The music of Peter Mennin is available from:
LIST OF WORKS
String Quartet No. 1 (1941, withdrawn)
Alleluia (SATB) (1941), Performed 1992 by New York Concert Singers, Judith Clurman, Director
Symphony No. 1 (1942, withdrawn)
Concertino for Flute, Strings, and Percussion (1945), 12 minutes
Premiere: J. Mariano, A. Jensen, Eastman-Rochester Chamber Orchestra, cond. by Howard Hanson (April, 1945)
The Concertino comprises two movements, the first slow, the second fast. It opens with muted strings in free counterpoint until the flute enters, when the treatment becomes more homophonic. The movement ends with a reference to the opening. The second movement, Presto, begins with a snare-drum passage. Largely in 12/8 meter throughout, this section develops rapid conjoint lines in triplets. A slower section appears toward the end, suggesting the opening movement, before an abbreviated return of the Presto material brings the work to its conclusion. The composer noted, “At the time, the flute and the snare drum seemed to me to be both an unusual and a natural combination. The idea of the two instruments answering each other in a conversation is the basic premise of the work. That idea is born in the Larghetto introduction and is more fully developed in the second [Presto] movement.” What is perhaps most striking about the Concertino from the perspective of Mennin’s later works, is its generally mild, subdued character, maintained throughout.
Symphony No. 2 (1945), 27 minutes
Premiere: New York Philharmonic, cond. by L. Bernstein (March, 1945)
Awards: First Gershwin Memorial Prize for Symphonic Allegro Movement, Bearns Prize from Columbia for entire symphony
It is noteworthy that despite the symphony’s success, Mennin decided to withdraw it from further public performance (although it is equally noteworthy that shortly before his death, the composer lifted the ban on performances of this work). The work comprises three substantial movements, in a fast-slow-fast sequence, revealing many of the characteristics of American symphonies of its time. The first movement, Allegro deciso, already reveals Mennin’s distinctive compulsion for constant contrapuntal and rhythmic activity. The second movement, Andante moderato, treats material whose contours are more “generically American” than personal and distinctive. The third movement, Allegro vigoroso, returns to the character of the opening.
"Young Mennin’s music titled “Symphonic Allegro” is above average for prize winning music. The lad knows orchestral terrain like a book and he keeps good order amid teeming content. There are no dull patches. The style is fast but not furious with not too much stress on the tougher vanguard idiom. What mood there is seems jubilant. A recurring rhythmic figure darts in and out of the scheme like a rabbit.”
- L. Biancoli, New York World Telegram, March, 1945
Folk Overture (1945), 7 minutes
Premiere: National Symphony Orchestra, cond. by H. Kindler (Nov., 1945)
Recording: New World NW 371-2
Although the work does not use actual folk tunes, Mennin sought “to use creatively elements, both rhythmic and melodic, that lie in them.” Although its vigorous kinetic energy, strongly rooted in diatonic modality, and propelled by lively, syncopated, strongly accented rhythms, link it to the American mainstream of the time, a number of traits central to Mennin’s own style can be found: Like other works of his early maturity, the piece displays a brisk self-confidence; motivic development occurs against a continuous nervous undercurrent of syncopated counterpoint, while the highly accented foreground counterpoint makes aggressive use of canonic imitation and stretto.
“This shorty and lively work is an ideal curtain raiser, expertly orchestrated, fresh in its musical ideas, and imaginative in their treatment.”
- HWL, Musical Courier, February 1, 1946
Symphony No. 3 (1946), 20 minutes
Premiere: New York Philharmonic, cond. by W. Hendl (February, 1947)
Recordings: CRI 741; Naxos 8.559718
This is the work that launched Mennin’s national reputation and almost instantly catapulted him to the forefront of American composers. After its premiere, further performances by many of the nation’s foremost orchestras soon followed, and a brilliant reading of the symphony was recorded by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1955. It is cast in a three-movement fast-slow-fast design. The symphony’s brash assertiveness and strongly accented rhythmic syncopation link the work with those of other American composers of the time, but obvious “Americanisms” are no longer apparent. The first movement, Allegro robusto, introduces three motifs, all related intervallically. These motifs, through subtle organic metamorphoses, serve as the thematic basis of the entire work. The music is remarkably forceful in its articulation and phraseology, proclaiming an attitude of confidence and positive determination. A strong rhythmic pulse serves as a constant, to enhance the syncopated effect of the contrapuntal lines. The tonality is largely diatonic, but with prominent major-minor ambiguity. The second theme of the movement illustrates the kind of long melodic line that remained a constant feature of Mennin’s music throughout his career.
The second movement, Andante moderato, is a prototype for the slow movements of nearly all of Mennin’s symphonies. Like the interweaving lines of the Renaissance polyphonists, Mennin’s long melodies unfold smoothly, with a metrical freedom unencumbered by bar-lines. The movement displays a bleak, yet lofty perspective, which distinguishes it from most of the music of his peers, while revealing an emotional depth and complexity remarkable in the work of a 23-year-old.
The third movement, Allegro assai, springs forth with tremendous energy and vigor, its primary lines propelled with strongly accented rhythmic syncopations, while a rapid undercurrent of canonic ostinati in differing rhythmic proportion creates a constant sense of restlessness. The movement gradually works toward a resounding peroration, its emerging sense of triumph concluding the work with an exaltation that reaffirms an American identity.
“This vigorous symphony excited the audience.” O. Downes, New York Times
“The Third Symphony impresses by its evidence of real melodic inventiveness and by its management of long lines in a contrapuntal texture that is both learned and complex without seeming labored or contrived.” R. F. Goldman, Music Quarterly
“A delicately original work, musical, feelingful, performable, enjoyable.” H. Cowell, MLA Notes
“An opening movement that packs a wallop …. A splendid long line is sustained throughout the slow movement, and a relentless drive manifests itself in the finale.” D. Hall, Stereo Review
“The work of a resourceful and accomplished craftsman, who built his musical structure soundly, and applied his orchestral colors knowingly. There is energy contrasted with a sensitive lyricism, and although the composition seemed a little aloof to me, there was no doubt about its success with the audience.” R. Simon, The New Yorker, March 8, 1947
“It is an imposing score, brilliantly orchestrated, with constant, pulsating rhythms. Into its composition has gone an enormous degree of technique, allied to an uncompromising probity. This remains one of the best contemporary American symphonies.” H. Schonberg, The New York Times, February 1, 1954
Fantasia for Strings (1946), 10 minutes
Premiere: New York Philharmonic, cond. by W. Hendl (January, 1948)
Recording: Albany TROY260
A two-part work, the melodic lines are largely diatonic, but inflected according to the darker modes. The titles of its two sections, “Canzona” and “Toccata,” are—like many of Mennin’s titles—direct references to instrumental forms in active use during the early 17th century. The slow “Canzona” develops a solemn motif through imitative counterpoint, very much in the Renaissance manner. Soon the second violins introduce another motif. A climax is reached as the two ideas are brought together contrapuntally, after which the music comes to a quiet close. The lively “Toccata” offers a vivid contrast in mood. A vigorous, strongly accented theme is presented in unison, then immediately subjected to a contrapuntal development in which its syncopated aspects are emphasized. A second idea—nervous and even more syncopated—is introduced and developed in a similar fashion to the first. The two ideas are then both developed together—at times simultaneously. Despite the music’s emphasis on purely abstract matters, frequent shifts in loudness and in textural density maintain a dynamic tension, until the work reaches a decisive conclusion. The Fantasia can be especially illuminating to listeners new to Mennin’s music, because it displays, simply and clearly, virtually all the principles upon which most of his later works are constructed.
