Confessions of a Closet Midtowner

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.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m always shocked at how little-performed and written-about The Age of Anxiety is. I sat around for years hoping a live performance would happen in the Philly area; a chapter of my diss was about the piece, and I had never heard it live before. A Bernstein festival at the Philadelphia Orchestra came along, and sure enough they did Jeremiah and Kaddish, but not Anxiety. What gives?!

  2. says

    Listening to bunches of mid-20th-century American symphonies makes you realize why the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra made such a sensation. You can almost hear the old Hungarian attending one too many symphonic premieres and thinking, “please, here’s how you do it, guys.” The sweep, the clarity, the humor, the big finish – one-upping everything the American symphonists were trying to do.

  3. says

    I guess I don’t limit my thinking of the greatness of the American symphonic tradition to the orchestra. I’d put Schuman’s “George Washington Bridge”, Karel Husa’s “Music for Prague 1968″, and Owen Reed’s “La Fiesta Mexicana” right alongside the exceptions you mention. I’d also venture to guess that including wind band repertoire would extend the innovation of the symphonic form well past the 1946 climax point you mention right through the rest of the century.
    Anyhoo, I’d think exploring the American symphonic form with the inclusion of band literature would at least make an interesting course if not a book.
    P.s. – I hope we can return back to more downtown topics soon. I’ll need to bust out some old chestnuts like “the symphony is dead” and “the orchestra belongs in a museum” to keep my street cred…

  4. Eric Shanfield says

    I love Harris 3! Maybe you know the answer to this – the Bernstein recording is missing chunks in the middle that appear in the published score. Was this Bernstein doing his unauthorized Connotations thing or are these revisions or what?
    I agree Schuman 3 is neat (big Glass 3 fan here), but 8 is my favorite, to which I was turned on by… Oh yeah, Kyle Gann.
    KG replies: I just learned the answer to that recently. Apparently the piece had to be cut a little to fit on one side of an LP when it first came out, and they took out a few pages from that gorgeous middle section. It always seems strange to hear the rest of the material now when I hear the whole thing, as I did yesterday, but the cut was always a compromise.

  5. says

    I’m not sure if it was an intentional omission, but I didn’t see anything on your list by Peter Mennin. I think the Fifth (1950) and Sixth (1953) Symphonies are seminal works in his output, and if you can find a good pressing of the old Martinon CSO recording on RCA, the Seventh (1964) is well worth hearing too.
    KG replies: I’ve got Mennin’s Eighth and Ninth, and find them unpleasant. I’ve heard better things about the earlier symphonies, and have searched for recordings without success.

