1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Robert R. Reilly
Senior Fellow, the American Foreign Policy Council
Five years ago, Walter Simmons published Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (now available in paperback). I wrote at the time,
As a work of music criticism, Voices is as close to a model of its kind as anything I have ever read. The great good news is that it is the first in a series of books proposed by Simmons, under the title Twentieth Century Traditionalists, which will examine the entire range of those "who failed to conform to the approved version of music history." They were the ones refused to accept Arnold Schoenberg's premise that tonality had been exhausted by the end of the 19th century.
Simmons's goal is "to bring the most rewarding of these [forgotten or obscured] voices to greater public awareness." I continue to recommend this book as one of the best works written about American 20th century music, or about music, period. As is well known to the readers of Fanfare magazine, this man is simply the best writer on American music that there is.
Now we have the second volume of Simmons's ambitious enterprise, titled The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin: Voices of Stone and Steel. It continues in the vein of the first, with the same level of eloquence, insight, and constructive criticism. Simmons eschews musical historicism. He writes: "I reject the assumption that the evolution of the tonal system proceeded according to a liner progression that led inevitably to the dissolution of tonality altogether. More broadly, I reject the view that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of liner progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all contenders are racing." This perspective allows Simmons to appreciate the merits of various composers as they are, without ideological blinders.
In the 400-page book, he takes the three composers mentioned in the title, and discusses "their importance through biographical overviews and comprehensive critical assessments of their outputs, including both strengths and weaknesses, and identifying their more important and representative compositions, their distinguishing stylistic features..."
As the "stone and steel" of the title suggests, the music of Schuman, Persichetti and Mennin is tougher than that of the neo-Romantics with whom Simmons deals in the first volume: Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello. Nevertheless, that is not too tough at all. In fact, it can be bracing. And I would defy anyone not to be swept away by Schuman's Third Symphony. None of it verges on the musical indigestion Schoenberg and his disciples generated. Accompanying the book is a CD; so you can decide for yourself. You get not only to read, but to listen. It contains: Schuman: Judith, Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony; Persichetti: Concerto for Piano Four, Hands, Georgia and Louise Mangos, duo pianists; Persichetti: Serenade No. 10 (six excerpts) Samuel Baron, flute; Ruth Maayani, harp; Mennin: Symphony No. 6, David Alan Miller, conductor; Albany Symphony Orchestra.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of Simmons's work. In his first two books, he has laid the cornerstone for the rehabilitation of American 20th-century music. May we soon have the third.
One of my favorite CD finds of the past year is Boris Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, released on the Profil label, with Pieces for Piano (PH 10038). This recording comes from a tape of the première performance in 1967 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, under Kyrill Kondrashin. Like many such Soviet-era historic performances, it has a raw quality about it but with playing of the kind only given by those who believe their lives depended upon it. Tchaikovsky (no relation to Peter) was a student of Shostakovich but his music is less beholden to him than, say, Mieczyslaw Weinberg's in its style. The huge 50-minute symphony is a quicksilver, kaleidoscopic work of considerable brilliance and verve. The first movement is a jeu d'esprit. It begins pizzicato in the strings, and then develops its main theme. The exposition given by strings and harp is repeated note for note in the winds and percussion. This is riveting, mercurial music. The Symphony is accompanied by Tchaikovsky's utterly charming Piano Pieces, played by the composer. This CD is indispensable for anyone interested in twentieth century Russian music.
Toccata Classics immediately reinforced my impression of Tchaikovsky as first rate with a CD containing Song-Cycles and Chamber Music (TOCC 0046). The songs, based upon poems by Josef Brodsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Pushkin, and Kipling are full of character, highly expressive and attractively melodic. The Trio for violin, viola and cello shows that Tchaikovsky wrote on as high a level for chamber groups as he did for symphony orchestra. The Two Pieces for Balalaika and Piano, written in 1991, are a sheer delight. This is the kind of discovery that sends me on a crusade. I am embarking on an effort to find as much of this man's music as I can.
Another Toccata Classics release (TOCC 0001) that I had somehow overlooked from several years ago deserves the highest praise. It features the Orchestral Music of Julius Burger (1897-1995), one of the Viennese composers who fled the Nazis. In the United States, he fell into almost complete obscurity. The music on this CD is so good that if Martin Anderson had not invented Toccata Classics precisely to make such works available, someone would have to do it. The character of this music shows its Viennese provenance. Burger was a student of Franz Schreker, but his music does not have the overheated quality sometimes found in the works of his contemporaries. It is more redolent of Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It is written in the full flower of a tradition in which one does not yet sense decay or neuroses. The two radiant songs for baritone and orchestra, Quiet of the Night and Legende, are perfect examples. The texts are exquisitely and richly set, but without the kind of suspicious sumptuousness that one finds in Strauss's songs. Nothing is overboard. The Scherzo for strings is a lively confection that could compete at the highest level of comparable British works for strings. The Cello Concerto is a deeply beautiful work. The Adagio is very moving (dedicated to his mother, whom the Nazis shot). How can anything this fine not have been heard for more than 50 years? The Variations on a Theme by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is a delight. The performances by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, baritone Michael Kraus, and cellist Maya Beiser, under conductor Simone Young are inspiring. The sound quality is superb. The Toccata Classics motto is to offer "forgotten music by great composers, great music by forgotten composers." It has fulfilled the second half of its mission with this release.
