America’s lost composer generationOrchestras
A once-celebrated US composer had his centenary this week, and no-one played a note of his music.
Peter Mennin had his Second Symphony premiered by Leonard Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic in 1945, when he was just 22.
His third symphony was played by the NY Phil a year later.
Mennin went on to become president of Juilliard. He wrote 9 symphonies before his death, aged 60, in 1983.
The only acknowledgement of his centennial is an Aspen premiere of an unfinished violin concerto.
Like Mennin, a whole raft of Bernstein-backed composers has vanished into haze. William Schuman, Roy Harris, Lukas Foss, who plays them now? Milton Babbitt, Henry Cowell, Marc Blitzstein, as if they were never born. America’s musical memory is notoriously short.
There was a resurgence of interest in the music of several American composers of that period (not all of them Bernstein-backed, but still…) in the 1990s, thanks largely to the efforts of conductors Gerard Schwarz and Leonard Slatkin: symphonies and other works by Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, David Diamond, Paul Creston, William Schuman, Peter Mennin, and others were performed and recorded, and welcomed by the audiences and compact disc buyers. Apparently the interest has flagged somewhat…but the recordings remain, and the music is certainly there waiting for new champions.
It will take publicity & performances to create interest.
It’s a shame. Menin wrote some excellent symphonies.l
Jean Martinon recorded Mennin’s 7th Symphony in Chicago and that recording is still available in the box set of Martinon’s CSO recordings. It’s well worth a listen for those of us who also enjoy the music of Roy Harris, Norman Dello Joio and other mid 20th Century American composers.
I played Foss 3 American pieces at a concert last week. Vastly underrated talent IMO, but quite eccentric esp later on.
Mennin’s music was often performed during my time at Juilliard.
Wrong (about most of these composers). Lukas Foss is played frequently, there was a centennial concert by the Buffalo Phil for him recently at Carnegie Hall; violinist Frank Almond, a concertmaster, played Foss’s “Three American Pieces for Violin and Piano” on Monday, May 15, 2023 and much more.
As for Harris, I just heard one of his symphonies performed on public radio, days ago, his symphonies have been widely recorded, his Bicentennial Symphony was performed in 2022 at Walt Disney Concert Hall and more.
As for Marc Blitzstein, the Mead Witter performed his life story and music at the University of Wisconsin, Madison last year in an award winning compilation.
I do agree with you about Peter Mennin but this is mostly a thinly veiled attack on the USA (not America) and Leonard Bernstein.
Not thinly veiled. America celebrates music that is neither art nor music.
Absolutely right, I completely agree. Thank you for bringing Mennin’s Centenary to light.
Too much Beethoven?
“Time takes its toll on works that are fashionable or routine. After a generation or two, one no longer cares whether at its creation a work was avant-garde, conservatives or middle of the road. The only criterion is that it continue to have meaning because of the quality of its artistic statement.”
Americans care en masse for only Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, and sometimes Barber because their music is tonal and accessable. Copland simplified his musical style for just that reason. I agree that it’s incumbent upon the American musical experts to play and educate the wider audience to the music of lesser known composers regardless of the difficulties in the music. I dislike serial music, but understand the importance and influence of it among the musical elite and in the development of music culture in a thriving society. The names mentioned by Mr. Lebrecht composed tonal music and should appeal to the public (don’t know about Babbitt and Cowell). I would add David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and Randall Thompson into the neglected mix. There should be no music memory hole due to the subversion by the almighty dollar in the music industry, but twas ever thus in America.
Randall Thompson’s choral music is wonderful and I also like his 2nd Symphony.
The generation of mid-century American symphonic composers was whisked off the stage by the “High Modernists” before the works of the former group had a chance to be absorbed, reflected upon, or evaluated by either audiences or professionals. I doubt that there’s a conductor operating today (other than Gerard Schwarz) who could distinguish one of these composers from another.
