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.

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, unfortunately.

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 so young.

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 when they 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)