“Mr. Mennin’s work was one of clear outlines, sweet, simple melodies treated canonically, with a mind to the possibilities of massed sonorities in the high register.” New York Times
Sinfonia for Chamber Orchestra (1947), 5 minutes
Commissioned by WHAM (Rochester, NY)
Premiere: WHAM (1947)
In one section, marked Allegro vivo, this piece introduces three short motifs, the first, determined and syncopated; the second, more lyrical, like an “answer” to the first; and the third, a longer, more flowing line. These three ideas are developed contrapuntally, against a syncopated undercurrent of canonic ostinati in the lower strings. The piece unfolds in a continuous motoric flow, which builds in contrapuntal complexity, until the elements finally come together for an emphatic conclusion.
Symphony No. 4, “The Cycle” (1948), 25 minutes
Commissioned by the Collegiate Chorale
Premiere: Collegiate Chorale, New York Phil, cond. by R. Shaw (March, 1949)
Text by the Composer
The dark sea is a tide of flowing waters,
And in its vasty depth we view eternity.
Look where the start hurls from its flaming rest
And eyeless worlds are suppliant yet.
They act not from random thought,
But from old wounds and maturing Time,
With sounds that pierce the marrow
With savage songs of exultation.
Come back to the earth again and feel her roots.
The dark waters remember ancient conflicts and are silent.
Return to earth.
Time passing, waters flowing,
The great cycle begins once more,
Washing stains away.
With dark and tragic destiny
Do all things return to dust.
Stirring fills the air.
Sounds of deliverance
Cancel the past rages.
Still rising does the waiting earth
Embracing all of man.
This work is unique among Mennin’s symphonies in bearing a sub-title, “The Cycle,” and in its use of a mixed chorus together with the symphony orchestra. The patently philosophical text offers a rare opportunity to gain through his own words some insight into the emerging character of the expressive language the composer was forging. The first section presents symbols of eternity: the immensity of the ocean, the passage of infinite time, and the expression of primordial emotion. The second section juxtaposes finite, flawed Man against the infinite “dark waters.” There are harsh images: “old wounds,” “savage songs,” “ancient conflicts.” The third section points to the cyclical nature of life’s “dark and tragic destiny:” All of mankind is subsumed within the eternal cycle of disintegration and rebirth, depicted with a kind of impersonal, metaphysical exultation devoid of any theistically-based teleology. In his text Mennin thus provides a clue to the cosmic fatalism he was striving to suggest in much, if not all, of his work to follow.
“Vigorous, athletic, tonic and not at all tedious…. clear and simple feeling content, a clear rhetoric and a sustained energy, even in the slow movement, that are the mark of a strong musical mind and a solid workman…. a musical work of genuine originality. He is twenty-five years old. Draw your own conclusions about his future. ” Virgil Thomson, New York Herald-Tribune
“Undeniable rhythmic strength in its corner movements and a goodly amount of genuine power throughout. There was true intensity in the slow movement and the double fugue at the end … “ N. Straus, New York Times
“… a strong and quite compelling work.” R. Cummings, Classical Net
“I don’t think I have ever heard a choral symphony in which the forces were so well equilibrated in the whole expressive achievement. He has really composed them as cooperating towards a single end, like a navy and an air force. He has resolved a hitherto unsolved problem, and created by that fact, a musical work of genuine originality.” V. Thompson, New York Herald Tribune
Four Chinese Poems (SATB) (1948), 10 minutes
Mennin selected four spare, enigmatic poems from the works of the writer, scholar, and socialist thinker Kiang Kang-Hu (1883-c. 1950), in English translations by Witter Bynner: In the quiet night, A song of the palace, Crossing the Han river, and The gold threaded robe. Making no attempt to evoke associations with China, the musical settings display most of the same features as his larger works: polyphonic textures, modal—largely Phrygian—lines, and even the use of a rapid ostinato as an undercurrent to a slower-moving melodic line.
“Mennin has taken four exquisite wisps of Chinese poetry, in translation by Witter Bynner. The English is beautiful, and Mennin observes its natural rhythm and skilled accents. His harmonic vocabulary is refreshing, his contrapuntal manner resourceful without ever intruding.” - Notes
Two Choruses (SSA, piano) (1949), 5 minutes
The Four Chinese Poems were followed the next year by more choral settings: this time, two pieces for three-part women’s choir. The texts are “Tumbling Hair,” by E. E. Cummings, and “Bought Locks,” an English translation (by Sir John Harrington) of a first-century Latin poem of the same name. These brief a cappella settings are meticulous in their concise expressiveness, and are consistently well-received whenever they are performed. It was commissioned by Sigma Alpha Iota for the Sigma Alpha Iota Modern Music Series.
“I live in hope of hearing a fine chorus of college gals sing Bought Locks. It is a quatrain of Martial, with a nasty reference to a girl named Gulla who bought herself some long hair. In Tumbling Hair, notice the way he gets the words ‘bullying,’ ‘buttercups,’ and other words which other composers would be inclined to stretch all out of shape.” Notes
Five Piano Pieces (1949), 15 minutes
Premiere: Grant Johannesen (March, 1950)
Recording: Naxos 8.559767
This work is somewhat suggestive of a Baroque suite, as suggested by its original title, Partita, and by the individual movement titles: Prelude, Aria, Variation-Canzona, Canto, and Toccata. The odd-numbered movements are torrential perpetual-motion affairs—toccata-like, despite their different titles—largely in two voices, with irregularly grouped patterns and phrases, and prominent use of ostinato in the third movement. The two even-numbered movements are slow and somber, with long-breathed lyricism, and build to powerful climaxes.
“A pianistically very effective contribution” F. D. Perkins, New York Herald-Tribune
“There is absolutely no excess pianistic baggage in the Five Piano Pieces…. A fine keyboard language—eloquent and forceful…. the music altogether maintains an elevated character and its effectiveness on the concert stage is assured.” B. Phillips, MLA Notes
“The music, [Five Piano Pieces] powerfully conceived and flawlessly written… varies from sinewy studies in stunning rhythmic displays to expressive songs in amazing sustained lines… cast in the forms of the Baroque suites, the music has a powerful and individual personality.” The Washington Post
The Christmas Story (Sop., Ten., SATB, brass qt, timp, stgs) (1949), 25 min.
Commissioned by Protestant Radio Commission
Premiere: WABC, Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra (December, 1949)
The cantata comprises nine sections based on familiar Christmas texts; it is uncharacteristic of Mennin’s output in its extramusical reference. It was commissioned by the Protestant Radio Commission and performed for the first time on December 24, 1949 by Robert Shaw conducting the Robert Shaw Chorale on Station WABC in New York City.
“The setting of appropriate New Testament texts, for chorus, orchestra and soprano and tenor soloists gives an impression of devotion and often expressive persuasion, with skillful use of vocal and combination of vocal and instrumental color, the brass instruments adding to a sense of exultation in the most outspoken choruses… The work as a whole had dignity and sincerity, and scored warm applause.” F. D. Perkins, New York Herald-Tribune
“The music is knowingly composed for voices in effective counterpoint and clear-cut rhythms… Its sound was usually rich in texture... Its final movement grew most effectively to a bright, almost ecstatic climax….” New York Times
“One received a fine impression of this music. It was written in simple, but effective counterpoint, with considerable of bright modern sound that is characteristic of Mennin’s work.” New York Times, December 24, 1951
Symphony No. 5 (1950), 22 minutes
Commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Premiere: Dallas Symphony Orchestra, cond. by Walter Hendl (April, 1950)
Recordings: Albany TROY260, Mercury 432 755-2, First Edition 13
Like its two predecessors, the Fifth is a three-movement work in a fast-slow-fast format, but it is more propulsive, as syncopated, clearly-articulated motifs reveal an increased rhythmic irregularity, with constantly-shifting accents and pattern-lengths, while its transparent scoring permits the counterpoint to be heard with greater clarity. The composer stated, “The basic aim of this work is expressivity. Therefore, there is a great emphasis placed on the broad melodic line, and little use of color for color’s sake…. the work as a whole is direct, assertive and terse in communication.”
