American Spring: Symphonic Landmarks from Albany and Detroit
Two Concerts from the Spring for Music Festival of Orchestras at Carnegie Hall
Tuesday, May 7:
Harbison – The Great Gatsby Suite
Gershwin – Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra
Kevin Cole – piano
Gould – Third Symphony (1946)
Albany Symphony Orchestra
David Alan Miller – conductor
Friday, May 10:
Ives – Symphonies 1, 2, 3, and 4
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin – conductor
A portion of the rich but sometimes neglected trove of American symphonies was given a welcome exposure during the valuable Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in early May, thanks to the ongoing commitment to this repertory of music directors David Alan Miller and Leonard Slatkin. The beneficiary composers, Morton Gould and Charles Ives, both stand apart from the mid-century symphonic mainstream, also neglected, of Piston, Sessions, Schuman, Harris, Diamond, et al. It was a fascinating juxtaposition, particularly since Gould’s symphony has been largely absent since its premier in 1947, and most of Ives’s works had to wait lengthy intervals before receiving their first performances.
The aspiration to serious, significant musical statement runs through the history of American symphonic music, often in spite of the absence of real audience demand. Of course there has been the hope that a “great American symphony” would emerge, especially after World War II, and at least one work was created with the intention of fulfilling that hope: Copland’s Third (premiered 1946). Ives wrote three of his symphonies purely out of his own musical urges; his First (1898) fulfilled an assignment by his teacher Horatio Parker and is actually a nineteenth-century composition that contains subtle harbingers of where Ives would go as a developing composer. The others sprang from the rich interweaving of his expressive needs: first, to recreate the musical and spiritual world of his childhood, when his father was alive, musically active, and shaping his son’s musical world-view (the Second and Third); and second, to portray the moral condition of the world Ives came to know as a mature philosopher-musician (the Fourth). Each of these works had to wait to be heard: Ives’s Third, composed before 1910, was first performed in 1946; the Second, completed around 1904, was premiered in 1951; and the Fourth was first presented a decade after the composer’s death, in 1965, at the spectacular inauguration of the American Symphony Orchestra under Stokowski in one of the most significant posthumous premiers in music history.
Gould’s Third Symphony was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1946 and may be his most personal work, a sustained and completely serious example of symphonic gravitas. Gould’s oeuvre is otherwise most well known for its populism, a characteristic shared by Ives Second and by the works of Gershwin. Apparently capable of writing almost any kind of piece, Gould generally opted to communicate directly with the large American audience getting its music from the radio stations which were, from the 30’s through the 50’s, active in commissioning and presenting “classical music” on the air. Gould’s output reads like an encyclopedia of Americana, and it comes as a revelation that one of his musical personae was in fact the author of such an intense, serious, challenging and tautly structured piece of symphonic architecture as this symphony. The paradox is that while Gould’s name was almost a household word for six decades, this serious side of his muse has remained almost as unknown as the dark side of the moon.
The program of the Albany Symphony managed to shed much light on the landscape of American symphonic composition with only three works. Historian H. Wiley Hitchcock coined the terms “genteel” and “vernacular” to describe the American cultural dichotomy that sprang up in the nineteenth century. Stephen Foster, George F. Root, James Bland, John Philipp Sousa, Scott Joplin, and many others were the pioneers of “popular music,” a commercial genre drawing on various ethnic folk musics and blending them into songs aimed at a melting-pot audience with access to sheet music and later recordings. Charles Ives was not the first “serious” American composer to tap into this mother-lode of musical consciousness; the practice goes back to James Hewitt (ca. 1800), Anthony Philip Heinrich (“the Father of Music in Kentucky” ca. 1830) and Louis Moreau Gottschalk (ca. 1860); but it is unlikely that Ives was aware of any of these composers; music played such a large role in domestic culture (the parlor piano served the function later co-opted by radio, phonograph, and television) that to ignore its popular features required a positive act of self-denial such as was practiced by more snobbish fin-de-siècle composers, such as Ives’s professor at Yale, Horatio Parker. As a youth, Ives played for parades, square-dances, vaudeville performances, and accompanied gospel hymns in church services; all of these quotidian musical functions inform his music in strikingly original ways.
