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Musical ideas: an inner most language; Composer Peter Mennin

July 29, 1981



"If the listener is bored, why should anyone ask him to listen?" So reasons American composer Peter Mennin, who has composed some of this century's least boring music.

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Beginning with his postwar graduate days at the Eastman School of Music, Peter Mennin rose with astonishing speed to the status of a composer to be reckoned with (but also gladly listened to). This, in an era of American artistic history unrivaled for fertility and achievement, and packed with eminent creative personalities. His doctoral thesis, the Third Symphony, was taken up and recorded by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic soon after its completion (in 1946), and awards, grants, commissions, and performances lost no time in finding him. He had written six symphonies by ge 30. Mennin joined the faculty of the Juilliard School in 1947, where he remained until 1958, when he became the director of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1962 he returned to Juilliard, this time to succeed William Schuman as president, a position in which he remains.

Mennin's symphonies now total nine, and he is at work on an opera (his first) , as well as continuing in a host of adjunct activities, from the Naumburg Foundation to the US State Department Advisory Committee on the Arts.

Awards for Mr. Mennin's music have been numerous, and commissions have come from orchestras in Cleveland, Dallas, and Louisville and from the Coolidge Foundation, the ABC and NBC networks, and the Ford Foundation, among others.

The hallmarks of Peter Mennin's persuasive music have always been the long, singing melodic line coupled with an incredible rhythmic drive. Mr. Mennin happens to be one of the few composers of our time whose works are truly unmistakable for anyone else's.

Equally true is the observation that he has managed to fuse a commitment to the highest symphonic ideals to his conviction that the knowledgeable listener must be involved, spoken to, and satisfied.

An affable, gentle man, he balances composing and administrative duties, which he describes as "taxing but manageable." His gentleness notwithstanding, he is possessed of precise opinions on the subject of truth in musical statements. In his sunny, spacious studio/office at Juilliard, Mr. Mennin recently reflected on the qualities of constancy and growth in his music, while sharing some of his views on the creative process and the importance, in composers, of many kinds of integrity. Talking with him was David Owens, assistant editor of The Home Forum.m

In talking about the creative process in music, I am constantly reminded of Jacques Barzun's statement, "Taste was a sure instrument when style was single." Do you feel this relates to today's climate for composing serious concert music?

I think that it is very difficult right now for a young composer to find the language that suits him. There are so many pressures from all points of view, and it takes an awful lot of determination to ignore so many things. There has to be. A style, a personal conviction, is just as much what you don't do, as what you do.

There have been times recently when, in many of the arts, there was only one "truth," or style, and whosoever didn't follow the rules had virtually no career at all. Now, of course, that has changed somewhat into more of a grab-bag ethic.

At the very bottom, one has to understand, "Why am I writing, painting, composing -- creating -- in the first place?" Well, it's really to express something that you feel deeply within yourself, and you're finding the means of expression in order to do that. But the substancem has to be your own. The means you can learn; the substance you can't.

You can teach a young composition student the mechanics of composition, or point him in many different directions and perhaps make him acquainted with possibilities which hadn't occurred to him. But the substancem of what he believes in you can't give him. He either has it or he hasn't. That part you don't teach in composition. I think the value of a teacher lies in his ability to graft onto that young composer at an early stage the fact that he must believe in what he has to say -- to encourage him to believe in himself.

There's an important role played by courage in all this, isn't there?