“A ripe and forceful work ... a heady and vigorous brew.” J. S. Harrison, New York Times
“Mennin is ... a real composer, and one of fluency and force... With five symphonies at the age of twenty-seven, he forces us to take account of this as a fact.” A. Berger, New York Herald Tribune
“There is a sense of confidence in his music... The Fifth Symphony has a young man’s energy. It has drive, gusto and a fine assurance that it is expressing the author’s feelings.” H. Taubman, New York Times
“Mennin’s Fifth Symphony maintains a convincing feeling of dignity, musicality, skill, unity, and melodic breadth.” H. Cowell, Musical Quarterly
“a superb work. The last movement ...is an orchestral tour de force. The writing is brilliant, engaging, with a clear sense of form that makes the logic of the piece clear.” K. Miller, Classical Net
“Certainly few other American composers can build up such a head of steam in an Allegro movement as Mennin does, egged on by an impressive arsenal of contrapuntal devices.... “[A]ll that elegant abstraction is offset by a truly beautiful slow movement ... that has an elevated gravity worthy of Bach.” D. Raymond, American Record Guide
“One of the most powerful tonal symphonies of the 20th century, … [The finale is] one of the most exciting final movements in the entire classical repertory.” H. Dicus, United Press International
Canzona for Band (1951), 5 minutes
Commissioned by E. F. Goldman and the League of Composers
Premiere: Goldman Band, cond. by Edwin Franko Goldman (June, 1951)
Recordings: Mercury 432 960-2, Klavier 11161, Klavier 11141, etc.
Canzona has become a recognized classic of the American wind band repertoire. In a loose ternary form, Canzona is a compact application of the composer’s developmental principles, opening with a brisk, declamatory motif in polychords, after which the main theme is introduced, a vigorous modal idea accompanied by a bustling, syncopated undercurrent. These melodic and rhythmic motifs are developed with brilliant lucidity via intricate, but always aurally transparent, contrapuntal procedures. There is a brief central section, in which the oboe introduces a longer, more lyrical melodic line. There is an altered return of the opening material, including a brilliant passage in which the main motif is combined canonically with rhythmically augmented and diminished versions of itself. All is propelled forward with sober determination. A masterpiece of concision, Canzona packs considerable density of musical substance into its brief duration.
“…Untraditional, and remarkably effective in its scoring, the musical ideas in Canzona for Band are salient, and the work, up to date in its idiom; has a vigor, which is buoyant , not mechanical.” The New York Herald Tribune
String Quartet No. 2 (1951), 20 minutes
Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation
Premiere: Juilliard String Quartet (February, 1952)
Recording: VoxBox CDX-5090
The Second Quartet marked a new level of expressive intensity for the composer. His music began to reflect increased grimness and sobriety, with contrapuntal activity that became almost compulsive in its unremitting agitation, and with a harmonic language harsher than in anything he had written previously. There is also greater chromatic freedom, with passages approaching atonality, although strong tonal centers are asserted at major structural junctures. The quartet comprises four movements: Allegro ardentamente, Prestissimo, Adagio semplice, Allegro focosamente.
“Mr. Mennin’s work represents this young composer’s impressive energy, inventiveness and know-how. At all times his work was polished to a gleam and its workmanship … was thorough.” New York Times
“Mennin writes music. There is nothing extra-musical to cloud the issue. It is straight music by a gifted, facile, and energetic young man with taste and talent. His Second String Quartet has contrapuntal architecture and overwhelming rhythmic drive. The blinding virtuosity is wholly remarkable; it has harmonic and formal shape and never succumbs to trickery…. He has plenty of ideas and the fortitude to send them over their uncompromising formal tracks.” V. Persichetti, Musical Quarterly
Concertato, “Moby Dick” (1952), 11 minutes
Commissioned by the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra
Premiere: Erie Philharmonic, cond. by Fritz Mahler (October, 1952)
Recordings: Albany TROY260, Naxos 8.559718
Concertato, “Moby Dick” is Mennin’s most widely performed orchestral work. The composer made clear that it is “a dramatic work for orchestra motivated by the Melville novel, rather than following a specific programmatic outline. The piece depicts the emotional impact of the novel as a whole rather than musically describing isolated incidents occurring in the novel.” The work falls into two sections—the first only half as long as the second. A bleak, portentous Adagio introduces the main motif in the strings, elaborated by a solo in the flute. This is developed through gradually intensifying counterpoint to a massive climax, at which point the Allegro is unleashed, based on two motifs, both related to the material from the introduction: one, a spunky figure first heard in the upper woodwinds, followed immediately by the second, a more flowing line presented by the violins. The thematic material is developed with a tremendous concentration of energy to new heights of emotional intensity, before achieving its grimly triumphant resolution.
“Mr. Mennin has created a solid, tightly wrought score of power and intensity. The composer’s handling of his musical materials is fluent. His orchestra glows with bright, unexpected colors. The score is economical; it has its say concisely and is done.” W. Bender, New York Times
“The interesting and admirable qualities of Mennin’s work over the last several years are all here; the unmistakable personality, distinctive technique, and refinement of thought are little changed, and not the less welcome for that. In Mennin one recognizes a composer whose style is formed. There is no longer the slightest question of skill, consistency, originality, or authenticity. For a composer [not yet thirty years old] this is no mean attainment.... Despite the elaborateness of the contrapuntal texture, and the subtlety of the melodic variation, the transparency of the large structure is remarkable. Sections are clearly defined, with consummate grace in all the transitions, and the proportions are beautifully calculated and satisfying.” R. F. Goldman, Musical Quarterly
Symphony No. 6 (1953), 25 minutes
Commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra
Premiere: Louisville Orchestra, cond. by Robert Whitney (November, 1953)
Recordings: First Edition 13, Albany TROY260
Here Mennin presses his developmental processes and principles toward more intense and complex levels of elaboration than in previous works. Rhythm has become increasingly irregular, and the harmonic consequences of contrapuntal voice-leading are increasingly dissonant. Yet the characteristic shapes of the motifs and gestures are consistent with those in his previous works. But with the Sixth Symphony Mennin clearly parted company with the exuberant, confident, optimistic “American Symphonic School;” in fact, he has clearly diverged from the canons of traditional aesthetics, from notions of balance, symmetry, and restraint. Here his music is possessed by a single-minded, almost demonic quest either to overcome some formidable if undefined existential adversary, or perhaps simply to depict the ruthless forces of nature in ceaseless tumult.
The work begins with a slow, solemn introduction, Maestoso, that presents three related motifs that will figure significantly throughout the work. The body of the movement, Allegro, then introduces its main theme—a long, irregular line played softly, but with suppressed urgency by the strings. This theme drives the movement through its breakneck course, ever-increasing in intensity. When the level of intensity seems to have reached the breaking point, the music comes finally to a guarded, temporary repose. The second movement, Grave, is solemn and reflective, yet intensely lyrical at times—though the harmonic language, embracing a greater degree of dissonance, permits a darker, grimmer expressive dimension. Based largely on the motifs from the first movement, the Grave culminates in two climaxes before ending in the somber mood heard at the beginning. The third movement, Allegro vivace, functions as both Scherzo and Finale. It opens with a theme that was first heard in the violins toward the beginning of the second movement, though clearly derived from the main theme of the first movement. This is developed in whirlwind fashion, as familiar motifs are tossed around, building to a massive canonic treatment that then subsides into a quiet, peaceful interlude, Adagio sostenuto. Not quiet for long, this too builds to a climax that ushers in the final section, Allegro vivace, with a rapid diminution of the Scherzo theme. The energy builds and recedes, as most of the material of the symphony finds its way into the seething developmental cauldron, hurtling headlong with an ever-increasing frenzy. After much turbulence a tonal goal perceived in the distance comes gradually into clearer focus, as the symphony reaches its triumphant conclusion on a Tierce de Picardie in A major.
