17 November 2008

Still-Life with Groundhog

Doth not the appetite alter? — Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing

The creation and the appreciation of Art are characterized by a variety of apparent contradictions. And in many cases, it is inartistic to press to any easy resolution of the contradictions. In some cases, the truth is to be found, not in resolving the contradiction, but in the very tension of the contradiction. A life without tension would be dull; a life of unrelieved tension . . . not dull, at least.

My ears: They’re the only ears I can judge with. That physiological point-of-reference has a seeming immutability to it; yet I am learning about music all the time, and my ears change. They change in some ways, in other ways there is apparent constancy. In general, my musical tastes expand, grow more inclusive over time. I cannot quite expel my musical impatience, but as I find myself today not merely appreciating, but liking a great deal, music which a decade before I dismissed out-of-hand as “boring” — I perforce admit that my musical impatience today, is an unreliable indicator of artistic merit.

Tchaikovsky’s music was some of the first from the Classical literature which I heard, and loved immediately upon hearing; the Suite from The Nutcracker and the Solemn Overture 1812 (which as a teenager I knew simply as the 1812 Overture). It fell upon my ear magically then, and it still sounds fresh to my ears three decades later; if that be not musical immortality, what is?

The musical environment at my undergrad college reinforced my fondness for Tchaikovsky; we played the Romeo & Juliet Overture-Fantasy in the Wooster Symphony, and I delighted to get to know the Fourth, FifthSixth Symphonies.

Later, when I was doing my doctoral work, there was a different attitude in the air of the music department. To be sure, there was a lot of disdain afloat generally (a sign which I ought to have read better at the time, probably) and Tchaikovsky was the butt of a few particularly scornful remarks. At that time, I had most likely ‘tired’ of The Nutcracker, for instance (for years, many of my odd jobs around the school year had been in one shopping mall or other, and various numbers from the Suite are an inevitable part of the sonic wallpaper of the consumer’s Christmastide); yet I could not deny Tchaikovsky outright. That would have felt musically disloyal.

(After a few years of happily avoiding shopping malls, the freshness of The Nutcracker was restored to me, and I wondered I could ever tire of it.)

High school had been a very exciting time for me musically; each year some of my close bandmates and I would audition for first the regional and then the All-State band, in which we would play some music which was more challenging than our own high school band could manage. (A thirst for musical challenge was instilled early.) One of the pieces from the regional band experience which was great fun to play was a short work called Canzona by an American composer named Peter Mennin; an exhilirating piece which made a strong impression, so that the composer’s name stuck in memory.

It was many years before I heard any other piece by Mennin, years in which I undertook all my higher education in music. The memory of playing the Canzona was still so vivid, that as I listened to Mennin’s Fifth Symphony, the immediate reaction was surprise at the close similarity in musical material between the band piece and the outer movements of the symphony. And disappointment, at what initially seemed to me like artistic laziness on the part of a composer who made an unusually strong first impression.

I wished I had heard the Fifth Symphony first (which is, after all, a far more substantial piece, with much more to it than just the Canzona-like material); and it appears that he assembled the Canzona the year after composition of the Fifth Symphony. At the time, though, I was expecting to hear “more music” by a composer whose name I had never forgotten; to a degree, instead I heard the same music ‘re-packaged’; and it felt like artistic scandal.

Since then, I have listened to the Fifth Symphony a few times more; and also sought out half a dozen other pieces. Mennin had enormous talent; listening to more of his music does reveal more of the variety which one necessarily expects of a fine artist, and better familiarity with the Fifth Symphony brings artistic rewards. For good or ill, I do not find that the pendulum has swung completely back; still unresolved are artistic questions posed by the close musical kinship between the Fifth Symphony and the band piece, and indeed with similar (if slightly muted) echoes in the Sixth Symphony of 1953.

These are questions which are close to the work of any artist himself: Here is the fresh page, how do I make use of it? How new does a new piece need to be?

Half a century has passed already since Mennin composed these three works (the Fifth Symphony, Canzona and the Sixth Symphony); and whatever benefit I may derive as an artist from the questions his work may pose to me, we cannot live in his environment, cannot re-create the situation in which Mennin made his compositional choices. And the quality of his work blunts any venture to second-guess the composer.

The Naxos catalogue has a line of American Classics, which vigorously revives a great body of music written by US composers, much of which music has lain in neglect for decades. Some of the music thus re-published (or, in many cases, published for what is in effect the first time) is masterly; and even if not all of the music ascends to quite the same level of excellence, it is wonderful that at last there is an audience for it, and Naxos is to be applauded for making the music available to an audience.

The rumor I hear, though, is that there is no intention on Naxos’s part to include Mennin in the American Classics series. This seems an unfairly compounded neglect for Mennin to suffer under. Mennin’s music has by turns a robust energy and a gracious lyricism, his orchestration is colorful and possessed of an expert clarity, and his voice has overtones which are a unique product of his place and time.

One’s ears can change to music over time, given the opportunity to hear the music again.

More Mennin, please.


SHIRL said...

I agree. (shrugs)

Karl Henning said...

Thank you for your support.


Houston Dunleavy said...

I think it's imperative that one's ears change - even if it's just to change back. First and foremost, we are human beings, even before we are artists, and a fundamental component of being a human, so to speak, is to adapt to change.

Change helps us to grow, learn and become better at surviving - better at being human.

Bravo to you Karl for posting this. We have only one set of ears and cannot judge from another's hearing perspective (I remember the late John Clough saying exactly the same thing). But those of us with the ears that can stretch are those who use them best.

Walter Simmons said...

Your posting on the music of Peter Mennin was just brought to my attention. I have known Mennin's music for almost 50 years. I was in my early teens when I heard the first notes of his Sixth Symphony, and immediately knew it was for me. Over the years I have become acquainted with all his music, and still find it to be enormously rewarding. I think Mennin is one of the greatest American composers, and that his Seventh Symphony is possibly the greatest American symphony. However, Henning's observation about the similarities between the Fifth Symphony and the Canzona are irrefutable. In fact, there is a tremendous similarity--or, perhaps, more accurately, a common essence, and the way it is elaborated, to be foung in all of Mennin's music. Not at all unlike Anton Bruckner, Mennin was a composer who had a particular metaphysical vision, and pursued this vision and its musical realization in work after work, ever striving to achieve a more profound articulation of it. This vision and its musical realization were articulated in relatively simple form in his earliest works (say, from around 1945), and were expressed in progressively more intense and complex ways throughout his career. You don't turn to Mennin if you're looking for a lot of variety or a broad expressive range; you turn to Mennin when you want to tune in to his particular view of life-as-expressed-through-music.
Is this a legitimate way to construe one's identity as a composer? That is up to the individual listener to decide for him- or herself. But I don't believe that there is any requirement or prerequisite for a varied palette. What matters, to my way of thinking, is music that compels attention through its consistency and clarity of vision, and by the profound insights it offers relative to the human condition. These are some of the points I pursue in my forthcoming book on the music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin.

Karl Henning said...

Thanks, Walter. Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin are all composers I first "met" in region or all-state bands. I'd say, quite a formative time for me, only really, all my time since has been formative, I am inclined to think.