Symphony No.1 (1927)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Among connoisseurs of twentieth-century American music, the name Roger Sessions inevitably calls forth the adjective “difficult,” an epithet the composer himself acknowledged in a 1950 article in the New York Times, titled “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Gets That Way.” It has to be left for another time to decide how difficult his later works—many of them written in the twelve-tone system—really are. In any event, the First Symphony, completed by the thirty-year-old composer in 1927 and first performed the same year by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, makes its musical points rather clearly and unambiguously. Cast in three movements, the work has two outer movements in sonata-allegro form, flanking a lyrical slow movement that follows a ternary design. It is, quite obviously, a neo-classical scheme, and Sessions freely admitted his debt to his teacher Ernest Bloch, as well as to Igor Stravinsky. Composer Andrew Imbrie, who studied with Sessions, finds in the work “a diatonic jazziness, an obsessive reiteration . . . of short motives, syncopated and aggressively accentuated.” Yet if these elements were “in the air” during the 1920s, Sessions spoke the lingua franca of neo-classicism with an impressive “sweep” all his own, and a sure command of form and orchestration. A particularly memorable moment—and an interesting personal touch—is the slow episode halfway through the first movement, scored for woodwinds only. Throughout this movement, winds and percussion dominate the texture; the strings only play pizzicato, with the strings plucked. The second movement, by contrast, is a lyrical song for strings (bowed of course). The division of the violas into two sections adds a further polyphonic layer to give more weight to the expression of elegiac feelings.

Sessions, who lived in Europe from 1925 to 1933, wrote his Symphony in Florence, where he stayed at the Villa I Tatti, the legendary home of the art historian Bernard Berenson. News of the death of the composer’s father came during the compositional work, and the second movement turned into a memorial tribute. The entire Symphony was eventually published with the dedication, “To my Father.” Perhaps the most personal passage in the entire Symphony is the central portion of the slow movement, where the woodwinds once again come to the fore, joined this time by a solo violin. The interlocking solo lines are accompanied by the even triplet notes of the piano. Lightness and exuberance return in the third and final movement. The playful main theme is given to the piccolo, whose bright sound remains the defining element of the music all the way to the brilliant ending.

Symphony No. 2 (1931)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In terms of external biographical facts, Roger Sessions and Randall Thompson have a great deal in common. Both were born in New York of old New England stock within just a few years of each other, and they died, only one year apart, in prestigious university towns where each had a long tenure as a professor of music (Sessions at Princeton, Thompson at Harvard). They cherished their American heritage yet loved Europe and stayed there for extended periods of time. Just as Sessions’s First Symphony was written in Florence, Thompson’s Second saw the light of day in Gstaad, Switzerland. The two men knew each other well; in fact, it was Sessions who first recommended his own teacher, Ernest Bloch, to his colleague.

In other respects, Sessions and Thompson could not be more different, and the two symphonies on the present program show how their paths began to diverge early in their careers. Thompson, who was to make his most important contributions in the field of choral music, was a born melodist and a lifelong Romantic at heart. His solution to the problem of American symphony was to produce a straightforward, light-hearted work that, in the words of the composer’s biographer Donald Francis Urrows, “accomplished two things: he wrote an integrated work of large dimensions along the ‘classical’ model . . . and he put into his music an element of nationalism.” The “two things” —classicism and nationalism—are fused seamlessly in Thompson’s Symphony. The syncopated opening motif of the first movement unfolds according to the most respectable Fortspinnung techniques: upward transposition, fragmentation, as well as gradual increases and decreases in the orchestral forces. A contrasting second theme appears in due course, contrapuntally combined with elements of the first theme. After a pensive central episode in a slower tempo, the rhythmic momentum returns in the modified and expanded recapitulation.