America’s musical memory may be notoriously short, but couldn’t the same be said of practically every other country? There are a lot of composers of Mennin’s generation all ’round the world whose music is neglected and often for the best of reasons: it’s not that good.
American audiences and donors are cautious in taste, and it impacts programing. That’s why I laugh when I hear that Florence Price was “silenced.” You can write a whole list of American composers, and European, who have been silenced because they wrote in the Twentieth Century, even though their music is tonal and melodic.
Henry Cowell is actually a well-known and often performed composer, his piano works are pretty standard repertoire at this point.
But what of his 20+ Symphonies? #16-“Icelandic” is extraordinary.
Similarly, who plays Lambert, Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley, Searle, Rubbra?
At a university I had a composition teacher who had had a piece recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic when he was 18.
Nope, you’ve never heard of him.
When I encountered him he was making very important NEA-funded electronic bleeps and bloops on a “Synclavier”.
Didn’t have a teaching bone in his body. About 10 minutes into my “lesson” his phone would ring.
“Let me just get that…” he’d say and then talk very animatedly with whoever was on the other end for 30 or 40 minutes*.
“Well, we’re almost out of time here, let’s pick this all up next week,” he’d say upon concluding his call.
And then we’d do it all over again the next week.
*You don’t think anyone was on the other end? No, I don’t think so, either. But he had me going there for a while. He was such an important composer that people called him on the phone!
I bet I have heard of that composition teacher – Could his initials be L.A.?
Well… I guess he’s famous for something!
Another hint perhaps?
Leroy Anderson! I knew it!
No one is ever lost in the correct political environment. One just has to wait. Perhaps for a long time.
That is, in as much as the left is gathered behind Black female composers like Florence Price and taking down Beethoven, I don’t see the right gathering behind anybody, not even Wagner, much less mid-Century American white male composers.
What is odd is that one would think the far right, and its endorsement of all things white, would embrace classical music and its white composers (if only for Wagner!), but the right is oddly anti-intellectual in the arts, when it can be quite intellectual (in the sense of promoting the classics and the canon) in the social/cultural spheres as in endorsing and promoting Greco-Roman, even Byzantine, thought and philosophy.
Can it be that the left cares more about classical music than the right?
Left = sophisticated, intelligent, thoughtful.
Right = dumb yokel, uninterested in arts.
Is that your idea?
Go ahead and keep believing your lies. There plenty of us classical music lovers who are conservative. As a Latino I resent your stereotyping. No, the left doesn’t care more about classical music than the right. But I will tell you this: the left always comes with their hands out looking for government subsidies or money from us on the right. But attitudes like yours keep turning more and more of us off and we put our money where it’s appreciated.
Oh, yes. That fellow Zhdanov is the best example of how much the Left cares about classical music.
The entire American 20th century symphonic canon is a virtual graveyard – Virgil Thompson, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti, Norman Dello Joio, Leo Smit, Gunther Schuler, David Diamond – all gone,!
Smit was Dutch, murdered in a concentration camp.
Um…there were •two• Leo Smits, one of them very American:
There was an American Leo Smit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Smit_(American_composer)
I do love Mennin’s wild Piano Concerto, which is in need of a new recording (there’s something a bit glassy or tinny about John Ogdon’s piano on the only recording of the work; no doubt it’s the recording that’s at fault, not Ogdon’s piano). And Mitropoulos’s rendition of the Third Symphony is fantastic.
The Menin Piano Concerto made a splash when it was premiered by the excellent pianist Eunice Podice at Carnegie Hall with Szell & Cleveland Orchestra in 1958. It was then recorded by John Ogden, and in the early 70s Gary Stiegerwalt played it with the Juilliard Orchestra. Otherwise, the work vanished.
After listening to Mennin’s Piano Concerto, most other 20th-century piano concertos sound feeble.
