Author Topic: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer  (Read 27401 times)

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Offline Dundonnell

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Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« on: July 14, 2008, 12:30:46 PM »
There has been a considerable amount of discussion on this forum of prominent American composers of the 20th century. Amongst those who produced symphonic cycles were composers of great distinction. The names of William Schuman, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, David Diamond, Roger Sessions and(perhaps more controversially) Alan Hovhaness have come up often in a number of threads-for example in the thread started by vandermolen on Naxos American Classics.

I do not think however that enough attention has been given to the achievement of Peter Mennin who died 25 years ago this year. Paradoxically perhaps, Mennin is far from under-represented on CD(although a modern complete set of his symphonies would certainly not go amiss!)
Yet Mennin seems to me to have had less than his due. Naxos has not yet recorded a note of Mennin's music.

In 'A Companion to the Symphony'(ed. Robert Layton) the American conductor John Canarina described Mennin as "perhaps the most viscerally exciting of all American symphonists". Mennin's music was championed first by Walter Hendl, the tragic figure who led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 1949, and later by George Szell in Cleveland. Szell was not particularly noted for his interest in contemporary American music but appears to have had the highest regard for Mennin. Peter Mennin succeeded William Schuman as president of the Juilliard School in 1962 and led that distinguished institution until his untimely death at the age of 60 in 1983. The administrative responsibilities attached to this academic position considerably curtailed Mennin's composition in particular during the last ten years of his life.

Mennin wrote the fateful number of nine symphonies although No.1 was withdrawn and No.2(whilst being awarded prizes) does not seem to have been published or recorded. As with both Harris and Schuman it was Mennin's 3rd which established his reputation virtually overnight following its premiere by the New York Philharmonic when the composer was only 23. The symphonies are(or were) available as follows-

No. 3 in versions by the New York Philharmonic/Dimitri Mitropoulos(CRI American Masters) and by the Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
   (Delos)
No.4 "The Cycle" -the Camerata Singers and Symphony Orchestra/Abraham Kaplan(Phoenix)
No.5 in versions by the Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney(First Edition Music), the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson(Mercury) and by the
    Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller(Albany)
No.6-coupled with No.5 on both the First Edition and the Albany discs
No.7 "Variation Symphony" in versions by the Chicago Symphony/Jean Martinon coupled with No.3 on both the CRI disc and the Delos
    disc.
Nos. 8 and 9-coupled together in versions by the Columbus Symphony/Christian Badea(New World Records)

Mennin's symphonies are indeed 'viscerally exciting' with an energy and power akin to the symphonies of William Schuman but not necessarily sounding like Schuman's. Mennin was influenced by both Hindemith and Bartok but his music also owes much to Renaissance counterpoint and polyphony. The mid period symphonies have been compared to both Vaughan Williams and Sir William Walton both in the ferocious angry energy of the fast movements(VW's 4th, Walton's 1st) but also the modal lyricism of his slow movements.
The distinguished American critic Walter Simmons has also compared Mennin to Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe in his evident determination to go his own way regardless of musical fashion. The symphonies do become grimmer, more angry, with increased chromaticism as time goes on(Nos. 7-9). All are-I would argue-extremely impressive works(although perhaps the choral No.4 may be the weakest?) and are undoubtedly of more consistent quality than those by Harris, less academic than those by Piston, more challenging than those by Hanson or Hovhaness(although I DO love the work of each of these composers too!).

Mennin also wrote a fine Cello Concerto recorded by Janos Starker on Albany(coupled with Piston's 1st) or First Edition Music(coupled with the 5th and 6th symphonies, an even better Piano Concerto(in my opinion one of the most exciting of all American concertos for the piano), brilliantly performed by John Ogden on the same CRI disc as Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7, and a Violin Concerto which remains unrecorded.

As usual I find myself writing an essay as a post-for which I unreservedly apologise :) I do hope however that other Mennin enthusiasts may care to add their thoughts!

PS: some reviews-
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classRev/2005/Jan05/Mennin_FE.htm
http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2003/Oct03/mennin_56_albany.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classRev/dec99/menin.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classRev/2000/nov00/mennin.htm
« Last Edit: July 15, 2008, 03:56:59 AM by Dundonnell »

pjme

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #1 on: July 15, 2008, 10:13:08 AM »
thanks for this message Dundonnell. There's little that I can add - and I've tried before to praise the qualities of Mennin's music.
I have most of the recordings you mention - symphonies 3 and 7 and the pianoconcerto are favorite works.

