American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.