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CD Review

Peter Mennin

  • Concertato (Moby Dick)
  • Symphony #3
  • Symphony #7 "Variation-Symphony"
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Delos DE3164
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Hang on to your hats.

At one time, Peter Mennin enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of America's finest symphonists. In the second volume of Penguin's The Symphony (1967), Peter Jona Korn calls him flat-out the finest younger American symphonist and goes on to list the also-rans, David Diamond and Alan Hovhaness among them. He headed Juilliard, colleges and universities (including mine) stood in line to hand him yet another honorary doctorate, and prestigious organizations and performers commissioned him. His music has sunk almost without a trace. Sic transit.

To some extent, Mennin fell victim to the new Young Turks. On the other hand, his music had thorns. I can't think of a Peter Mennin bona-fide hit, although the Symphony #3 probably qualified as his most frequently-performed work. He got caught between not only the mossbacks daunted by, say, Copland and but also the Bright Young Things eager for shock. Surely in the years since his death in 1983 until now, we've heard music far more grotesque/advanced. The idiom should no longer shock a classical listener who takes pleasure in the neoclassic music of the 1930s and 1940s. To me, the idiom liberated composers to find the way to their own voice. Although one marks, in Schoenberg's phrase, "little Bachski's," a partial list of composers at least touched by this movement include Bartók, Holst, Piston, Copland, Thomson, Thompson, Lees, Fine, Diamond, Bloch, Honegger, Poulenc, Milhaud, Distler, Falla, Foss, Bernstein, Rodrigo, Harris, Respighi, Malipiero, and Vaughan Williams. I don't believe anyone – even a detractor – can say that they sound alike.

Mennin, to me constitutes a strange case. The weak piece in his catalogue is very rare. He always gives the impression of control over his materials. The compositions are beautifully planned and worked through. Each piece sounds strong and vigorous – the product of an individual mind and voice. They are lean, stripped of rhetorical fat and inflation. Whatever point he has to make, Mennin stays on it. And yet many works tend to blur into others. However, I should add that I haven't heard all the symphonies, string quartets, and concerti. It may well turn out that only one period of Mennin – the Forties and Fifties – keeps getting recorded. It's a shame that Delos ran out of company before Schwarz could complete his Great American Symphonists project. Diamond, Piston, and Creston also fell victim. Still, let's be grateful for what we have.

The Concertato (Moby Dick) stands as a rare example of a Mennin work where the composer admitted an extramusical inspiration, in this case the Melville novel. As a siren call, Melville's book has wrecked many artists trying to capture it and give it back. Bernard Herrmann tried an opera, later changed to a cantata on the subject. Mennin's work succeeds, however, largely because he avoids programmatic depiction. Mennin isn't a theater or illustrative composer. He seems fascinated by the logic of symphonic argument. His works unfold – like certain movements by Harris – by "continual variation" and by resorting to a contrapuntal dramatic conflict among themes. The method can have considerable hold on a listener – leading one firmly through the twists of idea. Mennin's music reminds me of those Disney nature films, where you watch the plant sprout and flower in a short space. Here, the movement's themes germinate from the melodic interval of a second. Don't look for "sea music" or Ahab's obsessive brooding. The "Moby Dick" reference always struck me as a half-apology. After a slow passage that introduces the musical materia, the Concertato comes across as a vigorous, rhythmically insistent work. Any links to Melville remain with the composer.