Peter


karlhenning

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #2 on: July 15, 2008, 10:24:55 AM »
. . . The symphonies do become grimmer, more angry, with increased chromaticism as time goes on(Nos. 7-9). All are-I would argue-extremely impressive works(although perhaps the choral No.4 may be the weakest?) and are undoubtedly of more consistent quality than those by Harris, less academic than those by Piston, more challenging than those by Hanson or Hovhaness (although I DO love the work of each of these composers too!).

Very interesting, thanks.  Can't speak to Harris or Piston, but your remark viz. Hanson and Hovhaness rings true.

Not long ago, I revisited with great pleasure the Seventh Symphony, and the Concertato "Moby-Dick".  I find the best of his work very good, but (but?) quite . . . 'specific', for want of a better term.

karlhenning

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #3 on: July 15, 2008, 10:26:05 AM »
So here's a discussion question:  Copland or Mennin, who is the better symphonist?

johnQpublic

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #4 on: July 15, 2008, 10:43:22 AM »
Oh well, I know I've said this about every other year since I first met (some of) this gang back during the heyday of ClassicalInsights (12 or more years ago), but here it goes again:

If only a terrific conductor with an outstanding top-tier orchestra would take up Mennin's cause many more would know & be excited about his work.

As for Piston being more "academic". I wouldn't say that as "academic" usually implies counterpoint and traditional forms. Mennin is much like Piston "academically". However, I guess why you called only Piston "academic" is because he holds his emotions in check while Mennin lets his all hang out.

If we're strictly limited to comparing Copland's three "official" symphonies to Mennin's nine then I'd say Mennin cared more about aligning himself with the history & development of the symphony. Copland seemed more concerned about freer reign in viewing what is a "symphony". But if we're comparing the symphonic works of both I'd give the nod to Copland as he created so many and varied works. Variety is the spice of life; or so I've been told.  :P 


Offline Cato

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #5 on: July 15, 2008, 11:05:57 AM »
Very interesting, thanks.  Can't speak to Harris or Piston, but your remark viz. Hanson and Hovhaness rings true.

Not long ago, I revisited with great pleasure the Seventh Symphony, and the Concertato "Moby-Dick".  I find the best of his work very good, but (but?) quite . . . 'specific', for want of a better term.

(My emphasis)

Mentioned earlier is the "anger" heard in the symphonies, especially the later ones.  Karl's use of the term "specific" might seem vague...   ;)  ... but "specific" is correct, in the way the works tend to use a very sharp needle inserted into the corpus callosum, rather than chopping you up with an ax!  And there is how Mennin loses a comparison to e.g. Karl Amadeus Hartmann.  Mennin might seem highly emotional, but there is an artificiality about it.  Perhaps that is the "academic" nature of the beasts.

As to a comparison with Copland...I think Copland needed to compose more symphonies for a true comparison, but I would again refuse Mennin the wreath. 

I recall in the early 60's seeing a Columbia LP of a work by Mennin with a picture of him facing a picture of Andrew Imbrie: chamber music I believe.  The record contained perhaps string quartets?   I also remember William Schuman's Credendum being on a Columbia LP with a Mennin work: the jacket showed a close up of the windows of UN building, as if it were a glass credenza: I always wondered if the jacket designers misread credendum for credenza.   :o

Anyway, I have no lasting impression of those chamber works.

Any of you older members have a brain cell or two with that info?
« Last Edit: July 15, 2008, 11:15:33 AM by Cato »
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Offline Dundonnell

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #6 on: July 15, 2008, 02:15:00 PM »
Thanks for the replies. I was beginning to wonder if anyone would respond but I ought to have taken the Trans Atlantic time difference into account :)

Agree absolutely about the need for a "terrific conductor with an outstanding top-tier orchestra" to take up Mennin. Sadly, I don't see that happening. In the 40s, 50s and 60s top flight American orchestras were conducted by people who would promote the leading composers of the day. I am thinking, for example, about Koussevitsky in Boston, Mitropoulous and Bernstein in New York, Ormandy in Philadelphia, Szell(at least in Mennin's case) in Cleveland, Hendl in Dallas, Stokowski in Houston. The valiant Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky(though certainly not a 'top-tier orchestra!) did a fantastic job for modern music in general. More recently, conductors like Lorin Maazel, David Zinman, Leonard Slatkin and, of course, Gerard Schwarz in Seattle performed and recorded works by the great American composers.

Now maybe I am talking rubbish...after all I live in the UK not the USA so I am not exactly familiar with the current American musical scene, but I do get the impression that it is far less likely that the leading American orchestras are performing or(perhaps more significantly) recording this sort of music.

Incidentally, I used the word "academic" in relation to Walter Piston in exactly the sense suggested. I was originally going to use the phrase "less dry than Piston" but I felt that I was being a little unfair to a composer for whom I have enormous respect.

