The New Yorker: The Return of Mid-Century American Symphonies

The New Yorker
Russell Platt

Gerard Schwarz, pictured here in 1982, conducts works by David Diamond, William Schuman, and Jacob Druckman, which recall an America that no longer exists. (Photograph by Jack Mitchell / Getty)

Gerard Schwarz, pictured here in 1982, conducts works by David Diamond, William Schuman, and Jacob Druckman, which recall an America that no longer exists. (Photograph by Jack Mitchell / Getty)

The conductor Gerard Schwarz’s upcoming concert with the Juilliard Orchestra, at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday, highlights an essential but overlooked period of American composition: the great mid-twentieth-century symphonies.

There was a time—the late nineteen-eighties and nineties—when it seemed as if the American symphonic repertory was finally taking a definite shape. Neo-Romanticism was the rage among young composers, who were in search of a usable past, and among conductors, too, who were on the lookout for music of recent vintage that their audiences might embrace, or at least tolerate. I remember attending, around 1990, a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra at which the conductor Leonard Slatkin, a champion of American composers, tested his theory of the ideal program: it would contain a contemporary work, a twentieth-century classic, and a good old classical warhorse. The centerpiece of the concert was Symphony No. 3 by William Schuman (1910–1992), and it anchored the evening emotionally. (It was convincingly preceded by the music of Joan Tower, who is now an admired elder stateswoman, and followed by the music of Brahms.) Written just before America’s entry into the Second World War, the Schuman piece was a perfect balance of mid-century American qualities: lyrical but muscular, sensitive but optimistic, spikily chromatic but clearly tonal, learned in its craft but accessible in impact. The audience, especially revved up by the work’s wallop of a finale, went nuts. Surely, we thought, the finest works of Schuman—and of such contemporaries as Walter Piston, David Diamond, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein—were here to stay.

Well, three decades later, while Barber and Bernstein have become fixtures of the American repertory, both here and abroad, Schuman, Diamond, and Piston have not been so lucky. Why? You could say that most orchestral administrators would like two warhorses per program, thank you, along with a manageable and brief contemporary work that won’t get in the way. You could also say that the sheer melodic genius of Barber and Bernstein gave audiences a set of familiar musical objects that would greet them warmly at every recurrence. (Barber’s Adagio for Strings is the ultimate example.) But you could say, too, that the mid-century America in which these composers wrote their finest works—the optimistic New Deal consensus that gave us victory over the Depression and the Axis, which carried us into the first wave of the civil-rights era, with its benchmark achievements—no longer exists. The nineteen-nineties, the decade of Clintonian peace and prosperity, which welcomed these pieces back, was a sunset, not a dawn.

One person who never got the message is the distinguished conductor Gerard Schwarz, now a free agent after long stints as the music director of the Seattle Symphony and the Mostly Mozart Festival, who has spent a lifetime advocating for the American symphonic school. He comes to Alice Tully Hall on Thursday night to conduct the Juilliard Symphony in the Fourth Symphony of Diamond, the Sixth Symphony of Schuman, and the Viola Concerto of Jacob Druckman, a younger contemporary of theirs who was Schuman’s successor as the most brilliant orchestral thinker of American composition, as well as its most powerful potentate.

I love this repertory, and Schwarz’s program led me to dive back into some favorite recordings. Let’s start with the Diamond Fourth (1945), as does Schwarz. Diamond was a complicated man but a straightforward composer, and his best work combines a rock-solid technique based in the music of Bach and Stravinsky with a direct and openhearted American mood. The Fourth’s divertimento-like first movement is affable and airy but driven and intense:

Schuman’s Sixth Symphony, a one-movement work of tragic breadth, was written in 1948, for the Dallas Symphony, just after the war that the Third Symphony’s appearance had heralded. But in the midst of the war he composed what, to me, is his finest symphony, and perhaps the most perfect one of the American canon, the Fifth (Symphony for Strings). Its slow second movement, which combines genuine elegy with angered vigor, is of shattering lyrical power; the vanishing of this piece from the stages of America’s major orchestras is truly bizarre. The classic recording is Leonard Bernstein’s, with the New York Philharmonic:

The entirely postwar career of Druckman (1928–96) marks the era when Americana composers had to face up to the challenge of international modernism, and the more cerebral worlds of Webern, Boulez, and late Stravinsky. Druckman, who trained at Juilliard and in Paris, and who spent the final decades of his prestigious academic career at the Yale School of Music, became a master of the new aesthetic but was never completely absorbed by it. Druckman’s great gift was his ability to infuse his modernist impulses with the gamut of sensuality, from the most delicate refinement to the utmost crudeness, in startlingly vivid instrumental hues. An album by the Philadelphia Orchestra, in glorious full gleam, on the New World Records label, features not only Druckman’s Viola Concerto (1978), a gripping and dramatic piece, but also “Counterpoise” (1994), a lovely orchestral song cycle that was his last major work. The extreme contrast between the texts that Druckman chose for the piece—two poems in English, by Emily Dickinson, and two more in French, by Guillaume Apollinaire—symbolize not only Druckman’s creative conflict but also the struggle of intellect and instinct that remains essential in American culture.