In the sweet melody of the second-movement Largo, the jazzy syncopations of the Allegro slow down sufficiently to have reminded an early reviewer of “an idealized ‘Old Man River.’” Strings and woodwinds take turns in the successive strains of this melody, whose final cadence includes a very conspicuous “blue note” played by the first horn: a minor seventh (B-flat) added to a C-major chord. Comments Urrows: “the ‘blue note’ . . . is not there for fun. It leads into the G-minor scherzo which follows . . .” This scherzo begins in an asymmetrical 7/4 time and adds even more metric complexities as it goes on. Both the melody and its underlying descending “walking bass” are repeated many times, yet the accents and the orchestral colors keep changing. The trio (middle section) is marked “Capriccioso,” and combines warm lyricism with some deliciously spicy harmonic clashes. In the finale, a hymn-like opening, which will return triumphantly at the end, frames a brilliant ragtime fantasy in mixed meters. The melodic material was inspired by popular music, yet Thompson developed his material with a great deal of sophistication, using the large symphony orchestra in a most effective way. Thompson’s Second Symphony was first performed by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on March 24, 1932.

America: An Epic Rhapsody (1926)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1916, the 35-year-old Ernest Bloch arrived in the United States full of hope and confidence that he would be able to achieve the recognition that had eluded him in his native Switzerland. He later recalled that the idea of a large-scale work celebrating America had occurred to him as soon as his boat first approached New York Harbor. Yet it took more than a decade for the idea to materialize. In 1927, when Bloch was the director of the San Francisco Conservatory, he entered a competition organized by Musical America magazine. The competition was for a symphonic work by an American composer on an American theme, and Bloch, who had become a naturalized citizen only three years earlier, walked away with the first prize. America had been preceded in Bloch’s output by the monumental choral symphony Israel (1912-16), a tribute to his religious heritage, and was to be followed by Helvetia (1928), five orchestral frescoes celebrating his native country. The three works together constitute a kind of “identity triptych” for this solitary wanderer among twentieth-century composers.

The three movements of America—which Bloch called an “epic rhapsody” —are something of a musical collage made up of a large number of quotations, most of them folksongs. To list them is almost to provide a formal outline of the work: the Native American melodies of the first movement (for which Bloch gave credit to the ethnomusicologist Frances Dinsmore) symbolizes prehistory; an “Old English March” signals the would-be first settlers boarding the Mayflower; the hymn “Old Hundredth” marks their arrival in the new land and their determination to build a new country. Yet the most significant moments are probably those “between the lines.” The work opens in a “primeval mist,” with distant fanfares and improvisatory woodwind solos constantly clashing against the harmonic background. This material will recur several times in the course of the work as a reminder of past tribulations.

“I hear America singing . . .” These famous words by Walt Whitman set the tone for the second movement, which proceeds from an old ballad from the South through “Old Folks at Home” to what Bloch labelled as “Virginia Reels” (but what most listeners will recognize as “Pop Goes the Weasel”). The central portion of the movement is a ferocious battle scene from the Civil War, with four different songs from the era heard simultaneously in the orchestra. The Southern ballad from the opening, and the mysterious motto from the first movement, return, as if lamenting the soldiers fallen in the war. The final movement depicts a grim present and then conjures up the image of a beautiful future. The present is the noisy hustle and bustle of a modern city, complete with car horns and jazzy syncopations (clearly, Bloch had a rather low opinion of jazz). All this hyperactivity leads to catastrophe: an earth-shattering climax marked in the score as “The Inevitable Collapse,” followed by a temporary return to the “primeval mist” from which the music rises to new heights with the concluding anthem. Bloch intended to have the audience sing along with the chorus in this fervent patriotic song.

Inventing America

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Leopold Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra in 1962 as a naturalized European-born citizen, he was still fighting an old battle. That battle was over the question of how to make symphonic music genuinely American. Despite our nostalgia (fueled by distorted accounts of the past) for a time when classical music played to full houses and was embraced as a central part of cultural life, American orchestral life before 1962 was not very American. The rosters of orchestral musicians revealed large numbers of Europeans, both recruits and émigrés fleeing from persecution. The major conductors, with the exception of Leonard Bernstein, were all European. And the standard repertoire was overwhelmingly European. Stokowski, who during his tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra (and with his hand-shaking cameo with Mickey Mouse) stayed in the vanguard for democratizing classical music, made his final contribution to its Americanization by creating the American Symphony Orchestra. Two principles were of paramount importance to him. First, the concerts had to be accessible in price to a wide public in a manner reflective of the egalitarian streak in American democracy (a principle that still guides this Orchestra’s mission). Second, the personnel of the Orchestra were to be all native-born American musicians.