The Symphony #3 continues in the "fast music" vein of the Concertato. In fact, the juxtaposition of the two works, prompted my remark about individual Mennin works tending to blur into one another, even though individually strong. The composer works with two ideas: a minor third followed by a semitone (C-Eb-D), and an upward leap of a fourth to the fifth degree of the scale (C-F-G). The first, especially the minor third, plays the greater role throughout the symphony, generating most of the subsidiary themes. Again, the methods are the same – a highly contrapuntal unfolding of the argument. Remarkably, the form of the opening movement remains clear. The slow movement counts as one of the glories of American music. In the liner notes, Jim Svejda comments that "Unlike many American composers of Italian descent – from Walter Piston… and Paul Creston… to Nicolas Flagello and John Corigliano – an Italianate lyricism was not a defining factor in Mennin's art." Perhaps true of an "Italianate" lyricism (although where Svejda finds this in Piston, I have no idea), but not of song – Mennin succeeds in writing one extremely moving and his own. The idiom owes nothing to the slow movements of Copland or Harris (the two composers most ripped-off by other Americans). If it reminds me of anyone, it's Vaughan Williams, and that's a matter of mood rather than anything technical. The third movement comprises a virtuoso summing-up. The main theme superimposes the primary musical cell on top of itself to yield (C-Eb-F-Ab-G), revealing the two ideas of the first movement as musical kin. Beyond that, the movement explodes with the nervous energy of Mennin's counterpoint – intense as a shot of doubly-concentrated espresso.

Almost twenty years separate Mennin's seventh from his third. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra commissioned the work in 1963. I remember very well the Cleveland première, Szell conducting. In those heady days of American culture, stations actually broadcast concerts locally on a regular basis as a civic service, and I heard the work with a high-school buddy over my brand-new FM radio in fabulous monaural sound. It struck me then as somewhere on the furthest shore of Modernism (I hadn't heard Schoenberg or Webern then, so I was still a musical "flat-earther"). Even today, after the intricacies of Boulez and Carter and decades of familiarity with the LP of the Chicago led by Martinon, the symphony doesn't rate as easy listening. Mennin subtitled the work "Variation-Symphony," which immediately sets up certain expectations in the listener's mind. Forget them. Mennin doesn't write variations or even vary the basic cell so much as dips into it to riff on its pieces-parts. The argument is swift and concentrated, the basic motive is long and chromatically complex (it took me three tries to notate it), and Mennin plays nasty games with it, including displacing octaves and turning shapes upside-down and backwards. Mennin refused to provide an analysis, insisting that the listener simply follow the rhetorical structure. If you want to know how Mennin put the symphony together, you really do need a score, sharp pencil, and lots of paper. Just listen: Mennin gave good advice, since even here, the listener has a tough – though ultimately rewarding – row to hoe. The work breaks down into five large sections, played without a break: a slow, extended intro; an allegro; a songlike, slow movement; a passacaglia-like section; a vivace end. Compared to this, the third symphony's an exuberant, straightahead jog around the park. Whether the source of the commission influenced Mennin or he had moved to this point on his own, I can't say. Whatever, Mennin's music had darkened and, in my opinion, deepened. He had left a successful language behind by this kind of hard exploration, essentially a change from a modal idiom to a chromatic one. For me, chromaticism carries some dangers of its own, notably a set of melodic cliches, ultimately derivable from certain of Wagner's habits of melody and persisting down to the least talented of post-Webernian dodecaphonists. Mennin avoids these obvious pitfalls and even manages to retain affinities with his younger self, particularly in matters of rhythmic contrapuntal contrast and the magnificent, speedball finale.

Schwarz and the Seattle champion the composer with superb, persuasive performances. This music demands the most from an ensemble's ability to synchronize attack and to negotiate constantly shifting balances. They do all this and more – in the third symphony especially – they find the emotional center of the music. Mennin's works may proceed from an impulse to formal abstraction, but they've plenty of passion and energy. Schwarz's slow movement in particular sings with grave nobility. The Symphony #7's a tough work, and if I prefer Martinon, it may be due to my imprinting and greater familiarity with it. That performance, by the way, has surfaced (along with the Symphony #3 and the Piano Concerto played by John Ogdon) on CRI 741. Still, Schwarz and his orchestra play with a full, gorgeous tone besides. If you can get only one, I'd recommend the CRI recording, simply because of the Piano Concerto. If you want mostly superior playing, go with Schwarz.

Symphonies 5 and 6, coupled with the Concertato, have been released on Albany Records TROY260 with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. The choral Symphony #4 "Cycles" appears on Phoenix PH107 along with Ginastera's cantata Milena. New World Records 371 comprises Symphonies 8, 9 and the early Folk Overture.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz

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