In 1923, the League of Composers was formed to promote, commission, and bring to performance works by living composers. Basically a New York-based enterprise, its founding board contained only one native-born composer, Emerson Whithorne. The others' names don't loom very large today: Arthur Bliss, Louis Gruenberg, Leo Ornstein, Lazare Saminsky. Numerous latter-day musical luminaries did join the league shortly thereafter, however. Its official organ, set up the year after its founding, was a journal at first called the League of Composers' Review, which soon changed its name to the one by which it is well known, Modern Music.
Minna Lederman, a journalist who had a music degree, became Modern Music's first and only editor. The present volume is her affectionate retrospective on the 22 years of its existence, replete with substantial excerpts and illustrations from that remarkable publication. In addition, it offers plenty of food for thought about where music has come.
''Ubiquitous altruism'' is the phrase used by Minna Lederman to describe New York's aesthetic climate during the stimulating 1920s, what with this or that group, league, society, or alliance springing up continually on behalf of some social or artistic cause. Modern Music, in that heyday of the ''little magazine, '' was certainly a leader when it came to taking in and digesting (readably) the whirlwind pace of innovation in art music of the period. It constantly sought out ''coverage'' of musical developments around the world - fascinating accounts of music in Germany and Austria up through and beyond the Anschluss - although to a degree the accent fell, inevitably, more on American contributors.
Quite an incredible assortment of notables contributed to the journal over the years. Among the household-word names whose work is reprinted in this book are Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Piston, Lincoln Kirstein, Roger Sessions, Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, and Darius Milhaud. Other writers whose reputations have, for one reason or another, slipped from the heights they once enjoyed include Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, Theodore Chanlercq, Edwin Denby, Conlon Nancarrow, George Antheil, and Colin McPhee.
''The Life and Death of a Small Magazine'' makes sparkling reading, on the whole, for a monograph of its nature. Lederman's succinct commentary is woven chronologically through the book's march of reprinted article excerpts, filling in gaps in the history with knowing, sometimes witty bits of narration.
If such a volume takes itself too seriously, it can easily become a Festschrift with a very narrow reader range. Lederman's rather lively chronicle never turns dry, however, and I suppose it is likely to find at least as wide an audience of today as did her magazine.
Could a magazine like that exist today? one keeps wondering. In our far different, advocacy-ridden milieu, would there be any justification for such a periodical? And how could it possibly purport to represent anything like the gamut of our crazy-quilt 20th-century music? In these times of mind-boggling overproduction in every phase of art music, a work like Lederman's borders on the surreal.
During the early years, when its readers numbered only a few hundred, there were perhaps not more than 50 American composers devoting their major effort to writing what was then called ''serious'' music. In 1922 Edgard Varese had even advertised for new composers to come out of hiding and declare themselves. In 1946 when the circulation of Modern Music passed the 3,000 mark - then a large figure for a little magazine - there were perhaps only 300 to 400 such composers in America.
Modern Music met a tragic demise in 1946. What had been born in the '20s as the meek communications arm of the fearless League of Composers had, by the '40s , risen in stature far beyond the splintering parent board. Yet, at the same time, the magazine found it too difficult to make a go of grant-supported autonomy. The fractious situation within the league at that time was undoubtedly the precursor of the conditions that today would preclude such a magazine altogether.
What was perhaps the most remarkable thing about Modern Music, by today's standards, was that it was written largely by composers themselves, for the general public. The composer-author, although he may still exist as a species today, is not before the public in anything like the way he was a few generations ago. Partly because of the general paucity of a proper forum for exploratory musical discussion and because of the daily and monthly press's ingrained suspicion about trained people writing about their own art, the public has little opportunity nowadays to come into contact with music journalism that is lucidly written from the inside out.
There was much good-natured, catholic enthusiasm in Modern Music's contents. As a final point of comparison with today, if there was any back-knifing going on within its pages, the very least that can be said is that it was done in an era when the most graceful masks were always worn.
Modern Music's articles themselves bear reading and rereading. Coupled with the indexes to the magazine, which have existed for some time, ''The Life and Death of a Small Magazine'' makes an excellent companion. It represents one more in the impressive line of monographs put out by Brooklyn College's Institute for Studies in American Music.