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John J. Becker (1886–1961). Symphonia Brevis, Symphony No. 3 (1929)

  1. Scherzo in the spirit of mockery
  2. Must life forever be a struggle?

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AIMF founder Olga Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein

Hi, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries! Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast every month on SoundCloud and Spotify; just search “Fleisher Discoveries” to find every one of our podcasts.

If we’re feeling frustrated as 2020 turns into 2021, perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that we’re not alone. Everybody’s frustrated. From the pandemic and all the economic uncertainty it’s created, to the sour anger of politics insistently elbowing its way into our homes, we just want to be at peace, but aren’t. In the music world, it’s been a disaster for individuals and groups who can’t play together or sing together, wondering if there’ll be an audience left when we, like the prisoners in Fidelio, walk out of our dungeons.

If that’s how you’re feeling, have I got the symphony for you. Here’s what the composer wrote in the score:

This symphony was written with an outraged spirit. It is not intended to be beautiful in the sentimental sense. It is a protest against intolerance, prejudice, pretense, and sham. A protest against would-be humanitarians who talk much and do nothing. A protest against the world civilization which starves millions in peacetime and destroys these same millions in wartime.

The anger and frustration expressed in these words is timely but it wasn’t written today. It sounds like the protest music of the ’60s but it wasn’t written then. It’s a symphony completed only a couple of months after the Stock Market Crash of ’29, completed, in fact, on Christmas Eve 1929. The composer is John J. Becker. Who was Becker, and from whence all this passion?

He was born in Henderson, Kentucky, a quietly complex part of the country, the South, but not quite, and not really the Midwest. On the border with Indiana, Henderson is western and northern Kentucky, almost equidistant from Nashville to the south, Louisville to the east, and extending the points a bit, Indianapolis to the north, and to the west, St. Louis.

He went to school at the Cincinnati Conservatory, 200 miles or so up the Ohio River, and then while teaching at Notre Dame, received his doctorate in composition at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. After Notre Dame he taught at other Catholic institutions, the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Barat College, then an all-women’s college, in Lake Forest, Illinois.

We’d be mistaken, however, if we took from this brief outline of his professorial career that Becker was one-dimensional. First of all, he composed constantly, ending up with seven symphonies, five concertos, eight chamber sonatas, or as he called them, “Soundpieces” (which is a good translation of “sonata”), and many other works including songs, dances, stage works, masses, and a good deal of percussion music.

He met Henry Cowell in 1928 and they were friends for the rest of their lives. Along with Cowell he became one of the engines of a fresh new movement in American music, often called ultra-modernist. They were the avant garde. All musical styles are inexact and argued over, but the ultra-moderns loved dissonance and unusual instrumentation such as lots of percussion. They were called experimentalists. Richard Taruskin calls it transcendental maximalism. They wanted to break away from the headlock Europe had on American music and its teaching, and so in addition to their love of American folk music, they looked to folk musics in Latin America and around the world for inspiration and material.

You might say they invented musicology—the scientific analysis of musical origins—and from it, ethnomusicology. One of its fountainheads was Charles Seeger. His most famous student was Henry Cowell, who introduced him to a new student, Ruth Crawford, who became not only Seeger’s wife, but a pioneering woman composer. She did that while raising the four children she and Seeger had, plus the three Seeger had from his first marriage, including Pete Seeger, of the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary fame.

In 1933 John Becker conducted a concert of five composers with what was called the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. (It was a short-lived organization; the modern and unaffiliated St. Paul Chamber Orchestra wouldn’t arrive until 1959.) Becker was known as St. Paul’s Crusader for New Music. On the concert were works by Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles, and John J. Becker. It isn’t known when exactly the term was coined, but these composers have become known as The American Five. Just like the 19th-century Russian Five of Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, the American Five wanted to break away and create a national sound independent of any reliance on other influences.

Of course, all composers have influences. Becker’s was, according to Cowell, Catholic polyphony, as exemplified by Palestrina and Vittoria. But Becker also not only allowed for, but believed in dissonance as an organizing principle. Charles Seeger came up with the term dissonant counterpoint, where the rules of counterpoint are reversed, so that lines lead toward dissonance instead of consonance.

Echoing Pete Seeger, we might call it the “If I Had a Hammer” of classical music. However you describe it, it certainly fits our piece today, the Symphonia Brevis of John Becker, his third symphony. You remember his quote about his outrage and that the music would not be sentimentally beautiful? Here are the movement titles. The first is a “Scherzo in the spirit of mockery,” and the second is, “Must life forever be a struggle?” Becker also wrote that behind the second movement were “Memories of War—Sorrow—Struggle—A Protest!” Keep in mind that he wrote this in the 10th anniversary of the end of World War I, but that he felt, as all the world felt, with the stock market collapse and continuing, rising troubles in Europe and elsewhere, frustration bubbling over. And so, his symphony.

I think it’s good to hear this now, for its own value and also for the next sample of the Fleisher Collection’s continuing reclamation of the American International Music Fund recordings. The AIMF was begun by Olga Koussevitzky and funded from the estate of her late husband, Serge Koussevitzky. This is from October 1958, Leonard Bernstein in the midst of an American music series with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. On Fleisher Discoveries, the Symphonia Brevis, the Symphony No. 3 of John J. Becker.

[John J. Becker. Symphonia Brevis, Symphony No. 3]

The Symphonia Brevis of John J. Becker, his Symphony No. 3. Composed in 1929, this was a 1958 performance by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

This is Fleisher Discoveries, and I’m Kile Smith. If you get a chance, listen to the piece a second time. It isn’t long and I’d encourage that because on repeated listenings I think you’ll pick up even more how tightly constructed this is, and how his idea of dissonant counterpoint works, how our ears accept the home base of dissonance instead of consonance. I’m not advocating for it or any style of music, except to say that our ears are bigger than we may give them credit for. Charles Ives himself said, “Becker is a man of high ideals, a big man who thinks for himself and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. The more his music shall be played the more it will be understood and appreciated.”

Becker, in addition to his teaching, would run the Federal Music Project in Minnesota, helped edit Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly, was involved in Edgard Varèse’s Pan American Association of Composers, and also orchestrated Ives’s great song, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” John J. Becker was born in January 1886 and died in January 1961, one day short of his 75th birthday.

Tell me what you think of our podcast, Fleisher Discoveries. Reach out to the Fleisher Collection on Facebook, and to me on Facebook and Twitter. My email is kile@kilesmith.com, so you can write me there and I promise to write back. As always, I appreciate that you’re out there listening. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.

And thanks again for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.

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