In this week’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I talk about a generation of American classical composers who fell through the cracks—and a new attempt to revive their music. Here’s an excerpt.
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What do you think of when you hear the phrase “midcentury modernism”? My guess is that your average educated American is more than likely to respond with the name of a painter like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, a building like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, or a piece of furniture like the Eames Lounge Chair. In this country, modernism is a visual phenomenon: It’s something you see. All other manifestations of the modern movement in 20th-century American art take a back seat.
If that generalization strikes you as too broad for comfort, try answering this question: Who were Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, Walter Piston and William Schuman?
The answer is that they were American classical composers active from the ’40s into the ’70s. Among other things, they wrote symphonies that were critically acclaimed and frequently performed by such famous émigré conductors as Serge Koussevitzky, Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski. Piston and Schuman won the Pulitzer Prize, and all four men used to be fairly familiar to the general public, almost as much so as Aaron Copland, our most popular mid-century classical composer. Schuman actually appeared in 1962 as the mystery guest on the popular TV game show “What’s My Line?” Much of their best music was recorded, and many of those recordings are still in print. Yet I’d be surprised if more than a handful of people reading this column recognize any of their names, nor is their music heard much nowadays. In a column written last month for the Guardian—a British newspaper, mind you—Alan Fletcher cited the following statistic: “Some quick research shows that Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliott Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by U.S. orchestras.” Four performances apiece. That’s obscurity.
Mr. Fletcher, who runs the Aspen Music Festival, is determined to put America’s midcentury classical-music modernists back on the map. “While we all rightly love 20th-century music from abroad, from Stravinsky to Ravel, for some reason we’re in danger of ignoring so much of our own great music, which is to say our own cultural DNA,” he says in the news release for a new initiative at Aspen called “An American Musical Century.” The programming for this summer’s festival, which runs through Aug. 21, includes symphonies by Harris, Mennin and Piston, all of which Mr. Fletcher describes in the release as “terrifically entertaining—variously colorful, gripping, tuneful and dramatic.”
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never understood why the music of America’s midcentury modern composers disappeared from our concert halls….
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Read the whole thing here.
Richard Pontzious leads the Asian Youth Orchestra in a 2002 performance of William Schuman’s American Festival Overture:
William Schuman appears as the mystery guest on What’s My Line? in 1962: