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The most neglected American masterpiece?

August 7, 2017 by norman lebrecht

72 comments.


Leonard Slatkin has posted a list of major works by US composers that were cheered on debut and subsequently left to grow mould.

Readers are swelling Leonard’s ten with lost masterpieces of their own.

I would add any symphony by Benjamin Lees, the cello concerto of Victor Herbert, William Grant Still’s first symphony, Eric Zeisl’s piano concerto and pretty much anything by Conlon Nancarrow.

Your list?

photo: Betty Freeman/Lebrecht Music&Arts


Comments (72)

  1. David Leibowitz says:

    I’ve always considered David Diamond’s Second Symphony to be one the great American symphonies. Ditto Hanson’s 3rd (and this from someone who has never liked Hanson’s 2nd). Maestro Slatkin lists Piston 6, but 2 and 4 are pretty wonderful, too.

  2. Mark Henriksen says:

    You mean William Grant Still?

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      yes

  3. Laurence Mintz says:

    Charles Martin Loeffler: A Pagan Poem, Hora Mystica, Evocation; the symphonies of Gardner Read, Bernard Herrmann, and Vittorio Giannini.

  4. Don Ciccio says:

    I prefer Piston’s 2nd Symphony over the 6th.

    And BTW, William Schuman’s 8th Symphony was one of the most memorable things Slatkin did during his tenure with the NSO.

    1. JKStevenson says:

      I totally agree. It is a profound American masterpiece. But is anyone playing it these days? Thank God for recorded media.

  5. Kananpoika says:

    Which Victor Herbert cello concerto? There are two.

    1. Olassus says:

      He means No. 2 (1894). This list has been up before, a year ago I think.

  6. Larry says:

    On the opera side, “Merry Mount” by Howard Hanson, a huge success when it premiered at the Met but now forgotten.

    1. Olassus says:

      Was recorded not too long ago.

      1. Donald Hansen says:

        The performance of Feb. 10, 1934 at the Met with Lawrence Tibbett and Gladys Swarthout, among others, and conducted by Tulio Serafin was released in 1998 on two Naxos Historical CDs. Don’t know if it still available.

        1. Olassus says:

          Yes, that’s irreplaceable. In 2007 Naxos also put out a Gerard Schwarz recording made a decade earlier.

        2. Olassus says:

          … and WXXI broadcast a 2014 New York performance of Merry Mount played by the Rochester Philharmonic.

    2. JKStevenson says:

      But at least there are a couple of CD recordings of the work out there.

  7. John Groves says:

    Floyd’s opera Susannah – very powerful in performance, Ward’s opera The Crucible – much stronger and shorter than the play.

    1. Respect says:

      Hardly neglected, Floyd’s opera is overperformed.

      1. john groves says:

        Not in the UK! Most have never heard of Floyd here – and you have to start somewhere!

  8. Alexander Frey says:

    Do you mean Ray Stll, the legendary former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Did he compose a symphony? I didn’t know he was a composer?

  9. Alexander Frey says:

    Do you mean Ray Stll, the legendary former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Did he compose a symphony? I didn’t know he was a composer!

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      my slip of the finger: I meant William Grant Still

      1. Alexander Frey says:

        Lol! Thanks for the clarification. I love William Grant Still’s music!

        1. Ruben Greenberg says:

          I was fortunate to play under Mr. Still’s direction when I was a teenager. I’ll always remember his gentleness and his rich barytone voice; a lovely man.

  10. Alexander Frey says:

    *Ray Still, I meant.

  11. Chris says:

    Peter Mennin’s symphonies are terrific. He wrote nine. The 5th, in particular, is extraordinary and I believe is one of the best American symphonies.

  12. Peter says:

    From the late Romantics: Loeffler, indeed. The lovely Pagan poem can use a new performance. And there probably other works in his catalogue well worth a re-visit. Idem for La Bonne Chanson (after Verlaine) and memories from my childhood and the excellent Five Irish Fantasies (to words by W. B. Yeats and Heffernan) – the orchestral version (tenor/mezzo?) is superbly orchestrated.
    Peter Mennin: his mighty pianoconcerto (old RCA recording with John Ogdon) will do any (Yuja Wang!) steelhanded virtuoso proud. The slow movement is deeply touching.
    As in many other countries (Italy,France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece, Columbia, Argentina, Norway…) lesser known composers (ca 1850-1960) never get a chance.
    Not “contemporary” enough for some, too romantic/impressionistic/tonal for others….
    P.