I won’t pretend to be familiar with the music of these composers…except for Milton Babbitt, whose garbage/alleged music I’ve twice sat through. I don’t know how many of these composers are tonal vs. atonal. But based on two exposures, Babbitt’s alleged music has justifiably earned its place in the trash heap of history. I have no time or interest in Babbitt’s or anyone else’s atonal nonsense. And so much music from this period was atonal nonsense. It could have just as well been written by a computer engaging a random number generator that translated numbers into notes. (And it probably was.)
Maybe there is tonal music in this group as well, and maybe we should hear it. But is it not also possible that the passage of time has revealed that most of this stuff is perhaps just not that good?
I did hear one William Schuman work once, and it left me completely indifferent. There was nothing in it that made me want to hear it again…or anything else by Schuman. I much prefer the music of his relative Robert.
Herr Doktor’s comment is representative of the kind of thinking that results in the theme of this stream. He hears a few pieces by a couple of composers and imagines that he’s hit upon a representative sample of this entire portion of the repertoire.
Walter Piston, Paul Creston, Quincy Porter, Vincent Persichetti. Ross Lee Finney, Meyer Kupferman, Elie Siegmeister, Wallingford Riegger and Alan Shulman could be added to this list – for starters…
In the the 1960’s, Mr. Mennin’s symphonies were performed in New York venues, issued on vinyl by subsidized record labels, and sometimes heard on college radio stations.
They were never of interest to regular U.S. concert audiences.
I was just noting Mennin’s centenary the other day. There’s a whole generation or two of American symphonists I really wish would be revived. It doesn’t seem like now is the time, when the focus is on the marginalized, women and minorities, who never really had the heyday a lot of these now-neglected figures enjoyed; but American composers were always the poor stepchildren on orchestra programs.
Every once in a while there would be a ray of light: Bernstein, Slatkin, Schwarz, and now Gil Rose of Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), David Allan Miller, and JoAnn Falletta. Falletta just conducted an all-Foss program in Carnegie Hall in October. Tickets were free, believe it or not, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I understand she subsequently recorded it with the Buffalo Philharmonic for release on Naxos.
But we’re not getting a lot of William Schuman, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, David Diamond. And these guys are famous, compared to a lot of others who have been less fortunate. Basically, if you’re not Copland, Barber, Bernstein, or Gershwin, you’re screwed.
On a related note, I am within the last 30 pages of Howard Pollack’s 700-page biography, “Samuel Barber: His Life & Legacy” (University of Illinois Press). Highly recommended to anyone interested in mid-century American music.
My humble post on Mennin:
Pollack also wrote a biography of John Alden Carpenter. It was a deeply textured and excellent read. His book turned out to be an essential element in my preparation for performance of a few JAC scores. I highly recommend it to everyone who is seriously interested in American music. It has a great title: “Skyscraper Lullaby: The Life and Music of John Alden Carpenter“
I haven’t gotten around to that one yet, but I did finally read his Copland bio (“Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man”) last year, and that too was excellent. It’s impressive that he’s able to pull together all that detail again and again and again.
I should have included your name in that list of champions of neglected American composers. Sincere thanks for all you’ve done, including your recordings of John Alden Carpenter, Nicholas Flagello, Henry Hadley, George Frederick McKay, and Arnold Rosner, among others.
I have written endlessly about the dearth of performances of composers who shaped the landscape of American classical music. Leaving the Bernstein connection, we must also not forget about those aligned with Koussevitsky, including Piston, Sessions, Thomson, Gould, etc. And whatever happened to Howard Hanson? C’mon young generation of conductors. Get on the stick and start investigating these and other marvelous originals from days of yore.
How much of the dearth of performances is for lack of interest on the part of performers, and how much for lack of interest on the part of those responsible for programming?
Let’s not forget Alan Hovhaness, too. So many works and anot enough performances.
