Music: Keeping America Real

Many people see America as the new Rome. Americans are builders and organizers, practical people who, when in need of culture, borrow from Europe just as Rome borrowed from Greece. 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 in 1938, he was in a state of despair over the fate of the West. In the United States, however, 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 European music. I have previously written at length about the destruction wrought by the ideology of Arnold Schoenberg, which was supposed to ensure the supremacy of German music for another 100 years. Despite its temporary allure, this ideology passed through America’s bloodstream without inflicting permanent damage, because it was alien to our nature.

From the beginning, America’s sense of realism immunized a number of American composers against Schoenberg’s ideology. Last month, I surveyed the works of Samuel Barber and certain 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 also reviewed briefly. Now there is more good news in several releases of recent American music by composers Stephen Gerber and Lowell Liebermann.

I mentioned that Krouse’s passionate Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra sounds as if he had picked up the violin where Barber laid it down. The same can be said of Stephen 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. The Koch release features Gerber’s Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto (1994), and Serenade for String Orchestra (1990). The Chandos CD presents Gerber’s Symphony No. 1, Viola Concerto, Triple Overture, and Dirge and Awakening, all of them composed during 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 are a major discovery. The discovery is all the more surprising when one considers that Gerber trained under Milton Babbitt, one of the high priests of Schoenberg’s “coterie of twelve-notery,” as it was called by British composer Robert Simpson. In the 1980s, Gerber abandoned twelve-tone music and began working in a tonal (if at times dissonant) idiom.

Gerber’s Symphony No. 1 immediately brings to mind Shostakovich in its searing intensity, its gravity, and the nagging insistence of its motifs. Appropriately, 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 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. The background seems 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 his Serenade may exude a very Russian seriousness of purpose, 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 music is satisfying to listen to and easy to follow. While that may sound condescending, it is intended as a tribute to a masterly composer who is bold enough and confident enough in his materials to write transparently.

This uninhibited generosity of spirit also characterizes the music of Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961). In his Symphony No. 2, recently released on a Delos CD, Liebermann displays a talent for soaring melody that takes one’s breath away. Unlike Gerber, he did not have to find his way back to tonality. He was firmly rooted in it by his studies at Julliard with David Diamond, perhaps America’s greatest symphonist.

Stylistically, the work is situated somewhere between Vaughan Williams’s First Symphony and a Mahler symphony, with some Berlioz added for good measure. The fact that the score of this work could have been recovered from a 75-year-old time capsule will either delight or puzzle you. Why, you may wonder, did this young man write in such a “reactionary” style? I can only answer that the work does not display any signs of being self-consciously reactionary. It appears to be the product of real conviction. The proof is that it achieves a sweeping grandeur that is hard to resist.

Liebermann’s Second Symphony is a choral work, which naturally invites comparison to Beethoven’s Ninth. Liebermann plays with that allusion in the closing movement’s choral fugue and the hammered chords that end the work. But it is not only the Walt Whitman text that he chooses to set that reminds one of Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony (also set to a Whitman text). It is the billowing surges of music that culminate in a rhapsodic invocation of natural wonder. (In both cases, I object only to the puerile pantheism of Whitman’s poetry, which can be avoided by ignoring the words.)

The second movement is an orchestral march of the martial character favored by Mahler and Shostakovich, but without the former’s neuroses or the latter’s sarcasm. The third movement, Largo, returns to Liebermann’s opening theme in a reflective, moving way before a joyous, choral finale brings the work to a magnificent conclusion. Whatever one makes of the atavistic tendencies in Liebermann’s work, there is no denying its quality, extraordinary craft, and memorability.

The symphony is accompanied on the Delos disc by a very fine, gloriously melodic Flute Concerto, the musical touchtone for which is Prokofiev. After the first movement, which could have come out of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, Liebermann turns to a style more akin to his Second Symphony. Both works were recorded in live concerts given by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under Andrew Litton. The audience is inaudible, but the excitement is not. The recording is spectacular.

The next steps for American music may not be entirely discernible from listening to these works, but I am glad that they will be taken by Gerber and Liebermann. It appears there is a future for American beauty. Buy these CDs so that we can hear more.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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