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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

American Composers Part Three

In the third and final instalment in our series surveying American composers, we have a very mixed bunch to look at. Like most art in the 20th century, “serious” music (as opposed to “popular” music) was the domain of the individual. This is in stark contrast to “popular” culture which has always been subject to fashions, following trends and imitating the best sellers. The American composers in this program, born in or after 1910, are as different from one another as you could imagine.

We ended the last program in this series with Samuel Barber, who was born in March 1910. Born in August of the same year was William Schuman; the last name is spelt as per the famous 19th century German composer, except it has only one “n”. Schuman was as famous in his lifetime (he died in 1992) as a teacher and administrator as he was for being a composer. His most famous work is perhaps the American Festival Overture, dating from 1939. His compositions include ballets, operas, nine symphonies, many other orchestral works, choral music, chamber music and songs. Here’s part of his much-revised violin concerto, which was originally completed in 1947 and premiered in 1950, but revised in 1954, and again in 1958-59. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful work, of ferocious difficulty for the soloist. [listen]

William Schuman

At the end of the previous post in this series I made reference to Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer and librettist who was the partner of Samuel Barber. Born in Italy in 1911, Menotti began his musical training at the Milan Conservatory in 1923; by that stage he had already written two operas, and opera was to be his main preoccupation for the rest of his life.

His widowed mother came to the United States in an attempt to save the family business and Menotti enrolled at the Curtis Institute (where he met Barber) in 1928. He maintained strong connections with his birth country and is claimed equally by both Italy and the United States as “theirs”.

Gian Carlo Menotti (1944)

Menotti wrote a small but significant number of songs, choral works, solo and chamber music, and orchestral works. But his operas and other theatre works are his main claim to fame. His delightful Christmas opera for children, Amahl and the Night Visitors, is well-known, but perhaps his finest achievement came in 1950 with the premiere of The Consul. This terrifying thriller of a piece, condemning Government tyranny and the dehumanisation of people, was written soon after the second world war when the West was starting to develop true paranoia regarding the Soviet bloc, but it speaks to the dehumanisation of the West as much as anywhere else.

The entire opera can be watched here, but perhaps the most famous and moving moment is Magda’s aria, the sentiments of which speak as loudly today as they did then. [listen]

One of America’s most famous - some would say infamous - composers was born in 1912. John Cage was a revolutionary composer who rose to prominence as a leading figure in the avant-garde movement following the second world war. In many ways, Cage brought to prominence some basic ideas which we now take for granted in music. Early in his career he wrote for percussion, something which was then not common at all, and this led to his development of the prepared piano. A prepared piano is one which has various foreign objects - bolts, screws, erasers, pieces of wood - attached to specified strings in specified places, making the piano more a percussion instrument with an other-worldly ambience. Cage’s development of this technique resulted from his need to write dance scores for an African dance troupe in a small venue which did not have room for anything more than a small piano. The Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano from the mid-1940s constitute one of the most influential bodies of work by any composer of the 20th century. [listen]

John Cage (1988)

Cage’s innovations went on to make the musical world reassess the concept of silence; of how environmental sounds are important to our aural world and how we filter out so much of what surrounds us when we’re not conscious of it. This led to his most famous work, 4’33”, a work in several movements comprising total silence. More accurately, it comprises the environmental sounds of the place and time of its performance, which is what the composer was really trying to make us aware of.

In his later works, cage championed aleatory techniques. Aleatoric music is music which involves the element of chance. The composer provides the basic elements of the work but the manner or order of their performance is left to chance.

One of the other really influential and important American modernists was Milton Babbitt, who was born in 1916. Both a composer and a teacher, Babbitt’s early performing career was in the field of jazz, but he entered university to study mathematics. His later studies in music led him to immerse himself in the music of Stravinsky and Varèse, among others, and he eventually embraced, studied and wrote about Schoenberg’s serial system of composition. His music is dense and deeply thought-through, and often abstract in the artistic sense of the word. This is part of a work called None but the Lonely Flute. The playful title, parodying a popular song by Tchaikovsky, is an example of the composer’s love of puns. [listen]

Milton Babbitt

The last two composers, Cage and Babbitt, were clearly of the atonal school, abandoning conventional tonality in the quest for new sounds. A composer who thought completely the opposite was Leonard Bernstein (born 1918). Bernstein was of course one of the 20th century’s most influential conductors and musical thinkers, but as a composer he firmly believed not only in the future of tonality but in its almost sacred status as part of the natural world to which we as humans so naturally respond. His most famous works, like West Side Story, Candide, and the Chichester Psalms have overshadowed much of what might be called his more “serious” music, and during his life he longed to be taken more seriously as a composer. His three symphonies - Jeremiah, The Age of Anxiety and Khaddish - are works which still arouse controversy, but they are works I think are enormously interesting.

Leonard Bernstien (1977)

The second symphony, called The Age of Anxiety after the WH Auden poem which inspired it, was written in the late 1940s. It is tied up with Bernstein’s emotions in response to the war of independence in Israel in 1948 and the solo piano part is a musical representation of the composer himself. The symphony revolves around four characters who meet in a Third Avenue bar in New York. Musically, the work is in two large movements, the first of which comprises a prologue and fourteen variations. The first seven variations are called “The Seven Ages”, while the other seven are called “The Seven Stages”. These last seven variations, which bring the first movement to a close, are symbolic of the inner journeys of the four characters.