“[Mennin has] already written six symphonies worth performance by our major orchestras. But the sixth ... is such a plausible piece of music, with so well-shaped a structure, so well-filled in a facade, that one can’t either ignore the facts or dispose of them lightly.... [The work] certainly defines him as possessing the craftsmanship required to manage the checks and balances of symphonic design on a sizable scale. He plays his hand expertly, always with a few musical cards in reserve to throw in when needed. His sense of form is compact, his writing for the orchestra sinewy.” I. Kolodin, Saturday Review
“Mennin’s music ‘speaks’ emotionally, even if the themes aren’t of the conventionally tuneful type. The finale of the Sixth Symphony offers a perfect instance of the composer’s ability to create instantly memorable musical ideas whose development makes perfect logical sense and carries the listener along however fast, dissonant, or otherwise complex the surrounding musical fabric. Mennin’s achievement has yet to be given the acclaim that it surely deserves, but there’s not a note on this disc that falls one millimeter below the highest standards of craftsmanship, sincerity, and inspiration.” D. Hurwitz, Classics Today
“Peter Mennin burst like a meteor upon the music scene with his Third Symphony in 1946.... In less than ten years, and during his twenties at that, he was to produce in quick succession a quartet of symphonies which remain unsurpassed for their seriousness of argument, compactness of form, and ferocious kinetic charge. The Sixth is the crowning summation of this prodigious spurt of youthful inspiration .... [In it] Mennin achieves the intense degree of integration and compression, of overpowering weightiness and onrushing inevitability that he is after. While conceived in terms of purely abstract musical discourse ... deep underneath this tightly controlled and fluid surface of sound is a churning, chaotic mass of energy demanding release, of Manichean conflict seeking its ultimate, perhaps annihilating resolution. This is an obsessive, tragic, and metaphysical music, with a narrow range of reference but a deep cutting edge of significance, full of the destructive fury and enigma of American power which lies behind Ahab’s quest and what Henry James once called ‘the imagination of disaster.’” P. A. Snook, Fanfare
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1956), 25 minutes
Commissioned by the Juilliard School of Music
Premiere: Leonard Rose, Juilliard Orchestra, cond. by J. Morel (Feb., 1956)
Recording: First Edition 13
The first movement, Allegro moderato, begins ... with a determined orchestral tutti that introduces the work’s main motifs—most prominently, a short descending gesture that ends characteristically with a “scotch snap.” After a brief exposition of the thematic material, the solo cello enters, elaborating on these ideas, and a series of interactions takes place between the soloist and the orchestra, as the material is developed. There is nothing remarkable about this framework: What so compels the listener’s attention is the nature of what is expressed via this relatively conventional structure—an intensely gripping, if totally abstract, dramatic scenario utilizing essentially the same harmonic and tonal language as was heard in the Symphony No. 6. Through a series of tempestuous tutti episodes, the movement builds to a huge, uniquely Menninian climax, as several motifs are unleashed in forceful counterpoint, from lower brass in rhythmic augmentation to swirling strings in frantic canonic diminution. This climax leads directly to an elaborate and extraordinarily difficult cadenza. The Adagio follows the cadenza without pause. The orchestra introduces the movement’s chief thematic idea, and the solo cello elaborates on it with a lofty eloquence, both reflective and passionately expressive, in a soulfully searching soliloquy. The finale, Allegro vivace, a brilliant quasi-toccata in moto perpetuo, opens with a tremendous burst of energy. The movement is an exciting showcase for the virtuosity of the soloist, with much rapid byplay between the cello and the ensemble. Overall the concerto is less densely contrapuntal than the composer’s norm, in order to prevent the solo instrument from being buried within the orchestral texture.
“[T]he concerto excites me as music, in Mennin's usual way of vigorous rhythm and full brass. My favorite movement is the slow movement, not coincidentally the one which makes the best use of the soloist. Normally, the fast rather than the slow attracts me, but the music, grave and beautiful, takes a risk which pays off – essentially varying throughout one idea, which all by itself gets inside you. The shaping of the movement, an emotional arch, shows the hand of a master. The finale, similar to a rondo, takes a typical Mennin fanfare (based on an idea in the first movement, incidentally) and a toccata idea through their paces and builds to a conclusion that leaves you breathless …” S. Schwartz, Classical Net
“The opening Allegro moderato begins deceptively like a Mennin symphony, with the various families of the orchestra engaged in polyphonic debate for over a minute until the cello finally enters with a long, plaintive melody. Various combinations ensue, eventually leading to an extremely effective extended cadenza which really makes the cello sing. The second movement, Adagio, … contains some of Mennin’s most heart-wrenching music … But the final Allegro Vivace is the real showstopper here, filled with drama and suspense. Cello soloists pay heed: this music is an ideal career vehicle!” F. J. Oteri, First Edition
Sonata Concertante for Violin and Piano (1956), 15 minutes
Commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation
Premiere: Ruggiero Ricci, Leon Pommers (October, 1956)
Recording: CP2 113
Its title indicates that the work is structured as a partnership between the two instruments, rather than as a showcase for the violin with piano accompaniment. The first movement begins with a brief introduction marked Sostenuto, which solemnly introduces several significant motifs that will recur throughout the work. The body of the movement, Allegro con brio, then follows, as these and other motifs are developed through a continuous counterpoint of multiple voices, despite the presence of only two instruments. This counterpoint displays Mennin’s characteristic procedures, in ever-increasing complexity: terse gestures, canon and other forms of imitation, and strong, actively moving bass lines, grouped into irregular rhythmic patterns that create a constant sense of driving forward with grim determination. In the second movement, Adagio semplice, a freely chromatic, cantabile melody softly weaves its way in and around largely consonant, triadic, but tonally-unrelated harmonic structures. A movement of great beauty, it ranges in mood between the ethereal and the impassioned. The third movement, Allegro con fuoco, returns to the bleak, driven character and contrapuntal developmental processes of the first movement. However, the motivic ideas in this movement are somewhat more clearly defined, and the rhythmic flow is somewhat more lithe and brisk, in comparison with the opening. In this movement, as in the first, the piano serves chiefly as a contrapuntal voice, hard and brittle in sonority, as it drives the music forward in ever-building intensity to a brusque conclusion.
