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Robert Ward’s "Symphony No. 2": A Masterpiece of 20th-Century American Neoclassicism

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, and journalist with background experience in classical music performance and composition.

Robert Ward in 2011.

Robert Ward in 2011.

Who is Robert Ward?

Robert Ward (born 1917 in Cleveland, Ohio) ranks among the most notable members of a cohort of American modern classical composers that emerged in the early to middle decades of the 20th century. Their technique could loosely be described as neoclassical, enhanced with tonal, harmonic, and rhythmic innovations – as well as exhibiting a unique, strongly expressive American style influenced by jazz, boogie, theater music, and modern dance music and rhythms.

Ward himself described his own music as “romantic, but never without the controls I associate with classicism." His style has been described as influenced by both Hindemith and Gershwin.

Won the Pulitzer in 1962

Ward received his basic musical training at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, followed by graduate work at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. He also studied composition with the eminent American composer Aaron Copland.

He later held a number of posts in music education, most eminently at Julliard, Columbia University, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Duke University.

One of Ward's most notable achievements was to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1962 for his opera The Crucible, based on the classic modern stage tragedy by Arthur Miller.

The Three-Movement Structure

Ward’s preference for a three-movement symphonic structure, according to educator/musicologist J.D. Huband, was inspired particularly by Haydn and Mozart, whose finales Ward regarded as “buoyant but not monumental."

This structural scheme appealed to him because "in sum, you get a broad introduction, a big first movement, a slow movement, and a finale which incorporates dance elements."

As his musical idiom, Ward also had a decisive preference for the capabilities of tonality, which he regarded as an “expressive resource” of “great power.” This provided the scaffolding of his distinctive genius for melody, exhibited in so many of his compositions which, Huband relates, “retains a soft, curvaceous quality.”

Overview of Symphony No. 2

These elements of structure, tonal framework, and melody comprise the key compositional components of Ward’s Symphony No. 2. Dedicated to his wife, the work was composed in 1947 when Ward was living in the small town of Nyack, New York, on the west bank of the Hudson River just north of New York City.

Our journey through this symphony, lasting about 20-22 minutes, is energized by finely crafted melodies and melodic elements transporting us within a classic sonata structure of three movements. The fast-slow-fast construction enables the composer to lead us through contrasting visions or “psychical moods” to achieve his intended artistic purpose.

Reviewer Todd Stanton has noted that the structure of this symphony "is similar to that often found in the late classical era, but ... its harmonies, melodies, rhythmic content and strong American flavor place it among the important works of the mid-20th century."

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Brief Analysis

  • The first movement (marked Fast & Energetic) begins with a stern, powerfully driven, syncopated dancelike motif in E minor that becomes the basis of development within the sonata-allegro form of the movement.

    A pattern emerges with vigorous commotion transitioning into a short fugal section, then sliding into a coasting, sunnier theme, all repeated with slight mutations, imparting a sense of purposeful determination.

  • The second movement (marked Slowly) introduces a languorous, descendent melody that seems to stroll wistfully through fond memories. Reappearing in several iterations within a gentle rondo structure, this hauntingly beautiful melody is the treasure of a lovely contemplative movement of great pathos.
  • The third movement (marked Fast) opens with lively dance motifs in a triple-time metric. A frenetic waltz becomes increasingly furious as it dissolves into a lovely expansive, relaxing melody that seems to lift us up into the sky, as if to cruise above our earthly existence.

    In a rondo-like pattern, this process is repeated, until eventually the movement conveys us, soaring, to the resounding fireworks of the conclusion.

Public Reception

Ward’s Second Symphony was premiered in 1948 by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Kindler.

For a few years the symphony enjoyed considerable popularity within the classical music scene, in part due to its being embraced by the iconic conductor Eugene Ormandy, who led his Philadelphia Orchestra to perform it a number of times, even taking it on tour to Carnegie Hall in New York and Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, in the latter half of the twentieth century prevailing critical tastes seemed to shift toward more avant-garde and experimental styles.

Robert Ward died in 2013 in Durham, North Carolina.

Recordings and Score

A recording of Ward’s Symphony No. 2 by the Japan Philharmonic conducted by William Strickland has been produced as a CD on several labels, including:

  • Bay Cities BCD-1001
  • Citadel CTD 88136
  • Composers Recordings Inc CRI127

However, these CDs may be available only from the "previously owned" market. Public libraries may also be a resource.

Copies of the score, published by Galaxy Music Corp. in New York, are available through several sources, such as Morning Star Music and Sheet Music Plus.

Recordings of movements and sample excerpts from the symphony (e.g., on YouTube and other sites) may also be found online via Google searching.

The National Symphony Orchestra, which premiered" Symphony No. 2" in 1948.

The National Symphony Orchestra, which premiered" Symphony No. 2" in 1948.


© 2022 Lyndon Henry

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