* * *
Bruce C. Sanborn
Chairman Emeritus, the Claremont Institute's Board of Directors
One night a rich, East-coast liberal and a former Vietnam platoon leader (not the same person) recommended Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War to me. Mark Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down) has called Matterhorn a great novel, "the first great one [about the Vietnam War]." Its author, Karl Marlantes, came from a small Western logging town, went to an East Coast college, and led a Marine platoon in Vietnam. Like the Iliad, Matterhorn begins in the middle of war: the Marines, a mix of races and economic classes, are at each other's throats. Raised free in America and steeped in democratic equality, they seek the respect of each other and their country, a nation divided against itself, uncertain of its purpose, and losing authority. The jungle and foreign enemy press hard on the Marines, who bear the brunt of their country's political and psychological disarray. This impressive novel, which has an immediate, real-time-and-place, natural feel, unveils man's bloody, ugly, and noble heart.
Pierre Manent's slim, elegantly-written book, Democracy Without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, considers the trouble Europe is having defining and sustaining—and governing—itself, not as an economic body but as a political one. It turns out that being dedicated to borderless universal democracy and humanity-in-the-abstract may not be enough to achieve self-government and answer a question like: should Turkey—the Eurasian, commercially able, democratic, and largely Islamic nation—be in the European Union? Brotherhood is very fine, and whether a brother is from another mother, worships a different God, and lives in another nation is important for human deliberations and relations. Among the political forms Manent describes, he pays special attention to the form of the nation, its relation to liberal democracy and importance for self-government. His discussion clearly has implications for America and our approach to democracy at home and in foreign lands.
Read Joe Sachs's translation of, and introduction to, Aristotle's Poetics to understand the purpose of poetry: the art of imitating—and seeing the meaning of—the acts of people who are, as Aristotle says, "either of serious moral stature or of a low sort." Read J.V. Cunningham's Woe and Wonder: The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy for help appreciating how well Shakespeare understands Aristotle. These two little books contemplate the ancient and Elizabethan views of deeds (especially poetic ones) that form and unveil character, and excite wonder-wonder, as Aristotle notes, being concerned with, among other things, first causes of what exists.
* * *
Carl J. Schramm
President, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, by John Kay
A gifted columnist for the Financial Times, Kay has written an ingenious consideration of effective management, reflecting on the linear approach to business strategy. Consultants and business professors have convinced the world that planning—written plans rich with data and analysis—are necessary for companies to proceed in an orderly way that will produce results and give comfort to investors. But Kay argues that indirection is the way that the most effective managers bring about the kinds of changes that really spur growth and lead to innovation. Oblique reasoning and ability to synthesize insights from the widest range of sources are what make for managers who effectively move their organizations into the future in ways that they not only survive but flourish. This intuitive approach to management is seldom discussed or taught.
The Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser
Glaeser's book is a delight on many levels. For one, it is a reasoned analysis of city growth that looks at cities over a long span of time and includes both failed and growing cities. So much research relating to cities is focused on the physical environment. Even those who set out to eschew the architect and planner's visions of how to make a city seldom can escape the gravity of buildings, streets, light rail, and downtown stadiums and entertainment districts. Glaeser offers a serious rethinking of the city as a machine of commerce. This optimistic book suggests that the city is one of man's greatest inventions because of its singular contribution to making its inhabitants smarter and healthier. Given that within the last few years the majority of the world's populations have decided to live in cities this is a book worth reading to understand what life might look like for our offspring.
Grand Pursuit: the Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar
This book recounts the lives and the insights of the most important economists starting when the discipline began to take shape in Victorian times. Nasar, the author of A Beautiful Mind, tells a wonderful story of people obsessed with trying to explain why people do what they do in seeking to advance their own welfare inside a system that mysteriously gains for all by the self-seeking of each. Of course, not all economists saw it this way. The discipline was, before it assumed the cloak of science, known as political economy. This is still the best name for a discipline that ever since Marx has had to contend with its power to drive politics. Control of the state as a means of making markets work towards one vision of how welfare expands or an antithetical view (think Keynes versus Schumpeter) has been the name of the game for economic theorists from the beginning.