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Their Country, ’Twas of Thee 

Thursday, Oct 2 2003
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Two recent items from the University of California Press, too small for the wisdom they contain, provide some interesting insights on American music making and creative attitudes over the last several decades. One is Paul Bowles on Music, a collection of writings by the late man-of-many-arts during the years (1935–46) of his gainful employment as music critic on the New York scene. The other is the Reflections of an American Composer by Arthur Berger, at 91 still very much with us and with it. This also has a few scraps from his time as music critic, but not nearly enough; the greater substance deals with Berger’s memories of the pitched battle among music’s ardent practitioners, a listening public whose collective ears always seem to lie immediately out of reach, and the stern judges whose powers of determination may impede the back-and-forth flow of acceptance and rejection. As with Bowles, Berger’s field of vision begins somewhere in the 1930s, but continues right up to a few hours ago.

Both men were members of a confraternity that has pretty much gone out of existence: practicing, serious composers, employed by one newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune, where their chores often entailed writing about the music of their colleagues and competitors. The man who ran the Trib’s music department, Virgil Thomson, saw nothing wrong with this interesting conflict; it was balanced by the exceptional acuity and experience of its members. (Lou Harrison, John Cage and Theodore Chanler were other sporadic members of this ambidextrous assemblage.) Between the lines of both these books is a panorama of an active musical life — in New York most of all, but also on other East Coast outposts — with composers mostly young, chased back from their European strongholds by the growing Nazi specter, and striving with all their might to establish an American musical identity. (Interesting comparison: Coincident with this rising tide of Americanism on the New York scene was the sudden emergence of Los Angeles as a kind of Europe-in-exile, with Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Toch and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, exploding into awareness through the “Evenings on the Roof” concerts and similar activities.)

Berger’s Reflections becomes a series of battlefield reports; he delights in dualities. In music criticism there was Thomson, whose entry onto the Trib consisted of taking a bloody bite out of the rival Times’ sacred cows, the symphonies of Jan Sibelius. Paul Rosenfeld, the unpredictable gadfly in all the arts, faces off in a Berger essay against B.H. Haggin of the legendary narrow, woefully predictable tastes; the two most ardent proponents of new-music adventure, conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Dimitri Mitropoulos, cross swords even as they seem to join the battle on the same side.

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There is a brief teaser of Berger’s critical prowess; I hope there’ll be more. From a few brief scraps we learn nothing we couldn’t learn again today: that the Shostakovich Sixth consists mostly of emptiness; that there is genuine power in the music of Leon Kirchner, promise in the then-young Ned Rorem’s music, and less in the music of George Rochberg. In the Bowles collection (edited, with obvious enthusiasm if a few proofreading slips, by the O.C. Register’s Tim Mangan), the Shostakovich Sixth fares even less well — “the esthetic of the billboard rather than of the canvas.” That guy could write.

The Bowles collection begins with freelance pieces for Modern Music, that noble light in the darkness that flickered out in 1946. You have to be struck immediately by the range of his interests: black jazz in its raw vitality, a prescient note on Silvestre Revueltas, and, most interesting of all, a gathering of insightful film-music essays whose profundity no writer of my acquaintance seems to match these days. Film music, to Bowles, was an art to be taken seriously, spread-eagled across the same standards that might apply to opera or cantata before a live audience; did it occur to any other critic of Bowles’ or our time to deal so seriously with the “gilt and plush horror” of Disney’s Pinocchio, or to note that “Franz Waxman’s score for Rebecca is not even as good as Hitchcock’s direction”?

Bowles’ Trib stuff is outstandingly bright and knowing. Maybe something can be said against composers as critics, but surely nothing can be wrong with an honest-to-God writer invading the sacred precincts of our art. His musical writing chronicles the discoveries and determinations of a graceful and wise mind. To my troubled outlook, struggling with the agonies a week after spinal surgery when every turn of phrase is extruded from the word processor with the twist of a blunt-edge scalpel, the discovery of this kind of writing is like therapy at its coolest, most soothing.

 

Of Walter Piston, Arthur Berger wrote that “he was someone who seemed to be completely self-possessed . . . he always spoke good sense.” Piston was the American educational eminence of his day, comparable in stature to Nadia Boulanger in Paris; everybody had to walk through his shadow at one time or another. Today his music is in the shadows, even though his large-scale works — the eight symphonies above all — also speak good sense. It’s hard to remember back to my days at Harvard, when this terse, organized music was the newest, and the most fearsome, stuff in the local concert halls.

The Second Symphony stirs special memories. At Harvard I was an about-to-become-lapsed premed, my love of the place sustained only by music classes with the exhilarating G. Wallace Woodworth. Woody got the nod to guest-conduct the Boston Symphony in the 1943 premiere of the Piston Second, and we in the class got to go to his dress rehearsal. It was the first piece of music by a living, visible composer I ever knew. It was then what it is now, a clear, neatly cohesive work that you could take into a classical-sonata-form class and locate all the points — tidy and expressive, with a drop-dead-beautiful slow movement. Naxos, that splendidly adventurous company, has just reissued the Gerard Schwarz recording (formerly, costlier, on Delos). It neatly fills out the aura around these fine new books.

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