Classical Music Review: New Releases

Meredith Willson  ·  Symphony Nos. 1 and 2. Symphony No. 1 in F minor ("A Symphony of San Francisco"). Symphony No. 2 in E minor ("The Missions of California"). Moscow Symphony Orchestra; William T. Stromberg, cond.  Naxos American Classics 8.559006 (70'38).

Yes, this is that Meredith Willson (1902-1984), composer of The Music Man ("76 Trombones") and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. He also scored Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, wrote popular songs, and composed a number of short works for orchestra.  He began his career as a flutist in John Philip Sousa's band before moving on to the New York Philharmonic in 1925.  There he played under conductors such as Toscanini, Furtwängler, Mengelberg and Stravinsky.  In 1932 he became musical director for the Western Division of NBC, headquartered in San Francisco.  It was during this time that he composed the two symphonies heard on this disk.  They're surprisingly good.

The first is subtitled "A Symphony of San Francisco" and was written to commemorate the city's revival thirty years after the earthquake of 1906.  It is in four movements, but is really more a collection of tone poems than a synthesized whole.  The structure is something like Respigi's Roman suites.  The first movement is in sonata form.  A driving, "masculine" tune dominates a hymn-like second theme.  The overall effect is strident, but Willson varies the texture enough to keep one from feeling bowled over (there's a lovely passage for solo flute about half-way through).  The second movement is a passacaglia depicting the rebuilding after the quake.  As you would expect, it begins quietly then adds heavier scoring and complexity.  The scherzo recalls Tchaikovsky's music for The Nutcracker with its staccato woodwinds.  At one point Verdi's "Caro Nome" appears, in honor of Luisa Tetrazzini's impromptu recital at Lotta's Fountain on Market Street.  The finale is quite jazzy and percussive with a prominent role for the saxophone.

The Second Symphony, "The Missions of California", is likewise a collection of tone poems, but to my ears it is a more satisfying whole.  The first movement, a portrait of Fra Junipero Serra, is something of a hodge-podge: brassy American horn chorales compete with a Spanish-sounding theme.  Somehow it works.  The second movement is beautiful and wonderfully scored.  Amongst other highlights is a splendid passage for harp and solo trumpet.  Willson had a real gift for melody which transcends some of the more "Hollywoodish" elements in these pieces (perhaps appropriate for music about California).  The third movement, marked Vivace, is equally good.  The main theme depicts the swallows of Capistrano with a nervous, flighty tune which passes from flute to clarinet to oboe.  It is contrasted with a "chant" in the low brass in which Willson quotes a traditional hymn handed down from Ramon Yorba, the last of the Indian chanters from the mission.  The last movement, "El Camino Real", concludes the work with a synthesis of themes from the earlier movements.

These optimistic works from the 1930's provide an interesting contrast to the darker sounds coming out from Europe at the same time.  This is music of the New Deal and the post-Depression.  Willson become more involved in his radio work and never wrote another symphony (as far as I can tell).  Broadway's gain was the concert hall's loss.  The playing of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra is excellent, and surprisingly idiomatic.  The liner notes include Meredith's own analysis of the symphonies.  This release is essential for anyone with an interest in American classical music.

Tony Gualtieri
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