Walter Simmons has written a superb book about the core of American art music in the 20th century: the neo-romantics. Flashier musicians—the ones who embraced the latest avant-garde, electronics or compositional techniques of the European moderns—either quickly faded away or attracted a devoted yet narrow following. But the neo-romantic composers endured; their fame and appreciation has risen and fallen and risen yet again.
Classical-music lovers who think of American music as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring might say, “These pieces are nice, but where is the American Tchaikovsky or Brahms?” Voices in the Wilderness reveals them. Simmons doesn’t cram the pages with an overview of every trend in 20th-century music. Instead, he focuses on six composers: the ever-popular Samuel Barber, the European-born master Ernest Bloch, and four others who rose to prominence in mid-century and are now known primarily to musicians. They are Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Vittorio Giannini and Nicolas Flagello.
Barber is beloved for his pensive and beautiful Adagio for Strings, which the BBC called “the perfect masterpiece.” Simmons tells you where this piece came from and why it was written. Barber’s lyrical Violin Concerto and his greatest large-scale masterpiece, Symphony No. 1, strangely absent from classical radio today, are described and explained for both their musical strengths and weaknesses. In fact, every published piece by Barber is seen in the light of his life, which musically blossomed in a youth of well-deserved adulation but left him ill-prepared for the harsh criticisms he later experienced, when his music was wrongly considered passé.
Of equal stature but less known today is Bloch. Simmons gives a clear history of Bloch’s once-strong influences on American musicians, as well as his embracing of religious themes in his music. Bloch’s now-forgotten popularity in America was due in part to the appealing exoticism and soulfulness that his deliberate Jewish expressions imparted. His is not the quaint mid-European bouncy klezmer influence found in Fiddler on the Roof, or even passages in Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, but rather a soulful, epic and biblical Jewishness that, at its best, is found in the masterpiece for cello and orchestra Schelomo. Bloch also was a master of chamber music, which is described so appreciatively that we really want to hear it. Bloch also faced anti-Semitic attitudes, which he overcame. His music deserves to be heard again, and his piece Voices in the Wilderness serves as the title and prevailing theme for all the composers in this book.
Hanson is heard today primarily via his splendid Symphony No. 2, subtitled Romantic, which it certainly is. Simmons reveals the other Hanson symphonies, his work at the Eastman School, his cerebral music-theory book and the political intrigues surrounding the Met debut of his opera Merry Mount.
Creston, Giannini and Flagello are the composers least known to music lovers and most neglected on radio and in the concert hall. Yet, they were true masters, as individual and different from each other as Ludwig van Beethoven is from Franz Schubert. Flagello wrote one of the most appealing modern symphonies you could hope to hear, and it, as well as his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, have now been recorded, thanks to Simmons. Giannini’s deeply personal music is the least recorded, though his band symphony is still played. And Creston produced dynamic, vibrant music that is every bit as appealing as that of Igor Stravinsky or Bela Bartók, yet completely different from theirs.
The musical heritage revealed in the book Voices in the Wilderness rivals the 20th-century mainstream of Europe and Russia. It’s refreshing to discover we have a culture beyond the throwaway, yet it’s sad so few know of it. Simmons’ book will make you seek and listen, and love what you hear.