Peter Mennin’s music is notable for its expressive power, its individual voice, and its single-minded sense of purpose. Though thoroughly devoid of frivolity, coloristic effects, and romantic sentiment, it is not dispassionately intellectual either. His output of thirty works comprises large, absolute forms almost exclusively, of which nine are symphonies. As Mennin himself had expressed: "I love to write a symphony. I need to write in large forms; I like a big canvas. A symphony is not something that can be tossed off over a weekend. It is cultivated by those who believe in it."
Although his mature compositional career spanned almost four decades, his works do not fall into discrete style-periods. Rather, his output is remarkable for its continuous chronological development along a powerful—and rather specific—continuum. That is, the chief compositional concerns that formed the basis of his style were apparent quite early, and continued to evolve throughout his career; listening to each work in chronological succession reveals few if any abrupt shifts in style. However, if one compares, say, the Third Symphony, which evinces a sense of confident determination, with the Ninth, composed thirty-five years later, and then traces the steps in between, one cannot help but perceive a continuous process of compression and increasing intensification of expression. Yet the essential characteristics, discernible in the earliest works, remain present throughout.
Mennin acknowledged no conscious influences on his compositional style, other than the polyphonic choral works of the Renaissance. However, some listeners have heard in his earlier works the contrapuntal energy of Hindemith, as well as something of the lofty grandeur of the Vaughan Williams symphonies. Whether these are influences or indications of a coincidental kinship is a moot point. The most salient characteristic of Mennin’s mature symphonic style is the approach he adapted from Renaissance choral music: a continuous unfolding of polyphonic lines through imitative counterpoint, rather than the more conventional dialectical opposition and integration of contrasting themes. Indeed, Mennin emphasized counterpoint above all other elements, with much use of imitation, canon, ground bass, ostinato, stretto, cantus firmus, and the like. This approach is readily apparent in the noble, full-breathed lyricism of Mennin’s slow movements. But its application in faster music creates an effect vastly different from the serene spirituality of the 16th-century masters: A bustling undercurrent of rapid activity creates a constant sense of nervous energy, while strongly-felt bass-lines carry the music along with unswerving determination. The imitative counterpoint often occurs in rhythmic augmentation and diminution, so that the same material may be treated canonically at three or four different speeds at once. Mennin’s thematic motifs display a certain characteristic gesture: boldly assertive, with a syncopated thrust that ends in a “Scotch snap.” But it is largely his irregular, highly accented rhythmic drive that marks Mennin’s music as identifiably “American.”
Despite his typically American treatment of rhythm, Mennin’s music shows an overall affinity with that of some of the northern-European symphonists. Its roots lie not only in the polyphonic choral music of the Renaissance, but also in the counterpoint of J. S. Bach, and in the metaphysical drama of Beethoven. It is a form of expression that strives for neither the perfection, balance, or beauty of the Apollonian classical ideal, nor for the intimate confession of personal feeling and emotion so beloved of the romantics. His music develops abstract ideas logically and coherently while seeming to allude to profound existential issues in an individual way, without recourse to extramusical references, but as if from a lofty, somewhat depersonalized perspective—an approach shared by few other American composers. There is no mistaking Mennin’s own individual creative personality, apparent throughout his body of work, and characterized by the quest to depict an intense inner drama through thoroughly abstract means. His mature compositions seem to reflect the sober contemplation of ferocious conflict among wild, massive forces in ceaseless turbulence, escalating in intensity toward cataclysmic explosions of almost manic brutality— all articulated through clear musical logic and meticulous craftsmanship. (He commented, “I am concerned with having an unassailable technique.” “Music reflects the soul of the composer,” he believed, “and there is such a thing as soul. Music must have drama.”)
Many listeners hear in Mennin’s music the sense of inevitability and cathartic exaltation engendered by works like the Third and Fifth Symphonies of Beethoven. His slow movements, on the other hand, reveal a Bach-like dignity, and a sense of deep feeling, eloquently expressed.
- Walter Simmons