But Ives did not compose for the market-place, and his fusion of vernacular and genteel traditions remained unknown and idiosyncratic for half a century. Subsequent generations of American musicians sought to engage more fully with vernacular materials and the resources of the new mass markets that were emerging even before World War I. Scott Joplin offers a striking example of a musical innovator who would succeed when sticking to short forms appropriate to channels of mass distribution (sheet music and piano rolls) but who hit a brick wall when attempting to cross into the “genteel” territory of opera. (His masterpiece “Treemonisha” was rejected by all the New York opera companies and he died a broken man.) Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Eubie Blake came at the right moment to weld popular song and operetta into the spectacularly successful Broadway (and off-Broadway) musical, including as they did watered-down versions of jazz styles. Gershwin’s ambitions and abilities developed at warp-speed during the 1920’s and his greatest works cemented the concepts of symphonic jazz and popular music, the point of origin of “pops” concerts. From here on, American music had a middle way in which symphonic audiences got a vacation from the brow-wrinkling profundities of Brahms and Wagner. They could “let their hair down” without having to go “slumming” to jazz clubs and venues of ill repute. (The complex racial issues this raises would require a much more extended discussion.)1
Composers continued to find legitimate inspiration in popular musical forms; Copland was inspired to write modernist works incorporating jazz influences in the ‘20’s and most Americans followed the example of their “dean.” But during the ‘30’s, modernism was tempered with populism and the results included works such as Copland’s cowboy ballets that could be comfortably included on “pops” programs. The true practitioners of this genre spring from Gershwin, whose trajectory started in Tin Pan Alley and aspired upwards. His heirs include Morton Gould along with a host of Hollywood film and Broadway show composers (David Raksin, André Previn, Leonard Bernstein), as well as Leroy Anderson, who seems to have designed his career around the pops concert and television theme music. The best of these composers manage to tap the auditory canal that runs straight to the public’s musical id while providing the luxuries of orchestral scoring and larger-scale format. The larger structure of some of these works expands the potential of this musical language to produce thoroughly satisfying and artistically significant experiences. It is interesting to consider in this category the symphonic works of Duke Ellington which draw directly from jazz idioms and processes (including improvisation) but which legitimately belong to this symphonic genre.
The Albany Symphony’s program was a study in popular symphonism, with contributions from two of its paradigmatic practitioners and one wannabe, John Harbison. In fact, an uncharitable title for the program could have been “The Wannabes” since each work demonstrated the generic aspirations of its composer. Harbison’s suite, drawn from his opera, sought to extract the most populist-sounding music from that larger context. I do not know the opera (a situation I hope to change when it is performed at Tanglewood this summer) and the composer’s program note states “I decided not to use any of the excerpts already separately available…. Instead I’ve concentrated on the instrumental music — stage and radio band sequences and orchestral interludes.” Many of those sequences were performed by a dance band ensemble located to the left rear of the orchestra. It was unclear to what extent Harbison was attempting to replicate the original styles and to what extent he was distorting, supplementing, and commenting upon them. They lacked the raw vitality of the originals (at his fancy parties, Gatsby would have been listening to tarted-up versions of white jazz such as was offered by the Paul Whiteman band), and the tunes themselves were not catchy enough to be memorable (which might have detracted from their more “artistic” context). The interludes, performed by full orchestra, put a frame of meditative self-consciousness around the “pop” material that created distance but did not indicate a clear stance toward it, as Berg did in his operas.