Forty years later, the American Symphony doesn’t need to go out of its way to maintain the second principle. Orchestras in America are now many in number and today the personnel is overwhelmingly American. We still import conductors from abroad but we see many Americans in important posts in the United States and even Americans with significant posts abroad. Indeed the whole issue of this sort of patriotism has changed in character. Internationalism and globalization have asserted themselves for better or worse. Orchestras need not be instruments of national self-representation. This is particularly true for a country such as the United States, which has prided itself on being an inclusive nation of immigrants. In this sense Stokowski’s initial premise was too narrow. If there is a magic to America, it rests on the capacity to make the many émigrés who played in the NBC Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic fifty years ago, feel entirely American. This is a nation, after all, where citizenship is not acquired exclusively by birth or genealogy. This fact ought to give American nationalism a less virulent xenophobic character. What makes many of us proud to be Americans is the absence of a nativism, and the embrace of freedom and the capacity to dissent.

Another aspect that concerned Stokowski, however, remains inadequately addressed: the repertoire. The situation he confronted has, if anything, gotten worse rather than better. The generation of Stokowski, which included Koussevitzky, Klemperer, and in part Bernstein, was committed to the ongoing tradition of new music. Each of the great conductors championed one or two living composers. Stokowski was particularly interested in furthering a tradition of American composition. It is in that spirit that we present this afternoon’s program.

Today’s concert is designed to address two issues: first, the self-conscious effort in the twentieth century to generate a distinctly original American symphonic tradition, and second, the generational question in music history, crystallized in this case by the relationship of teacher and student. The music on this afternoon’s program dates from a crucial era in American history: that between World War I and the onset of the New Deal. What is special about this period is that it represents America’s bold and unabashed entrance into world politics as a dominant force. World War I brought the nineteenth century to an end. Despite the United States’s imperialist adventure in the Spanish American War and its brokering of the peace in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, its debut as a super power really occurred in 1917, when it participated conclusively in what at that time was the largest war in history. The years that followed the end of World War I became a period of experimentation and bravado, glittering innovation and intoxicating prosperity. The works by Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions were composed in this era of expansion, optimism and greed. The 1920s were also a period that marked the end of open borders for the United States and a decline in rates of immigration. America began consolidating itself as a new national entity. Randall Thompson’s work was composed after the market crash of 1929 during the Hoover years, but before the onset of the awareness of the gravity and extent of the Great Depression, and prior to the progressive agenda of the New Deal.

With the New Deal came a shift in the ambitions of American composers. Roy Harris and Aaron Copland, for example, were inspired by the rediscovery of an American folk tradition and embraced a populist style. They stepped away from the optimistic and in some cases arrogant claims of modernism as it put forward a progressive musical vocabulary, adequate to the burgeoning scientific and technological transformation of the period. This more populist turn was anticipated already by the senior member of today’s trio of composers, Ernest Bloch. Bloch was not a native of America but an immigrant. Born a Jew in Switzerland, he came well equipped to appreciate the United States. Switzerland, despite its xenophobia, is one of the West’s oldest and most successful democracies, with a profound history of civic egalitarianism (though in the 1920s only for men). America was the best hope for the European Jew who wanted to acquire political rights. For Bloch as for many immigrants, America was a dream come true, a land of promise not only in the material sense but in ethical and political senses as well. The Epic Rhapsody is unwittingly as close as any piece can come to the work imagined by the protagonist of Israel Zangwill’s famous play from the turn of the century, The Melting Pot. In that play, the protagonist, David Quixano, is a Jewish composer who has fled persecution and dreams of writing an epic and visionary orchestral and choral work that evokes, in the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the promise of the New World in a distinctly American way. Bloch materialized Zangwill’s image and produced a work that, when it premiered, was an outstanding success. It was heralded, performed, and held up as the first truly American act of symphonic self-expression. But then after its initial impact, it disappeared quickly from the repertoire, much to the composer’s dismay. The lasting achievement of an American sound would fall to the son of immigrants, Aaron Copland, and Ernest Bloch would be remembered primarily for his powerful expressions of Ashkenazi Jewish faith in works such as Schelomo (1916) and Baal Shem (1923).

