About this Recording
FECD-0013 - MENNIN: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 / Cello Concerto
English 

Peter Mennin

Peter Mennin

 

During the 1950s, when most American composers found themselves in often very antagonistic factions - neoromantics, serialists or downtown experimentalists - Peter Mennin (1923-1983) plowed a completely different almost lone compositional path based on the relentlessly developing motivic counterpoint of Renaissance masses which remained tonal, though often dissonant and hardly romantic. Like earlier Northeastern Italian-American symphonists, such as Walter Piston (1894-1976) born Pistone and Paul Creston (1906-1985) born Giuseppe Guttoveggio, Mennin also shortened his name (from Mennini) but not his penchant for expansive melody.

 

Highly precocious and initially self-taught, Mennin started his first orchestral piece at eleven and completed his first symphony before his 19th birthday. Mennin’s Third Symphony, finished on his 23rd birthday, catapulted him to national success. Initially written in completion of his PhD requirements for the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Howard Hanson, the work was performed by the New York Philharmonic the following year, leading directly to Mennin’s appointment to the composition faculty of The Juilliard School, a curious turn of fate for an autodidactic compositional loner.

 

That turn of fate would lead to even greater artistic challenges for Mennin who in 1962  became Juilliard’s President, a post he held for an unprecedented 21 years until his sudden death. As President, Mennin oversaw the school establish its home at Lincoln Center and was responsible for the creation of Juilliard’s Drama Department as well as a permanent program for conductors. Mennin also chaired the National Music Council, served on ASCAP’s Board of Directors and the U.S. State Department Advisory Committee on the Arts. At the same time, Mennin continued to develop as a densely contrapuntal composer of major symphonic works, ultimately leaving behind a legacy of some 30 large-scale compositions including nine symphonies, and concertos for cello, piano and flute.

 

Those combined legacies make Mennin’s tragically short life an inspiring model of achievement and balance. Yet, unfortunately, his phenomenal successes as a musical administrator completely overshadowed his equally formidable successes as a composer. But now, twenty years after he died, Mennin’s highly individualistic music has been reaching listeners in new and re-issued recordings of many of his most important compositions. The premiere recordings of three of his most important orchestral works from the decade prior to his assuming Juilliard’s Presidency, which was not surprisingly his most productive period as a composer, are featured on this current disc which offers a compelling case for a serious re-assessment of his compositional output.

 

- Frank J. Oteri

 

Frank J. Oteri is a NYC-based composer and the Editor of NewMusicBox, the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award-winning Web magazine from the American Music Center (www.newmusicbox.org).

 

 

Symphony No. 5

 

Mennin’s Fifth Symphony, the most immediately appealing work featured here, is also the earliest. Completed in 1950 and premiered by the Dallas Symphony prior to the composer’s 27th birthday, the symphony brims with youthful enthusiasm and exuberance. The forceful opening movement, Con Vigore, sets up the symphony’s cascading polyphony from the opening measures and is terse and compact, clocking in at under five minutes. The second movement, Canto, begins with a haunting oboe melody supported by strings that gradually spreads through the rest of the winds until the full orchestra is engaged, transforming the movement’s initial serenity into intensely expansive music before returning to calmness. The concluding Allegro Tempestuoso is an exciting non-stop roller-coaster ride of interlocking voices propelled by throbbing timpani. Ideas from the opening movement are hinted at without being repeated, creating an overall listening experience that is unified without being redundant.

 

- Frank J. Oteri

 

The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition LP release:

 

Each of the movements has its own basic character, and achieves contrast within itself through the musical materials and textures rather than from changes in tempo. This is not unlike the principle that guided composers of the Renaissance. The basic aim of this work is expressivity. Therefore, there is a great emphasis placed on the broad melodic line, and little use of color for color’s sake. Orchestrally speaking, the colors used are primary rather than pastel in quality. Hense the work as a whole is direct, assertive and terse in communication. A brief analysis follows:

 

I. The first movement opens dramatically in a declamatory fashion with heavy punctuation. A broad melodic line follows, which spins out autogenetically, and which allows itself different textural presentations. These ideas are developed polyphonically, with occasional interruptions by the opening declamatory idea.

 

II. The second movement, as the title, ‘Canto’ suggests, is an extended song bringing out the singing qualities of the orchestra. Much use of sustained string writing is used. After a quiet opening section, the polyphonic weaving of the orchestral textures culminate in a broad passage of unison strings and climax one of the most intense moments in the symphony. The work slowly returns to the calm opening and ends quietly. The basic mood of this movement is reflective and suppliant.

 

III. The last movement is one of rapid and bare linear writing set off by brass and percussive punctuation. It makes greater technical demands than the earlier movements. The basic girder of the movement is an idea in canon that has numerous variations in rhythm and mood. The movement closes with sounds similar to the opening of the first movement.

 

The Fifth Symphony is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, tympani, percussion and strings.