“The Mennin sonata proved to be one of the maturest pieces this talented American has written. It bore some of his expected fingerprints—insistent, propulsive rhythms, a sense of dash and energy and a rugged melodic line. The first movement combined these elements with admirable address. In the second, Mr. Mennin allowed himself to sing spaciously and, what was especially impressive, personally.” H. Taubman, New York Times
“a characteristically propulsive work by this prolific young composer, distinguished by complex rhythms, driving melodic lines, and seemingly inexhaustible energy…. Its three movements are economically constructed despite the fact that they bristle with technical problems for the performers and despite an emotional pitch that borders on frenzy, particularly in the final Allegro con fuoco. Mennin has succeeded in achieving a unified effect of concise, purposeful musical thought over and against the handicap of an extraordinarily complicated texture. This sonata is a welcome sign of his maturing art.” I. Lowens, Musical Quarterly
“Distinguished for complex rhythms, driving melodic lines, and seemingly inexhaustible energy, Mennin has succeeded in achieving a unified effect of concise, purposeful musical thought, over and against an extraordinarily complicated texture.” Musical Quarterly
“Despite the intricacies, it bristles both musically and technically. There was spontaneity and accessibility, and the broad themes are not mid-century clichés. It is easily one of the most attractive such pieces in the past decade.” The New York Times
“The Mennin Sonata, as brilliant as it is solidly crafted… is wildly energetic music, logical in its development, and neatly contoured.” The New York Herald Tribune
“Mennin’s Sonata Concertante impressed again as a forceful, large work.” The New York Times
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1957), 25 minutes
Commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra
Premiere: Eunice Podis, Cleveland Orchestra, cond. by G. Szell (Feb., 1957)
Recording: CRI 741
Mennin’s Piano Concerto requires a soloist with extraordinary stamina, along with virtuosity of an unusual kind. Rather than following the conventional Romantic concept of a concerto, Mennin’s is more a Baroque concerto gone wild. An ominous Maestoso introduction sets the stage for a stern proclamation of the main motif, Phrygian in quality. After some elaboration, the orchestra introduces the Allegro, plunging the soloist headlong into a toccata-like flood of rapidly motoric passagework, as the primary voice within the largely contrapuntal texture. The solo part is intricately interwoven motivically, but at times alternates with the orchestra in a manner suggestive of a Baroque ritornello. The movement proceeds through ever-increasing levels of intensity that peak, recede, then start anew. As the second movement, marked Adagio religioso, opens, the strings create a hushed atmosphere against which the piano slowly spins out an improvisatory soliloquy. The movement is largely reflective in character, and displays an icy, unearthly beauty. The third movement, Allegro vivace, returns to the character of the first, as the pianist is called upon to unleash torrential floods of rapid passagework in frenzied dialogue with the orchestra. Throughout much of this movement, like the first, the piano figurations are designed to produce hard, brittle sonorities. As in the Sonata Concertante, the thematic material of the third movement is distinguished from that of the first by somewhat greater gestural definition. The energy builds without let-up until it reaches a peroration of unequivocal finality on an open fifth in the orchestra.
“Like so much of the extensive body of music written by this composer …, the concerto is filled with motor energy. Mr. Mennin favors rhythms that drive forward relentlessly, and the end movements of this score have unflagging momentum. The slow movement, sustained in song, is more reposeful and offers the needed contrast and breathing space. The concerto emphasizes the growing command by Mr. Mennin of his direction and means. He manipulates his materials, harmonically, contrapuntally and rhythmically, with enormous gusto. You have the feeling that here is a man who likes to mold sound and that he works assiduously at it.” H. Taubman, New York Times
“The piano is definitely the protagonist, but the orchestra is a partner rather than an accompanist in this well-balanced and often high spirited score. The idea is melodic tempered with discreet pungency, contemporary in its atmosphere. In the first and third movements, the soloist is called upon for virtuosity, vigor and a capacity for speed…. The andante … has an appealing meditative and imaginative lyric breadth. bright animation. F. D. Perkins, New York Herald Tribune
“The concerto, of firm fibered caliber in a strong virtuoso tradition, was first heard in Cleveland… those knowing Mennin’s symphonies recognized the bold, propulsive style and lunging rhythms as his. Both end movements generate enormous power, and the workmanship, as usual is solid and confident – yet for all their smart commotion, neither movement compares in poetic, expressive appeal with the andante, a soft-spoken monologue heard against a subdued shimmer of strings and winds.” The New York World Telegram, March 8, 1958
“As a thoroughly professional job, this concerto is a virtuoso piece, traditional in concept, forceful in its pulsating drive, and individual in expression. Its two fast movements resolve into a cascade of notes, rushing headlong into their final cadence. In contrast, the slow movement is an introspective song.” M. Kastendick, New York Journal American, March 8, 1958
“Mennin’s fearlessly dense and tempestuously driven kind of uncompromising austerity and gravitas… the 1963 Sonata is on its own level every bit as masterful, probing, and dazzling as the nine numbered symphonies and several concertos.” P. Snook, Fanfare
Canto (1962), 8 minutes
Commissioned by the Assoc. of Women’s Committees for Sym. Orchestras
Premiere: San Antonio Sym. Orch., cond. by V. Allesandro (March, 1963)
Recording: Decca DL-710168 (LP)
Canto was described by the composer as “a dramatic elegy.” It begins portentously, with a somber statement of a wedge-shaped motif in the lower strings. As this theme unfolds, dissonant brass chords in irregular rhythm offer tense, bitter punctuation, building gradually to a climax, followed by a sudden silence. The strings introduce a softer, more lyrical idea, which again builds in intensity as it is developed in contrapuntal dialogue with the brass, reaching an even more intense climax. A mournful polyphonic passage in the strings follows, gradually leading to a reminiscence of the opening moments, before the work comes to a grim, bleak conclusion.
“[There is] a sense of rightness about its time spans. One thing flows into the other with naturalness. It is not a work that breaks new ground, but it is convincing in its clearly stated terms.” T. Strongin, New York Times
“As in much of Mennin’s work, the emphasis here is less on lyrical beauty than on dramatic power, achieved through complex harmony and forceful rhythm.” J. Sagmaster, Decca program notes
“[Canto] may well become an American music classic for its profound feeling and beauty of form.” L. Biancolli, New York World-Telegram and Sun
“This music sings through all of its eight minutes, and with an eloquence that is deeply impressive… a relentless drive that never deviates and is motivated from beginning to end despite the adagio pace… the music is highly dramatic, moving and potent.” Notes
“The Mennin Canto… is a polished and elegiac work, contemporary in language and effective in the richness of its orchestral textures, its dramatic sense of climax and expansiveness of structure.” The Baltimore Sun
Piano Sonata (1963), 17 minutes
Commissioned by the Ford Foundation
Premiere: Claudette Sorel (1966)
Recording: Naxos 8.559767
The Piano Sonata displays a harsher, more dissonant harmonic language than is found in Mennin’s previous works, as well as linear writing that is much more freely chromatic. Although each of its three movements is clearly anchored in a tonal center, each is largely atonal throughout its course of development, while the meter changes with virtually every measure.
The first movement, Poco moderato, opens with a slow introduction that presents the movement’s primary thematic material, which includes several motifs that will figure significantly later in the work as well. Another motif, a four-note figure consisting of two descending minor-seconds, is the chief focus of development once the vigorous Allegro commences, and is transformed several times through octave-displacement. As the movement proceeds, the tempo changes a number of times, linear counterpoint becomes highly dissonant, and textures quite dense; the emotional temperature is tense and grim. By the time it reaches its resolute conclusion, a tonal center of C has been affirmed. The second movement, Adagio, displays a deeply searching, improvisatory quality. It revolves around a lofty melody of somewhat melancholy cast, which eventually builds to a powerful, dissonant climax. Again, despite its highly chromatic linear writing and extremely harsh harmonic language, a tonal center of C-sharp minor clearly frames the movement. The finale, Veloce, is a tremendously propulsive movement in perpetual motion, with a constant figuration, but ever-changing meter, suggesting the general feeling of a rondo. Again, although the harmony is quite dissonant, the tonality is clearly B-flat minor. Before it reaches its grimly decisive conclusion, motifs from the first movement make their appearance.
