Sunday, March 09, 2008

Miriam Gideon (1906-1996) , An American Composer Well Overdue For A Revival by Anthony McCarthy

Suzie, thanks for the reminder.

One of the more surprising things said about music in the past century was when George Perle, the distinguished composer, critic and scholar, in 1960 stated that Miriam Gideon’s Sonnets From Shakespear was “the best American work of the last fifty years.” Consider that the years involved include some of the best works of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Ruth Crawford Seeger, etc. And consider that George Perle would have been fully aware of all of them and more. He could have easily bruised some large reputations in saying it.

The statement would have been even more surprising in 1960 than it sounds today for one overriding reason. When considered at all in 1960, Miriam Gideon would almost always have been put into that special category of “female composers” along with Vivian Fine, Louise Talma and the better known Ruth Crawford Seeger. That designation, whatever else it could be used for, did, and too some extent, still does constitute a walled ghetto, it puts the inhabitants out of hearing and out of consideration.

The Sonnets and other works are available on this disc of reissued performances of Gideon’s vocal works on the New World-Cri label. The poetry represented is remarkably varied and the setting of it shows Gideon’s thorough familiarity with voices and the way to set text to music in both English and German. Particularly interesting is her setting in “The Resounding Lyre” of the poem “Portrait of Mother” by Frederic Ewen. The poem could have descended into soppy sentimentality so easily, but Gideon’s clear-eyed treatment, matching the language of the test “gazes — as if into Eternities; Deep as thought—“ This is is some of the best vocal writing from the period in which she worked, listening to it this morning it strikes me as some of the best setting of English text . Her handling of instruments is suburb, the contrapuntal writing is magnificent and original, as good as the best of Roger Sessions other students. Only one word of caution, music this powerful and detailed doesn’t lend itself to casual listening. Trying to absorb the entire disc at one sitting is exhausting.

Today one of the bars to the performance and consideration of Gideon’s music is that a lot of it is vocal music which Americans are supposed to not like. And not only is it vocal music but her musical language is more modern than is likely to find general acceptance. It won’t be widely played on public radio which programs music according to marketing surveys which you have to conclude sample people who don’t particularly like to listen to music. You might want to give the disc a really good listen and consider what is gets missed when music of this searing content and intellectual honesty is allowed to remain unused.

II. On The Deaths of Two Singers
It was the death of Luciano Pavarotti and the contrast between the non-stop adulation of his singing and that of Beverly Sills after her death that got this train of thought going again. Beverley Sills was, hands down, no doubt about it, a far better musician and singer than Luciano Pavarotti. Both had great equipment, some of the best anyone has been gifted with. She used hers with intelligence and artistic adventurousness. I was told once by someone who worked at the City Opera while she did that her work ethic was faultless. She was a real pro, an almost uniquely collegial super star.

So, what was the difference between the level of memorial when they died? Both had winning personalities, though I liked her style a lot more than his. It wasn’t the music, her repertoire was wider and more consistently distinguished in its quality than his. Both of them in a demonstration of what a surfeit of talent can lead to, did some really vulgar schlock. Though she seldom sank to the levels he wallowed in. Hers was a classier form of slumming. Sills also had the good sense to go out on top and left a far better quality catalog of recordings.

So, gender, I submit, is the difference in how these two singers are remembered after their deaths, especially by the superficial and ignorant media. I think it also made the difference in how they were seen when they were alive.