Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Baffling Mr. Shapero

In an article published in the New York Times in 1948, the year that Harold Shapero's major work for orchestra, the Symphony for Classical Orchestra, was premiered by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony, Aaron Copland, after some effusive praise for Shapero's talents, said that there is "something baffling about what he has produced so far." I'm with Copland on this, but I think that with a bit more distance, it is not so baffling after all.

But before we get to that, let's back up a bit. In January of last year I put up a post about Harold Shapero. I had read an article in the Wall Street Journal about him that was so effusive that I felt impelled to order a CD of his music, the Andre Previn/LA Philharmonic recording of his symphony. After getting it and having a listen I put up the post. I was not so enthused. In fact I said that he was not a good composer. This post continues to attract comments, most recently this week, disagreeing with me. This is all to the good, of course. Aesthetic disagreement is exactly why the Music Salon exists.

After reading a couple more comments asking me to give Mr. Shapero another chance, I did finally get around to that and listened again to the CD:

When I did my previous post I was considerably hampered by the fact that there was no performance of this on YouTube (now that's obscurity!). Luckily, now there is, so I can refer directly to the music. Here is the Previn/LA Philharmonic recording:

After a two minute adagio introduction, which offers a little gently descending harmonic sequence, but not much else, the allegro begins with a strangely disjointed theme based on a descending diminished arpeggio, plus quick repeated notes in the winds, plus a galumphing motif in the basses. All this still sounds like an introduction, though as we still don't have a real theme. Then, at around 2:25 we do seem to finally have a theme, but it consists of a bunch of disparate motifs: a short melodic bit in the second violins (or violas?) answered by scampering in the first violins and flutes, followed by a different scampering motif with repeated notes in the lower strings, underlined by some thumps in the tympani. Then we start to hear these ideas again, this time with different orchestration and clever little strettos. This is followed by a different repeated-note motif with variations on that diminished figure and so on and on.

This is all very nice and you can see why Copland praised Shapero's technical command. But really, this is exactly the kind of trap that a young, gifted composer in his later 20s would fall into. He has too many ideas!! He might like to think he is modeling himself after Beethoven or Haydn, but go listen to any symphony by those gentlemen and you will immediately see my point. Haydn wrote many, many movements based on just one theme! And Beethoven usually made do with two or three. If I had access to the score (not available via IMSLP) then I could make this point even more clearly. My little description above just takes us up to the three minute mark of a twelve minute movement and already there are so many clever little themes and orchestrations and rhythms that it makes your head swim. This music lacks two crucial things: focus and point. Honestly, it seems as if the only reason he wrote it was to impress people with how accomplished he was at sticking in lots of thematic ideas and their derivations and accompaniments and rhythmic figures and so on.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this symphony is that it is the young composer's first major work for orchestra, written when he was twenty-seven, and he never wrote another! This is what really astonishes me. Sure, composers in mid-century were not prolific like Haydn or Mozart, but most of Shapero's peers wrote more than one symphony. Prokofiev wrote seven, Shostakovich fifteen, even Stravinsky wrote two or three. Did Shapero think he had written the best symphony he could and that was it? Did he not see room for improvement?

Harold Shapero had a remarkable beginning to his career: he seems to have either studied with or known nearly every important figure: Nicolas Slonimsky, Ernst Krenek, Walter Piston, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger (for a full biography read the Wikipedia article I linked to above). He also seems to have won every prize and scholarship there was: the Rome Prize, Joseph H. Bearns prize, Koussevitsky Foundation award, George Gershwin Memorial, Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship (twice), and in 1951 was hired by Brandeis University where he taught for thirty-seven years. If credentials guarantee anything then he was the greatest American composer ever.

But what happened was that he just stopped composing once he started teaching. No more symphonies, just the occasional brief chamber work or set of songs.

Now let's do some comparisons. Here is the first movement of a symphony by Stravinsky:

At roughly the same time that Shapero was writing his symphony Prokofiev revised his Symphony No. 4:

And wrote his Symphony No. 6:

Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 9 around the same time as well, itself a kind of homage to Haydn:

I hope you will listen to these and to the Shapero symphony again and come to your own conclusions. But I think I have come to mine. Mr. Shapero really did not compose out of any real need or compulsion and this is why he did not follow his early symphony with more mature examples.


Jives said...

I'm finding a few things to like in Shapero. The intro was a little insipid, but there is some interesting activity in the Allegro. I like that its dissonances are good-natured rather than snarling. And there's a hilarious little joke at around 3:25, I-V-I-V-I, faux classical ending gesture....weird. That is odd that he didn't do anymore. Probably no time with that teaching gig.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, that rather odd, heavy-handed cadential figure is one of the things that baffled Copland. It is supposed to be a homage to Beethoven, but as you say, it comes across as more of a satire.