“It’s taken half a century, but finally we have a commercial recording of one of the great but grotesquely neglected mid-century American piano sonatas …. It follows the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern and employs a dissonant, highly chromatic but (as annotator Walter Simmons points out) tonally anchored language from which it builds the sonata’s densely-worked linear polyphony. The emotional force of this music is immense. The powerful outer allegros seethe with fierce energy. I begins with a slow introduction that twice accelerates into jagged, whirling, barely-controlled pinwheels whose kinetic impulses seem almost too manic for the longer lines they swirl over and under, while III is a relentlessly driving, toccata-like construction built on an obsessive chromatic figure (derived from the first movement) that lodges itself in memory as it builds and builds in intensity to a thrilling final climax. This is quite simply some of the most exciting fast music ever written for the piano, positively Beethovenian in its forward thrust and coruscating energy. The central adagio between these fierce twins unfolds as a long-lined, deeply-felt threnody built from a recurring six-note motive that threads its way through a forest of glowering tone-clusters, rising and falling in florid, lapidary phrases that ache with pain, regret, and foreboding. Complex yet severe, rich in harmonic color yet sternly rigorous, this adagio attains an authentic tragic grandeur seldom equaled in the entire piano literature. It has haunted me for many years (I have a privately-issued recording) and remains a touchstone of how uncompromisingly harsh, dissonant, chromatic music at this exalted level can be profoundly moving in a way not given to any other kind of musical utterance.” M. Lehman, American Record Guide
“[Mennin’s Piano Sonata is] regarded as one of the best examples of the genre in all American music…. It is a complex work that… requires a high level of competence to achieve a rewarding performance ….” S. Arloff, Music Web International
“Mennin’s fearlessly dense and tempestuously driven kind of uncompromising austerity and gravitas … the 1963 Sonata is on its own level every bit as masterful, probing, and dazzling as the nine numbered symphonies and several concertos.” P. Snook, Fanfare
Symphony No. 7, “Variation-Symphony” (1963), 26 minutes
Commissioned by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Premiere: Cleveland Orchestra, cond. by George Szell (January, 1964)
Recorded: CRI 741; Melodiya C10 16447-8 (LP); Naxos 8.559718
The Seventh deviated in many significant ways from those that preceded it. It is the first of Mennin’s symphonies to diverge from the standard three-movement form, comprising a single movement subdivided into five sections, achieving a maximum of integration and continuity. Though far from being a serial work, the symphony is based on a twelve-note theme, stated solemnly at the beginning, and roughly shaped to outline a symmetrical wedge-like sequence of expanding, then contracting, intervals. As in the Piano Sonata, tonal centers are quite remote, and the level of harmonic dissonance has increased considerably. In place of a simple alternation between fast movements based on frenzied counterpoint and slow movements of solemn, long-breathed, polyphonic lyricism (although they are not absent either), passages of different character appear. And, in addition to Mennin’s familiar types of gestures, some new shapes appear—especially an upward-thrusting gesture to which Mennin returned in several of his remaining works. The symphony is subtitled, “Variation-Symphony.” But rather than a series of consecutive variations, each of its five sections has its own character, while pursuing a free development of motivic fragments derived from the basic theme, underscoring the essential fluidity of Mennin's means of symphonic articulation. This material is elaborated continuously, with a focused concentration that never flags for a moment. The five connected sections achieve unprecedented expressive intensity and conceptual unity, despite their starkly contrasting characters. Mennin himself commented about this symphony, "In my work there has always been some element of violence and the element of contrast. Here they come out with a vengeance."
The first section, Adagio, is largely expository. The main theme is introduced solemnly, then gradually fragmented into shorter motifs, conveying a sense of breathless anticipation, and building to short climactic outbursts. The second, Allegro, is a wildly explosive scherzo dominated by the upward-thrusting figure. Motivic fragments are developed through perpetual-motion running lines in the strings, punctuated by hard-bitten fragments in the other sections, developed in vigorous counterpoint. The third section, Andante, is much calmer, as the strings, in alternation with woodwinds, unfold a solemn lyricism. However, the calm mood is strained by several passages that threaten to erupt in irate agitation, before the section recedes peacefully. The fourth section, Moderato, suggests a passacaglia, as the motivic material is developed over solemn, stately reiterations of the main theme in the lower strings. This section too builds in intensity and agitation, leading directly into the final section, Allegro vivace. Beginning with an edgy restlessness, this section pulls together most of the motivic fragments that have been heard previously into multiple levels of development. The intensity mounts as the development builds with an almost ecstatic escalation of contrapuntal complexity, until the symphony ends with stern finality on an open fifth—the first of Mennin’s symphonies to shun a triumphant major-triad conclusion.
“[The work’s] whole structure derives from a series of germinal motives which are expanded to create the work’s form and design. The awesome opening phrase, for example, serves as the basis for all kinds of thematic derivations which pushes the piece ahead and keeps it spinning like a huge, motorized top…. [It] is an angry work full of tumultuous climaxes which burst upon the hearing. But there is passion to it always and a sense of grandeur that cannot be denied. Harmonically, it is a mixture of the diatonic and chromatic and is polytonal, though it never loses its sense of key or direction…. [It] is a major work despite its density. There is drama to it and heroism. It is a big statement of a big theme. The Symphony is certainly worthy of a place in the repertory, a place, I venture, it will soon find. And that will be to the advantage of us all.” J.S. Harrison, Musical America
“Compared to [the Seventh Symphony], the Third Symphony's an exuberant, straight ahead jog around the park. Whether the source of the commission influenced Mennin or he had moved to this point on his own, I can't say. Whatever, Mennin's music had darkened and, in my opinion, deepened. He had left a successful language behind by this kind of hard exploration, essentially a change from a modal idiom to a chromatic one…. Mennin … even manages to retain affinities with his younger self, particularly in matters of rhythmic contrapuntal contrast and the magnificent, speedball finale. S. Schwartz, Classical Net
“Mennin’s command of structure and expressive content is absolute ….” D. Hall, Stereo Review “[Mennin’s Symphony No. 7] in the opinion of many, including myself, is one of the finest essays in symphonic form written in the 20th century …. K. Miller, Classical Net
“… a blockbuster of near-Beethovenian energy and eloquence, … [it] is one of my candidates for The Great American Symphony.” J.H. North, Fanfare
“[The work] represents the peak of [Mennin’s] symphonic achievement, a closely argued work of massive integrity. It can rank among the finest of the American symphonic tradition this century.” N. Butterworth, The American Symphony
Cantata de Virtute, “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1969), 40 minutes
Commissioned by the Cincinnati May Festival
Premiere: Cincinnati May Festival, cond. by Max Rudolf; Cyril Ritchard, narrator,
Richard Lewis, tenor, Ara Berberian, bass (May, 1969)
Cantata de Virtute, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” is perhaps Mennin’s most ambitious work—it is certainly his largest in both scale and scope. Scored for narrator, tenor and bass soloists, double mixed choir, children’s chorus, and symphony orchestra, the cantata was the result of a suggestion made by conductor Max Rudolf.
Mennin recounted that he had usually thought of the The Pied Piper of Hamelin as a typical children’s fairy tale. But upon re-reading it for the first time since childhood, he “found that in fact it was an austere medieval morality tale. My interest grew, and … I found and read earlier source material from which Robert Browning had based his poetic text. This proved rewarding, for as inevitably happens when one goes to the source, one finds variations and nuances which were not part of subsequent adaptations. As time passed, various ideas about using The Pied Piper as the basis for a major work began fermenting in my mind until I realized that the medieval subject matter was pertinent to modern problems and pressures. Further thought also convinced me that the text of The Pied Piper alone would not be sufficient for the broad-scaled conception that had already been developing subconsciously. This led me to examine other materials which might support the concept I had formed, with the result that I have introduced the Latin text of Psalm 117, two Thirteenth Century poems which elaborate the basic conception, and an adaptation of the Missa pro Defunctis. The work is titled CANTATA DE VIRTUTE—a cantata about morality, using the word morality in its broadest sense and meaning. The music is clearly dramatic and, when the conception demands, theatrical. The work includes sections in which approximate notation had to be devised to achieve the proper crowd effects. Finally, in order to create a total context, several additions to and extensions of the textural material have been made.”
