Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Voice In The Wilderness

Walter Simmons, whose book Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, is the first of a planned series of critical studies of modern American composers: Barber, Bloch, Creston (born Giuseppe Guttoveggio), Flagello, Gianinni, and Hanson. Mr. Simmons has championed lesser-known American composers for a long time, but with a caveat: their music must embody traditional aesthetic values of beauty, clarity, and emotional expression. Anybody else is dismissed… another Hanslick! (Sigh!)

What a turn around! Usually we read that atonal composers today have been/are neglected and that serialism is past its prime. Recently we have been told that gays are responsible for an American style, thanks to Nadine Hubbs. And now we are told that stylistically divergent Barber, Bloch, and Hanson, are neglected.. Their neglect is the reason for Mr. Simmons’ attention. It is also another of his salvos against “modernists.”

We may accept all this is with a de gustibus shrug, or plead the beholder’s eye, but Mr. Simmons’ goes on. He believes that these tonal, derivative, and neo-Romantics are neglected because they have been dismissed by universities and critics for not being “original” or atonal. It is at this point that I dismiss him for such desperate arm waving-even if he can drag up examples. As for critics, we should never mind them. They are wrong most of the time anyway. Mr. Simmons’ studies would likely stand more proudly without his unreasonable attack on musical society.

If you can overlook his bias against modernists, and probably academia too, the plus sides of Mr. Simmons’ work is that he is intimate with his material and it may help that one day we will have a more broadly balanced view of music in America.

Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers by Walter Simmons,
Scarecrow Press, 2004

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How come it takes years before we can hear a fine new score? Allan Kozinn writes, “Orchestras seem content to be museums now, even as they wring their hands about dropping subscription sales and graying listeners. But maybe there's someone in a programming department somewhere who sees the percentage in shaking things up, in treating new works as if they not only matter but have the power to breathe life into this sleepy business.” NY Times 8.15

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