The Wikipedia article provides more information, critical comments and a list of works. All this got me interested enough to acquire the CD of the Previn recording of Shapero's magnum opus the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. I am surprised to find myself disagreeing with this long list of famous musicians, but this is not very good music! Which does explain how a composer like Shapero, who really had every advantage you could possibly imagine, still managed to sink into complete obscurity. He studied with everyone you can think of: Nicholas Slonimsky, Ernest Krenek, Walter Piston (he entered Harvard at age 18 to study with him), Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger. He became friends with Leonard Bernstein and associated with Igor Stravinsky. He was awarded all sorts of fellowships (Naumberg, Paine) and prizes (the Prix de Rome and George Gershwin Memorial Contest). Indeed, it is hard to think of any way in which he was disadvantaged. Despite all this and the admiration of composers like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he never became celebrated by the musical public. The reason is simple: he is not a very good composer.
It is very interesting to listen to his music, though. Not because it is good, as it is not, but because of the ways in which it is not good. What I hear is a rather characterless music that bangs about in a robust way, but also in a dreary and undistinguished way. There are very, very few striking or memorable moments. There is an ongoing harmonic dullness. For an example, listen to the end of the last movement of the symphony where Shapero can find no other means to end the piece except by bashing away at the tonic in dreary quarter notes until we get very tired! You may think of this as being modeled after Beethoven if you like, but it is like Beethoven with 100% of the magic removed. There are hints of Stravinsky, especially in the Scherzo that occasionally sounds a bit like the Octet. But a very uninspired echo of the Octet. Rhythmically there is just nothing interesting going on. Most of most of the movements tend to sound alike. The slow movement is not very slow and, except for the beginning and end, sounds very much like the first and last movements.
It always seems as if something interesting is about to happen--but it never does. To me there is no mystery in why Shapero remained an obscurity despite periodic efforts by influential people to promote his music. He was a composer that just lacked charm and originality. Probably most aspiring composers in most places at most times are just this dull and uninspired. Great musical genius is extremely rare. The mystery to me is, why did so many better musicians have so many nice things to say about Shapero? Why did Aaron Copland praise his “phenomenal ear” and “wonderfully spontaneous musical gift”?
I would like to put up a clip of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra so you can judge for yourself, but, alas, it is not available on YouTube. Instead, have a listen to his Piano Sonata No. 3 written a couple of years before the symphony:
To me that sounds like an awkward blend of Haydn and Stravinsky. But it is also a lot more charming than the symphony. If you can find a copy of that and listen to it, I would welcome some comments!
For the sake of comparison, let's listen to another symphony, also in neo-classical style, written around roughly the same time. Here is the Symphony No. 9 of Dmitri Shostakovich, composed in 1945, conducted by Bernstein:
As an example of a very distinctive moment, I direct your attention to the hilarious dialogue between the trombone and piccolo around the one minute mark.