THE PULITZER PROJECT.
SCHUMAN: A Free Song. COPLAND: Appalachian Spring.
SOWERBY: The Canticle of the Sun.
Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus/Carlos Kalmar.
Çedille Records CDR 90000 125 TT: 74:00.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
A long time coming. I never used to understood why someone didn't undertake
the following projects: scores written for Martha Graham and scores
that won the Pulitzer. However, Koch has gone a long way toward covering the
first, and now it seems that Çedille has embarked on the second.
Actually, there's probably little point in recording them all. They've
already missed the 1944 Hanson Symphony #4, but there's competition
from major labels. Copland's Appalachian Spring also falls into that category,
big-time, especially in Copland's suite for full orchestra. I wonder what
goes through recording execs' minds. Do they really think the Appalachian
Spring Suite will sell this CD, especially when you can choose from at
least 40 recordings out there? If they had gone with the original ballet
for 13 instruments (the piece that actually won the Pulitzer), I would
find the program far more attractive. As it stands, you currently have
your pick of the classic Bernstein and the NY Phil at a bargain price,
Thomas with the San Francisco, Copland himself with several orchestras,
and Slatkin and St. Louis, among many, many others. I strongly suspect
this disc will attract buyers solely on the strength of Schuman and Sowerby.
That said, the Copland is indeed finely played, although not magical. Ensembles
are clean and clear, but the reading as a whole never really ignites. The
world doesn't need another good performance of the Appalachian Spring Suite,
In a country that neither knows its concert music nor has any interest
in seeking it out, the Pulitzer Prize is the most public and the most important
of American composition prizes, and thus at least reminds us -- if only
for an instant -- that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Aretha
Franklin, and the Beach Boys, as fine as they are, don't tell the entire
story of American music. The prize was first created in 1943 and awarded
to William Schuman's Free Song that same year.
Among the major American composers, William Schuman remains one of the
least understood. During his lifetime, most critics, particularly the ones
in New York, hadn't a clue. They pigeonholed him early as a neoclassicist
-- which, to my ear, he never was -- and stubbornly repeating the same
tired line, kept him there, until he died, never acknowledging that his
music had evolved. It's due in large part to foreign critics and to the
rise of the Internet as a space for music criticism that these judgments
have begun to change. Schuman's idiom owes something to Roy Harris, with
whom he studied. However, it moves more quickly and incisively than Harris.
It pulses with nervous energy. Harris wanted to write music of the West
(he came from Oklahoma). Schuman quite definitely sings of the Big City,
especially New York. To some extent, Harris finds himself snagged on remnants
from the Schola Cantorum and the School of Franck. Schuman is wholly Modern,
closer to something like Aaron Copland's Piano Variations, although almost
never imitative. Like Copland, he has his own distinct voice. A Free
Song, written when the composer was in his early 30s, sets texts by Walt Whitman.
Especially in his early career, Schuman had trouble finding texts and wound
up using Whitman a lot. He found a new choral idiom -- repetitive blocks
of strong, clear gestures (a bit like watching pistons), sophisticated
counterpoint on very simple ideas, and an attention to small interval changes,
a little like Ligeti's music many years later. A Free Song falls into two
sections: a somber first, which talks of the trials of war forging a stronger
nation (this was 1943, after all), and a lively second which affirms American
democratic ideals. At the beginning of the second part comes an electrifying
fugue, beginning in the lower reaches of the orchestra and gradually, with
a resultant rise in excitement, making its way above the staffs. Schuman
writes the counterpoint to get your feet going, as well as frankly to astound
you. You just don't expect something so complex and so assured from somebody
I'm from the American Midwest, where Leo Sowerby's name once rode high.
If you had any musical pretences at all in my neighborhood, you probably
knew his name and some of his music, essentially Romantic and, again, Schola
Cantorum French. The Forties saw the peak in his career. The Young Turks
after the War simply forgot about him. Although he continued to receive
commissions, hardly anybody talked about him, and the major musical journals
acted as if he hadn't written at all. Much awaits rediscovery. The
Canticle of the Sun received the Pulitzer, but considering it in the light of Schuman,
Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, and even Harris, let alone the avant garde,
it seems quaint. It appeared to general acclaim. Virgil Thomson dumped
on it as second-hand Liszt and Wagner without really giving reasons and
went on to write a masterful setting of St. Francis's prayer himself --
straightforward, simple, vigorous -- everything Sowerby's setting isn't.
My favorite setting of this text, however, remains that of Klaus George
Roy, a composer not many people know, unfortunately. For chorus and solo
viola, it puts the original text in a Hindemithian environment, incredibly
beautiful. At one point, it appeared on a CRI LP in a performance led by
Robert Shaw -- in my opinion, a classic recording of four composers who
deserve wider recognition.
Sowerby's piece shows great skill, particularly in its architecture and
mastery of motific argument, but to me it has little to do with St. Francis's
text. Sowerby uses Matthew Arnold's translation, which also doesn't seem
very close to the original. It's faux King James Biblical,
with occasional syntactic inversions on the order of Arnold's own notorious "Who prop,
thou ask'st, in these bad days my mind?" I get very little of the
saint's directness, simplicity, or religious intensity in either Arnold
or Sowerby. Moreover, the instrumentation is what Virgil Thomson once called "organist
orchestration." The textures tend to thickness, and the colors
are so thoroughly blended that they don't appreciably change, even
change. Nevertheless, I don't have the last word on the piece. Samuel
Barber admired it.
Kalmar and the Grant Park forces shine in the Schuman. The rhythms crackle,
Kalmar conducts the music with great sweep, and the chorus does a fine
job. They give the Sowerby a fair chance. I look forward to a volume 2.
S.G.S. (September 2011)