Music Post: The Boston School

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The way we classify composers changed forever when a Russian composer named Mily Balakirev exhorted four composer friends to write a more Russian music, and the five came to be known as the Mighty Handful, or, in French translation, the Mighty Five.

Then a French writer created “Les Six” of six French composers who were friends, even though they had no common manifesto (and a seventh composer was left out only because he failed to show for a photo shoot of the group) and one, Louis Durey, missed most of their collaborations.

In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg and Anton Webern came to be known as the Second Viennese School, distinguishing them from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, who all worked in and around Vienna, though at only partially overlapping times (Beethoven knew all the others but only two, Haydn and Mozart, were actually friends).

But writers are forever looking for new ways to describe what they hear, and in 1955 Gilbert Chase wrote of the Boston Six, and the Second New England School. In his parsing, the first New England School was William Billings, whose tunes from Revolutionary times William Schuman used in “New England Triptych,” and other composers of that day. The Second New England School, Chase explained, was John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, Horatio Parker and Amy Beach, who in the late 1800s and early 1900s all knew each other and wrote good music in European classical styles. Sometimes we call them called the Boston Six.

That brings us to another Boston Six, a.k.a. the Boston School: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger.

Most of these composers and some others in their circle were gay, most were pals (including the ones who weren’t gay), most came from either Boston or New York, most were connected as students and/or teachers with Boston and Tanglewood, most had works premiered by the Boston Symphony and, most importantly, they admired neoclassical music in general and Stravinsky in particular, while being less impressed with the Second Viennese School.

Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein went on to command global attention. Copland, in addition to being by far the greatest composer of group, devoted much of his life to obtaining performances for other American composers, making him something of a father figure to the rest, though a more genial one than the pushy and bellicose Balakirev had been. Bernstein, as you know, became one of the world’s most popular conductors and a great popularizer of classical music, while still retaining respect as a composer to a degree that only Mendelssohn and Mahler matched.

But many fans of classical music know little or nothing of the other four.

Of those four, Lukas Foss came closest to broader fame, with a good conducting career that put him in charge of orchestras in Brooklyn, Buffalo and Milwaukee. He made a number of recordings of classical music of his time. His music came in time to be a bit astringent for most people’s tastes but started out quite Stravinskyian and quite enjoyable. Foss was born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin. (After they emigrated to Philadelphia, their Quaker hosts suggested the name change.) Foss and Bernstein attended Curtis Institute together. His connection to the others came at Tanglewood. Foss conducted the premiere of Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” He later was appointed Schoenberg’s successor teaching composition at UCLA.

Irving Fine was actually born in Boston, and, like Copland, studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He was friends with Bernstein and Copland, taught at Harvard and Tanglewood, and was part of the New England scene until his death of heart disease in 1962 at the age of 47. His works sometimes appear in collections of American classical music.

Harold Shapero, also born in the Boston area, played piano in a jazz band as a youth, studied with Walter Piston and Nadia Boulanger, and also became friends with Bernstein and Copland, both of whom worked hard to put his music before the public. Shapero married and had a child and after that he focused more on his duties as a college professor than as composer. His music was witty and his titles more so: he wrote a nine-minute overture called “Nine Minute Overture” and his masterpiece was “Symphony for Classical Orchestra,” a response to Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements.”

Arthur Berger, New York-born and another Boulanger pupil, seems to have been the Louis Durey of the group. By the time the others began coming to notice he was already moving from neoclassical composition to serial composition. He wound up so much in the shadows of the others that when he won a professorship at Brandeis he was the Irving Fine Professor Emeritus.

We don’t need the Boston School framework to remember Copland and Bernstein, Lukas Foss has been clinging to the repertory unaided, and Berger is headed for the land of footnotes. So really the point in discussing the Boston School is not to forget certain deserving neoclassical works of Irving Fine and Harold Shapero. Still, I’ll sample all six this weekend on “Howard’s Day Off.”

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