A much clearer picture of the popular-art fusion emerged with the next work. In 1931 Gershwin expanded eight-minutes of music he had composed for a dream sequence in the film Delicious (1930), originally known as “Manhattan Rhapsody” aka “Rhapsody in Rivets.” Gershwin’s attempt at a sequel to his unsurpassed “Rhapsody in Blue” shows his stylistic trajectory eight years later, although his self-evaluation, “…it is the best thing I’ve written” fails to do justice to two greater works that intervened, “Concerto in F” (1925) and “An American in Paris” (1928). The “Second Rhapsody” remains a delightful curiosity rather than a true sequel, one that indicates a stylistic trajectory cut short by the composer’s early death. Gershwin experiments with fragmentary continuity, self-interrupting phrases, manic shifts of tone and feeling, in an effort to capture the vitality of the city and the non-sequential or irrational consciousness of a dream. It is clear that Gershwin, friend of Ravel and future friend of Schoenberg, was striving to evolve his language in a modernist direction, while preserving his authentically communicative voice. Kevin Cole’s razzle-dazzle piano performance was greeted with great audience enthusiasm, which he rewarded with an encore: his own manic medley of Gershwin tunes, so many that I lost count. Cole’s friendly and informal demeanor rhymed well with his identification with the popular-art genre.
Which brings us back to Gould’s Third Symphony. A four-movement work of about forty minutes duration, it could be read as a somber commentary on its post-war moment in which one might privately reflect on the enormous waste of life rather than on the mood of national rejoicing which Copland captured in his Third. Gould’s sheer skill in spinning out an extended musical discourse with no apparent digressions, holding to a basically somber mood but developing extensive build-ups of tension was enthralling. The first movement begins with a gripping intensity that never lets go. The texture is polyphonic, the harmonic language tonal but acerbic; the pounding timpani and powerful brass utterances owe more to Ruggles’s “Sun-Treader” than to Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” An influential voice seems to be that of Roy Harris, whose own Third Symphony (1939) formed the crown jewel of Koussevitsky’s American symphonic commissions. While Gould’s harmonic and orchestral language owes much to these predecessors, his argument, architecture and melodic style is entirely his own. Unlike Harris’s unique shaping of a continuous flow of melody, Gould’s thought is dialectical, but no less coherent for incorporating dramatic contrasts and powerful confrontations. Harris achieves an epic focus, almost understandable as an historical chronicle of grandiose if ultimately failed collective aspirations. Gould’s textures alternate between the grandiose and the intimate, deploying a great variety of instrumental combination to suggest the ways in which personal destinies get entangled in the chaos and violence of historical struggles.
This not to say that Gould’s populist sensibility deserts him entirely. The second movement (“Moderately slow and relaxed”) employs a melodic style that sublimates vernacular inflections into an evolving flow of musical associations that successfully portrays a thoughtful and meditative state without any overt or obtrusive references. Thus it seems to be an expression of a modest and wistful aspiration for the satisfactions of private life. There are even reminders (probably unintentional) of Copland’s 1940 score to the film version of “Our Town.” The flow achieved here is seamless in a way that Ives also achieved in this Third Symphony. (This latter work won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946; one can’t help wondering if Gould, ever alert to musical trends, had heard it while at work on his own symphony.) Once again the possible assimilation of such influences in no way weakens the integrity of Gould’s discourse, just as resemblances to Beethoven do not reduce the value of Brahms’ instrumental works.
Jazz (or rather, jazziness) enters the picture in the scherzo (“…with sardonic humor”), the most brilliant movement of the symphony. The main tune is a kind of abstract folk (cowboy?) tune2 with elements of ragtime added, developed contrapuntally into a swaggering tableau. Gould allows his populism freer rein, but even here avoids leaning too heavily on source material; the development of the brash mood remains entirely under the control of the symphonic discourse, and the “sardonic” quality connects strongly to the character of the previous movements.
The finale has a history of its own. For the New York performance, Dimitri Mitropoulos requested a substitution of a new slow, somber movement for the lively one that Gould had created. Gould complied with a passacaglia and fugue, to which audiences failed to respond. When planning for his recording of the work with the Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller decided to restore the original movement, which was also heard at this concert. It was the right decision: the mood if not the material reviews the previous movements, returning to the military-tropes of the first, the intimate wistfulness of the second, and the jauntiness of the third before building to an apotheosis in which the composer manages an uncanny evocation of organ sonorities tinged with blues inflections in a very effective passage reminiscent of Harris’s style. There follows a quiet, bleak, and regret-filled moment before the final cadence slams the door shut.
