America’s ten lost musical masterpieces

An interesting set from Detroit music director, Leonard Slatkin. Click here for list, then head to Youtube. You might want to substitute three or four selections, but why do we never hear modern music of this quality in concert?

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  • To add a couple other forgotten but worthy composers, David Diamond’s Symphony No. 3 is a beautiful work:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9zhjOnhMFY

    And Roy Harris’ very American Symphony No. 4 (“Folk Song Symphony.”) Snippets can be heard here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Symphony-Nos-3-R-Harris/dp/B000EBEGZK

    One wonders about the sense of American identity many of these forgotten composers created, how their styles were linked to a kind of left-leaning, New Deal respect for common people, and how it increasingly conflicted with the borderless ethos of late capitalism after the war. It seems little wonder that the more international and less political style of serialism and abstract expressionism came to dominate.

    It is also interesting that through secret programs like the CIA’s “Congress for Cultural Freedom,” this ethos of the political left was very consciously suppressed and more apolitical styles promoted. (See Frances Stonor Sauders’ interesting book, “Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War.”

    It’s also notable that it is American conductors like Slatkin, Alsop, and Schwarz who often recorded these composers.

    • You can’t forget people who were never allowed to be. Perhaps the current generation of women composers will have the ironic privilege of being forgotten…

    • In a world more interested in equality over quality she might. But then we would all just be mind numbed sheep mouthing political slogans to the tune of the central powers and classical music? Well, that has no use for the “masses” does it?
      Besides, I thought Jesus Christ was just a fictional character in the evil, colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, running dog hegemony.

      • Glad you mention Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Her music is very special in that she uses 20th century harmonic and melodic styles fused with a contemporary feel that almost leans toward the jazz and popular idioms–but not exactly. Her early output was much darker and very, very serious. As she wrote more and more, her style lightened up a bit, and she began receiving requests for commissions (me included with two concertos–both for piano and orchestra, but with a twist–using a drum set player as a soloist juxtaposing the pianist–VERY cool!) We should acknowledge that Maestro Slatkin has also included Ellen’s music in his many programs. (And, Charles M. Schulz acknowledged Ellen in one of his beloved ‘Peanuts’ comic strips–in turn, Ellen wrote the ‘Peanuts Gallery’ for piano and orchestra). Her symphonies and ‘Concerto Grosso’ are terrific works and should be included in orchestra programs once conductors have a look at the scores and listen to the existing recordings.

  • I wouldn’t call “Mysterious Mountain” neglected.

    There is a lot of great American music, which unfortunately even most American orchestras largely ignore. Gerard Schwarz, while not everybody’s favorite, did a lot of admirable work in his early years in Seattle, both performing and recording symphonies of Hanson, Diamond, Piston, and Creston, among others. But even he eventually gave up and started just recording without performing.

    A few of my favorites:

    – Donald Erb’s Concerto for Brass (recorded by Slatkin)
    – Robert Beaser’s “Double Chorus”
    – Harold Shapero’s “Symphony for Classical Orchestra” (IMHO the greatest American symphony, and thus all the more scandalous for its neglect)
    – Ned Rorem’s Violin Concerto
    – Miklos Rosza’s Violin Concerto (if you count Rosza as American).
    – Peter Mennin’s Cello Concerto

    An orchestra could actually program a very compelling season of just American music that wouldn’t drive very many people away if they actually bothered to sit down to listen to it. But we live in an age of “I like what I know.”

  • None of these works are “lost” by any stretch. I would agree that in current market, they are not being performed by orchestras. If it is Mr. Slakin’s intention to program them, I applaud his efforts to bring some of this music to a new generation of listeners. I am in complete agreement with Mr. Osborne about David Diamond — a wonderful composer, whose music has been largely forgotten.

    Since we are all talking about recordings and American repertoire: MTT made a wonderful recording of the Piston 2 (which I prefer to the 6th), which was paired with Ruggles’ “Suntreader” (a much-beloved work).

  • One must realize that much of the music on his list is a tough listen and requires a significant musical ear to appreciate. Sadly, there are very few of those in the US, or anywhere else these days. The Seventh Trumpet is haunting, fascinating and even scary. But the average concert goer wouldn’t be able to make anything out of it, and the people who write big checks to support orchestras wouldn’t like it either, especially when they can be happy listening to the Tchaikovsky 6th, Brahms 1st, or Beethoven 5th — again. In a culture obsessed with hip hop, rap, rock, country and other musical distractions, difficult music is going to suffer.

    Another problem is that this music is absolutely beyond the ability of less than professional orchestras, and a lot of people get their only exposure to classical music from those amateur groups – for better or worse. Adding to the challenge is the insanely high fees composers and publishers demand for performance rights. Sometimes I think it would be better if publishers would pay orchestras to play the music and give it some air time.

