American Symphonies

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Writer Philipp Meyer said something worth repeating a couple of weeks ago:

Literature—or any art—should move you before you understand why. It should feel as if you’re in the presence of something holy—that you’ve come across some ancient code that explains the human race. . . . You read something and you realize: Hey. I’m not alone.

Or you hear something. When I first heard West Side Story, I was almost too young to realize it properly: Hey. I’m not alone. Wasn’t ancient back then, of course; sounded more like here and now. Meyer’s “ancient code” fits better with hearing Ives for the first time. Using bits and pieces of old hymns, Stephen Foster songs, and ragtime, Charles Ives (1874–1954) remembered, recycled, re-invented an earlier America he wished he’d known. Mixed with all the nostalgia was a stiff shot of 20th-century mania for what was new: Edison. Edgard Varèse. Estate planning. Ives didn’t just remember, he sought to transcend memory with all the sonic experiments he could muster, plus a few he could only imagine.

So: American symphonic music draws on both our collective memory and our rejection of it. We are a nation of newcomers, old-timers, solitary explorers, eager joiners, rugged individualists. We are large, we contain multitudes. When one of us writes a symphony, that most public and communitarian of genres, we do so with its historic function in mind—we speak for (sing for) the people.

Here are some new recordings from American symphonists, beginning with Ives, going on to Bernstein and then to Christopher Rouse, David Rakowski, and Adam Schoenberg.

Ives was not always considered our “Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln of [American] music.”[1] But you wouldn’t know that from all the new recordings coming out. Best of the lot are symphonies and other orchestral works from Sir Andrew Davis with the Melbourne SO and Ludovic Morlot with the Seattle SO.

Chandos has just released the third of its Davis-helmed Ives volumes (CHSA 5174; SACD and download). Volume 1 featured Symphonies 1 and 2; volume 2, the most-loved shorter orchestral works (“Holidays,” Three Places in New England, Central Park in the Dark, The Unanswered Question); volume 3 delivers Symphonies 3 and 4 and Orchestral Set No. 2. It may seem odd that an Australian orchestra and its British chief conductor have given Americans the best Ives we’ve had in years, but there it is. We are large, we contain multitudes. Davis and his family live in Chicago now, where he presides over the Lyric Opera. Maybe he’s learned something about American visionaries from doing landmark performances of other visionaries, e.g., Berlioz, Grainger. Sir Andrew, like classic outsider Alexis de Tocqueville, may know more about us than we do ourselves.

Not enough space here for a capsule Life & Works of Ives, so let me just play a couple of excerpts from No. 4. First, the Prelude:

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Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Trav’ler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory-beaming star!

And from the lengthy second movement, a Comedy inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Celestial Railroad” (1843). In a dream, the narrator leaves the sinful City of Destruction in a modern train. But this pilgrim makes only fitful progress:

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Recorded sound throughout the series is superb. Davis’s readings are not brashly extrovert, and that worked for me. It’s time we stopped celebrating Ives mainly for Breaking Rules. He did, but his vision remained steadfast. Good to see someone treating his music like, well, music.

Here’s a convenient YouTube version of Ives’ Second à la Davis, the best place to start if you’re a newbie but you like Brahms and Stephen Foster.


If you hanker after more boisterous Ives, give Morlot and Seattle a try. They’ve covered Symphonies 3 and 4 plus the most popular short works here, and Symphony 2 here; high-res downloads are available. As with their Dutilleux series, great sound, caught live.

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) wrote just three symphonies. It’s no secret he preferred stage works. Even his symphonies are packed with protagonist-driven drama. In No. 1 (1942) that comes from Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet who warns the sinful they will starve, then be plundered and taken captive. Bernstein helpfully labels the symphony’s three movements “Prophecy,” “Profanation,” and “Lamentation.” The last movement, a setting of Jeremiah’s mournful words for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, was composed first. Later, when Bernstein needed a big closer for two more movements he was submitting to a competition, he realized his earlier piece would fit the bill. “Jeremiah” is interesting today chiefly because it shows an ambitious young composer working on the basic styles—angst-ridden lyricism, lively mixed-meter dances—for which he would become famous.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (1949, rev. 1965) tells a better story with far greater skill. In 1947 he was swept away by W. H. Auden’s 80-page, Pulitzer-Prize-winning epic poem “The Age of Anxiety,” calling it “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of the English language.” (Lennie was never much for understatement.) Here’s the key to “Age”: Bernstein set out to capture not just the poem’s content but also its formal strategies, not just the subject matter (four people in a bar, talking about civilization and its discontents) but the craft of creating an instrumental narrative. From beginning to end we are riveted more by the musical skill on display than by Auden’s ostensible dialogues. (Bernstein pulled a similar trick a few years later with the Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.”) There’s a solo pianist involved (the poet/protagonist?). Here is a reflective episode from Part I, the craft-heavy half of the work:

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Now hear this rip-roaring chunk of Cubist stride piano from Part II, where it functions as momentary escape from all the Deep Thinking elsewhere:

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Marin Alsop’s new Naxos release (8.559790) offers both 1 and 2, completing a Bernstein symphony survey begun in 2015 with No. 3, “Kaddish” (Naxos 8.559742). These discs are extremely well-recorded—about as good as Redbook CD ever gets—and you may never hear better performances. NB: this is not just my usual hyperbole. Check out The Washington Post’s astute Anne Midgette, who acknowledges all the TMI about Bernstein’s flawed but deeply felt “Kaddish” (1963) while also celebrating Alsop’s magisterial way with this music. You have to hear “The Age of Anxiety” (did I mention that Jean-Yves Thibaudet is the pianist?). You might enjoy “Kaddish” too.

Quickly: three more new recordings worth your consideration. First: Stolen Moments from composer David Rakowski (b. 1958), courtesy of Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP 1048). The title work started out as chamber music that Rakowski then rescored for small orchestra. Its third movement is a tango, sort of:

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Also on the disc, Rakowski’s Piano Concerto No. 2, fiendishly difficult but fun for us. Thanks, BMOP.

Second: The much-recorded Christopher Rouse is back with four relatively new works via Alan Gilbert and the NYPO (Da Capo 8.226110). Of the music here—two symphonies and two single movements—my favorite is Prospero’s Rooms, based on Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Here’s an excerpt:

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Master Da Capo engineer Preben Iwan was not on hand, but these live performances are more than adequate sonically, especially in 24/96 download form.

Finally: Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980), who makes this list largely because “Prof” Keith Johnson recorded an all-Schoenberg disc for Michael Stern and the Kansas City SO (Reference Recordings RR-139; SACD and downloads). Maybe they hear something I don’t. Mr. Schoenberg, no relation to Ahnold, teaches film scoring at Occidental College (IMDB tells us he’s scored exactly one full-length film in his career). Everything in this album certainly sounds like film music to me, i.e., colorful, amorphous, insubstantial. Besides his American Symphony, the KCSO plays Finding Rothko and Picture Studies, both based on visual art. Click on the catalog number above for excerpts.

Next time in this space: Exiles, American and otherwise.

[1] Leonard Bernstein, early 1950s.

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