About this Recording
8.559718 - MENNIN, P.: Moby Dick / Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Peter Mennin (1923–1983)
Moby Dick • Symphony No 3 • Symphony No 7 ‘Variation-Symphony’


Peter Mennin was a leading member of the school of American symphonic composers who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, a group that also includes David Diamond, William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti, among others. Born Peter Mennini, in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1923, he began musical studies at the age of seven and soon demonstrated an aptitude for composition. He attended the Oberlin College Conservatory for two years, beginning in 1939, but interrupted his schooling for military service during World War II. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned bachelor, master and doctoral degrees.

During his student years Mennin composed three symphonies. A performance of the third of these works in 1947, by the New York Philharmonic, helped secure his reputation as one of the leading American composers of his generation. The same year, he joined the composition faculty of The Juilliard School, in New York. With that appointment Mennin embarked on a distinguished career as an educator that paralleled his work as a composer. He taught at Juilliard until 1958, when he left to become Director of the Peabody Conservatory, in Baltimore. He returned to Juilliard as President of the school in 1962 and remained in that post until his death, in 1983. All the while Mennin continued to compose. He was not a prolific creator but produced carefully crafted scores, most of them large-scale works for orchestra. His nine symphonies constitute the core of his output.

Early in his career, Mennin established the tone of his musical rhetoric as sober and intense, and it grew more so as he matured. Indeed, his later works evolved a complex and somewhat austere tonal language that strengthened considerably their emotional impact. Many of his mature compositions intimate a tragic vision, and nearly all of his orchestral pieces present “pure” or “abstract” music, carrying no programmatic or other literary references. The single exception is Mennin’s Concertato for Orchestra, subtitled “Moby Dick.”

This piece originated when Mennin was approached about collaborating on an opera based on Herman Melville’s famous novel. As a result of this proposal, the composer reread Moby Dick. In the event, he decided against composing an opera on the subject. But Melville’s powerful tale cast its spell on him, and when he received a commission to write a piece for the Philharmonic Orchestra of his native city, Erie, he responded with a composition evidently inspired by the novel. Mennin insisted that the Concertato, which he completed in 1952, did not attempt to relate a musical narrative based on Moby Dick. The piece “depicts the emotional impact of the novel as a whole,” he explained, “rather than musically describing isolated incidents occurring in the novel.”

The Concertato’s single movement follows a familiar design: an introduction in slow tempo leading to a swiftly moving main body of music. The former section begins with a single tone sustained high in the register of the violins. Woodwinds add a few measures of enigmatic harmonies, to which the strings answer with a somber theme, richly harmonized and quietly stated. There follows a succession of loose variations on this theme. Among other things, Mennin embroiders it with a countermelody for flute and later creates from it a proliferating contrapuntal fabric of string sound. This last development builds to a great crescendo and acceleration that pulls the entire orchestra into its current and leads to the principal Allegro portion of the piece.

Here two themes come into play. The first, stated at once by the strings, is closely related to the subject of the introduction. The second, appearing hardly a moment later in the high woodwinds, is a saucy tune with the character of a sea shanty. Mennin now proceeds to develop these two ideas in music of tremendous energy and drama, and marked by vigorous and skillfuly wrought counterpoint, this last being a distinguishing trait of the composer’s music as a whole.

In 1945 Mennin was awarded the first George Gershwin Memorial Award for his Second Symphony, and a portion of that work was performed by the New York Philharmonic under the young Leonard Bernstein. This success prompted the Philharmonic to schedule the premiere performance of Mennin’s next symphony, which he completed on his 23rd birthday, in 1946. With its initial performance, in February of the following year, the piece proved no less successful than the Second Symphony, leading to the composer’s appointment at Juilliard and the beginning of a long string of commissions.

Mennin cast his Third Symphony in a traditional design of three movements arranged in a fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement opens in dramatic fashion, with an arresting fanfare and a propulsive theme related to it. Percussive accents and nervous rhythms contribute to the sense of strong momentum created by this subject. A second theme, broad and flowing, soon appears in the violins. Mennin then develops these two ideas in tandem, showing already something of the contrapuntal flair that would become such a conspicuous facet of his music. Most of the movement accords with the composer’s tempo indication, Allegro robusto, but the final moments bring an unexpectedly tranquil conclusion.

Mennin described the second movement as “an extended song…making use of sustained voice-weaving.” A mood of quiet and sober meditation prevails, some swelling of volume and passion late in the movement notwithstanding. The finale begins quietly but soon attains a degree of energy comparable to that of the opening movement. Once again, irregular rhythms and continuous contrapuntal play of different thematic ideas keep the proceedings lively and engaging, and the symphony concludes on a note of exultation.

Mennin composed his Seventh Symphony for a commission by The Cleveland Orchestra, which gave the work’s first performance, conducted by its longtime music director George Szell, in January 1964. This composition unfolds in a single movement, though with several clearly defined sections, and bears the subtitle Variation-Symphony. Its structure, however, in no way resembles traditional theme-and-variations form, with its succession of strophic paraphrases of a single subject melody. Instead, it employs variations of its thematic material within a supple symphonic framework.

The Symphony begins in slow tempo and with what Mennin described as a “ruminative” theme in the deep voices of the cellos and basses. Variations and extensions of this idea bring other parts of the orchestra into play and lead to an initial climax, whereupon the music returns quietly to the string choir. Once more there is a slow buildup of sonority and tension. At length, the string figures take on an angry aspect through more forceful phrases, jagged rhythms and louder dynamics; brass and timpani add emphatic punctuation. Eventually, the entire orchestra is drawn into the proceedings as the music rises to another climax. In its wake are only quiet harmonies in the strings and brief laments from a seemingly forlorn pair of flutes.

Suddenly the tempo shifts to a quick-paced Allegro for the second part of the composition. Here the stern tone introduced toward the end of the preceding section becomes the dominant mood, one that a more lyrical idea, introduced by the woodwinds, cannot dispel. As he does so often, Mennin combines his themes in complex and extraordinarily energetic counterpoint. Also typically, the music builds to a dramatic climax, then suddenly grows quiet. At this point we hear a varied reprise of the “ruminative” declaration by the low strings that began the composition.

This, in turn, leads to a delicate Andante section, corresponding to the symphony’s slow movement. A brief acceleration leads into the final portion of the work. It begins as a fast-paced finale, but Mennin’s conception is more complex. Several slow episodes, including another explicit recollection of the symphony’s initial moments, interrupt the music’s headlong flow before it reaches a final buildup and conclusive climax.

Paul Schiavo

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