Leonard Slatkin: A great American conductor who regularly programmed works by American composers during his distinguished music directorships with 2 great American orchestras: the St.Louis and the National Symphonies. When I attended Chicago Symphony concerts on a regular basis during my student years at Northwestern in the early-mid 1970’s, Mr. Slatkin’s programming of American works as a guest conductor was a breath of fresh air. (I was trained as an orchestral brass player, but trust me, there was way too much Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, and Strauss programmed during the Solti years.) American music led by an American conductor with an American orchestra: WHAT A CONCEPT!! Mr. Slatkin’s distinguished recordings of the Vaughan Williams Symphonies are superb.
The Martinon/CSO recording of Mennin 7 is extraordinary, I think by far the best of his 9. Phenomenal integration and development of thematic material, incredibly intricate counterpoint, and a very effective undercurrent of intense drama make me rank Mennin’s fiendishly difficult 7th in the same class as other “Great American Symphonies” like Schuman 3, Hanson 2, Piston 2, and Copland 3.
Leonard, it was you that introduced me to the symphonies of Walter Piston through your performance of No.2 at the Proms many years ago. Many thanks!
Keep writing, Maestro! Thank you for all you have done on behalf of these important composers.
Damn right, Leonard. I would add Crumb, Fine, Feldman. But the new kids on the stick won’t listen. They earn their brownie points from diversity.
Crumb and Feldman do get performed quite a bit. but not by orchestras: their best works were for other sorts of ensemble.
Would make a good twist in a James Bond movie!
Thank you for this. We’re trying to hound the Met that there are operas from this period that deserved to be produced. Regina anyone?!
Yes, but Vanessa is the tip of the iceberg. What about Merry Mount, which prompted 50 curtain calls at its MET premiere? And what about and the glorious operas of Giannini, Hoiby, Flagello, and, dare one say, Pasatieri?
The orchestral version of Charles Ive’s Variations on “America” was arranged by William Schuman. It is fun and has imaginative scoring that feels as if Ives had done the arrangement himself.
Actually not.His orchestration is much more flashy than Ives´. But absolutely brillant.He did to Ives´variations something similiar Schönberg did to the Brahms piano quartet…Creating something new .
Follow Classic Ross Amico on Facebook. He recently posted on Babbitt and Mennin, and covers many an obscure composer. His program, “The Lost Chord” (Sundays on KWAX at 4 pm Pacific time) explores a lot of less well known music.
Thank you, Bill. If I may: “The Lost Chord” may be streamed in syndication on KWAX on Saturdays, not Sundays, at 4 pm Pacific Time, after recently losing its home, after 20 years, at the sadly deteriorating WWFM.
I’m saddened to hear that a high proportion of 20th century American music is now not heard in the USA. Of course, we have suffered similarly in the UK.
The music of Doreen Carwithen, Ethel Smyth, Grace Williams and Ruth Gipps (as just a few British female composers) is now finally being performed (I’ve had the pleasure of conducting the Grace Williams Violin Concerto – with Madeleine Mitchell – and I believe that it absolutely rivals those by Walton, Moeran and Britten). However, the music of many of their male counterparts has largely disappeared from concert programmes. The symphonies of Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, E J Moeran, Edmund Rubbra and William Mathias, for example, get little attention, other than among a number of amateur groups that believe in their merits.
I, for one, have had the luck to conduct music by Ives, Piston, Creston, Daugherty, Harrison, Barlow, as well as the more expected Copland, Bernstein and Gershwin and believe that there is a huge amount of 20th Century repertoire from the UK and USA which deserves to be given room on concert programmes.
Let’s see some more of this repertoire sneaked into the programming of some of our professional ensembles.
I was intereste to find out that Carwithen was in fact Alwyn’s wife, and perhaps the more sophisticated composer of the two?
I appreciate your concern regarding American composers, and share your concern regarding English composers–especially Rubbra, Mathias, and Alwyn. I recently heard Alwyn’s Miss Julie, and was stunned by its extraordinary power.
May I add Vittorio Giannini and Robert Ward to the list? -and my friend, Gordon Sherwood, the panhandler composer (he earned his living by begging in the streets of Paris).
