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Focus! Festival Revisits Music at the Center

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Just the words “20th-century music” evoke the ideological battles of the last century. That is when the ancient struggle between change and tradition became acute in music as young composers confronted the apparent death of principles that had governed composition for centuries. Schoenberg’s self-image as both conservator and innovator—which, in retrospect, is accurate—seemed disingenuous, a mere self-defense against opposition. His 12-tone method drove music lovers apoplectic, even those who never heard a note of a piece that used it. But at least the music of Schoenberg and his school used the traditional pitch system. Pieces for percussion ensemble (like Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation or John Cage’s Constructions), the gliding and sliding voice of the theremin, and the novel sound-world of other electrical instruments unveiled “shocking” prospects for the future of music. After World War II, as the idea of indeterminacy spread from Cage throughout the world, composers who adhered to the Schoenberg tradition faced off against these new challengers to the very idea of music. Soon fusions of Western and non-Western by Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, Alan Hovhaness, and others were added to the bubbling cauldron; there was a surge of interest in mating classical with jazz or pop; a new lyricism symbolized by George Crumb; and countless other tendencies tugging the listener in every direction. Forgotten, it seemed, were the traditionalists.

This year’s Focus! festival celebrates mainstream American composers from the 20th century. Performances include works by (clockwise from  bottom left) Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti (seated, center), and William Schuman, shown here together in 1952.

(Photo by John Stewart, from the William Schuman Photo Collection)

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Yet amidst all the turmoil life continued at that place where composers still used Italian tempo markings. One can reasonably guess that a majority of the countless thousands of composers preferred to be part of the mainstream, which had to deal with formidable tensions. The “center” felt exiled from the new music world by the propaganda of innovators on both sides. They believed—rightly or wrongly—that grant-making panels would give nothing to them. Innovators retorted they were not taken seriously by the musical establishment and that the mainstream did not need grants because it could take care of itself. Ironically, since the early 1990s, when young composers returned to more accessible styles, many of the older innovators and the old “centrists” began falling off programmers’ maps, although audiences seem less hostile to the unfamiliar. It is most unfortunate. Today’s performers do such justice to those older styles that music of the entire spectrum can make a more powerful impact than ever.

The older innovators, however, are the stuff of history books. They, after all, had those big ideas that give shape to history, some of which prove to be lasting. But the centrists simply wrote music; they did not produce earthshaking ideas that live on if their music hits a dry period. Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber are among the few of that group who remain part of the core repertory. American mainstreamers at the center of the last century are the subject of this year’s Focus! festival, which runs January 22-30. It is an appropriate moment. The year 2010 is the centennial of two major figures in the center—William Schuman and Samuel Barber—and 2009 marked half a century since President Eisenhower broke the ground for Lincoln Center, where tradition has been powerful. The idea of “Composing an American Mainstream” is thus ripe for a revisit.

Juilliard’s President Joseph W. Polisi was the first to suggest examining those composers. Researching and writing the biography of William Schuman, a seminal figure as president of Juilliard and, later, Lincoln Center, attuned him to the fate of composers once celebrated as upholders of the great tradition. He saw that Schuman’s music was much admired even though it did not influence other composers. Of course, not everyone agrees about William Schuman or Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland any more than they agree about almost any other composer. But it can be surprising to find that the best of the maligned mainstream wrote such wonderful music. (I too had my days as a cynic.) Furthermore, continuing exploration of the theme revealed the breadth of the mainstream, which even embraced some former radicals. One example is Ruth Crawford Seeger. An outstanding innovator in the early 1930s, she stopped composing for years for many non-musical reasons, including raising a family and coping with the Depression. Like many radical composers who felt capitalism was destroying itself, she wanted to reach out to the larger public by simplifying her music. When she finally resumed composing, her style had changed drastically. Fortunately, she completed the only major work from her later years, the 1952 Suite for Wind Quintet, just before cancer killed her. It shows that she moved toward the center without compromising her extraordinary imagination, writing music that is extremely sophisticated and accessible. Henry Cowell, another arch-radical of the 1920s, also undertook a process of simplification in the 1930s, thanks to the political-economic conditions. Yet those who say he compromised have not noticed his extraordinary fusion of Western and non-Western styles. These later works are in many ways more radical than his early piano pieces, yet are so melodious that they were once landmarks of the mainstream. 

Among the best of the more obvious members of the mainstream, the music also was not so usual. Aaron Copland turned to the 12-tone method in later years, yet it is not so apparent to the listener that the method is the framework for the Piano Quartet. His remarkable Connotations for orchestra, composed for the opening of what is now Avery Fisher Hall, never achieved the success it deserved because it lacked the familiar qualities of Copland’s ballets. And whereas Schuman now rarely crosses the minds of devotees of “the new,” President Polisi was struck by his gritty, intricate, and challenging style, especially in his later works. Like Schuman, Peter Mennin and David Diamond showed that American composers could write a highly personal symphony with grandeur and imagination but without sidelining the grand tradition. Leon Kirchner brought his teacher Schoenberg’s concepts of motivic unity, variation, and expressive freedom into the framework of tonal harmony. Other composers, such as Morton Gould, Hall Overton, and William Grant Still sought to build a mainstream based on more popular culture. 

This year’s Focus! festival thus brings together some remarkable and, in many cases, forgotten figures, paying special attention Schuman and Barber, to the chief survivor of that middle path, Copland, and to others who were part of Schuman’s circle (and some who weren’t). The festival opens with a chamber orchestra program on January 22, conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, with Copland’s Nonet (in the version for string orchestra), Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with Emalie Savoy, soprano), Leonard Bernstein’s nocturne Halil (flute soloist to be announced), and Schuman’s Symphony No. 5 for strings. The New Juilliard Ensemble, which I will lead on January 25, features Hall Overton’s Pulsations, David Diamond’s early Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, Cowell’s rarely-heard Symphony No. 13 (“Madras”)—whose foundation is the music of north and south India—and Schuman’s The Young Dead Soldiers, with soprano Catherine Hancock singing the deeply-moving MacLeish text about the catastrophe of World War I and Molly Norcross playing the obbligato French horn part. Three chamber concerts, January 26-28, feature a great variety of composers including Jack Beeson, Morton Gould, Leon Kirchner, Peter Mennin, Gian Carlo Menotti, Hall Overton, Vincent Persichetti, Walter Piston, Ned Rorem, Ruth Crawford Seeger, William Grant Still, Louise Talma, Virgil Thomson, and others whose music is a living example of the breadth of the center. The festival concludes with a concert performance of Copland’s chamber opera The Tender Land, conducted by David Effron.

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