  6. says

    Yes, indeed, your commentary did reach my eyes, but I respect your right to your opinions, especially because I typically find your comments sincere, free of dogma, and free of axes to grind. On the other hand, when the subject of “great American symphonies” comes up, it is very hard for me to keep my mouse shut. Reading through your commentary, I realize that we have very little “common ground,” i.e. not only very few shared assumptions through which to develop a dialectical argument, but also very few areas of agreement regarding individual pieces, to serve as points of departure. So–and I’m pursuing this not out of self-importance (I hope) but because I think that perhaps it is possible to move the discussion forward despite the foregoing caveats.
    The main point I would like to make is this: You mention a large number of American symphonies, with your spontaneous reactions to each of them. But at no point do you present any standards from which your judgments derive. Yes, many of your comments suggest certain standards that may be inferred, but many of those seem self-contradictory or inconsistent to me, or their applications to the referenced works don’t make sense to me. And I find Dillon’s remark especially annoying because he seems to find the superiority of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra to “bunches of mid-20th-century American symphonies” to be self-evident. He seems to think that all these composers were trying to write the same kind of piece, and Bartok did a better job of it than any of them.
    I disagree entirely. Kyle, you mention quite a few symphonies there, and, I think you imply a similar notion: that you have some kind of ideal symphony in mind, and this or that one falls short of that ideal. But–limiting the discussion just to mid-20th-century American symphonies–there is a huge repertoire there, and each of the myriad composers cited had his own symphonic ideal in mind; some had different ideals in mind for different pieces. Well, right there, that makes the whole issue much more complicated–too complicated to just cite composers’ names and symphony numbers and say “good” or “bad” or the more sophisticated equivalent. I don’t want to get hooked on individual comments, but the statement that Cowell’s Fourth “could almost have been written by any mid-century minor pedant” would never be uttered by someone who really knows Cowell’s symphonies; such a person would know that every moment of this work displays the particular qualities unique to this composer. And to single out Piston’s Seventh as “joyless” and “dogged” (whatever that exactly means)–well, one response to that–as to the idea that Persichetti’s Fourth has “no discernable throughline” is simply I don’t hear it that way. But that’s kind of a conversation-stopper. But I might add that the comment about the Piston implies that a “great American symphony” has to be joyful. Well, when did we get to vote on that one? Perhaps the crux lies in the following: “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.” First of all, “great” anythings are the exceptions, not the rules–great 18th-century symphonies are also the exceptions, not the rules. So let’s just take that point off the table. Having spent the past 50 years studying the mid-20th-century American symphony, I would say that this body of repertoire reached its peak–with regard to quantity, but especially with regard to quality–during the 1950s, although the 40s saw the appearance of many fine works; most of the American symphonies of the 1930s were exploratory and relatively primitive, by comparison. And then there is the remark that a “generic, upbeat symphonic style became the order of the day.” I maintain that that exact statement is equally true about Austro-Germanic symphonies of the 18th century. Equally true and equally irrelevant, because we are interested in the great works of this repertoire–not the run of the mill. But if one sets that generalization as the standard, well then, a lot of works certainly do not live up to it. But why should a statement about the typical example of a genre serve as the criterion of judgment? I would modify that statement as follows: Although many mid-20th-century American composers contributed to a generic, upbeat symphonic style, the greatest of them, while working within some generally accessible adaptation of tonality, developed their own individual voices through which they expressed their personal visions and commentaries on the pressing existential, emotional, and spiritual issues that concerned them. And, I might add, I would have no difficulty identifying 25 of the most distinguished such works, and filling a semester or two examining and discussing them. And if Bartok were in the class, he might be surprised by how much he could have learned from such a study.
    KG replies: Walter, I really respect your work and am eagerly awaiting its arrival, and so I hope I can dissuade you from taking this so personally. First of all, I would never, ever, ever fall for that “one ideal symphony” idea. I think the very fact that I admire works by Bernstein, Sessions, Thomson, Carl, and a diversity of others proves that I don’t particularly have any particular paradigm in mind. And I hope you don’t think I’m so stupid (or Stalinist) as to think symphonies should be joyful. Piston’s Seventh didn’t need to be happy, but it should look and sound as though he gained some enjoyment from writing it, i.e., contain a few surprises, spontaneity, inspiration, not just page after page of grindingly consistent polyphony. He wrote other, better music. There are a lot of fine composers whose symphonies, I think, are not among their best works.

  7. says

    I came to Leonard Bernstein from Steve Rowland’s radio project “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life”, at http://www.artistowned.com.
    To my mind, Leonard Bernstein definitely belonged in the American Mavericks series. I have all of the text material and all of the audio interviews. I do not think he is ever mentioned. I would be glad to be corrected on this.
    When I listen to the symphonies or the orchestral suites, I hear Jazz crashing into the European orchestral sweep.
    >>RSM

  8. Bob Gilmore says

    Very interesting. I’ve always been fond of Cowell’s Seventh Symphony, from the old CRI recording, and wish to God somebody would record all twenty of them (if that’s how many there are) so we could hear them all finally – there must be some other good ones. I’m fond of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, Lou Harrison’s Symphony on G, Copland’s Dance Symphony, and Ned Rorem’s Third. Among others.
    KG replies: For got about Lou. Kind of an odd case: I certainly prefer his piano concerto to any of the symphonies, but the one on G has its pleasures. His Last Symphony was kind of a hodge-podge, with three songs in the middle.

