100 Years of
May 17, 1923 - June 17, 1983
Music reflects the soul of the composer, and there is such a thing as soul. Music must have drama.
With a catalog of monumental works including nine symphonies, three concertos, two cantatas, string quartets, sonatas, and much more, Peter Mennin was among the most accomplished composers of his time. His music (commissioned by such prestigious
organizations as the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland and Louisville Orchestras, and the Dallas Symphony), though distinctly American and modern, was rooted in Renaissance polyphony and Beethovenian drama. “I like a big canvas,” he said, “A
symphony is not something that can be tossed off over a weekend. It is cultivated by those who believe in it.” This deep conviction is packed into every note of his compositions.
Mennin’s stature as an artist is matched only by his impact as a music educator, especially during his 21-year tenure as President of the Juilliard School. He guided Juilliard’s historic move to Lincoln Center, as well as the subsequent creation of the Juilliard Theater and American Opera Centers; the Visiting Artists, Young Conductors, and Young Playwrights Programs; the Annual Festival of Contemporary Music; and the school’s Doctoral Program. He was a faculty member at Juilliard before becoming president, and also at the Peabody Conservatory, and served in numerous other high-profile administrative and advisory roles throughout his life.
He died on June 17, 1983, just one month after his sixtieth birthday. In the words of critic, editor, and composer Arthur Cohn, “Mennin’s many accomplishments as an educator and administrator will be remembered, as they are recorded in the annals of a number of our most important institutions, but it is as a composer that he will be remembered best. He left a body of work, particularly in the symphonic genre, that is basic to the American repertoire. The fact that he never associated or aligned himself with any trend or a specific school of composition allowed him to create a catalog of works that stand solidly within a self-designed tradition.” We couldn’t agree more. To experience Mennin’s music for yourself, see a sampling of his works below, and click here to explore his complete catalog.
A lifetime composer with a sizable catalog of works which defy easy classification, Mennin wrote only one piece for concert band, the Canzona. Played here by the United States Air Force Band.
Time takes its toll on works that are fashionable or routine. After a generation or two, one no longer cares whether at its creation a work was avant-garde, conservatives or middle of the road. The only criterion is that it continue to have meaning because of the quality of its artistic statement.”
CONCERTATO FOR ORCHESTRA "MOBY DICK"
An exception to Mennin’s “pure” compositional approach, the Concertato for Orchestra "Moby Dick" depicts “the emotional impact of the novel as a whole.” This recording by Seattle Symphony has been acclaimed as “a fine tribute to an inexplicably neglected figure of the century’s American music scene” (Chicago Tribune).
STRING QUARTET NO. 2
This recording of Mennin's String Quartet No. 2 was recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet, who premiered the work in New York City on 24 February 1952.
In the act of performance or in the creation of new works, it is a matter of choice, not between what is right or wrong, but between what is strong and what is weak, what is lasting and what is of momentary attraction, what is truly beautiful and what is merely entertaining.
FANTASIA FOR STRING ORCHESTRA
Fantasia for String Orchestra was premiered in January of 1948, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl. The work is divided in two short movements. It 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.
CONCERTO FOR FLUTE AND ORCHESTRA
Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, was completed early in February 1983 following Mennin's pancreatic cancer diagnosis. This recording is of the world premiere, which took place in 1988, five years after the composer passed. The work is in one movement with a variety of sections, ranging from light and percussive to rich and darkly-hued.
I would like to think that the reason anybody writes is to express something that comes from within and he will have no peace with himself until he has written the work and gotten it out of his system. Whatever it is, once said, once on paper, it is yours, not especially to share, not especially to please, it is just there and the great thing is the choice of liking it or not is one for the ages.
REFLECTIONS OF EMILY
Reflections of Emily was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Newark Boys Chorus in 1978 and premiered by the organization under the baton of Terence Shook in January 1979. Set to the writings of Emily Dickinson, this work contains harmonic consonance that marks a departure from Mennin’s atonal and dissonant works of this period.
SYMPHONY NO. 5
Symphony No. 5 was composed in 1950 by the Dallas Symphony and Walter Handl following a commission for the ensemble. This piece is divided into three movements and is characterized by increasing rhythmic irregularity and constantly shifting accents and patterns. In the composer’s words, “The basic aim of this work is expressivity...the work as a whole is direct, assertive and terse in communication.”
The basic pre-condition of great art is the need of unhampered freedom to function.
Mennin’s Piano Sonata was commissioned by the Ford Foundation on behalf of pianist Claudette Sorel. Completed in 1963, the writing is linear, freely chromatic, and employs harmonic dissonance. Each of the three movements is largely atonal and employs constant changes in meter. The work is widely considered to be among the great American contributions to the genre.
Composed and premiered in 1945 by the National Symphony Orchestra and led by H. Kindler, Folk Overture does not, in spite of its name, draw upon existing folk songs, but instead attempts to recreate an American style synonymous with the era of its composition. Folk Overture begins with the exposition of an ebullient theme, followed by motivic development, melodic variation of the opening theme, and new material that gives way to a final coda.