More American Beauty, from "Keeping America Real"
by Robert Reilly
Many people see America as the new Rome. We are builders and organizers, practical people who, when in need of culture, borrow Europe's just as Rome borrowed Greece's. Of course, there is truth in this comparison, but it has its limits. It is precisely the practical nature of the American people that insulated the United States from the ideological ravages of Europe and made the continuation of art possible here. In the 20th century, Europe largely destroyed its culture, which is why so many of its artists and intellectuals fled to America. When philosopher Eric Voegelin left Nazi Germany, he was in a state of despair over the fate of the West. In America, he saw that the practicality of the American people was rooted in experience, in an acceptance of reality that was not filtered through ideological lenses. He took hope. In American music, we can hear what he saw. In terms of music, this meant the retention of melody, harmony, and rhythm in the works of some of our major composers.
Though for one painful generation many composers abandoned these essential elements, American music recovered from the loss more quickly than did European music. I have written at length in these pages about the destruction wrought by the ideology of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, which, according to him, was to assure the supremacy of German music for another hundred years. This ideology, despite its temporary fascination, passed through America's bloodstream without permanently infecting it because it was alien to our nature. Proof of this was provided by the number of American composers who were immunized from it in the first place. Last month, I surveyed the works of Samuel Barber and others who never forsook music as a medium for beauty. They left a living legacy that is now being cultivated by our contemporaries, several of whom, like Dominick Argento and Ian Krouse, I was able to review briefly. Now, there is more good news provided by several releases of recent American music by composers Steven Gerber and Lowell Liebermann.
Just as Ian Krouse's passionate Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra sounds as if he had picked up the violin where Samuel Barber laid it down, the same can be said of Steven Gerber (b. 1948) and his Violin Concerto, composed in 1993. Two CDs of Gerber's music have appeared simultaneously, one on the Koch International Classics label and the other on Chandos. Koch features Gerber's Violin Concerto, a Cello Concerto from 1994, and the Serenade for String Orchestra, written in 1990. Chandos presents Gerber's Symphony No. 1, the Viola Concerto, the Triple Overture, and Dirge and Awakening, also all composed in the 1990s, except for the symphony, which was completed in 1989. For those who appreciate contemporary music that maintains its link with the tonal tradition, these works constitute a major discovery. The discovery is all the more surprising considering Gerber's training with Milton Babbitt, one of the high priests of the "coterie of twelve-notery," as it was called by composer Robert Simpson. In the 1980s, Gerber abandoned serialism and began working in a tonal, if at times dissonant, idiom.
The first work I listened to was the Symphony No. 1, which immediately brought to mind Shostakovich in its searing intensity and gravity, and in the nagging insistence of its motifs. Appropriately enough for that allusion, it is magnificently performed by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, under Thomas Sanderling. After listening to this work and the others on the Chandos CD, I was not surprised to learn that Gerber is the most frequently performed living American composer in Russia. The Viola Concerto and the Dirge and Awakening also tap into the darker areas of the soul in a gripping, moving way. Do not be discouraged by this description. The agony that Gerber expresses is musically compelling. My only reservation is that, in certain sections of the symphony, I find the means of development slightly ponderous. It sounds as if the background is too much in the foreground – a fault that Gerber rightly ascribes to minimalism, which, he says, "sounds to me like accompaniment with the melody omitted."
Gerber, however, never omits the melody. In fact, the music on the Koch disc confirms him as a composer with a major melodic gift. His Violin and Cello Concertos and the Serenade dispel any suspicion that he is an ersatz Russian artist. These works may share the same seriousness of purpose and eschew empty virtuosity, but they sound American. There is a greater breadth to them and a touching lyricism, especially in the slow movements. (The Lento movement of the Violin Concerto is ravishingly beautiful). The shades of Shostakovich are gone. In their stead, I hear a direct lineage to Barber, maybe a hint of Randall Thomson, and playful allusions to Sibelius (especially in the first movement of the Cello Concerto) and the English pastoral tradition (especially in the Serenade). The two concertos are classical in their construction: theme, counter-theme, development, variation, recapitulation, and resolution. Yes, the sonata form is alive and well. This is very satisfying music to listen to and easy to follow. That may sound slightly condescending, but it is meant as a tribute to a masterful composer who is bold enough and confident enough in his materials to write transparently.
Symphony No. 1; Dirge and Awakening; Viola Concerto; and Triple Overture. Chandos Chan 9831
Violin Concerto; Cello Concerto; Serenade for String Orchestra. Koch 3-7501-2 HI
Symphony No. 2; Flute Concerto. Delos DE 3256