  9. Gavin Borchert says

    As it happens, if you’re not doing anything else that weekend, the Seattle Symphony is playing Age of Anxiety and the Schuman 3rd (plus Chichester Psalms) next June 24-26. Schwarz is conducting, Misha Dichter is the pianist–
    KG replies: Wow, it’s a trend.

  10. mclaren says

    Bernstein always struck me a lightweight, with only his score for Candide to provide a truly impressive piece of work, but The Age of Anxiety does tend to grow on you. In retrospect it seems like a hugely underrated work. It got no love because (A) it was too tonal when the fad for Euro shlockmusik hit fever pitch; and (B) even worse, it exhibits a stylistic heterogeneity characteristically French, and as we know, Berlin on the Hudson abhors the French model of polystylistic variety in favor of a fetishistic monomania for Germanic unity, unity, unity ueber alles.
    David Diamond’s symphonies never get any love. They always struck me as some of the best American symphonies, but no one agrees…a sure sign that the rest of the human race is dead wrong.
    Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 2 seems underrated to me. The finale is dynamite.
    Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony is tons ‘o fun, and I especially love the movement Krypton. Aaron Jay Kernis’ Sympony in Waves is pretty good too, though I know Kyle doesn’t go much for the neoromantic composers. Also, a lotta stuff that American composers call “symphonies,” ain’t — like Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 3. Great piece, but Mozart would yip if he could hear it. This ain’t your daddy’s symphony, junior.
    Have to agree about Glass’ Low Symphony. Really nice piece, but, like Chinese food, an hour later you find yourself hungry again… For whatever reason, Glass’ Low Symphony just doesn’t seem that substantive. Glass’ music for movies or the theater just seems so much bigger and deeper.
    Easley Blackwood’s Symphony No. 1 and Amy Beach’s E Minor Symphony (“Gaelic”) never get any critical adulation but I keep coming back to ‘em. Kyle has dissed Ellen Zwilich as one of the “kleine meisteren” but I’d have to disagree, and her Symphony No. 1 seems like it holds its own with the rest of the pieces mentioned.
    Haven’t perused the scores of any of these pieces, though. For the most part, these scores are simply unavailable. In fact, haven’t heard some recent American symphonies I’d really like to — especially Cindy McTee’s Symphon No. 1. Given her prodigious talent and the excellence of the other work I’ve heard from McTee, I’d expect great things from her first symphony, but no recording of its premiere seems available. Pity.
    Simmons’ point that all great symphonies in some way represent an exception seems sensible, but I intuit that Gann implies something else. I think what Kyle was pointing out was that for American composers, the symphony did not come naturally. For more than 100 years, from Haydn to Mahler, European composers fluently wrote in a symphony idiom that seemed to come out of their native intellectual and artistic soil, so to speak. French and German and Russian composers cranked out symphonies without any seeming sense of strain or “reaching.” American composers, by contrast, seemed to have to stretch uncomfortably to do a symphony. The form didn’t seem entirely natural to American composers, not then, not now. While a symphony forms a standard part of the repertoire of a typical well-known European composer, with some Eurocomposers pumping out a hundred or more (!) and many cranking out 8 or 10 or 20, the number of American composers who have produced only 1 or 2 or perhaps 5 symphonies at most seems much higher. A symphony seems like a much bigger deal for an American composer, both historically and today. It’s the rare exception in the list of works of the typical American composer, whereas a symphony is often the rule for a European composer up to Mahler. The big exception remain Charles Ives, who typically towers over the rest of the American symphonic composers.
    You have to wonder if dramatic accompaniments like ballet scores and dance pieces aren’t the typical American form. A disproportionate number of the most acclaimed American symphonic works, from Griffes’ The Kairn of Coridwen, to Lou Harrison’s music for puppet theater, seem to derive from music for live drama or ballet.
    Simmon’s criticism falls flat when he avers that Gann fails to provide proper standards by which to judge the allegedly great American symphony. The effort to establish objective enumerative yardsticks for music remains one of the most jejune fallacies of modern critics; it boils down to a failed and futile effort to immunize themselves against debunking. Alas, objectively verifiable left-brain criteria for music invoke precisely those aspects of music which prove peripheral to the central impact of a composition. Namely, the music’s emotional and intangible structural qualities, including (but not limited to) the vividness and memorableness of the composition, the success of its overall dramatic arc, the grace of its overall equipoise, its economy and power, its balance of unity with variety, and the piquancy of its general conceptual flavor (dour? vivacious? expansive? crabby? exultant? profligate? fanatical? bland? hypertensive? OCD-like preciousness? or big-hearted Falstaffian brio?).
    None of these musical qualities can get quantified in such a way as to bulletproof a contemporary musical critics’ judgment, which explains why contemporary music critics tend to shy away from judging current music by such standards…to the endless discredit of current music criticism.