Giannini’s The Medead is a masterpiece. The fact that it has never been recorded proclaims the pathetic ignorance of repertoire that pervades the entire classical music profession.
Yes and perhaps even more so, what of our Second New England school composers and other late Romanticists – Henry Hadley, Arthur Foote, Farwell, Collins, DeKoven, Amy Beach, MacDowell, many more – much wonderful music that audiences would enjoy.
These composers are indeed unfairly neglected.
That being said, I did in fact have the great privilege and honor of conducting the world premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s 1930 modernist ballet, “Cain” in 2018 in Linz with the MDR-Sinfonieorchester.
Also, as a conducting student at Juilliard, James DePreist made certain to assign us works by David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti, and Jacob Druckman. Milton Babbitt was still haunting the hallways back then as a (barely) living legend. Personally, I was raised on not just on Barber, Copland and Bernstein but also Roy Harris, William Grant Still, Lou Harrison, Paul Creston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem.
So although these composers are regrettably underperformed, they are still present to some degree in the North American musical landscape. Hopefully their time will come in the near future.
Peter Mennin is certainly among the very greatest composers produced in America. Any skepticism should be swept away by an audition of his seventh symphony. So many composers of that generation left us great riches. They all deserve inclusion in today’s canon.
John McLaughlin Williams is absolutely right. And he also happens to be one of today’s finest and most knowledgeable conductors on the scene. Why don’t we hear more of him?
Thank you for the recoomendation. I shall go seek it out now.
It is not “America’s short musical memory”. It is that 95% of the professional conductors here are foreign-born and it is THEY who do the programming.To the hiring Boards and the paying public, American conductors are not “classy” because they lack the much-prized exotic name and accent.NONE of these foreigners grow up listening to our American symphonists..including Mennin, Foss, Copland, Ives, Roy Harris..etc.etc.It’s a national disgrace and the shamelessness of this musical murder shames the legacies of Bernstein,Schwarcz, MTT, Zinman and Slatkin……. Americans all,who are now absent from the scene or retired.They have not been replaced.
WHEN WILL THIS CHANGE?!
Every major orchestra should have a “repertoire consultant” whose role is to keep conductors informed about worthwhile but under-represented masterpieces. Conductors shouldn’t be expected to be repertoire experts–their lifestyles don’t allow it. Leaving repertoire selection in their hands results in moribund programming.
Bill, it will change when they hire us.
This is really a shame. When I was in college and exploring lots of “classical” music, I found Mennin’s Symphony No. 5 on an LP with, as I recall, William Schuman’s New England Triptych and Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s Poem for Flute and Orchestra. What a treasure that disc was!
It’s true. Lou Harrison is another. The most beautiful music, hardly known.
They are wonderful composers of American music who have been overshadowed by trendy nameless composers of repetitive gibberish. They are elevated to greatness by the musicality illiterate. Hanson is another forgotten composer from the same era.
These comments are dated. Over the past fifteen years, the outputs of all these composers have been made available for everyone thanks to the Internet Archive and YouTube. However it’s difficult for conductors to program music that is not new, woke, or Williams.
Most of the composers mentioned by Slipped Disc readers also composed chamber music. If for economic reasons it is not totally viable to perform these composers’ symphonic works, let us at least hear and perform their chamber music.
There’s such a treasure trove of great (and not so great, but enjoyable) American music to celebrate! Dorothy Rudd Moore, Alan Hovhaness, Leon Stein, Norman Della Joio, Yusef Lateef, Morton Feldman, Gunther Schuller, Pauline Oliveros–I could go on and on, but lists are useless if the music isn’t heard. I’ve performed this music for years and audiences have responded positively. I hope future generations of performers and audiences will discover the riches of American music.
I fear that it is an international phenomenon.