That Gould would accede to Mitropoulos’s request may provide a hint as to why the composer gave little of his efforts to such sustained serious works. He may simply have been so attuned to public taste as to doubt the value of such an endeavor. In that he would have been the mirror opposite of Ives, who had no contact with the public and drew all his inspiration from his private visions while actively composing.3 In juxtaposing these extremes, the two concerts provided a portrait of the tensions between the ideal and the pragmatic that have animated American music during the past century-plus.
The opportunity to hear all of Ives’s symphonies performed in sequence was to my knowledge unique and indispensable for lovers of his music, many of whom turned out for the event. It highlighted the remarkable diversity of this repertory, and the leaps that Ives made as he developed his idiosyncratic style. While the First is a highly accomplished European (read Dvořák-ian) work, the Second leaps into the vernacular world of Ives’s Danbury musical milieu with enormous energy and enthusiasm. The harmonic language remains tonal, but the forms, melodies, and emotional states are fresh and innocent of European late-Romantic over-ripeness (of which Ives would have many critical things to say in his Essays Before a Sonata.) This is moment of the invention of the American symphony that was to remain hidden until after the genre had firmly established itself: its premier was led by Leonard Bernstein forty-seven years after its completion, in 1951.
Following intermission, the even more striking contrast of the Third and Fourth Symphonies was visible in the stage set-up itself: first the orchestra was reduced to about 40 players for an intimate meditation on hymn tunes, and then expanded to include an ultra-large orchestra supplemented by extra percussion, several different pianos, an “angel band” in the balcony, and a chorus. These were the forces required for the transcendent, apocalyptic Fourth. But the quiet originality of the Third was not dwarfed by its companion piece; the sheer beauty of its texture, its seamless incorporation of melodic material that never descended to banality or obvious quotation, and the continuously surprising yet logical harmonic successions affirmed that this was not merely a transitional work but rather a musical language of enormous expressiveness and flexibility within a modest range of dynamics and texture. It really falls outside the normal historical categories of “Romantic” and “Modern,” and to me has always seemed to possess the most quintessentially Ivesian voice in contrast with the more publicized or notorious Ivesian characteristics of multiple layers, polyrhythms, glaring vulgarities, gigantic clashes, poly-stylistics, etc.
Of course, all of those elements ultimately made their appearance, in the cosmic comedy of the Fourth Symphony, second movement. This provided the apex of a curve that had been building all evening, a Dionysian-Rabelaisian brouhaha of magnificent proportions, a distillation of the most powerful forces of entropy and organized chaos that music can muster. It is the voice(s) of “the world” responding to the great “what and why” of the first movement, a setting of Lowell Mason’s “Watchman, tell us of the night,” and preceding the answers of the third movement (“order”) and the fourth (“transcendence”). The final pages of the latter illustrate the passage from this world to the (or a) next, one of the capabilities of music explored by Romantics from Schubert to Mahler, but given a previously unimaginable and almost tangible reality by Ives’s use of an off-stage percussion ensemble and a wordless chorus intoning “Nearer my God to Thee” as the march movement recedes/disintegrates and the music merges bit by bit with the ocean of silence surrounding it. The end is indescribable, the moment the sounds cease timeless.
The final words of this review are reserved for the performers. I have never heard the Albany Symphony (our local band here in the Berkshires) sound better; especially in the Gould, which they have recorded, they played with both polish and passion, and David Alan Miller achieved balance and transparency without sacrificing drama and forward motion. The live performance improved upon the recording, which is itself a worthy representation of the score. Gould was a master orchestrator and he exercised the capacities of all the instrumental sections to their fullest. The strings particularly had weight and body (not always the case in the past) and the brasses, particularly the horns, anchored the big moments impressively, especially the final organ chorale. In the Gershwin, Miller allowed the enthusiasm of the orchestra to swamp the piano. This seems to me partly Gershwin’s fault, as the piano part is not as virtuosic and dominant as in either “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Concerto in F.” But Kevin Cole’s exertions at the keyboard were often more visually than auditorially apparent.