 

- Peter Mennin

 

 

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

 

The Cello Concerto, the earliest of his three mature concertos (discounting a very early Concertino for flute and strings composed in Mennin’s 21st year), is the most recent of the three works presented here. Composed in 1956 on a commission from The Juilliard School to honor its 50th anniversary, the work is a stunning exercise in compositional craft proving that modern symphonic compositional rigor can be masterly combined with spotlighting a virtuosic soloist in an effective showcase, a model with few peers until the extraordinary recent concertos of Elliott Carter composed in this past decade. The opening Allegro moderato begins deceptively like a Mennin symphony, with the various families of the orchestra engaged in polyphonic debate for over a minute until the cello finally enters with a long, plaintive melody. Various combinations ensue, eventually leading to an extremely effective extended cadenza which really makes the cello sing. The second movement, Adagio, which contains some of Mennin’s most heart-wrenching music, which here is all the more effective in the extremely moving performance of the legendary Janos Starker. But the final Allegro Vivace is the real showstopper here, filled with drama and suspense. Cello soloists pay heed: this music is an ideal career vehicle!

 

- Frank J. Oteri

 

The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition LP release:

 

I. Allegro moderato - Flute and bassoons present a soft melodic line, followed by a second melodic line in the strings. They are extended and developed in the orchestra before the third contrasting idea is presented. The soloist enters and proceeds in an authoritive elaboration of the initial idea before developing the various ideas in combination with the orchestra in polyphonic textures. After a prolonged orchestral, the solo cello has an extended cadenza - coda in which the various musical ideas are presented in new ways, before closing the movement.

 

II. Adagio - The main musical idea is first presented in the strings and is a long extended melodic line in a harmonic setting. The cello enters for a series of variation-like passages, generally related to the thematic material, but distinct from it. Variation technique and not variation form, is at the basis of this cantabile movement. The solo cello and orchestra complement in different ways during the course of this movement.

 

III. Allegro vivace - This movement opens with a flourish and prepares for the entrance of the cello statement of a toccata-like figure which is then repeated and developed as the movement unfolds. A broad, dramatic melodic idea forms a contrasting musical idea which is modified and elaborated upon by both the cello and orchestra. The effect of the finale is toccata-like, virtuoso in its demands on the soloist and orchestra, and comes to a close with a final gathering of musical ideas presented in a highly rhythmic and propulsive manner.

 

- Peter Mennin

 

 

Symphony No. 6

 

The Sixth Symphony, composed three years earlier in 1953 on a commission from the Louisville Orchestra, was Mennin’s densest composition to date and was a harbinger of the path that he would take in his later compositions. Unabashedly uneasy listening, the original program notes for the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition LP proudly proclaim the work to be “tremendously serious” and “devoid of frivolity, of slickness, of a deliberate bid for popularity.” It sounds like the work of a much older, more mature composer yet was written in Mennin’s 30th year! That said, the work is not without its aural rewards to attentive listeners.

 

The symphony’s opening movement, Maestoso-Allegro, opens quietly, as if the heavens are opening up, gradually picking up steam until the turbulence created by battling lines of counterpoint is anything but heavenly. The second movement, aptly titled Grave, returns the mood to calm but is almost dirge-like in its emotionally restrained starkness. In the closing Allegro Vivace, the turbulence of the opening returns, eventually culminating in an almost triumphant proclamation, proving that Mennin’s youthful enthusiasm and exuberance, though now tempered, is still very much a part of his identity as a composer. That enthusiasm and exuberance, balanced with an unflinching craft, have earned Mennin the well-deserved moniker of “composer’s composer.”

 

— -rank J. Oteri

 

The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition LP release:

 

The symphony is largely contrapuntal in style; this often results in a density of sound that has a parallel in an impasto style of applying paint thickly to canvas to give depth to the color. This contrapuntal style contrasts with a transparency of sound. Light in texture, thinly scored - Mr. Mennin used the Maestro Introduction to the first movement, and the section in it for strings alone as examples of this more open manner of writing.

 

When asked if he had any special intent in using the word Grave for the slow movement of the Symphony, Mr. Mennin said that he had called it Grave “because the music was conceived with long singing melodic lines. It is a simple movement; I have not used color for color’s sake to give contrast in the orchestration per se, but have used it only in reference to something essentially musical.”

 

The last movement is a combination of Scherzo and Finale. It is a starkly rhythmic movement, the antithesis of the singing melodic emphasis of the Grave. There is an immense propulsion, an unflagging intensity and drive in the movement, until just before the long Coda. Here again the writing is contrapuntal “incorporating not only materials of the last movement, but several ideas originally stated in the Introduction to the first movement.”

 

This is not to imply that the symphony is cyclic, but that a certain figure, an ostinato heard in the violas in the quiet Introduction, becomes a powerful element in the Finale. The drive of the 9/8 rhythm of the Allegro vivace scherzo-like section relaxes somewhat in a slower chorale in 4/2 time, but as the Coda is reached, the drive is resumed, transformed; the tonal edifice has been erected and stands proudly at the close of the Symphony.

 

- Fanny Brandeis, edited by the composer

 

 


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