Belgian, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Italian, Swiss, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Brazilian, Polish, Danish, Swedish… let alone Asian or African composers of -mainly tonal/mildly atonal-expressionistic music written ca 1930-1960 – are forgotten…never or hardly ever performed. We get endless repeats of iron repertoire, the happy few lesser known ones (including Copland, Barber, Gershwin, Bernstein) are endlessly represented by the same works .
premieres : mostly a short overture like work, not lasting longer than 10 minutes.
But a substantial work by Matthijs Vermeulen? Charles Chaynes? Jacques Charpentier? Victor de Sabata? Tiberiu Olah? André Jolivet? Daniel Sternefeld? Philippe Gaubert? Rudolf Escher? Raymond Chevreuille? Hilding Rosenberg? C.M.Loeffler?
I do like Mennins music : 3rd symphony, 7th symphony and , indeed , the towering pianoconcerto and cherish the recordings I have.
Still, the future of these “forgotten composers” remains very bleak and makes me pessimistic.
The same applies to Finnish music, even with the Finnish Conductor Mafia occupying several visible positions around the globe. Even once notable postwar names like Einar Englund and Erik Bergman are rarely performed outside of anniversaries, and the Joonas Kokkonen centenary two years ago was a minor affair. Outside of operas, the music of Aulis Sallinen, while still living, is showing signs of fading into obscurity. Neoclassically aligned non-household names from the post-war years remain virtually forgotten.
I recall a comment by Ricardo Muti that he’s conducted the premiere of a new work almost every year and that none of them ever gained traction elsewhere after that.
New music may be hopeless, in general. The fraction of contemporary composers writing music audiences would want to hear a second time is vanishingly small.
But if you listen to Muti’s performance of Persichetti’s Symphony No. 5, you will understand why his choices haven’t “gained traction.” He shows no understanding of the essential energy propelling the work.
I doubt that matters, in practice.
Numerous standard repertoire works survived poor or indifferent first performances and got second ones.
“Featured by the Chicago Symphony” would be a huge boost to any performer’s marketability, whatever the merits of the actual performance.
And yet it doesn’t seem to enhance the prospects for any new music. The music is so bad that it might as well have not been played.
A reply to the list…you can find recordings of many of these composers on the Apple Classical app.
I conducted several performances of Mennin’s 5th Symphony here in 2018 the US and internationally. It’s a fantastic work that the audiences routinely had a positive reaction to. The orchestra enjoyed playing it very much too. Those reactions were actually similar to performances I conducted of Piston’s 2nd and Hovhaness’ 2nd “Mysterious Mountain”. All this to say that there are so many musical treasures from this time in America worth performing.
Ok – but would you “unknown” works by composers from Uruguay, Moldova, Belgium, Italy, Norway…etc. Do conductors study and /or search for “unknown – forgotten” scores ?
Are “famous” orchestras willing to perform “unknown score”?
Would the LA PhO, the Boston SO, or the Berlin PhO organise a concert series dedicated to discover music from the Low Countries, the forgotten contemporaries of Ravel and Debussy?
Thank you. Shout it to the rafters.
Let’s not overlook the fact that conductor Gerard Schwarz programmed and recorded dozens of works by this group of American composers with the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras.
I think this is largely due to bigger problems in classical music.
1. An absolute obsession with Beethoven means you miss a lot going around, there is “bad” Beethoven and it is worse than many unknown works;
2. American feelings of musical inferiority in music: an American composer is simply not as good as a European one;
3. An audience obsessed with the past and unwilling to listen to new music.
In my years of reading about music, I have read many an impassioned plea for “justice,” in the realm of musical taste. Unjustly neglected composers seem to outnumber celebrated composers about 1000 to one! But I’ve come to believe that this quest for musical justice is a fool’s errand. The musical world was never a just place, and it never will be.
I just want to mention another fine (forgive the pun) American composer who’s life was cut short far too early. The music of Irving Fine varies from expressive tonal pieces (Serious Song for strings) to the craggy solitary Symphony of 1962, the year he died. The recording of this symphony with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood with Irving Fine conducting is a revelation.