And yes..I would certainly not deny that Aaron Copland was a composer of greater musical and emotional range than Mennin but I would not regard Copland as primarily a symphonist in the classical definition of the term. I appreciate that this potentially opens up a big can of worms and it should certainly not be taken to imply that Copland did not produce fine symphonies, nor that the 3rd is other than an epic example of the 20th century symphony.  It just seems to me that Copland's three(or four if the Dance Symphony is taken into account) symphonies are such diverse works that it is perhaps difficult to discuss them except as separate entities rather than as a symphonic cycle.

That discussion however fascinating is obviously not intended to suggest that Mennin was other than a fine American composer who deserves his due. Perhaps now that Marin Alsop is at the head of the Baltimore orchestra she might be interested in championing Mennin-as she currently seems prepared to do for Roy Harris?




violinconcerto

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #7 on: July 22, 2008, 12:49:00 AM »
Anyone here got a recording of the Violin concerto by Mennin or know a source of it?

springrite

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #8 on: July 22, 2008, 01:15:37 AM »
I only have 2 Mennin recordings, those being the DELOS Moby Dick CD and a Louisville recording containing 2 symphonies and the cello concerto. The cello concerto is by far my favorite, although I like the symphonies as well. I would love to add more Mennin in my collection.


Offline Dundonnell

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #9 on: July 22, 2008, 02:04:22 AM »
I only have 2 Mennin recordings, those being the DELOS Moby Dick CD and a Louisville recording containing 2 symphonies and the cello concerto. The cello concerto is by far my favorite, although I like the symphonies as well. I would love to add more Mennin in my collection.



If you have the Delos CD with Moby Dick then you will also already have the 3rd and 7th symphonies but the CRI disc of these symphonies contains better(though older) performances and you get the superb Piano concerto. That disc and the more modern recording of the 8th and 9th symphonies are both still available from New World Records. The 8th and 9th are great works from the end of Mennin's career although they are darker and grimmer than earlier Mennin. That disc can be bought via Amazon USA for around $12 and there are good reviews on the Amazon.com website.

karlhenning

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #10 on: December 06, 2008, 10:37:01 AM »
Hmm.  Time we revived this thread ; )

I need to investigate the Eighth & Ninth Symphonies.

Offline Dundonnell

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #11 on: December 06, 2008, 10:54:01 AM »
Hmm.  Time we revived this thread ; )

I need to investigate the Eighth & Ninth Symphonies.

Thank you, Karl ;D

Yes-you definitely should investigates Nos. 8 and 9!

I have just listened again to Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 while No.7 is playing as I type!

I will not rehearse what I have already said(at extravagant length!!) on this thread and will try to restrain my enthusiasm for Mennin's music carrying me off into the realms of hyperbole but I do continue to regard him as "the most viscerally exciting" among his contemporary American symphonists :)

As to Karl's comparison with Allan Pettersson elsewhere on this site, I do see what he means. I have already remarked on the comparisons made by some critics with the music of Hindemith, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Rubbra and Holmboe. Mennin's music contains little that is humorous or particularly colourful. He composed with little interest in anything apart from his own muse. There is an angry vehemence in his fast movements but a still repose in the slow movements which relate him to some Scandinavians. The later works are more dissonant, more chromatic, even more angry. In that sense the comparisons with Pettersson are certainly valid.

But-to my mind-Mennin is less prolix, more concise, less self-pitying. (But I will stop there because I hate comparing composers to the detriment of one or other...and I do admire/respect Pettersson as a symphonist :))
« Last Edit: December 06, 2008, 10:55:40 AM by Dundonnell »

Offline vandermolen

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #12 on: December 06, 2008, 02:10:47 PM »
So here's a discussion question:  Copland or Mennin, who is the better symphonist?

Personally I much prefer Copland. I have two Mennin CDs and certainly enjoy the symphony that was on a Mercury CD (with Ives etc). No 3 I think but his work never moved me as much as, say Copland's Third or Organ Symphony, William Schuman's Third or Sixth Symphony, Paul Creston's Second Symphony, Hanson's Third, Bernstein's Jeremiah or Diamond's nos 2-4. However, Colin's thread means that I must have another go with Mennin.
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

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Offline Dundonnell

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #13 on: December 06, 2008, 02:29:39 PM »
Personally I much prefer Copland. I have two Mennin CDs and certainly enjoy the symphony that was on a Mercury CD (with Ives etc). No 3 I think but his work never moved me as much as, say Copland's Third or Organ Symphony, William Schuman's Third or Sixth Symphony, Paul Creston's Second Symphony, Hanson's Third, Bernstein's Jeremiah or Diamond's nos 2-4. However, Colin's thread means that I must have another go with Mennin.