The performance linked here is a video of a performance of the complete work conducted and introduced by the composer. [listen]

From Bernstein we jump ahead a little to Steve Reich, who was born in 1936. Reich was one of the first popular exponents of a style of music called “Minimalism”, which came to prominence in New York in the 1960s. (I devoted an entire post to Minimalism not long ago.) Repetition is the vital element of Minimalism, with a less-understood but equally-vital element being development within repetition. Minimalism may take small units of sound and repeat them but there is constant development also, sometimes on a vast time-scale.

Steve Reich

One of Reich’s most famous works is Different Trains, scored for string quartet and tape. This was composed in 1988 and is firmly rooted in the composer’s own experiences. As an adult, Reich looked back on the train journeys he undertook as a child (in the company of his governess) as he went back and forth between the homes of his parents after they separated. These journeys took place between 1939 and 1942 and subsequent thought about these journeys made him realise that as a Jew, had he been travelling in trains in Europe at the same time, the destinations and outcomes may well have been very different indeed.

To make the piece, Reich used recordings of various spoken word extracts as his starting point. These included his governess (a woman in her 70s) reminiscing about their train journeys, a retired Pullman porter reminiscing about his life on the railroad, and a number of Holocaust survivors speaking of their wartime experiences. To these were added recordings of train sounds from the 1930s and 40s. These words and sounds were fragmented and represented in actual pitch notation as small melodic cells. These cells are then the basis for the music played by the string quartet - a case of art imitating life. Here’s the work’s second movement, the part which uses fragments of the speech of the Holocaust survivors. The video presentation linked here is particularly moving. [listen]

Born in 1937, a year after Reich, was the minimalist who is probably the best-known and most popular exponent of the style, Philip Glass. Famed (or reviled, depending on your point of view) for his mesmerising repetitions of arpeggios, Philip Glass has capitalised on a style which is accessible and at times thrilling. I well remember my first encounter with his music, when I saw the film Mishima in 1986. I’ve had a soft spot for Glass - and for the writings of Yukio Mishima - ever since. [listen]

Philip Glass (1993)

The popular focus on Glass’s repetition of melodic fragments tends to overshadow the dynamism he can muster when working with rhythm. In his 1984 opera Akhnaten - based on the disastrous reign of Egypt’s monotheistic Pharaoh - the funeral music near the start of the opera is, for all its repetition, one of the most powerful examples of rhythmic writing I know. [listen]

The opera contains moments of real beauty, too, such as Akhnaten’s hymn in the second act. This is founded on a ground bass which would not have been out of place in the seventeenth century, although the tensions between major and minor - indicative of Akhnaten’s tensions with his nation and its traditions - are from a much later age. [listen]

Born in 1937, two months after Philip Glass, David Del Tredici started his compositional career as a follower of the 12-tone school, albeit with slightly adapted techniques. In the late 60s his style underwent a major shift, a shift which coincided with his first encounters with the writings of Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have inspired numerous works from Del Tredici for 30 years or more, including Pop-Pourri, The Lobster Quadrille and An Alice Symphony. Composed in 1975, Final Alice is his most popular work, and this “Acrostic Song” is part of that. The first letters of each line of the text spell out the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell, the “real Alice”. Musically the piece shows an uncanny ability to blend a traditional-sounding melody with new techniques such as whispers to create a dream-like texture. [listen]

David Del Tredici

William Bolcom was born in 1938 and his earliest works, like those of David Del Tredici, were in a serial style, with Stockhausen and Boulez being among his important influences. His later music - from the 60s onwards - has abandoned a lot of these influences and has sought to break down the barriers between “popular” and “serious” music. His two volumes of Cabaret Songs, composed with the writer Arnold Weinstein, contain some real gems. This beautiful song from 1978 is just one example. [listen]

William Bolcom

One the most influential and popular of American composers has been John Adams. who was born in 1947. Adams was originally closely allied (by others) with the Minimalist school, although his so-called Minimalist works (like Nixon in China, Shaker Loops and Harmonielehre) are far too complex to be called simply Minimalist. Since the early 90s his style has veered away from a close identification with minimalism to include many other musical styles and influences, from both the “popular” and “serious” sides of the fence.

John Adams

Adams’ Violin Concerto of 1993 was designed as both a concert work and a ballet score, and it’s a good example of his post-minimalist style. [listen]

One of the younger generation of American composers who has taken tonality and found new things to say in that world is Michael Torke, born in 1961. Torke’s scores are dazzling and influenced by popular idioms such as jazz and film music, but a fascinating influence has been that of colour. A number of his pieces are named after colours (such as Ecstatic Orange, Bright Blue Music, Green, Black and White and so forth). His brilliant showpiece, Javelin, was written for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. [listen]

Michael Torke

This is just a glimpse of the staggering variety in American composition in the course of the later 20th century. There’s plenty more out there to explore.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2006.

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