An American Symphony

Mr. Hollands Opus

Kyle Gann (not pictured) recently proposed an interesting course on the American symphony, the idea being to focus on a different symphony each week, and thus examine the development of the American symphonic language.

His list was intriguing in all sorts of ways, but of course, I’ve got my own ideas on the subject.  I put my two cents in his comments section (and he wrote a very thoughtful response), but I thought it would be fun to do my own version.

KG included 19 works (which, methinks goes beyond the boundaries of a single semester at his rate.)  I designed my course as a 10-week UChicago style quarter with two works per week, and I’m also cheating in a different way by occasionally including a non-symphonic orchestral work.

Week 1: Chadwick, Symphony No. 2 (1885); Beach, “Gaelic Symphony” (1897)

Week 2: Ives, Symphony No. 1 (1901); Ives, Symphony No. 4 (1918/26)

Week 3: Hanson, Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (1930); Griffes, “The White Peacock” (1919)

Week 4: Still, “Afro-American Symphony” (1930); Antheil, “A Jazz Symphony” (1925)

Week 5: Barber, Symphony No. 1 (1936); Harris, Symphony No. 3 (1937)

Week 6: Copland, Symphony No. 3 (1946); Bernstein, Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” (1942)

Week 7: Persichetti, Symphony for Wind Band (1956); Blackwood, Symphony No. 1 (1955)

Week 8: Del Tredici, “An Alice Symphony” (1969/76); Stephen Albert, Symphony No. 1 “Riverrun” (1985)

Week 9: Corigliano, Symphony No. 1 (1988); Ran, Symphony (1990)

Week 10: Philip Glass, Symphony No. 8 (2005); Rouse, Symphony No. 4 (2014)

And if I could find time for it in Week 8 or 9, I would try to add Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral.

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Opera

silent

Kevin Puts’ Silent Night (which has its own trailerrific web site) just played at the Cincinnati Opera. In 2012, this piece won its composer the Pulitzer Prize for music.  If anything, it should have won for drama; the score was a bunt.

There are a few beautiful moments, but no big tunes, no searing arias, no wondrous dramatic set pieces for the orchestra.  My main complaint with contemporary composers of classical music is that they so rarely seek to compete with the immortals.  Why compose an opera if you’re not setting out to beat Puccini at his own game?  I’d rather see another Tosca or Wozzeck.  Those may be masterpieces, but they can be outdone, and that’s exactly what we composers should always be trying to do.

During the intermission, I heard one old lady say to another old lady, “it’s a nice story, with music.”  That about sums it up.  In fact, I’d say it’s much more like a movie with an OK soundtrack in which the dialogue happens to be sung in vaguely melodic-ariosi.

I can see why people would like this show, or say that they like it, (the libretto uses multiple languages, the set and costumes are excellent, the true story is intriguing) but I’d be willing to bet that true opera lovers will feel disappointed, even if they can’t articulate why.

But it’s most often non-musical people who get to decide what music we get to hear at our big institutions, so this piece is sure to get many more performances and productions.  That’s a shame if it keeps opera companies from commissioning really good new operas that sing in your heart for a lifetime.

 

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A Happy Composer

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, I am a happy composer.  What makes a composer happy?  Well, basically nothing – we’re all tortured, existentially-fraught philosophers in sound who see this world for the vale of tears it really is.

But occasionally one receives a very decent recording of one’s own work, and one can’t help but feel a moment of pride.  Therefore, I present to you now two of my newest musical children:

Symphonic Essay (2014)

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I composed this piece mainly this past January for the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra; we premiered it at the end of March and recorded it at the beginning of May.  Here’s an earlier essay/manifesto I wrote about it.

The Dwarf Planets (2012)

A suite in five movements for brass quintet, timpani and organ, composed for the Gargoyle Brass Quintet.  Each movement depicts the god or goddess assigned to one of the outermost celestial bodies in our solar system (click the title above for more info thereabout.)

Haumea

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Pluto

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Ceres

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Eris

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Makemake

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I love this quote

from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 269:

What to my mind sets Wagner and Shakespeare apart from other artists is the fact that they deal with everything.  Their works confront the totality of human experience, and present our emotional life as it is, in its wholeness.  So much of even the greatest art is aspirational, concerned with, and aiming at, ideals.  Bach said he was composing his music to the greater glory of God; Beethoven said he was trying to express the highest of human aspirations; and one could multiply these sentiments many times over by quoting from the mouths of some of the greatest of artists.  Art that springs from such motives can be wonderful, but cannot articulate the realities of human feeling across more than part of its range.  Wagner’s work, by contrast, is not aspirational but cognitive, truth-telling; and he tells it like it is, down to emotions we disown.  Shakespeare does the same, across an even bigger canvas.  If Wagner is enabled to go deeper it is only because his chief expressive medium is music rather than words.

Now me: I think Mahler was aspiring to do what Wagner did naturally (if not heedlessly,) but it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious in his music instead of id-driven and inexorable as in Wagner’s.

In other news, if you ever get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s conservatory dissertation setting of “Ode to Joy”, run for the hills.  Aside from a precious few lovely moments, it’s just one primitive melody after another, set in a wandering morass of the blandest counterpoint.  However, I find it deeply gratifying to know that the composer of Pique Dame and the “Pathétique” Symphony did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  Not every great composer had to start off that way, and that gives hope for the rest of us.

I mention this piece because we’re performing it on a concert with Beethoven’s 9th.  Beethoven’s music, of course, completely overwhelms the text, tossing it around like a raft upon a stormy sea.

Luckily for Schiller, one musician set “An die Freude” perfectly, lending just the right wind to its sails: Franz Schubert.

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