  • Somehow, Mr. Slatkin managed to program Mysterious Mountain when he was with the National Symphony. I was fortunate to have heard it.

    I would add my agreement to the comments about David Diamond. There is some beautiful music that audiences in the U.S. are missing.

  • Everyone has his or her own list of neglected composers and theories to account for the neglect, though in the latter forum I’ve yet to read anything quite so bizarre as Mr. Osborne’s idea that it was Sidney Hook and Arthur Koestler (and no doubt the CIA) that conspired to bring about the neglect of, say, Roy Harris and Peter Menin (not to mention Elie Siegmeister) and the furtherance of “apolitcal” types like Sessions, Babbitt, and Carter. Whew!! I am heartened, though, to discover support for Harold Shapero’s great Symphony for Classical Orchestra on this blog. Championed initially by Bernstein and more recently (albeit 25 years ago now) by Andre Previn, it’s still a difficult work for even first rate orchestras to pull of in a week’s time. I can understand Slatkin’s (and Schwartz’s) reluctance to take it on.

    • When you dig beneath the surface, things that one may be tempted to dismiss as bizarre can turn out to be nonetheless true. Government and corporate agencies sometimes got more than they bargained for when they commissioned or promoted artists and musicians who later proved to be a little too “leftist” for prime time. Diego Rivera comes to mind. Perhaps we should read the book Mr. Osborne recommends before dismissing the topic as bizarre. Or, perhaps, you are already familiar with the book, and simply disagree with its premise.

    • The CIA’s efforts to marginalize the left in the cultural community is indeed bizarre, and yet entirely true and documented in considerable detail. I highly recommend Francis Stonor Saudner’s book. The principal issue isn’t what effect the program had, but the deviousness of a government that would even have such a program.

      Just as troubling are people who know the facts, and yet attempt to deny, rationalize, or play down that the government had a long-term, highly funded, program to *secretly* shape the arts in America.

      The focus was mostly on the visual arts and the effect was considerable. Less attention was paid to new music, though more research is necessary to know for sure. The program existed at the same time as the HUAC purges. Even artists like Aaron Copland were hauled before the committee. It deeply traumatized him and many claim that he was never the same afterwards.

      The cumulative effect of these events significantly altered America’s cultural landscape.

      • “Purges,” sir, is a word generally used for the political assassinations of Stalin. Your “moral equivalency” is leaking. As nefarious as HUAC was, they thwarted careers–for the most part temporarily; they did not execute people. Or do you still believe Stalin’s “purge trials” were merely capitalist propaganda, as was widely held by most of “the left” both in the US and in England? The recently deceased Robert Conquest was, as he himself put it, “right all along.”

        • Yes, Hollywood blacklisted many screen writers, thus destroying their careers. Purge: an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people from an organization or place. Other professions were affected as well.

          I don’t know anyone who thinks Stalin’s purges and Gulags were merely Western propaganda, but I do know people who deny that HUAC and the CIA/s interventions in the arts were wrong.

  • Not to be picky, but the list misspells William Schuman with two n’s. And how on earth did Slatkin come to think that Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain is neglected? It seems to be his most performed work. Piston’s 6th is superb though it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by Martinu’s 6th, likewise commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary season.
    Mennin isn’t mentioned but virtually anything he wrote should be performed more often. His ‘Moby Dick’ Concertante for one was revived by Gerard Schwarz and deserves to be heard more than it is.
    I’d also like to hear Gould’s boisterous but also tragic ‘Lincoln Legend’ in a contemporary performance and Elie Siegmeister’s ‘Western Suite’ (perfect for a summer program.) Both were performed by Toscanini and Virgil Thomson praised the Siegmeister in particular. Barber’s Cello Concerto is inexplicably neglected considering there are few enough good ones. And we rarely get to hear Copland’s ‘Short Symphony’ mainly, I suspect, because it’s so damnably difficult.
    Harris, to my mind, rewrote his 3rd symphony over and over again. Much more rewarding, IMO, are Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle, Parable of Death, and Baroque Variations.

  • If you want to discover a truly “lost” American musical masterpiece, then be sure to look for upcoming performances of the opera “Tabasco” by George Whitefield Chadwick which I am currently reconstructing. This comic operetta was composed in 1894, and had a successful run of 48 performances on Broadway before it went on tour throughout the United States. When the composer discovered that the producers were changing the content of his work and not paying him royalties, he took back the music, locked it away, and never had it published. In that same year Antonin Dvorak awarded Chadwick as the greatest American composer, and Chadwick’s music was later performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. We are making the first recording of this opera next month, so look for excerpts becoming available on youtube soon …

  • Slatkin and Erb have been homies since their days at the Saint Louis Symphony. Everybody in the orchestra hated that concerto for brass Erb/Slatkin forced ’em to play.

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