Inside 20th-century music
One of the most vivid musical memories of my childhood is of a concert I attended, when I was eleven years old, by the San Antonio Symphony. What stands out about it to me now is the performance of the Peter Mennin Symphony No. 4 that I heard that evening.
I was struck by it. So was everyone around me. Granted, most of them couldn't have said why or how the piece was different from, say, the Brahms on the program. Perhaps they were struck equally by the Brahms. All I am certain is that I had never heard anything like the Mennin Fourth before - and haven't in all the years since. It was written in 1949, but it spoke directly of an approach to composing that was new and stunning to me, in its utter straightforwardness. It was also, as I found out, largely unknown to the listening public and not represented in our concert programming since the late ' 50s and early '60s.
I wrote last time about that approach and that era under the heading of ''The Golden Age of American Music.'' It was a time (1929-55, roughly) when America was flexing its creative musical muscles, when it looked with pride, as never before, on what native-born composers could produce, when the closest thing we've ever had to solidarity between composer and lay public was being enjoyed. It was a time when the pieces of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thomson, Paul Creston, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, Gardner Read, Vincent Persichetti, David Diamond, Morton Gould, Leo Sowerby, and literally hundreds more were filling our concert halls with sounds that were uniquely and distinctly domestic in their inception, tone, and thrust.
I mention this again for the purpose of filling in a bit more of its history and character, and to explain a bit about what happened to overshadow its prominence in the overall musical scene.
First, as I've said, it was an exciting time in musical art, mainly for the reason that the composers were producing so many works which, whenever they are heard, are always successful. A work like Paul Creston's second symphony is such a sure-fire, completely satisfying piece, I don't know anyone who can manage to sit perfectly still during its riotously rhythmic finale. And who could resist the music from Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land? My experience with the Peter Mennin Fourth stayed with me and broadened as I came to know the wonders of the ''Golden Age.'' I have seen this reexperienced time and again by other listeners, whenever our orchestra and radio programming permitted us a sliver from the enormous and delectable musical pie that America baked for itself during the depression, war and postwar years.
In citing the '30s and '40s, I don't mean to suggest that there weren't plenty of performances of Beethoven, Franck, and Brahms during those years, or that plenty of people didn't hold up their hands to their ears at the horrid thought of hearing any of that ''modern cacophony.'' In those aspects the musical life of that period fairly resembles ours, if on a smaller scale.
But the music of America's Golden Age was far from cacophony, as dynamic conductors like Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony, Howard Hanson of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos of the New York Philharmonic, and Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra were proving season after season. They commissioned, performed, and recorded literally thousands of new works, gave encouragement to hundreds of composers, and displayed a degree of commitment to contemporary music of which most of our present-day maestros are quite innocent. The American music they presented dealt earnestly, for the most part, with the vital need of the listener to be neither overwhelmed by layered complexity, nor merely entertained. It wins hands down, among most of the music we call twentieth-century, when it comes to satisfying the hearer intellectually, and making him want a second hearing. It is sad that we hear so little of it today.
The postwar years brought with them a resurgence of internationalism. Europe had been pouring artists of all kinds into our midst, and the heady richness of considering Thomas Mann, Kurt Weill, George Grosz, and Igor Stravinsky as American artists was quite a phenomenon. The musical outcome of this was to re-inject lots of doubt into the notion of a distinct American music, or at least to cloud it over by the simple presence of so many talented voices of multinational origin.
One of the hallmarks of the ''international'' style that developed was that it truly had no nationalistic face. That is not so important, for it was only for a few short years during this century that things were ever any different in Western music. The fact that compositions from, say, Canada, Argentina, and Holland all tended to sound like the same musical language was less important, and far less tragic and disturbing, than the fact that a great many of the compositions themselves tended to sound like the same piece, composed over and over. So strong was the dictate of that international atonal/serial style, that this has come to be identified, by the layman, as ''modern music.''
This is too bad. The springing up of an intense nationalism in America's Golden Age may have been an aberration, music history being, more or less, on the side of common practice. But the musical principles on which it was based - coherent textures, intelligible rhythms, penetrable harmonies - do not die as issues in music, and will continue to be demanded of the art by mankind, even in a global setting. And, simply put, if the professional or layman wants to find them in their undiluted form, America's Golden Age music is where he should look.