    1. Barry Lyons says:

      Yes, Mennin’s Piano Concerto is fantastic. A new recording of the work is long overdue (there’s something a bit “glassy” about Ogdon’s piano in the RCA recording). I’d love to see Yuja Wang take on the work. Fat chance of that ever happening.

  13. Respect says:

    Always a fun topic, but this was 2015 post.

    Personally, I’d make a strong case for several Roy Harris symphonies, but the third holds a place in the repertoire. Diamond is a marvelous, underrated composer as well.

  14. Leonard Slatkin says:

    It will be helpful for readers to know that this was for a radio program in 2015. I had commentary as to why I chose each of the pieces and of course, they needed to have recordings of those works available. But the main thrust of the list was to point out that the works I selected have all but disappeared from the live performance arena. It would not have been difficult to come up with at least one hundred pieces that fit the bill.

    1. Olassus says:

      Well, go ahead with the other 90!

      Can’t think of anyone better placed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    2. Ruben Greenberg says:

      Dear Mr. Slatkin, Vittorio Giannini’s 4th symphony; absolutely lovely. Who could possibly remember him?

  15. Bill says:

    Gunther Schuller’s 7 Studies on a Theme of Paul Klee. A landmark work in in his 3rd Stream Jazz oeuvre fusing classical and jazz which is virtually ignored at this point.

    1. Don Ciccio says:

      If I am not mistaken Andris Nelsons programmed this work recently in Boston. But yes, it can use more outings…

  16. Sixtus says:

    Randall Thompson’s 2nd Symphony, a work championed by Bernstein. And I’ll also put in a vote for all the Piston symphonies mentioned so far.

  17. Bruce says:

    I always liked Schuman’s Song of Orpheus.

  18. John Porter says:

    It’s a terrible shame that so few people mention or know Henry Cowell, one of the most prolific and important 20th century American composers. So, I will add to the list: Variations for Orchestra, Ongoku for Orchestra, and Symphony #11.

    And, just for fun: here’s a real masterpiece, by Lou Harrison: Piano Concerto. There’s a great recording with Keith Jarrett as soloist.

    1. Olassus says:

      Piano Concerto with Selected Orchestra 😉

  19. Jon H says:

    The symphonies of George Antheil.
    In addition to this music not getting played, we have Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue (and also Mozart’s 23rd, and Rach’s 2nd) getting overplayed and by people who seem to have the notes, but don’t know what to do with it. Yes it’s written down already – the art is in playing it well.
    There are some orchestras with “adventurous programming” but some of them do sound like they’re sight-reading everything. That’s not good enough either. As Sir Simon Rattle once said (referring to Ligeti), it should be played with an understanding as if it were Bach.

    1. Jon H says:

      One of the advantages the Vienna Phil had in the classics, especially in Mozart – was the homogeneous sound (blend/balance) that comes from many hours of playing that music – with the musical understanding that goes with it. But in American orchestras (and others), it’s pretty much a different composer every week – it’s a lot of literature to understand deeply – so it isn’t there all the time. Or the orchestra has experience in the piece but the conductor doesn’t.
      Personally I’d choose quality performance over adventurous programming – I’d rather hear things (even familiar) done at the highest level (which is worth a $100k+ player salary) than to listen to read-throughs that don’t always put that composer in the best possible light.

  20. Brian Bell says:

    I’m encouraged by those already listing the Piston 2nd and 6th, as well as Loeffler.
    There are great recordings of the 2nd (MTT Boston) 6th (Munch Boston), and Loeffler’s Pagan Poem, if I recall correctly, had a great recording with Stokowski/Houston.
    Also worth investigating is the Chadwick 3rd (Jarvi Detroit), and anything by Steven Albert (he wrote very little before his tragic death in 1991) — the ‘Cello Concerto, River Run, Flower of the Mountain).
    And among those still living — who should be played far more often –those on the other side of the pond would be richly rewarded by the Symphonies of John Harbison — his 3rd is a great introduction. Add to John composers we know here in the states that don’t seem to get any traction outside of our country are Christopher Rouse, and Richard Danielpour (sample his Concerto for Orchestra in a wonderful recording with Zinman/Pittsburgh). These are just the folks who have great recordings to sample. Among the others….

