I find it quite incredible
that a symphony as excellent as Harold
Shapero's is virtually an unknown quantity.
I have given some thought to trying
to work out why this can be. There may
be three reasons.
Firstly there seems
to be a bit of a downer on neo-classicism
at the present time. Stravinsky is claimed
to have defined the movement with his
Pulcinella Suite. However there
are other claimants to the style such
as Max Reger, Paul Hindemith and perhaps
Ferruccio Busoni. In the United States
we think of Walter Piston as the leading
exponent of this genre. All of these
composers are regarded as being important
in musical history, yet with the obvious
exception of Stravinsky they are comparatively
The second reason goes
back to Stravinsky himself. Apparently,
in 1947 Shapero met the older man and
showed him the score of his Symphony.
After a brief perusal of the work the
Russian handed it back to the Shapero
with the throwaway suggestion that he
become a conductor!
And thirdly, there
is the Aaron Copland ‘double-speak’.
In the first instance Copland praised
the young composer but there was a sting
in the tail. He was impressed with Shapero's
compositional technique and his creative
imagination. However he believed that
the younger man felt 'a compulsion to
fashion music after some great model’.
Thus "his ...Serenade ... is
founded upon neo-classical Stravinskian
principles, his three Amateur Piano
Sonatas on Haydnesque principles
and his recent long Symphony
is modelled after Beethoven ... he seems
to be suffering from [a] hero-worship
This adverse criticism
put Harold Shapero off the idea of composing
for nearly twenty years with the subsequent
loss of much good music.
The CD insert gives
us a good account of the background
to this work. It is unnecessary to repeat
it in this review, however a few salient
points will help listeners decide if
this work is for them.
The reason we have
this recording at all is due to the
‘American Encore Programme.’ This was
an organization that supports the performance
of neglected American music. When Previn
first presented this work to the audience
in L.A. it was a resounding success
spurring considerable interest in the
composer and his music. It is, I suppose,
unfortunate that this has not been translated
into the CD catalogues. Previn was seriously
impressed by this score; he has suggested
that the ‘Adagietto’ is the most
beautiful slow movement of any American
symphony. And it is true to say that
this long and varied movement is the
very heart of the work; it may well
be that it is Shapero’s abiding legacy.
If I was asked to describe
the Symphony I would have to
say that it is very much in the classical
style. Other writers have equated it
with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony,
with considerable justification. It
is written using a conventional style
but which brings welcome freshness.
Never for a moment does it lose the
listener’s interest. It never loses
its overall unity; the whole is certainly
greater than the sum of the parts.
is particularly fun. There are all kinds
of interesting modulations and a certain
classical ‘sturm und drang’ in the main
theme. But perhaps Beethoven comes to
the fore in the Finale. Pages
of this music could almost have been
written a hundred years previously.
However this is no criticism. What Shapero
is able to do is bring a modern flavour
to this basically classical sound; there
is even a hint of ‘swing’ rhythms!
Perhaps, as a British
listener, I could be persuaded that
this was a ‘Cheltenham’ Symphony. Yet
the more I listen to this work the more
I see it as being timeless. It is a
rather good example of the ‘classical’
symphony seen through mid-twentieth
century eyes. It is full of great tunes
and exciting moments.
Overture was the very first orchestral
piece composed by the twenty year old
Shapero. It was written in 1940 while
he was still a student of Walter Piston.
So it is hardly surprising that the
pupil’s work reflects the neo-classical
style of the master. The programme notes
tell the story of how Shapero went off
to study with Hindemith. He assumed
that the new work would be given an
‘airing’ at Tanglewood. However Hindemith
decided that there would be no student
works performed that season. Aaron Copland
came to the rescue. He ran a sort of
scratch orchestra with the sole purpose
of giving first performances of ‘worthy’
student compositions. Unfortunately
the band was depleted and this resulted
in a performance that left much to be
desired. The work was not appreciated
until it was given a performance by
the CBS Symphony Orchestra a few years
This is an excellent
work for a student composition. It is
full of rhythmic interest and melodic
variety and could never be regarded
as ‘pedantic’. There is a lovely second
subject that haunts the remainder of
the work. It would be easy to argue
that the Overture is derivative
and perhaps that it does not break new
ground. Yet that is a spurious argument.
It is a fine work that is exciting and
thoroughly enjoyable. For this reason
it deserves a place in the canon American
New World Records have
done a fine job in presenting this ‘essential’
CD of Shapero’s masterpiece. It well
complements the excellent recording
of the String Quartet (1941)
and other chamber works. [New World
Records 80569-2 review]
Perhaps the programme
could have been a little longer; there
are other orchestral works by Shapero
that could have been considered. But
I expect that this is all that André
Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
recorded at the live session.
The programme notes
are excellent; this is especially important
when there is so little available about
the composer either on the ‘net’ or
in the libraries.
I have no complaints
about the recording and obviously André
Previn and the orchestra give this work
their full attention. I doubt it could
be bettered, although I would love to
have heard Lenny Bernstein’s recording
When I was in New York
a few days ago I looked in the browsers
at Tower Records by the Lincoln Center.
There was only one Shapero CD there.
I had hoped to pick up a recording of
the Piano Sonatas – but failed.
It seems very sad that such an excellent
composer as Shapero is so under-represented.
How can it be that we have just one
recording of this present Symphony when
we have some 145 versions of Sam Barber’s
Adagio and 187 recordings of
Beethoven’s 7th a
piece with which this present work has
been justifiably compared.
to John France's review of the Andre
Previn version of this
symphony, in which he asks how we can
have only one recording of this
symphony, it's worth mentioning that
Leonard Bernstein's version with the
NYPO is still available on Sony SMK60725,
which includes Lopatnikov's
Concertino and Dallapiccola's Tartiniana.
Although in mono, the Shapero
holds its age well and is arguably a
better performance than the Previn.