As the composer suggested, Cantata de Virtute is a brutal morality tale, recounting a town’s failure to honor its obligation to a sorcerer of sorts, who delivered it from a plague, and the vengeance wreaked by that sorcerer on the townspeople in retribution for their failure to honor their agreement with him. The musical language used by Mennin in this work is the same atonal, highly dissonant language found in his recently preceding works, such as the Piano Sonata and the Symphony No. 7. However, despite the severity of its musical language, there is a recurrent motif that accompanies the words, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” that serves as an eerie thematic anchor and faintly suggests a B-flat major harmony. Also, the work ends unambiguously in E-flat major, in praise of God and the triumph of Justice. However, consistent with the body of Mennin’s work, the cantata maintains a grim intensity throughout, treating the Piper’s ruthless revenge as fair redress for the injustice visited upon him.
“Though he has employed twelve-note motives, the piece is extremely listenable. A mood-setting if sometimes thickly scored overture treats the clamoring voices as part of the orchestral textures, and out of it evolves a moving Miserere, a children’s song of desolation which voices the desperation of the rat-ridden Hamelin. Brief arias for the Mayor and the Piper advance the drama, and the Laudate Dominum with which the combined chorus of adults and children rejoices over the drowning of the rats is a remarkably effective hymn of praise. Perhaps, though, the medieval Song of May which takes the unsuspecting children merrily into the caverns of the mountainside is one of the highlights of the work. Innocent, beguiling, it is overlaid with a strangely Gothic kind of horror. With it Mennin has achieved stunning results. And the skillful use of the Latin texts, some of them from the Requiem mass, further heightens the drama of his setting of the medieval morality legend.” B. D. Krebs, High Fidelity/Musical America
“[It is a work of] unfailing imagination. There are no dull stretches, no labored patches. Things move logically from here to there in the most musically satisfying way…” E. Bell, Cincinnati Post and Times-Star
Symphony No. 8 (1973), 28 minutes
Premiere: New York Philharmonic, cond. by Daniel Barenboim (Nov., 1974)
Recording: New World NW 371-2
Mennin’s Symphony No. 8 is unusual among the composer’s symphonies in comprising four, rather than three, movements; also, not since No. 4 had he articulated an extramusical stimulus—in this case, four Biblical references. In describing the work, Mennin wrote that “the thrust of the Eighth Symphony has a diversity and contrast of musical ideas and of moods, texture, and instrumental relationships, not only between movements, but also within them. The musical vocabulary itself has expanded considerably with certain new dramatic and tone-configuration elements. Each of the four movements was stimulated emotionally by Biblical texts. These emotional-musical reactions are not programmatic in nature. On the contrary, each movement is a personal musical response that unfolds along purely musical lines. The texts allied to each of the movements are:
I. In the beginning …. Genesis (In principio … )
II. Day of wrath …. Zephaniah (Dies Irae … )
III. Out of the Depths … Psalm 130 (De Profundis Clamavi … )
IV. Praise ye the Lord … Psalm 150 (Laudate Dominum … )”
The first movement evokes a sense of stasis. Its rubric, In principio, contributes to its evocation of a barren landscape from before the dawn of time. In this movement, the gradual compression of polyphony, first hinted at in the 1960s, has finally led to the "verticalization" of linear motifs into seething, cluster-like chordal structures—the sound-mass technique associated with Eastern European composers of the time, such as Ligeti and Lutoslawski—orchestrated with uncharacteristic attention to sonority and texture. In the second movement, Dies irae, characteristically Menninian motivic fragments swirl wildly in frantic instrumental byplay, as plentiful use of percussion contributes to explosive eruptions. The third movement, De profundis clamavi, is characteristic of the composer in its focus on somber linear polyphony, as long melodic lines unfold with an icy beauty, but here devoid of the comfort provided by tonal resolution. The fourth movement conveys a tremendous sense of agitation, its unremitting tension and explosions of violence seemingly at odds with its rubric, Laudate Dominum. Not until its final seconds does the work achieve a sense of affirmation, through a most unexpected resolution in F Major.
“[The Symphony No. 8] shows the composer in somber and austere mood: with its Biblical headings to each movement, the music reveals anguish and pessimism, articulated by dark textures and brooding sonorities. The long expressive passages one associates with Mennin are there, but convulsive sforzandi and compressed harmonies interspersed with bleak string monodies suggest similarities of demeanour with Shostakovich’s war symphonies, … More than any other piece by Mennin, this is a powerful cri de coeur in which the composer bares his soul, and his fears and doubts, through a medium of boldly conceived musical language. Only in the final bars does the light of major tonality shine through the clouded skies.” B. Johnson, Tempo
“Peter Mennin’s 8th Symphony is a soundly planned and solidy wrought product of a shillful, thorough, craftsman with a vein of poetry.” Andrew Porter, The New Yorker
Voices (1976), 15 minutes
Commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Premiere: F. van Stade, Chamber Ens., cond. by G. Schwarz (March, 1976)
Mennin’s Voices comprises settings of four poems by American poets, scored for soprano, piano, harp, harpsichord, and a varied percussion ensemble (tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, antique cymbals, timpani, bell-plates, suspended cymbals, tam-tams, bongos, tom-toms, and timbales). The poems Mennin selected are: “Smoke,” by Henry David Thoreau, “Lone Founts,” by Herman Melville, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman, and “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense,” by Emily Dickinson.
Mennin explained that his intention was “to conceive musical settings that would bring out and strengthen the mystical and spiritual qualities of the metaphysical images. The basic thrust of these poems is in creating new worlds to see, and new visions that seem invisible to the prosaic eye. I have long admired the small group of American poets (among them Dickinson, Melville, Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson) who were influenced by the transcendental movement originating in New England…. These poets explored with their sharp intelligence their own spiritual potentialities. They made abundantly clear that the human mind and heart is not only able to crawl, but is also capable of soaring. From the beginning it has been the domain of the arts to search out the free spaces of the imagination. The large body of poetic work generally considered as having metaphysical elements provides some of the keenest insights into the realm of creativity. The choice of poems for this work was subject to the musical images they evoked from the composer. There is a common thread in each of them that made these particular choices inevitable. The instrumentation was chosen for its possibilities to enhance the vocal imagery and varies from poem to poem.”
“Mennin has ingeniously wrought a work that is brilliant in timbre, and crowned it with a dazzling display in the final Dickinson poem, ‘Much Madness is Divinest Sense.” P. Hume, The Washington Post, May 19, 1976.
“The vocal writing was full of contrast… there was much to recommend it… the sounds were full of color and variety.”
High Fidelity – Musical American
Reflections of Emily (1978), 25 minutes
Comm. by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Newark Boys Chorus
Premiere: Newark Boys Chorus, cond. by Terence Shook (January, 1979)
For this work Mennin returned to the writings of the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, for whom he displayed a longstanding fondness. Not only had he selected one of her poems to include in Voices, but four settings of her poetry, for soprano and piano, are found among the works of his late teens, which he had subsequently disavowed. Reflections comprises seven sections, scored for treble voices in three parts, harp, piano, and percussion ensemble. Mennin chose five of Dickinson’s poems: “This is my letter to the world;” “’Tis so much joy!” “That I did always love;” “Read, sweet, how others strove;” and “Musicians wrestle everywhere.” Following the first three settings is an extended interlude for solo harp, entitled “Cadenza Capricciosa,” which is performable as an independent entity. The sixth section is an interlude for solo piano.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that Reflections of Emily represents the first instance in Mennin’s output that deviates from what has been a consistent and unswerving path in the direction of greater harmonic dissonance, attenuated tonality, and ever-increasing expressive intensity. Following the largely atonal explosiveness of the Eighth Symphony and the angular Voices, Reflections of Emily steps aside somewhat from this relentlessly linear trajectory. The work is not in any way “a step backward” in the direction of his earlier compositions, as much of it—the interludes for harp and piano, in particular—continues to explore the remotest regions of tonality, while other sections (e.g., “’Tis so much joy!”) pursue such unconventional practices as alternating between phrases sung and phrases spoken in counterpoint. But Reflections is also leavened by passages of striking harmonic consonance (e.g. “That I did always love”) and by others that achieve a viscerally felt rhythmic vitality (e.g. “Musicians wrestle everywhere”).
