber songs. The Bernstein performance was splendid, especially the pianist; the Harris was a little fast and not savored sufficiently for my taste, but it had a propulsive sweep.
I’ve long wanted to blog about “Age of Anxiety.” Not a perfect piece by any means, and the sentimental ending degrades into ersatz Copland, but the first half is both scintillatingly clever and moving, with a theme and variations that exemplifies Schoenberg’s concept of “developing variations” better than any other piece I know, especially by Schoenberg. In its day it was dismissed by musical intellectuals on account of its stylistic heterogeneity: its splashes of Brahmsian romanticism and brainy jazz in an otherwise diatonically modernist idiom. For years I listened to it in private, score in hand, as a guilty pleasure. But then in the ’80s that kind of pastiche became the orchestral establishment’s new hip trend, and “Age of Anxiety” is way overdue its rehibilitation. After the concert I talked to many musicians, and found only one, composer and BSO program annotator Robert Kirzinger, who shared my enthusiasm for the Harris. I guess my relation to that piece is atypical for my generation (what else is new?), but I discovered it at 13, and it became my most fervently envied formal model. There are some low-profile themes in that piece that run through it unobtrusively, and score study helps you understand why it sounds so ineffably unified.
As I’ve said before, I leaped into Cage with both feet at 15, but before that I had already been indelibly imprinted by Gershwin, Ives, Copland, Bernstein, and Schuman, so while the Downtown repertoire left a thick veneer, the undercoating was pure American symphony. So sue me.
I’ve been thinking, all this year, about teaching a course on the American Symphony, and perhaps even writing a book. Last fall a friend bought me a score to Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune, one of my favorite pieces in the entire world. About that time I was also writing a review of Joseph Polisi’s new biography of William Schuman for Symphony magazine, which (the review) got bumped twice, but came out a month or so ago. The Thomson score made me realize that I could probably start finding scores I wanted on the internet, rather than buying merely what I happened to come across at now-defunct Patelson’s in New York. So I started looking around, mostly at The Sheet Music Store, and ended up ordering the following symphonies: Harris 9, Schuman 3 and 6, Cowell 4, Piston 7, Persichetti 4, Hanson 2, and Glass “Low.” I also found Thomson’s Third and the St. Joan Symphony of Norman Dello Joio in a used book store in Hudson. (This was all back in October when it looked like my personal finances were going to be happily bypassed by the economic Fall of Civilization.) All of them arrived except the Hanson, which I’m still waiting for (and Hanson expert Carson Cooman tells me I should have gotten the First or Third instead). They weren’t necessarily the symphonies I would have dreamed of, but they were ones I could find by composers who interest me.
And frankly, things don’t look good for the class, let alone the book. More often than not, I was disappointed. Reading through a score usually changes my opinion of a piece a little for the better or worse, and most of these went through a negative reassessment. Most depressing was the Harris Ninth (1962), which is a terrific mess. It’s as though Harris lost sight of everything that had been wonderful about his earlier music, all the broad themes and rhyhmic energy, and just started noodling randomly in what he considered “his style.” After reading it through closely with the recording, no impression remained at all, just a morass of piquant polychords absent-mindedly distributed. Cowell’s Fourth (1946) is a significantly more coherent piece, but similarly undistinguished – it could almost have been written by any mid-century minor pedant. Of course Cowell is one of my heros, but most of his symphonies were written after his unfortunate San Quentin experience, which turned him into what most people would have to consider a more conservative composer. I wished I could have found No. 16, the “Icelandic,” which is a little more fun.
The one piece that didn’t suffer at all was Schuman’s Sixth (1948), a tough, trenchant, impressively polyphonic work that may be, as some have said it is, the peak of his output. I had always been a fan of his Third (1941), and still am, though on close inspection it struck me as a little wandering.
Persichetti’s 4th (and I hate to say it with American Symphony expert Walter Simmons possibly reading) made very little impression on me after repeated hearings: expertly written, measure for measure, as he always is, but with no discernible throughline. The most disturbing score I found, though, was Piston’s Seventh (1960): an absolutely joyless, dogged work, carefully crafted around unmemorable themes as in a grim determination to churn out another correct example of the genre. He proved that one didn’t need 12-tone technique to suck all playfulness out of orchestral writing. A more interesting venture was the Dello Joio, which had the advantage of clearly outlined ideas. Thomson’s Third, an orchestration of one of his string quartets, was also disappointingly uninspired. And while I love certain passages in Glass’s “Low,” it’s a little watery, and even the stirring parts repeat until you start muttering, “OK, OK, I get it already.”
The problem with a course or a book is that the great American symphonies, even by great American composers, are exceptions, not the rule. Symphony production swelled to emormous volume in the 1930s and ’40s (I once did a survey course on symphonies and found 1946 as the climax year), and a kind of generic, upbeat symphonic style became the order of the day. Composers like Cowell and Thomson seemed to compromise most of their principles to get a monumental work out there, while obsessive craftsmen like Persichetti and Piston seemed to have no concept of epic sweep. The American symphonies I get tired of never teaching are all of Ives’s; the Copland Third; the Harris Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh; The Thomson Hymn Tune; the Riegger Third; the “Age of Anxiety”; the Schuman Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth; the Rochberg Second; any interchangeable Sessions work, the Third would do nicely; and now I’d add Robert Carl’s Third and Fourth. (I wouldn’t be adverse to adding the Antheil “1942” and Bolcom 5; Wolpe’s Symphony is one of his weakest works, though, and the Bernstein “Kaddish” is lush music wrapped in an embarrassing text.) Perhaps those are enough for a course, but the list seems a little cherry-picked, and while it would be nice to focus more on the pre-WWII search for a Great American Symphony, I’m afraid I would end up feeling too apologetic. An analysis class around Harris, Thomson, Schuman, and Bernstein sounds both peripheral to student interest and too ambitious. So I feel like the dream isn’t ikely to come true in any forseeable future, but at least I can now say I heard Bernstein 2 and Harris 3 live, and drank in every note like nectar. <
UPDATE: Someone remonstrated with me that great pieces of music are always exceptions, never the rule. Of course, that’s a truism. But in this particular context, why is Thomson’s Hymn Tune Symphony so inspired, his Third so tepid? Why is Bernstein’s Second a piano concerto and his Third a weird, ’60s-ish theater piece? Even Ives’s symphonies are cut from diverse patterns: the first Dvorakian, the Second a playful romantic romp, the Third unconventional in form but deeply religious and originating in organ improvisations, the Fourth mystical, philosophical, and presciently modernist. Compare with the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Bruckner, Mahler, who each possessed a fairly consistent concept of what a symphony is, developing it from work to work, so that if you like any one of those composers’ symphonies, you’re pretty much guaranteed to similarly appreciate at least all of its successors. In that sense, the great European symphonies are not the exceptions. Please read generously – there’s often a meaning that can be teased out with a little thought, and one can’t take the time to explain everything.