Musical ideas: an inner most language; Composer Peter Mennin

"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.

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?

Oh, absolutely. The hardest thing in the world is to look inside of oneself, not outside. Because you're then looking at yourself and evaluating: "Does this mean anything?" And I believe very much that every human being has something to express. Sometimes he may not have found the way to express it.The expression may not be in music; it may be in some other field. But if it is in music, the hard part is to look inside. The great masters have always done that, and great art is still a matter of great individuality.

One of the best ways of digesting things and looking for that true voice is always to keep writing -- even if you throw it away. But the very act of writing, putting that note on the staff, in many ways is a cure. to sit back and worry about it and notm put notes on the page contributes to the forming of blocks, and then it can become difficult to write. But to write something, even if you laugh at it -- well, you can laugh at it, because it's yours -- or throw it way . . . . The act of writing is terribly important.

Yes, I've known artists in many fields who will do just the opposite. They'll sit and chew their nails about something, as opposed to keeping things flowing.

You know, as soon as you write a note on a staff, no matter what it is, it is a commitment. But if you don't put that note down -- visibly where you can see it -- but instead keep it up here, in your head, there is still a barrier. That's why I write every day, Saturdays and Sundays included. That doesn't mean I use everything I write; there's a lot of preparation. Even when I'm writing a large symphonic work, by the time I'm finished over here [gestures], one wonders why I had to write all of this over there in order to get here. Couldn't there have been a shorter way?I don't know any shorter way.

Might I be nosy about some more of your work habits? Preferred time of day, for example?

I used to like to work at night, only because it was quiet. Now I get up early, when it is also still quiet, in order to work.

A very commonly asked question is whether or not a composer works at the piano.

I don't work at the piano.Actually, there are two reasons why I don't. For one, well, you can check an occasional vertical sonority [chord] that you happen to like or dislike, but working at the piano slows you down by focusing your attention on that immediate problem rather than treating it as a part of a musical vocabulary through which the larger composition goes. By this same token, though, I need much more quiet than a composer who does work at the keyboard. That's why I have to have a very quiet ambiance when I'm working, because little noises do disturb me.

The other reason is that I was born with perfect pitch, and I always took the "easy way out": since I heardm the sounds in my head, why bother to play them? Also, I treat sounds as words, as the means of expression, rather than sounds as ends in themselves, so that one note isn't so important in itself, with the rest of the composition losing in focus.

I wonder if perhaps you share some of my perceptions; for example, of tonality in music as related to semantics in language, as related to figurativism in painting; or rhythm as related to syntax, as related to visual composition.

Oh, yes. Over the years, I've written many orchestral works, but I've made a special emphasis on the symphonic form, which has always been close to me. In other words: I love to write a symphony. Now, a symphony to me is like a novel: it can be anything the imagination devises. It's a kind of world in itself.

If one were to examine, let's say, the very simple "language" that I used in my first three or four symphonies, compared with the last three, it's an enormous difference. But I would very much expect people who know my music to know that the same approach to writing was there, though the techniques may vary.

But, talking about syntax -- up until about three of four years ago, it was still considered old-fashioned to look at vertical sounds as merely part of the vocabulary. Apparently now, the newest thing is to do just that. It's coming around again.

You mean the emphasis on counterpoint?

Yes. Just in the last couple of years, the whole trend is in that direction. One is beginning to read about it, and the strange thing is that there have been a few of us who've never left in the first place.

People are discovering polyphony! A brand new thing!


Polyphony, tonality -- these are terms which might seem distant to many people. Can we work toward defining some of them? Tonality, for example.

Well, there are a lot of different kinds of tonality, from C major to using all 12 notes simultaneously. The question is, through that tonality, what are you expressing? It's like saying, "How important is E-flat major to Bee- thoven in the case of the Eroica Symphony?" Very. That E-flat major harmony is very necessary for him to get his major idea for the opening movement. But it's not "E-flat major" that's important, it's . . .

That's what important, because it has a strong shape. It also has the blessedness of simplicity, so that can use it many different ways.

A symphonist always has his major ideas on a very simple level, because it's the only way they can be manipulated in different ways, and still retain the shape so that when it's present in various forms, you can perceive it aurallym . The danger is that when you write simple ideas, they're so close to the border- line of banality. The symphonic road is a difficult road to walk, because you need simplicity of ideas -- in order to become complex! As well as for aural recognition purposes.

I find it hard to talk about tonality and rhythm, because in a sense I'd only be talking about mym tonality and mym rhythm. You see, for me, having tonality, bitonality, or sometimes total abstraction of sound is all part of one technique , and none of that is so important in itself. It must produce ideasm . Musical ideas. That'sm the thing nobody wants to talk about -- ideas!

To get back to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony -- if somebody starts analyzing the vertical harmonies, I'm not interested at all. Not at all. That's not what music's all about. If we were to talk about the work's opening idea, the E-flat major idea, or that lively connecting idea, which has a different personality, a different effect, a different rhythmic makeup . . . those are ideas. But to talk about E-flat major moving to A-flat major, on to C minor, is just to look at the underpinnings, not the real reasons that drove Beethoven on to write that symphony.

We were speaking before of trends -- an awesome and deadly business in creative work. Any more perspectives there?

What often happens with a major artist is that, if he is respected in his own time, he gets the respect but not the general popularity. There are many examples of this. You can be very well known, very respected, etc., but confusing to the general public until a much later date.

A figure like Berlioz, for example?

Very much so. Or even Debussy. Beethoven was highly respected in his day.

But not really understood.

Not until much later, when he really became a part of the reportoire.

On the other hand, you know, Mozart these days is considered the little god of music, and indeed he is. But even knowledgeable people in music keep forgetting that Mozart was quite conservative in his time.

He was writing during the twilight of a style.

Absolutely. So was Bach. But you know, the nonprofessionals like to think always of the composer as being vastly ahead of his time, not behind the times. But Brahms was way behind his time. Mendelssohn, Schumann, . . .But someone like Berlioz wasm in advance of his time. Debussy too, and Schonberg. We can point to both kinds of temperments. But the bottom line really is: were they speaking with their own voices? And the answer is, Yes, indeed they were. That's what made them major composers.

So, my wish is that concertgoers, musicians, everybody, would not be concerned with what is ahead of the times, behind the times, or anything like that. They should listen in music for that which arouses them viscerallym , as well as intellectually. I mean, the enjoyment of music has to visceral as well. Without that, you're bored. The reason Beethoven and Mozart still give us a great deal of enjoyment is that you get a visceral reaction from the music.

Take, for example, the opening of Bach's B-minor Mass: yes, it's put together with a great deal of intellectual involvement, but that's not what keeps you going back to it. That's how it's put together; but the reason you go back is because immediately, on hearing the sound, he pulls you along, and you listen.m You have no choice. And that's the difference between a major composer and a minor one, or one that's forgotten along the way. A major composer always means a visceral reaction, a physical involvement. You can't resist that. It's either very beautiful, very dramatic, very elevated, . . . And I can't see why contemporary music can't emulate the principle -- not the sound, but the principle -- of physical involvement.

The second half of this interview will appear on tomorrow's Home Forum page.m

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