Alan Fletcher is the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, one of America’s leading classical music events. He has every reason to be proud of the festival’s history and achievements; but he’s less enamoured of his country’s track record in promoting the works of certain 20th-century American symphonists. Last month he elaborated on his thoughts in an article for The Guardian, citing the superior efforts of leading British orchestras, who seem to programme major works by British composers much more frequently than American orchestras do for their counterparts.
Fletcher refers to a specific list of neglected composers that includes Walter Piston, George Antheil, Peter Mennin, Charles Ives, Roy Harris, William Schuman and Roger Sessions; Fletcher himself was a student of Sessions. He outlined how “our Aspen festival will this summer do its utmost to restore some important music and an important heritage to the repertoire.” I thought the Naxos catalogue could also do its bit by showcasing seven symphonies by those seven composers.
First up is Charles Ives (1874–1954), who initially made a career in insurance, reserving his activities as a composer for his leisure hours. Ironically, by the time that his music had begun to arouse interest, his own inspiration and energy as a composer had waned, so that for the last thirty years of his life he wrote little, while his reputation grew.
Ives’ First Symphony (8.559175) was his Yale University graduation piece and for a composer barely over twenty it’s an astonishing work, maybe not picture-perfect, but a revelation of a young genius first flexing his orchestral muscles. Here are the closing few minutes of the work, and if you can’t help thinking ‘Dvořák…? Tchaikovsky…?’ or stop tapping your feet, we’ll quite understand.
Roger Sessions (1896–1985) was a pupil of Ernest Bloch in New York before spending time in Europe, where he met Berg, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Milhaud. The première of his Second Symphony (9.80248) took place in 1947 under Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony. The work is dedicated “To the Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”, who died while Sessions was composing the Adagio tranquillo. Here’s the second movement, Allegretto capriccioso, in its entirety. Don’t wander too far. It lasts less than a couple of minutes.
Peter Mennin’s (1923–1983) Third Symphony (8.559718) was completed on his 23rd birthday, in 1946. The success of the piece led to the composer’s appointment to New York’s Juilliard School of Music and the beginning of a long string of commissions. Mennin described the passionate slow movement as “an extended song…making use of sustained voice-weaving.” Here’s an extract.
George Antheil (1900–1959) earned notoriety with his 1925 Ballet Mécanique (8.559060), composed for an orchestra of percussion instruments, player pianos, electric buzzers and even an aeroplane propeller. His Fourth Symphony (8.559033) was written following his experience as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Daily News.
Antheil wrote that the work was written “during a period when the entire future of the world hung in balance, its first movement undoubtedly [reflecting] my tense and troubled state of mind while writing it; but every day, I was watching the news, from Stalingrad, from Africa, from the Pacific…the second movement is tragic—news of Lidice and the horrors in Poland had just come in—while the third, the Scherzo, is more like a brutal joke, the joke of war. The fourth, written after the turn of the tide at Stalingrad and our landings in Morocco, heralds victory.”
The Fifth Symphony (8.559609) of Roy Harris (1898–1979), also written against the backcloth of the war in Europe, was inspired by the Russian people’s stand against the Nazis and their eventual triumph. Dedicated to ‘the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics’, the symphony’s first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky in February 1943 was simultaneously broadcast to the Soviet Union. Here’s the dark opening of the second movement.
Walter Piston’s (1894–1976) Sixth Symphony (8.559161) dates from 1955. His association with the Boston Symphony (for whom this work was written) began in 1926; he wrote a number of works expressly for the orchestra. Piston wrote:
“While writing my Sixth Symphony, I came to realize that this was a rather special situation in that I was writing for one designated orchestra, one that I had grown up with, and that I knew intimately. Each note set down sounded in the mind with extraordinary clarity, as though played immediately by those who were to perform the work. On several occasions it seemed that the melodies were being written by the instruments themselves as I followed along. I refrained from playing even a single note of this symphony on the piano.” Listen here to part of the opening movement.
And so to the Seventh Symphony (8.559255) of our seventh and final composer, William Schuman (1910–1992). It, too, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and written in 1960 to mark its 75th season. We’ll end simply by letting the music of the second movement speak for itself.
The Aspen Music Festival and School 2016 runs from 30 June – 21 August.