It is No.5 on that Mercury disc, Jeffrey, coupled with the Ives Symphony No.3 and Three Places in New England and Schuman's New England Triptych.

I don't like making comparisons between composers-as I said above. I can understand you saying that Mennin's "work never moved me as much as.." because I don't think that Mennin is necessarily that sort of composer. However, Mennin's slow movements are, I think, a different story and are perhaps overshadowed by the ferocious energy and drive of the fast movements. There is a lot in those slow movements which does recall the influences on Mennin of the heritage of early polyphony as well as the Vaughan Williams of Symphony No.4.

Creston and Hanson are clearly different types of composers altogether-essentially romantics-and Mennin is different. He is nearer in tone to William Schuman-a composer for whom I have a huge admiration-but there is, perhaps, more surface brilliance in Schuman.

I don't think that Mennin is an 'easy' composer to fully appreciate and the later symphonies, especially Nos. 8 and 9, are certainly not 'easy' pieces but I urge anyone to give them some serious listening. The slow movement of No.9(played at Mennin's memorial service in 1983) is undoubtedly most beautiful.

Offline vandermolen

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #14 on: December 06, 2008, 02:52:39 PM »
Ok, thanks Colin. Yes it was No 5 with the Ives and Schuman. I will have another listen to Mennin.
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

karlhenning

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Re: Peter Mennin (1923-83) - a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #15 on: December 06, 2008, 04:00:27 PM »
FWIW, Jeffrey, that Mercury reissue left me fairly cool to the Mennin Fifth . . . it was a recording I fairly soon sent back out to make its way in the Market.  Surprised me, for I do like many of the Mercury Living Presence reissues.

The recording I told Harry of, with the Fifth & Sixth Symphonies, and the Concertato, "Moby-Dick", though, strikes me as better.

(Or, it might jjust be that my ears this year are in a different 'place' than back when I listened to that Mercury.)

Offline jowcol

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #16 on: December 09, 2008, 08:56:42 AM »
Just to weigh in--  I also have the DELOS Moby Dick CD and a Louisville recording containing 2 symphonies and the cello concerto.

I probably need to listen to them in more depth, but Symphony 3 is easily one of the "Great American Symphonies" in my book, and I've been known to listen to it on repeat for hours when I'm working on something.
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Offline Dundonnell

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #17 on: December 09, 2008, 10:10:17 AM »
Just to weigh in--  I also have the DELOS Moby Dick CD and a Louisville recording containing 2 symphonies and the cello concerto.

I probably need to listen to them in more depth, but Symphony 3 is easily one of the "Great American Symphonies" in my book, and I've been known to listen to it on repeat for hours when I'm working on something.

Excellent :)

Offline vandermolen

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #18 on: December 12, 2008, 04:04:58 AM »
Have just listened to Mennin's Symphony No 3 (NYPO, Mitropoulos), with considerable enjoyment, although there is a relentless quality to his music which wears a bit thin after a while; in this sense Mennin reminds me of the British composer P Racine Fricker, whose Symphony No 2 is well worth revival. Of this generation of composers, it is Scottish composer Robin Orr's 2nd Symphony which stands out. With Mennin and Fricker I find that the sum of their work (often) is lesser than the parts but with Orr's second Symphony this is not the case. Gross generalisations I know, but it is what comes to mind at the moment.
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

Offline Dundonnell

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Re: Peter Mennin(1923-83)-a Great American Symphonic Composer
« Reply #19 on: December 12, 2008, 07:34:55 AM »
Fricker is one of the most disgracefully neglected of all British composers! Not only does the 2nd symphony deserve revival, so too does the rest of his music :) A thread beckons ;D

Your reference to Robin Orr is interesting, Jeffrey, but I assume that you are referring to the Symphony in One Movement, which is Orr's 1st Symphony, rather than the 2nd? It is the 1st which shares the same disc with Fricker's 2nd in its elderly EMI reincarnation.

As for your "gross generalisations" ;D I can 'see where you are coming from'(to use that hideous phrase!) in regard to "a relentless quality" although, as I said before, the slow movements are free of that. I suppose that there is a "melodic anonymity" but the "uncompromising integrity" of the music appeals to me. These were contemporary composers working within established forms and, to a considerable extent, against the grain of musical fashion at that time. They were before the current revival of neo-romanticism or the minimalist vogue. They were attempting to work with the traditions of the past rather than to ignore or to despise such traditions.
I admire that in both Mennin and Fricker. Nor do they wallow in self-pitying bleakness like some composers of the time(no names, no pack drill ;D)