  11. gitanjali says

    If a non-musician pipsqueak can join the conversation, I would like to “aver” that
    1) I also love the Harris 3, the Diamond 4, the Beach “Gaelic.”
    2) I think Piston is beautiful, deep, genuine and the real thing. I think the Piston 7 is beautiful, and that Piston 6 is among the top American symphonies. Irving Fine deserves another listen, for the ambition. Diamond seems rich to me, but weak in (conventional) form.
    It’s not for a non-expert to have any opinions, BUT … if there is no first-rate scholarly book on the way these composers interacted and influenced each other, something very important is missing in musicology.
    KG replies: Something is indeed missing, and Walter Simmons is the only person I know of working to fill that significant gap.

  12. says

    Sorry to have annoyed you, Mr. Simmons, so allow me to clarify: I said the Bartok made a big sensation. This was reported to me by several of the American symphonists you and Kyle list — it’s not by any means a representation of my original thought. The Concerto for Orchestra hit like a bolt of lightning on the new music scene in the late 40s. Sure, I may have been imagining what was going through Bartok’s mind when he wrote the piece, but since there is nothing else in his repertoire that has quite the same scope, I think it’s a fair — though not inarguable — supposition.

  13. Karl Miller says

    As for this being a subject for a class…for six years I taught a seminar on this very subject. The class was always full. We needed no text, we had the music to look at.
    Regarding the lack of writing on the subject, I would suggest that you look to the writings of Nicolas Tawa. He has covered the subject in several of his books. You might also want to read his most recent offering “The Great American Symphony…” published by the Indiana University Press.
    In your response to Walter, you write, “Piston’s Seventh didn’t need to be happy, but it should look and sound as though he gained some enjoyment from writing it, i.e., contain a few surprises, spontaneity, inspiration, not just page after page of grindingly consistent polyphony.”
    Since when would a listener’s perception of a composer’s disposition when writing be a criteria for excellence? And for the Piston 7th, listen again to the B theme in the rondo finale. It is, to my ears, one of the most beautiful moments in all of his works.
    In closing, I am amazed that someone who has written so much on American Music would be, only now, acquiring scores to these major works.
    KG replies: Wow, what a quietly snide comment. I said, and you quote, that the music should LOOK – LOOK – and SOUND – as though it contained surprises, inspiration, et al. I didn’t say anything at all about the composer’s actual disposition, only the appearance of the music. And I have dozens of scores of American symphonies that I’ve owned since my teenage years, I just listed recent acquisitions I made to fill in some gaps – as one might have assumed, hadn’t I so clearly disgusted you somehow.

  14. Tom DePlonty says

    Since I’ve loved Bernstein since I was a kid, warts and all, I wanted to put in a word for his little symphonic ballet Facsimile. It is a young composer’s work and derivative of Copland, but there are some beautiful passages and it uses the piano nicely. (He really must have wanted to write a piano concerto – I wonder why he never did.)

