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February 10, 1998

Modern ComposersSchuman/Gesensway/Persichetti -- American Archives Series. William Schuman, Credendum-- Article of Faith; Louis Gesensway, Four Squares of Philadelphia; Vincent Persichetti, Symphony No. 4, Opus 51. Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, conductor. (Albany/Troy, CD # 276) 1998.

It is perhaps a sign of the times (times being what they are) that this collection of music fits in our category of "modern" compositions, but is being released by Albany/Troy records as part of the "American Archives" series of historic recordings. The three compositions on this collection all date from the 1950s, though Gesensway's "Four Squares of Philadelphia" was begun in 1948. The monaural Philadelphia Orchestra recordings, with Eugene Ormandy conducting, also date from the mid-1950s, digitally edited and re-mastered for this CD.

Of the three composers represented on the album, Vincent Persichetti (1915 - 1987) is probably the best known today, partly because of his influence on contemporary composers such as Philip Glass and others who studied under Persichetti at the Juilliard School of Music, where Persichetti was chairman of the composition department. During the heyday of their careers, however, Schuman and Gesensway were also important figures in the field of modern music. The New York Times once described William Schuman (1910 - 1992) as "probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music," in part because of his powerful position as president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, but also in considerable part for the influence of his compositions.

Though Louis Gesensway (1906 - 1976) is not well known today, he was famous as a child-prodigy violinist in the 1920s and 1930s, and later as an important composer. Born in Latvia, he was brought to Canada by his immigrant parents, began his musical studies at age four, and was touring the country playing violin at age ten. At age nineteen, Gesensway moved to Philadelphia and joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, then went on to study composition in the U.S. and in Budapest. His "Four Squares of Philadelphia" was written as an homage to his adopted city. At the time of its premiere, a local newspaper reviewer wrote that "What Respighi did for Rome..., Gesensway has done for Philadelphia." "Four Squares" is a tone poem in six sections, inspired not only by the four squares that remain from William Penn's original plan for the city but also by Penn's "high principles and compassionate attitude" reflected in the plan.

Schuman's "Credendum--Article of Faith" had a political genesis. In 1952, the U.S. State Department "chose Schuman as its spokesman for contemporary American music at a UNESCO conference on the arts." Schuman's relation with the State Department turned out to be a favorable one, and in 1954 he was given the "first-ever U.S. government commission for a symphonic work." The result was Credendum. It is an impressive work, and very much a product of its time. Written in three movements and scored for full orchestra, the work "deploys an immense battery of percussion, ranging from small bells to the deepest tam-tam...to hammer out [its] message of unwavering optimism. The middle section, an instrumental "Chorale," was conceived as an "impassioned Hymn to Peace" and faith in modern society to create and sustain a peaceful world. That faith may seem naive or quaint, but Schuman's music is as powerful now as when it was created.

You can hear Credendum by William Schuman on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, February 19 at 7:30 as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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