I was very curious to hear what Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony would do with the Ives. This is an orchestra with a very impressive history, and their recordings under Paray, Dorati, and Neemi Järvi rise to a very high standard. But I had not heard them live in thirty-two years.4 Slatkin has done yeoman work for American music, recording the basic repertory with the St. Louis Symphony including the Ives Third. In general, I found his readings idiosyncratic; while they were satisfying, only one rose to the level of definitive, and that, unsurprisingly, was the Third, which received a loving reading. In the first two symphonies, I thought his tempos were rushed, as if he were worried about how long the program was to run. The result was a lack of detail, a hasty articulation of ideas that did not have an opportunity to sink in, a breathlessness as if Ives’s youthful enthusiasm were the overriding quality of all this music. The orchestra played with great skill and polished sound, straining to keep up with their leaders’ hyperactivity, but Slatkin’s batonless gestures allowed some sections of the orchestra to run ahead of the others, and the results were sometimes less than fully unanimous. I particularly missed the moments of wit and surprise in the Second, as well as the allusions to the multiple genres of popular song, college tune, fiddle tune, patriotic song, and church hymn that can be effectively distinguished from each other, as in both of Leonard Bernstein’s recordings.
As mentioned, the reading of the Third Symphony had none of these problems; tempos were still brisk, but the more transparent orchestration allowed the players to breath together and permitted the discourse to grow from within. It was most satisfying and Slatkin allowed his love for this music to really show. The performance included the “shadow lines” present in the revised edition of the score which makes the final pages seem so ghostly, and the off-stage (electronic?) church bell at the end achieved a properly ethereal effect.
The Fourth, while not a gold standard performance, gave good exposure to a work that can be done many different ways. My preference is for the clairvoyance of Michael Tilson Thomas’s reading,5 which seems almost hallucinatory in the way an Ansel Adams photograph can be: you see a vast and complex landscape as a whole but then realize that you can focus on any portion of it and see individual details with startling clarity. Slatkin’s reading emphasized the large outlines of the piece, which emerged impressively. Before the performance, he offered some useful verbal program notes, with illustrations. Making use of his assistant conductor, he took apart the layers of one of the complex moments in the second movement, demonstrating the quiet, ongoing string music separately from the raucous (and metrically disconnected) band music that partially masks it. His comment was that the details of the quieter layers were not meant to be heard; it was more the idea that they were there that counted. His performance followed suit. As indicated, there are other ways of balancing this music; every live performance I have heard has been significantly different from the others.6
Ives absolutely knew what he was doing, and had a clear vision of both his artistic goals and the means to attain them. He would most certainly have approved of each performance having its own characteristics, provided that the performers approached their task with respect, dedication, and creativity. He would have had no use for the idea that there was one ideal way to realize a score, and would have encouraged diversity and originality of approach. For this reason, it is not surprising that the little band of Ives aficionados that gathered afterwards in the lobby had big grins on their faces. It was amazing to be reminded of the vast range of this music, its world-embracing ambitions, its subversiveness and humor. That this was such a special event underscores the fact that none of this music can be considered standard repertory. Each opportunity to hear it is a festive occasion, and elicits a special kind of energy. It seems that the success of “Spring for Music” is that in making the appearance of each orchestra a special occasion, the concerts were also a celebration of the music. That’s the way it should be.
- There is a large literature about American racial attitudes as expressed in its popular music. An early and important example is William Austin’s pioneering and brilliant study of the music of Stephen Foster, “Jeannie, Susannah, and the Old Folks at Home.” ↩
- This tune bears a family resemblance to a Pennsylvania-Dutch song that Hindemith would use in the second movement of his “Pittsburgh Symphony” (1958). ↩
- Gould later demonstrated his admiration for Ives by conducting wonderful first recordings of the First Symphony (1966) and the Second Orchestral Set (1967) along with more familiar Ives works with the Chicago Symphony. The Symphony and Set were at that time unfamiliar to most listeners. ↩
- That was a Dorati all-Bartok performance of the Third Piano Concerto with Gyorgy Sandor that had the ease and transparency of a Mozart concerto, along with an equally fluent reading of “Bluebeard’s Castle.” ↩
- San Francisco Symphony concert at Carnegie Hall, Feb. 14, 2002 ↩
- Five, including Stokowski’s premier, at which Slatkin was also present, by his own account. ↩