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Harbison, certainly. And Stephen Paulus.

      1. Brian Bell says:

        Agreed. My crime is not listing the many people who deserve to be played. Mentioning
        Paulus brought about another 10 names –Stucky, Larsen, Daugherty, Torke, Chihara, etc. etc.

  21. Paul Mauffray says:

    in April of 1894 George Whitefield Chadwick was awarded a composition prize bestowed upon him by Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak was of course living in New York at that time and would have certainly heard one of the 48 performances given that spring on Broadway of “The Burlesque Opera TABASCO” by Chadwick. “Tabasco” went on to a tour of 35 cities in America, but due to a conflict over royalties the work was never published and instead hidden away by the composer. When later requests were made to revive the Tabasco opera, Chadwick was too busy having his latest symphonic poems performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. The Tabasco opera is currently in the final stages of reconstruction and will be premiered in a new fully staged version by New Orleans Opera Association January 25-28, 2018:
    http://neworleansopera.org/tabasco/

    1. Cubs Fan says:

      Thanks for letting us know. I’ll be there!

      1. JOHN MCLAUGHLIN WILLIAMS says:

        I believe that Henry Kimball Hadley was a much better composer than Chadwick. It’s our loss that there aren’t more recordings of his music, for the best of it amply rewards close scrutiny and repeated audition.

  22. Jasper says:

    Some years ago, while guest-conducting the NY Phil, Slatkin programmed and led a performance of Symphonic Sketches by George Whitfield Chadwick. In his introductory remarks that evening, Slatkin stated that this work was initially popular, but in recent decades had disappeared from the concert hall. I liked the work so much that I purchased a recording (Howard Hanson conducting, Eastman-Rochester Orchestra).

    I have not seen this work programmed by the NY Phil before or since the performance I attended.

    Jasper

    1. Jasper says:

      Edit: Should have read George Whitefield Chadwick.

      Jasper

  23. Ruben Greenberg says:

    Anything by the wonderfil Robert Ward.

    1. Mikey says:

      If you can’t name a great American symphonic work, then you know nothing of music. It’s either that, or you’re an insufferable snob.

      1. Bruce says:

        No need to vote for just one option…

      2. Whether I know anything about music or not, is a minor issue. Your dictatorial attitude towards others’ opinions, on the other hand, is alarming. We are here supposed to talk about our personal favorites of American music, not to “praise and celebrate the great achievements of American composers” with unanimous applause in a USSR-styled congress. If you ask me about the neglected masterpieces by J.S.Bach, I will also say “none”. Same answer, different reasoning, and you know I mean. More importantly, nobody in the world will feel offended and get agitated about that. So what is your real concern here? Why is your ego so fragile? Are you afraid of accepting the fact that the large majority of people around the world don’t value American music as much as you wish? If American music is really so great, why even the American orchestras are mainly playing Mozart and Beethoven when they are on tour? You can think of American music as high as you wish, but please don’t insult other people if they don’t share your passion.

        Luckily, I am not alone. Gustav Mahler also was no fan of American music. It should be noted that he was giving this opinion at an interview by an American newspaper, during a time when he was making big money in New York. So he must have tried everything he could to be diplomatic and nice. However, you don’t even have to read between the lines to get his message. He just didn’t think there was great music in America. In addition, he more than once described the American audience as ignorant, superficial and snobbish. So how would you describe your fan group?

        1. Paul Mauffray says:

          Sorry to have to correct you here, Analeck, but Gustav Mahler did in fact conduct American music. He and the New York Philharmonic gave performances of the orchestral works of George Whitefield Chadwick.

          And as for the subject of “neglected” or “unknown” music, just consider that there are indeed many great pieces of music which have been lost or never published. Yes, management is often worried more about selling tickets and providing the most popular works that are sure to sell out to a big crowd, and that is why so much great music is rarely performed.