“[Reflections of Emily is] a sterling work, good enough to have made this listener want to hear it repeated immediately after its first performance…. The ambiguities in the Dickinson texts are tantalizing under any circumstances, but Mr. Mennin has given them an added dimension through his music. ‘This is my letter to the world’ is set twice, the second time ending in a kind of anxious cry, after which the last line is echoed with quiet pleading. ‘’Tis so much joy!’ is treated in a fast, breathless manner, with speech juxtaposed on singing, as if the emotion could not be contained in just one mode of expression….
[Perhaps the interlude for solo harp] is meant as a portrait of Dickinson as seen through her poetry. The workmanship is everywhere expert, as would be expected from a composer of Mr. Mennin’s standing and experience. It was often reward enough to observe the skill with which the words were set and the vocal lines overlaid.” R. Ericson, New York Times
Symphony No. 9 (1981), 21 minutes
Commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra
Premiere: National Sym. Orchestra, cond. by M. Rostropovich (March, 1981)
Recording: New World NW 371-2
Mennin described his Ninth Symphony as “dramatic.” “The first movement is brooding, questioning, and then as elements coalesce, more clearly optimistic; the second movement contains elements of wistfulness and introspection; the third movement is in a different character … --severe rather than expansive, but generally self-confident, and at the end strongly affirmative.”
Mennin’s Ninth recalls elements of both the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. As in the former work, the Ninth opens with a somber statement of the main motif in the lower strings—a wedge-shaped motif free of perceptible tonal center. Also prominent in the first movement, marked Lento, non troppo, is an upward-thrusting motif very similar to the main idea of the Seventh Symphony’s second section. After the brooding opening, the first movement soon becomes more actively agitated, with rapidly swirling figurations in the strings and woodwinds, before ending solemnly, as it began. Like the Eighth Symphony, the Ninth uses the sound-mass technique as well as many passages without perceptible meter. The Ninth, however, exhibits more sustained use of linear counterpoint than did its predecessor. The second movement, Adagio arioso, is remarkable for its unabashed lyricism, especially within the context of the two surrounding movements. Although its tonality is quite attenuated, the long, flowing melodic line, supported in homophonic relief by a throbbing chordal accompaniment, creates the impression of a heartfelt elegy. Though it is possibly the most "personal" or “intimate"-sounding music Mennin ever wrote, its tone of profound grief borne with dignity is consistent with his aesthetic voice. (It was appropriate that this movement was selected for performance at the composer’s memorial service in 1983.) In the brief third movement, Presto tumultuoso, shrieking brass and explosive percussion unleash a paroxysm of wild, frenzied violence. Although the level of harmonic dissonance is quite severe throughout the work, once again the symphony comes to a landing on a unison tonic.
Reviewing the recording of Mennin’s Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, musicologist Edith Boroff wrote,
“Peter Mennin is one of the composers whose music was swept away by the post-war radical imperative, the movement which asserted an absolute change from Romanticism to the New Music…. It takes time for the members of the vanguard to look back and appreciate the rainbow-scope of music from which a new style emerges. Perhaps that time has come; perhaps we are now ready for the excitement and the joy of savoring that scope. And perhaps this recording is a testament to our readiness.” She notes that these two symphonies “present an expansion of orchestral language in both internal and external facets—in both idea and the statement of idea, form, and orchestration. Mennin was maestro assoluto of orchestral writing at a time when the radicals were taking their business elsewhere. What is so electrifying in these works is: one, that the many new sounds devolve upon meaning and are not mere ‘effects’ (though strikingly effective); and two, that the works are not just “rhythmic” but live in rhythm and texture, which are primary and organic.” Boroff described the Ninth Symphony as “much like its predecessor in its mainsprings: the first movement … begins and ends with contained archings in the low register, with big brass and shimmering strings in the middle; the second … presents a contrasting high register with a long-limned violin melody as primus inter pares; the finale, Presto tumultuoso is everything that directive implies, but it never loses power or dignity.” American Music
Comparing the two works, John Canarina found the Ninth to be “an unusually angry score, even for Mennin, especially in its … finale. Both symphonies are striking, even stunning works…. Mennin was not a great melodist …, but he was a great sustainer of moods, such as the elegiac tone of the Ninth Symphony’s Adagio arioso.” Classical
“[I]f the mood of the Eighth is one of anguish and despair, that of the Ninth is one of sad resignation, especially in the slow movement. It also exhibits extensive use of tuned percussion and bells to lend more colour and emphasis, especially in the short last movement, a moto ostinato in characteristically energetic Mennin style.” B. Johnson, Tempo
“Written for the National Symphony Orchestra’s 50th season, Mennin’s Symphony is a highly charged work with rhythmic complexities and lavish use of brass and percussion. It is often melodic, with extended development of thematic material, often in a series of immense chords. Mester led a stirring performance that brought a substantial number of the large audience to their feet to cheer composer and players, and Mester was given a spontaneous ovation by the orchestra.” F. Warren O’Reilly, The Washington Times, 5/2/1983
The new Ninth symphony of Mennin… is a stunning achievement and one likely to win a place among the most admired symphonies of our time…” P. Hume, The Washington Post
Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1983), 25 minutes
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic
Premiere: J. Baxtresser, NY Philharmonic, cond. by Z. Mehta (May, 1988)
Unlike the conventional three-movement structure of the two earlier works, the Flute Concerto comprises just a single movement. But this movement embraces many sections in contrasting tempos. Along the lines of his most recent works, the Flute Concerto introduces a variety of percussion instruments, which suggest through tone-cluster sonorities most of the work’s primary motivic material, soon elaborated by the solo flute. Percussion instruments are featured prominently throughout the work. Though the moment-to-moment impact of the concerto is largely atonal, and the harmonic language extremely dissonant, an overall tonality of D minor is reaffirmed throughout, most clearly by a somber motif that recurs frequently in the lower instruments. Utilizing the expanded language characteristic of his last half-dozen works, the Flute Concerto nevertheless continues to pursue Mennin’s characteristic gestures and distinctive expressive concerns, as it alternates between lugubrious moments of deep introspection and driving passages of rapid solo passagework in breathtaking alternation with the orchestra, and often in complex networks of counterpoint. The soloist is given some respite during ritornello-like interludes that unleash violent orchestral tirades. Notable also is an elaborate and enormously difficult developmental cadenza, as well as a contrasting passage in which minor triads, not employed tonally, are used to accompany the improvisatory questioning of the flute, achieving a strikingly unearthly beauty. Quite uncharacteristic of the composer is his avoidance of the customary triumphant peroration, in favor of an understated, almost prosaic, conclusion.
“Mr. Mennin's command of coloristic detail and his penchant for sweeping, neo-Romantic statements emerged strongly.” M. Kimmelman, New York Times
“[The Flute Concerto is] magnificent … [Mennin’s] supreme musical achievement.” B. Johnson, Tempo
“This is a substantive, superbly drafted piece that clearly deserves to enter the repertoire.” S. Elliott, The New York Post, May 27, 1988