There was an amazing display of symphonic talent among American composers between c. 1935-1975–so many that they were often confused with one another among commentators. I have been an enthusiastic follower of American symphonic music for more than 60 years, and I know this repertoire well. I consider Peter Mennin to be the finest–perhaps along with Walter Piston–symphonist of his generation. While his centenary is going by with nary a mention, I can assert confidently that I am not alone in the regard with which I hold Mennin’s work. And I am not alone in considering his Symphony No. 7 to be the greatest symphony composed by an American.
Author: Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin (Scarecrow Press, 2011)
Mennin was not of the same generation as Piston, of course.
I will add that Mennin, who was President at Juilliard when I attended, was wonderfully supportive of incoming students urging us in his commencement speech not to be distracted by New York’s going’s on. Earlier in his career he wrote a cello concerto for Leonard Rose who premiered it at the school. According to Rose’s memoir he liked it very much. A recording exists. C’mon young cellists!
And, of course, Alan Shulman’s Cello Concerto, also written for Leonard Rose. Revived by Wesley Baldwin, who recorded it; along with cellists like Steven Honigberg who champions Shulman’s ‘Kol Nidre’ (video posted on Slipped Disc) help rescue this under-appreciated worthy composer’s work from obscurity.
What Michael Turner said is totally true, as there are a number of British symphonists that continue to be neglected which also include Havergal Brian, George Lloyd and Robert Simpson, and even though there are recordings of all of their symphonies, conductors and administrators are afraid to program them for a number of reasons that only they know.
Moreover, you have British symphonists who are currently among the living but are not as well known, which include Philip Sawyers, David Hackbridge Johnson, Rodney Newton, Steve Elcock, James B. Cook and Stephen Perks. While some of them have been recorded by Paul Mann and Kenneth Woods, others have to rely on posting MIDI mockups of their works on YouTube until the right conductor comes along to inquire about their music.
Yet here in America, the legacy of our country’s symphonists go back much further, as far as the 19th century with the emergence of composers such as George Frederick Bristow (whose bicentennial is forthcoming in 2025), William Henry Fry, Elsworth C. Phelps, John Knowles Paine and George Templeton Strong, Jr., and continuing into the 20th with the likes of Edgar Stillman Kelley, Henry Hadley, Frederick Converse and Philip Greeley Clapp, right down to the end of the last century and leading into the present ranging from the orchestral symphonies of Gloria Coates, Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Arnold Rosner to the band symphonies of David Maslanka and James Barnes.
And as we near the quarter-century mark of the 21st, we have more symphonists amongst us, names that are barely known, if at all, to concertgoers as well as musicians, among them William Banfield, Quinn Mason, Avrohom Leichtling, David Gaines, Brooke Pierson and Elden Louis Steele. That there are conductors who are aware of their music is not the problem; it is the politics in this world of music where conductors such as John McLaughlin Williams and others who do not receive the premier invitations to bring these composers to the public. Hopefully the time will come when their music will be heard more often and will be properly assessed and received by musicians and listeners alike, rather than gather dust on the cupboard.
Let’s not forget Leon Kirchner!
If you shift perspectives from orchestra to wind band, you’ll see that many of these mid-century American composers are still widely performed and with great regularity. Several of these works are in the core wind repertory. A sample:
Mennin: Canzona (which I conducted last month)
Schuman: New Englad Tryptych (especially Chester Overture)
Piston: Turnbridge Fair
Hanson: Chorale and Alleluia
Dello Joio: Scenes from The Love
Giannini: Symphony No. 3
Persichetti: Symphony No. 6
Unlike orchestras, bands are more likely to commission by consortium, which immediately gives new, mature works 15-30 performances, and many of those concerts are at peer conferences which proliferates recognition faster than it would in orchestra.
I used to tell the Curtis composition students all the time, you want to be widely known? Write the next great piece for wind band or sax quartet. They are starved for rep and remember you far better than an orchestra will.