  15. says

    This is a response to one of the comments made by McLaren: I am well aware that there are no purely objective criteria or standards adequate to determining the value of a piece of music in some “absolute” sense. However, I do believe that it is possible, through thoughtful reflection, to elaborate one’s reactions in such a way as to convey some sense of implicit standards, and the extent to which a particular piece meets those standards–or perhaps even succeeds despite failing to meet some such standards and why. Put more bluntly, there is a big difference between dismissing a symphony for having “no discernable throughline” and, say, lacking the aesthetic weight that one comes to expect from a symphony, or using devices that the composer used more effectively in other works. I.e., there are no absolutes, but there are principles to which one can refer in attempting to articulate one’s reactions in such a way as to have meaning to a reader. Validation or the lack thereof lies in the cumulative reactions of readers and listeners. This is the point of good, useful music criticism; I think McLaren exaggerated my meaning to the point of distortion.
    McLaren also asserts that composing symphonies does/did not come “naturally” to American composers the way it did to European composers. This is a purely intuitive observation. My intuition tells me otherwise; I think that the American symphonies of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s represent a richly rewarding body of work, and that American composers took to this medium with remarkable ease and naturalness. We may disagree about this and attempt to make convincing cases for our points of view without having to denigrate the other.
    These are all much larger issues than can be addressed in the medium at hand. Perhaps these comments provide some food for thought and further discussion.

  16. Bob Gilmore says

    Not wanting to add unnecessary fuel to an already fiery debate, your and McLaren’s comment about Glass’s Low Symphony prompts me to go further and probably incur the wrath of everyone reading – but so be it. I adore much of Glass, and think he is truly iconic, a great composer. But his symphonies, ALL of them, strike me as possibly the weakest corner of his output. All the PGE music (1968 onwards), several of his operas and film scores are MUCH finer music than any of his symphonies (I’ve heard the first five only, have steered clear of the more recent ones). I find it hard to avoid the thought that he’s writing symphonies only because he wants to play the same game as the big boys from Europe and acquire a Beethoven-like kudos. Maybe this is not true and deeply unfair, and if so many apologies to Mr Glass, but in my opinion symphonic form, no matter how liberally we interpret it, just DOES NOT SUIT his sort of music. Steve Reich knows this very well, and has avoided this sort of debasement by not turning out these threadbare suits from among the emperor’s new clothes.
    We judge a composer by their best music, not their worst, so for me Glass remains a great composer whose best music will last and inspire future generations. But, speaking personally (and, if they’re honest, I suspect for many listeners) his symphonies are miles away from his best music.
    KG replies: My sense is that Glass wouldn’t agree, but I certainly do.

  17. Rodney Lister says

    I agree with you completely about the Symphony on a Hymn Tune. The third Symphony, you may know, started life as a ballet in Lord Byron (hard to imagine it, but there it is). I guess he felt he had to to something with it. The 2nd quartet, which it’s an orchestration of, is not such a bad piece. I’m coaching a movement of it just at the moment.
    I don’t know if you know the Second symphony, which is pretty nice. The pieces that come close (very close) to the level of the Symphony on a Hymn Tune are the ‘cello concerto (a wonderful, wonderful piece) and the first two of the orchestra pieces.
    I don’t mind the Harris 3rd, but it seems to me to be a long way from the great American Symphony (I’d nominate the Thomson myself). Of his I like 1 and 7 better.
    When I was in high school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I used to listen to an old Columbia recording of the symphony by John Vincent, which I remembering liking a lot. I’ve never heard anything else of his, or heard of him at all, for that matter.
    Of the Sessions, I like the 3rd very much. Also 1, 4, and 5 (although the CRI recording of them with Zinman (?) and the Baltimore symphony don’t make them sound like anything at all.
    I’ve never got on with Copland 3. I much much much more like the Short Symphony, although I like the Sextet version better (I would say that that’s Copland’s best piece).
    How anybody manages to make it through any Piston Symphony at all is beyond me.
    I grew up in Nashville, and I was present at the first performance of Cowell’s last symphony (#19?). I remember thinking it was good.

  18. Rodney Lister says

    Nobody mentioned the Barber first Symphony, which is a piece that I’ve always liked.

  19. Brad Wilson says

    No Peter Mennin at all? I concede his 8th and 9th are perhaps too tempestuous for many but the 3rd, 5th and 6th are powerhouse works, to me worthy of mention with Ives 2 and 4, Hanson 1, Schuman 3 and 6, etc.
    Also Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra deserves more attention.
    Diamond: some of his wander, but No. 2 is, to me, joyous and thrilling in a uniquely American way.