In three releases, influence comes from world discord

Published July 16, 2006

American music between the two World Wars was chaotic to say the least.

Following decades of German influence upon both American students and American institutions, World War I - and the realities that accompanied a strong anti-German sentiment in the United States - compelled many American composers to look elsewhere for musical inspiration.

Some looked to disparate European nations; others to homegrown indigenous sources; still others experimented with modernism. Recent compact discs of music by Howard Hanson, William Grant Still and Ruth Crawford Seeger offer sharply contrasting artistic visions. Though very different in stylistic outlook, each delivers music that is plainly and uniquely American.

The best known of the three is Hanson, longtime director of the Eastman School of Music. As the son of Swedish immigrants, it was easy for him to absorb the Scandinavian style in his music. One plainly hears Sibelius, for instance, throughout his works. But Hanson was also an accomplished colorist as a result of his studies in Rome with Respighi.

Hanson's sprawling Symphony No. 2 (Romantic) is a good example of his style. In it he eschews melody and instead opts for setting moods. The result is an impressive blanket of sound rich in harmony, rhythm and texture, but with little in the way of a melodic profile. Especially beautiful is the third movement, a dolorous creation that swirls with brisk movement and lush orchestration.

The first movement of The Suite from Merry Mount, derived from Hanson's 1934 opera, uses austere brass chorales and modal harmonies to reflect New England Puritanism, while a deftly constructed Scotch-Irish reel dance in the fourth movement is wonderfully effective.

Bold Island, Hanson's little-known orchestral suite, receives its premiere recording here. A pleasant and nicely crafted multi-movement tone poem, it demonstrates Hanson's debt to Respighi with its highly effective depiction of birds. In 1961, the year of its creation, the suite probably seemed hopelessly antiquated; but in today's "neo-romantic" aesthetic climate, this work could easily find a place in the concert hall.

Erich Kunzel's Cincinnati Pops Orchestra is technically proficient and consistently produces the lustrous sound that is required to make Hanson's music meaningful. This is an outstanding disc of works by a towering figure in American music.

Still was widely considered the "Dean of Black Composers" in his day. Like Hanson, he employed conventional genres and forms, but he was deeply inspired by his African heritage and its American musical progeny - jazz.

Still's Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) is an excellent one and offers up a number of attractive and original thoughts. But listeners will not fail to hear the strong influence of Gershwin throughout, as in the stirring second movement that is saturated by strains imitative of Porgy and Bess.

The symphonic poem Africa is Still's sweeping portrayal of his ancestral homeland. In it he shows remarkable skill in orchestration and especially adept writing for woodwinds. One wonders why this work remains unheralded, but perhaps conductor John Jeter's fine performance with the Fort Smith (Ark.) Symphony will change that.

The maverick Seeger has gained a place in the forefront of early modernists in America. Her music is marked by dissonant harmonies, angular melodies, stark changes in volume and texture, and forms that are often difficult to navigate. But there is a curious, indefinable quality to her compositions - both sad and optimistic - that serves to make many of her works engaging and enjoyable.

I favor Seeger's instrumental works. The exuberant Violin Sonata is a tightly wrought tour de force with a powerful dramatic sweep, and the Suite for Five Wind Instruments demonstrates her sure command of instrumentation and rhythmic development. The preludes for piano (Nos. 1 and 9) are absolute gems.

Seeger's songs are less impressive, although the two presented here - Three Songs on poems by Carl Sandburg and Two Ricercari on poems by H.T. Tsiang - are well known. Motivated by her leftist political convictions, the songs reflect a preoccupation with social concerns at the expense of craft.

Many music arbiters today long for a homogenous "classical" musical culture in the nostalgic hope of a resurgence of musical beauty and a return to simplicity in a complicated world. But these excellent discs demonstrate that a vast range of artistic outlooks can coexist and that each perspective adds an important patch to the quilt that is American music.

Hanson: A; Still: A; Seeger: A

Reviewer Bill F. Faucett's book "Music in America: Essays, Reviews and Remarks on Critical Issues, 1860-1918" will appear in 2008.