By Walter Simmons
For many today—including those who consider themselves musical sophisticates—the names of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin hearken back half a century or more to the days when composers concerned themselves with writing “the Great American Symphony.” These figures –Schuman and Mennin especially--were very much regarded as “musical bureaucrats,” both having held the position of president of the internationally renowned Juilliard School. And while he was never an administrator, Persichetti had led the Juilliard composition faculty for some 35 years, rendering him the quintessential “academic.”
But the careers of all three were launched through their musical compositions, which had made a significant an impact when each was still quite young. Schuman’s musical activity had been limited to the world of Tin Pan Alley until he turned 20; nine years later his Symphony No. 2 was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mennin completed the writing of his Symphony No. 3 on his 23rd birthday and performed later that year by the New York Philharmonic. Persichetti’s career developed more gradually, but only by comparison. In his 30s, he discovered the wind ensemble, for which he had a distinctive gift as a composer. Although his large catalog of works includes all genres, he is recognized today as the foremost American composer of music for wind band of his generation, and most of his works for that medium endure as classics.
As for my own relationship with these composers, their music proved a far more personal experience for me. I discovered their works when I was in my early teens—largely through my own high school band experience, thanks to a conductor who set high standards for his ensemble, which he refused to subject to holiday parades and football games. It was a very high-minded time in American culture—the JFK years. But while for most of my peers this exposure would always remain part of their high school experience, I loved this music with an intense passion As my interests developed, I began to reach beyond these composers’ works for band, delving into their compositions for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles, and solo instruments—and into the music of other American composers of their generation as well.
Studying their music, however, wasn’t enough for me: I also wanted to know them as people, to search for connections between their personalities and their creative lives. So I sought them out personally and eventually became acquainted with them and their families to differing degrees. All part of the question I sought to answer as to how mind and music resonate with one another, I dare say that the connections between their personalities and their creative work remain largely an enigma to me and may well be what makes theirs works as great as they are.
When I headed off to college in the mid-1960s, imagine my shock when I learned that these composers, whose music I had come to cherish were “out,” while serialism and other, more experimental approaches were now “in.” A gauntlet had been thrown down, and so I pursued graduate studies in theory and musicology for the specific purpose of uncovering the reasons why these composers, whose music had touched me so deeply, were now the objects of scorn. My researches only reinforced a deep-seated certainty that the disparagement of these composers had little to do with musical quality and much to do with musical politics. It was then I decided to devote my life to bringing greater attention to the music of these masters, arguing for its legitimacy and stature as fine creative art based on the principles of great music that have evolved over the centuries. Besides the hundreds of reviews I have written, weekly radio series I have hosted, and numerous premiere recordings I have produced, my two books are the culminations of this effort to bring these great composers—and others like them—back into the mainstream of musical greatness. I only my hope both books have supplied a sturdy foundation for others similarly excited by this body of music to pursue it in their study as performers and researchers.
Walter Simmons has received the National Educational Film Festival Award and the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism. He has contributed articles to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, American National Biography, Fanfare, Music Journal, and Musical America. He is the author of Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow, 2004) and the recently published The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin: Voices of Stone and Steel (Scarecrow, 2010).