          I encourage you to study more of the lesser known composers and to delve into the recordings of orchestral music by one of America’s first great composers, George Whitefield Chadwick. Antonin Dvorak awarded Chadwick a composition prize, and Gustav Mahler conducted his music too. So if those two were supporters of Chadwick’s music, who are you and I to not give him a chance too? Enjoy!

          1. JMW says:

            Mahler also conducted Hadley; he performed The Culprit Fay, one of Hadley’s best works.

  24. RW2013 says:

    Zeisl Requiem Ebraico

  25. John Cooledge says:

    Concerto for Piano, Op. 9 by John La Montaine

  26. Cubs Fan says:

    I vote for the symphony by Amy Beach.

    1. David Leibowitz says:

      Yes! A wonderful piece! (I just conducted it in May!)

      1. Ruben Greenberg says:

        Bravo for you! I didn’t realise Amy Beach had written a symphony (I only know her chamber music). -a fine, sadly neglected composer. Her sons were far better known. You have all heard of the Beach Boys, haven’t you? ha ha

  27. Stephen says:

    Peter Mennin’s Pied Piper cantata is a wonderful work that deserves some love (and a proper recording, preferably with John de Lancie as the narrator).

  28. James Hill says:

    Here’s my wish list – all in need of modern recorded sound
    Menotti – Piano Concerto;
    Henry Cowell – Symphonies Nos 4 & 5;
    Deems Taylor – Ramuntcho ballet music; Peter Ibbetson Suite; Portrait of a Lady
    Edward Burlingame Hill – Lilacs; Prelude for Orchestra
    Douglas Moore – In Memoriam

    Maestro Slatkin – if you are watching why not try to persuade Klaus Heymann of Naxos to let you have a go at some of these.

  29. MacroV says:

    Harold Shapero – Symphony for Classical Orchestra. Has recordings by Bernstein and Previn, but really needs one by a great orchestra. And regular performances; who wouldn’t like it?

    Peter Mennin – Cello Concerto

    If they count as Americans for their many years in Hollywood, Miklos Rozsa’s Violin Concerto and Korngold’s Symphony in F.

    If only Maestro Slatkin had some sort of vehicle through which he could address the neglect of some of these pieces…

    1. Olassus says:

      Nobody mentions Previn as composer! He is a genius.

  30. Ruben Greenberg says:

    Let us not forget the four symphonies and piano concerto by Gordon Sherwood, Der Bettler Komponist. There was some question of him on Slipped Disc at the time of his death three years ago. Two of his four symphonies have been premiered-given one performance which was never folllowed by a second one. He earned a living by begging on the streets of Paris.

  31. Marc-André Hamelin says:

    Totally agree about Sun-Treader by Ruggles. Magnificent work.

    1. PaulD says:

      I agree. I’ve only heard it once live – and that was well over forty years ago in Los Angeles, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Not too long ago, I spotted a used lp of his recording of it with the Boston Symphony at my local record store (yes, we still have one), and grabbed it.

  32. Stephen Cera says:

    Harold Shapero: Symphony for Classical Orchestra (1947).

  33. Spurs supporter says:

    Joplin’s opera Treemonisha. BTW, Mahler didn’t think much of American music in his time.

  34. Michael Cattermole says:

    I’m reassuringly glad that someone has mentioned the “wonderful Robert Ward”. When is the world going going to wake up and realise that Ward wrote some of the most beautiful music of the 20th century? Ward’s “Sacred Songs for Pantheists” of 1951 are, like Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”, masterpieces, and his Piano Concerto of 1968 contains some of the loveliest melodic invention I have ever come across. Has any of Robert Ward’s extensive output ever been performed here in the UK? – somehow I doubt so, which is a great shame.

  35. James Manishen says:

    Randall Thompson’s A Trip to Nahant is a beauty. One of the happiest pieces I know.

  36. Halldor says:

    Leroy Anderson Piano Concerto. Absolute zinger of a piece.

  37. Eric says:

    Lou Harrison’s 2nd Symphony (Elegiac)

  38. Mather Pfeiffenberger says:

    Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches will be performed at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago on Wednesday, August 16: https://www.grantparkmusicfestival.com/the-music/2017-season.

    The concert takes place from 6:30-8:00 pm US CST and will be streamed live on wfmt.com.


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