Music: American Beauty

Despite Hollywood’s attempts to portray our lives as empty and ugly, there is such a thing as beauty in America, and those who do not know it are tone-deaf. Just listen to American music. A thread of beautiful music runs through the nation’s entire history.

The Naxos label has embarked on an extensive survey of American music in a series called “American Classics.” One need only hear the recent release featuring the lovely Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2 by Arthur Foote (1853-1937) to know that our beauty was originally imported, like everything else, from Europe. In the 20th century, however, those European threads were woven into an American musical tapestry of unique design. As with so many American things, strength, directness of expression, an openhearted yearning, and an element of naiveté characterize the musical patterns that have emerged.

Naxos has also undertaken a traversal of the music of one of the 20th-century exemplars of American beauty, composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). In listening to his music, one feels that Barber knew that beauty is a kind of food for the soul that makes it only hungrier. That is why the abundant beauty in his music pierces through to something beyond itself and easily brings the listener to tears. Barber’s best-known work is his Adagio for Strings, an orchestral arrangement of the second movement of his String Quartet. There is hardly a more familiar or more moving piece of American music.

I once heard the Adagio in the living room of Russell Kirk, father of the modern American conservative movement, in faraway Mecosta, Michigan, performed by a local quintet of female musicians (the cello part was doubled). At first, I simply resigned myself to hearing a musical warhorse played by provincials. But then I was overwhelmed, even shaken, by the intensity of the beauty evident in a very heartfelt performance. I will never forget the experience. In fact, I cannot forget most of Barber’s music, and I never tire of making its reacquaintance.

So far, Naxos has offered two CDs of essential Barber. The first contains his two symphonies and his brilliant The School for Scandal Overture, which catapulted him into the limelight in his early 20s. The second contains two less familiar but equally worthy works—his Cello Concerto and his Medea Ballet Suite—plus that omnipresent Adagio for Strings. All are more than ably performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Marin Alsop, with cellist Wendy Warner. The idiom of this music may be late-Romantic, but it is unburdened by the heaviness that sank this kind of music on the Continent.

Barber gave Romanticism a fresh start with his freedom of expression and melodic and orchestral genius. For this, he became the composer the 20th-century members of the avant-garde loved to hate. He was the last thing they needed—a composer who breathed new life into a language they had declared dead. Though Barber suffered personally from unremitting critical denigration, he was rewarded by enormous popularity with the concert-going public.

The reason the public never abandoned Barber can also be heard in a new recording of one of his most popular works, his Violin Concerto, offered on the Sony label, with the brilliant young violinist Hilary Hahn and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, under Hugh Wolff. This work is certainly an American classic and was one of the most often-performed concertos of the 20th century. It is a stirring, passionate piece, with bravura passages for the soloist that were clearly written in service to a higher cause.

Its disc-mate is a new work by composer and double-bassist Edgar Meyer (b. 1956), written for violinist Hahn. This is a sweet and ingratiating piece with a languid, mesmerizing beauty that, at the very end, slips into Americana. Nonetheless, it inspired me to search out Meyer’s Quintet for String Quartet and Double Bass on its Deutsche Grammophon label. While several of its movements are also highly rewarding, others lapse into a folk-fiddle hoedown that left me feeling as though I had been mugged by a bluegrass crossover composer, which, in fact, is what Meyer is. He is good enough, however, that I hope he crosses over completely into classical music.

The Chandos label has enriched the catalogue of Barber recordings by compiling on one recording his Three Essays for Orchestra along with excerpts from his opera Vanessa, Music for a Scene from Shelley, and Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. These were originally issued separately as disc-mates for Neeme Jarvi’s recordings of other American music with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It makes great sense to finally bring them together.

Like some other contemporary American composers, Ian Krouse (b. 1956) seems to have picked up the violin where Samuel Barber set it down. Koch International Classics has released a CD featuring Krouse’s Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra; his Cuando Se Abre en la Mañana, a rhapsodic song for soprano and guitar; and two chamber works, Thamar y Amnon and Tientos. Krouse has written passionate music for the violin in which the thirst for beauty is intense. He deploys an achingly lovely melody in the form of a huge arch. The Rhapsody, a gorgeous, dramatic piece, shows that Barber’s school of music is still very much alive and viable today.

As one might deduce from the titles of his works, Krouse, who lives in Maryland, has developed a strong predilection for Spanish things (as have I, being married to a Spaniard). His ravishing song, which sets words written by Federico Garcia Lorca, one of the great Spanish writers and artists of the 20th century, to music, is completely convincing in the Spanish style in which he has written it. In fact, it is masterly, as are the two equally accomplished chamber works, all written in the 1990s. Listening to a CD like this, from a composer of whom I have never previously heard, is a wake-up call. I shall pay close attention to future releases. I want to hear more from maestro Krouse.

Dominick Argento (b. 1927) is known primarily as a composer of operas and song cycles. He has spent most of his career in Minneapolis, where he has been a professor of composition and opera history. He is an American treasure and, like most American treasures, somewhat neglected. In 1987, he composed a stunning Te Deum. Virgin Classics released a superb recording that inexplicably disappeared after a few years in the catalogue. Now that omission has been rectified by the RCM label, which has issued a new recording with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia Orchestra, under Paul Salamunovich, paired with Maurice Duruflé’s MesseCum Jubilo.” At first, I thought this rendition was a bit too reverential compared with the vigor of the Virgin performance. But after all, this is reverential music, though large portions of it burst with life and joy.

The more I listen, the more convinced I am of Argento’s own endorsement of this interpretation, which he calls “an act of love” that “penetrates to the very heart of the work.” Argento interpolates anonymous Middle English texts between the Latin sections of the Te Deum. The effect, as well as the musical idiom Argento uses, is redolent of Benjamin Britten’s best works. This may not be liturgical music in the strictest sense, but those who tell me that nothing of note has been composed since the Second Vatican Council need to listen to this vibrant work.

Reference Recordings has given us a CD of some of Argento’s orchestral works and suites from two of his operas, The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe and The Dream of Valentino. Both the performances by the Minnesota Orchestra, under Eiji Oue, and the recording quality are of demonstration caliber. The CD shows both Argento’s sense of humor, with an accordion tango in the Valentino music, and his exquisite sense of orchestration, with more delicate pieces such as Valse Triste and Reverie, Reflections on a Hymn Tune. Argento has spent many summers in Florence, and its bell towers make their presence delightfully felt in much of his music, particularly in A Ring of Time, a piece based on the four seasons. Bells and chimes resound throughout.

There is so much more to tell you—for instance, about new works by Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) and Stephen Gerber (b. 1948) that add to the abundant evidence that the thread of beauty in American music remains unbroken. But that will have to wait until next month.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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