Graded on a Curve: Composer-Critics of
the New York Herald Tribune

Other Minds Records’ new CD Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune reissues recordings made from 1953 to ’55 for Columbia Masterworks’ Modern American Music Series; it illuminates a still vibrant thread in the classical music of the 20th century with particular emphasis given to the substantial dual success of Virgil Thomson. The booklet contains two enlightening essays by Thomson alongside informative descriptions of work by Paul Bowles, Lou Harrison, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, John Cage, and Thomson himself by Charles Amirkhanian. This enriching, detailed, yet easily digestible collection is available now.

As I soaked up the 1960 Nouvelle Vague cornerstone À bout de soufflé, I had no prior knowledge of the New York Herald Tribune’s existence, and so upon hearing Jean Seberg’s character Patricia hawking copies on the Champs-Élysées, my kneejerk reaction was that the newspaper was a fictive creation of the film’s maker Jean-Luc Godard.

This was circa 1990, and by that point the publication had been defunct for nearly 25 years. Eventually, I was clued in to reality, specifically due to an interest in 20th century classical, of which the compositions and writings of Virgil Thomson are intrinsically connected. As the notes to this fine set explain, Thomson’s combined efforts came not without controversy. Making music and writing about it have traditionally been practiced by separate, sometimes hostile camps, but Thomson boldly flouted convention, and his importance is directly related to his combined success as reviewer and critic.

A main issue was potential conflicts of interest, but as the history of music journalism has shown, one not need by a musician to fall victim to this scenario. Another problem was bias, which is ludicrous in retrospect as individual preferences are inescapable. Bluntly, as a rock-bored ’90s music hound neck-deep in the fanzine/ u-ground press, a milieu where players often moonlighted as scribes, reading of Thomson’s role as composer-critic bothered me not one bit.

It obviously didn’t trouble the Herald Tribune either; as the paper’s chief critic, Thomson was responsible for hiring others, and as this CD illustrates, a strikingly distinguished bunch of composer-writers flourished under his tenure. There was prior experience, with all the figures included here except Granville-Hicks having published for the Aaron Copland-related periodical Modern Music, and the list of composer critics extends to Elliott Carter, Arthur Berger, Lester Trimble, William Flanagan, and notably Goddard Lieberson, who Thomson hired as a writer in 1942.

Lieberson went on to work as an executive at Columbia, where he sat on a committee of composers chaired by Thomson dedicated to getting contemporary classical material onto the new LP format. This disc represents a portion of the results. Amongst the most striking are the selections by Paul Bowles, in large part due to the recent discovery of the workprint of the silent film component in Orson Welles’ abandoned hybrid Mercury Theater performance of the play Too Much Johnson.

Bowles’ contribution to Too Much Johnson was intended to accompany filmed portions designed to advance the action between scenes, but a lukewarm preview (importantly, given sans films) put the production on the back burner where it was never retrieved. Bowles then adapted his score into the brief (at 12 minutes) yet satisfying eight movement suite Music from a Farce, which originally shared an LP with work by composer Norman Dello Joio.

The CD’s notes cite the influence of jazz and Kurt Weill, both of which are easily discernable, but perhaps the most applicable commentary included is sourced from a 1954 review in High Fidelity, with Alfred Frankenstein describing the contents as “shrewdly colored to suggest old-time movie music.” Indeed, the suite dates from 1938, which if less than a decade after the development of synchronized sound, was more than enough time to cultivate nostalgia for the pre-talkie form.

Furthermore, Welles intended the films to resemble the Mack Sennett-style comedy shorts from the mid-’10s; that Bowles manages to recollect this filmic era without succumbing to the oft-annoying corn-shtick of retro silent scoring is a major achievement. With the rediscovered workprint, it’s easy to understand how Bowles got there, but credit is also due to the recording’s players, which include David Glazer on clarinet and Herbert C. Mueller on trumpet, their instruments deepening the aforementioned jazziness while avoiding the thorniness of cultural appropriation.

Lou Harrison’s contribution also has its roots in a film score, specifically for a movie (quoting the Columbia LP’s original notes as found in the CD booklet) “on the subject of the prehistoric paintings of the Lascaux Caves in France,” though his composition ultimately wasn’t used. That’s probably for the better, as Suite for Cello and Harp is a gem of fluid duo interaction that hasn’t dated a bit.

The passed-over score is only a portion of the whole, constituting “Movement I,” a Chorale (and its reprise, V) and “II,” a Pastorale; the entirety derives from a variety of early works assembled with cellist Seymour Barab and harpist Lucille Lawrence in mind. It’s easy to surmise that this personal connection heightens the work’s power, but the notes establish a possible basis in the French proto-minimalist Erik Satie.

Upon their arrival in NYC, Thomson hipped Harrison and John Cage to the richness of Satie’s work, a gesture of no small import; Cage reacted with three pieces, including the well-known In a Landscape. Just as interesting, Thomson’s generosity in exposing friends, colleagues, and readers to contemporary artistic developments is a trait that carried over to his composing.

His Capital Capitals sets to music a text by Gertrude Stein, utilizing four vocalists (two tenors, a baritone, and a bass) and piano, and in the process, relaxes the formidable aura surrounding a linchpin of undiluted Modernism. With the emphasis clearly on voice, Thomson tackles a professed difficulty of the English language set to music, and does so with a piece of writing prime for the avoidance of the clichéd realization of musical moods when applied to text.

Thomson employs the recitative style of delivery from trad opera, but revitalizes it through not firmly defining the rhythm; the result is a 17-minute piece that’s exciting rather than stuffy and key for the composer-critic, surprising. Absent is the drear falsely attributed to the Modernists through decades of dull teaching. It’s also worth noting the recording’s four African-American vocalists, the quartet having previously performed Thomson’s Stein opera project Four Saints in Three Acts.

The names listed on the cover here have generally remained high of profile, and if it’s inaccurate to assess the Australian-born, London-educated (where she studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams) and American citizen Peggy Glanville-Hicks as forgotten, it’s necessary to add that she’s considerably lesser known than her fellow composer-critics. To elaborate, Sonata for Piano and Percussion is getting its first-time reissue here, and is the only piece found in this set to have suffered such neglect.

To comprehend the undeserving nature and inherent sexism of this circumstance, all it takes is a listen; audibly descended from George Antheil’s similarly percussive Ballet Mécanique of 1924 (which provided the score to Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s avant-garde film of the same title), Glanville-Hicks wholly embraces the dominant role of the rhythmic ensemble on this recording performed by the NY Percussion Group.

Akin to the entries by Bowles and Harrison, Glanville-Hicks’ piece sounds relatively conventional today. This in no way diminishes the value, but they do sit in contrast to Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts; one of this disc’s few predictable facets is that Cage inhabits the left extreme of the spectrum. That this selection was side 12 in a set of six LP’s solidly underscores its ability at provocation and Columbia’s savvy in including it.

And yet for those with a surface acquaintance with Cage as a Zen-like disruptor of convention, the music, at once tonally sharp and (in Glanville-Hicks’ word choice) tranquil, structurally unconventional and, especially in its final movement, highly familiar, endures as a highlight from the composer’s youthful days, with deserved praise for the execution of the New Music String Quartet.

In summation, the clarity of these pre-stereo recordings is quite impressive, as is the amount of information included. Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune serves as a fitting tribute to the breakthroughs of Thomson and his peers, with the music easily transcending historical interest. A 2LP edition would be nice, as would a second volume focusing on the composer-critics not included here.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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