But Bloch’s enthusiastic romance with America was not without its residue. The brief fame of the work left a lasting impression on Harris, Copland, and subsequent composers who sought to realize the dream of a truly American symphony. (With a smile we can remember that in the 1920s no one paid any attention to Charles Ives. It would be Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra that would give the world premiere in the 1960s of the most American of all symphonies, Ives’s Fourth.) Bloch’s real legacy in America, however, was as a teacher more than as a composer. Two unmistakably American talents, Roger Sessions and Randall Thompson, both of multi-generational Anglo-Saxon stock and with no apparent insecurities about their identities, seemed to understand that the traditions of classical music were traditionally European. Just as young talents in the 1890s went either abroad to study or sought out Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York, Thompson and Sessions chose to study with a true European master, Ernest Bloch. Twenty years later it would be Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg who would achieve public recognition as teachers of American composers.

This brings us to the second theme of this concert, generational change and the relationship between teacher and pupil. Today’s program is a study in contrasts. Randall Thompson is the less remembered figure in music history. He was a longtime, well-respected teacher at Harvard. But with the exception of a few choral works, the Alleluia and the Testament to Freedom (performed by the ASO in 2000), Thompson’s music has almost entirely fallen out of the active repertory. But Thompson sustained the somewhat conservative aesthetics and vocabulary of his teacher Bloch. In this sense Thompson’s music can be set alongside symphonic works of Harris and Copland from the 1930s and 1940s. Thompson’s allusion to jazz elements was not only a characteristic habit of composers in the 1920s, including George Antheil, but it was a symbol of both the American and the modern. It might be argued that Bloch did set a direction for American music distinct from European modernism defined by Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger and the more radical post-tonal variety pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. However Thompson also, like Bloch, may have his greatest importance as a teacher rather than as a composer.

The same can be said of Roger Sessions. However, Sessions’s music and reputation have survived in a much more active manner. Sessions steadfastly held to the ideal of developing a modernist American musical vocabulary framed in a European tradition. Unlike John Cage or Henry Cowell, he was not, strictly speaking, an experimentalist. His sense of form and structure is classical and conservative, but his realization in terms of sound is visionary and avant-garde. His chamber and orchestra works are still held in high esteem and appear with some frequency. (The American Symphony recently recorded his Eighth Symphony.) Sessions’s music is difficult, but in the spirit of Bloch it is deeply emotional and expressive. Sessions created an expressionist modernism, an American equivalent of the music of Alban Berg. His music is not academic or dry but intense and powerful. Like Thompson he had a long, distinguished career as a teacher. He was also among the most articulate and literate of American composers. His writings on music are among the finest produced in twentieth-century America.

There is an irony in the fact that Bloch’s attempt to transform a European tradition into an American one is eclectic and drifts within America toward a populism that would be fully realized by Copland in Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man. Yet the idea of a sing-along at the end of the Symphony in a moment of patriotic enthusiasm remains startling and novel. For all the talk of finding ways to reach a broader public, no composer of any stature has tried to do something comparable to what Bloch asks for at the end of this monumental work. Bridging the symphonic experience and the habits of popular singing even to the extent of karaoke has never been easy, but here Bloch also pierces the barrier between active participation and passive listening, and between professional and amateur.

Bloch’s two most successful and prominent American pupils developed their own distinct characters as composers, but they learned two vital lessons from their teacher. First, music is an art of emotional expression directed at a broad public. It is an alluring mix of the intimate and the civic. Although Thompson and Sessions took different paths in terms of the musical methods they adopted, they understood from Bloch that the writing of music was not a matter of “art for art’s sake” or simple virtuosity. Second, they recognized along with their teacher the enormous opportunity that America offered. As a mature industrial world power placed in a massive and diverse landscape both urban and rural, America offered a new and challenging context in which a tradition of musical composition could emerge that was clearly a product of novel geographic and historical circumstances. Both Thompson’s and Sessions’s symphonies mirror optimism and opportunity of the sort that would also attract other European artists such as Edgar Varése and Piet Mondrian. What is remarkable is that the era from which the works of Sessions and Thompson date was a moment when the definition of the American, in stark contrast to Bloch’s Rhapsody, bypassed the obvious source of national self-identification: folk tradition. To the immigrant like Bloch or Dvořák, the concept of nationalism could easily be expressed by so-called nativist elements. But for confident American-born white Anglo-Saxon men, the challenge of the 1920s was to find the distinctly American in the modern.