The New York School of Composers
     "New York School" is -granted- as dangerously vague a label as "Neoclassicism" or "atonality". Words are never a precise stand-in for musical truth and can cause as much distortion as clarification of the music and the composers who created it. And yet kinship may be recognized.
     George Perle and Stefan Wolpe were active teachers whose students are major figures in today's musical culture (Matthew Greenbaum and Raoul Pleskow both studied with Wolpe). Aaron Copland was enormously influential, especially in the American brand of neoclassicism displayed in the jazzy Sonata (Elliott Carter's Sonata of 1945 seems especially influenced by the Copland Sonata both formally and expressively though Carter's own complex personality is already discernible in this early masterpiece).
     "New York School" is, aside from location, difficult to define, and I will treat it in a personal way, through my experiences with the composers themselves and the works that they created. Once one gets through the jazz and ethnic elements present in much of the music, and once one hears the Neoclassical influence in the stylistic use of earlier, often Baroque, forms one must confront, to me, the central issue which is the emotional or spiritual core.
     If I were to find a descriptive idea to define this music, it could be "loneliness" or "disorientation of place". Many of these composers were immigrants, and faced a double-edged culture in which "art" and "life" ran jarringly side by side. Noise was strident as were many sensual impressions: the comforts of a small community or a large family were largely memories in the mass of the faceless crowd, and one found oneself confronting a vast, impersonal world either alone, or with very few companions. New York composers were almost instinctively averse to sweet sounds or soothing lines. Regularity of phrase or pulse had to be contradicted sooner or later.
     With most immigrants, Jews most of all, humor -often bitter- became a staple feature of like, personality, and ultimately music. This wit, whether gently as in Berger, or sardonic, as in Wolpe, can be felt in the dichotomy between the high art of the style and the colloquialism that inflects it to varying degrees. Generally, in the Berger, folk-like or jazzy tunes bump into complex counterpoint. In the Aria, the reverse happens: a dignified melody bumps into crude accompanying figures which cast doubts upon the confidence of the line rather as a person crossing a street has to scurry to avoid a taxi or another pedestrian. The Wolpe Waltz presents one hundred years of triple-time dances from Schubert to Strauss (as well as downtown jazz of the 1950's) and destroys each edifice as it appears. This is accomplished by avante-garde rhythmic and contrapuntal techniques that slowly disintegrate each hopeful gesture. The Straussian hemiola of the opening slowly runs into a jazzy 5/8 counterpoint and the Schubertian German dance which follows gets lost in canon. The lush trio, la Guy Lombardo, simply dissipates from boredom as Wolpe shows that he cannot abide the comforts and pretensions of the bourgeoisie. He ultimately resolves the decadence of the Waltz motives in double-time outburst in which hot jazz la Duke Ellington, typical Wolpian angry counterpoint and violent harmonies destroy all elegance and leave a recapitulation filled with disheveled versions of the earlier motives which are pushed on stage and then rudely pushed off by grotesque motives.
     Zemach Suite is perhaps technically not of the New York School since it was written for the dancer Benjamin Zemach while Wolpe was still in Palestine. Nonetheless, it still contains the Wolpian ethos of physicality of rhythm and intense and thick harmonic colors. One can also find a residue of the social awareness that had been part of his music since the political activism of his Berlin years (most clearly in his Jubilation). While not serial, there is a basic pitch pattern, of Jewish flavor, that serves as a unifying motif throughout the seven movements (a standard practice in suites from Bach to Schumann to Ravel and up to the present). The two fugues are clearly spin-offs of Piece of Embittered Music and the linear independence is grotesquely ironic in the first and overwhelmingly powerful in the second. Complaint describes not a trivial problem, but a spiritual ailment that provides the passion of the work. Dance in form of Chaccone shows a polyphonic complexity which pushes the performer at times to the brink of his abilities both in his two hands and his two feet as well.
     Sarcasm is deeply linked to loneliness and disorientation. This sense of loneliness and regeneration is, for me, the core of the Copland Sonata. Perhaps because of its length, pianistic brilliance, and complex architecture, the intimacy of the work is often not noticed. It is a deeply personal confession in which the gruffness of the French Overture opening with its barren harmonies and the strident car horns of the Allegro gradually give way to the two-part flirtations of the scherzo and, eventually, the intimate confessions of the two voices in the finale. Copland uses the same polyphonic techniques and rhythmic discontinuities found in Berger and Wolpe, but here they evoke loneliness. The halting efforts at unity which the two voices achieve, first grandly, then stridently, and finally, tenderly, seem to me a personal metaphor.
     George Perle and Raoul Pleskow are of a slightly younger generation and their works were written decades after Berger, Copland and Wolpe. One senses that the stridency and high moral purpose of the earlier generation has mellowed considerably despite the use of serial techniques and, if anything, even more complex rhythmic counterpoints. Despite the title Ballade, I hear the lightness of Mendelssohn (especially in the largely triple meter scherzo) and the harmonic glories of Brahms, rather than the emotional elegance of Chopin. All allusions to tonality are plainly admissible, from the whole-tone opening tot he powerful triads of the close. In addition, as in the Pleskow, discernible rhythmic patterns are stressed and repeated with increasing vehemence and coloristic variation (in the Pleskow, contrapuntal elaboration takes the place of Perle's colors, but the romantic sense of inevitability is equally achieved). Much as Ballade is narrative music, with sections merging seamlessly into each other, the Pleskow Sonata is in three movements where sections wander into one another and subtle leitmotivs reappear out of nowhere. The structure, though still classical, is, unlike Copland or Perle, heard as nebulous, a trait of Pleskow which rewards a listener upon second hearings. As with Perle, one can hear tonal allusions, Mendelssohnian colors and lyric lines despite the serial techniques which Pleskow learned from Wolpe. Interestingly, the use of disparate two-part polyphony is as prevalent here as in Perle, but the results are neither loneliness as in Copland nor stridency as in Wolpe. Here, as in Perle, it is a largely happy event which, perhaps because the technique is now simply one more element in the composer's arsenal.
     Matthew Greenbaum was, as Pleskow, a student of Stefan Wolpe but of yet a younger generation. On the first hearing this is perhaps the most "avante-garde" work on the program, but the techniques and form clearly derive from the New York School and the colors and expression, while uniquely Greenbaum's, still show their roots in the past. How The Axe Escaped The Woodsman is an avante-garde suite. While the harmonies and textures somewhat recall Wolpe, the colors and expression seem almost French and dance-like rhythms pervade the work.
     The opening movement is a timeless and seemingly "disoriented" attempt at establishing order in a 7/8 scheme in which pitches try to become independent lines, and eventually succeed. Movement II is a jazzy scherzo in which a basic triple meter overcomes syncopations and contrapuntal arguments. Movement III is emotionally akin to the Copland Finale. Greenbaum does not allow, however, the apotheosis to take place in this movement. Movement IV, with its hint of plucked instruments (as with the banjo twangs of the Berger Finale) brings an ethnic color to the work and the rondo structure is so insistent that it has a bolero-like effect. The Finale is a nostalgic waltz, reminiscent of Ravel, in which the composer brings the isolation of Movement III's lines to a tender, if not quite happy union.
     Thus, fifty years of aesthetic full of contradictions, struggles, abysses and elations which, as music, must escape the grasp of any descriptive language. And this is only fair, because, after all, New York is itself beyond the mundanity of description.


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