A Sudden Rainbow [13'07]
Joseph Schwantner was born in Chicago in 1943 and is a prominent figure in American contemporary music, his works receiving many accolades including the Pulitzer Prize for Aftertones of Infinity, Friedheim Awards first prize for Music of Amber and a Grammy Award nomination in the category, ‘Best New Classical Composition’ for A Sudden Rainbow. Until recently he was Professor of Music at Yale University.
His music has been performed extensively worldwide and is commonly compared to the likes of Berg, Crumb, Messiaen and Debussy; however, the modern nature of his work should not scare people off as this is accessable music, powerfully emotive and cinematic in style, with luminous textures and dramatic imagery.
A Sudden Rainbow is Schwantner’s earliest work on this disc and calls for amplified piano and celesta and gives a prominent role to pitched and unpitched percussion.
Angelfire is written for and performed on this disc by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and explores the unique expressive aspects of the violin. Again Schwantner requests that the solo instrument be amplified so that it can compete with the sonorities of such a large orchestra.
The September Canticle was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and written as a personal tribute to the victims of 9/11. The combination of menacing, chromatic tonal suspensions and a heart-wrenching melody from the strings enhances the powerful and poignant nature of this one-movement work.
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'I have had a lifelong passion for the orchestra’, declares Joseph Schwantner. ‘It’s a preoccupation that goes back to my first major orchestral work, Aftertones of Infinity. Over the years, my approach to the orchestra has become leaner and more focused. I have an ever-keener sense of the orchestra’s limitless timbral potential.’ Schwantner’s intuitive gift for understanding and plumbing a symphony orchestra’s panorama of sounds is apparent in the four works recorded here. Collectively, they span sixteen years. Three are relatively recent and feature a soloist in a prominent role with the orchestra. In each case, the soloist is the artist for whom the composition was written and this is the premiere recording.
Joseph Schwantner was already a prominent member of America’s new music community when he won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1979 for Aftertones of Infinity. He received his first composition award in 1959, while still in high school, going on to earn degrees at the Chicago Conservatory College and Northwestern University. Since then, Schwantner has balanced an impressive academic career with an increasingly busy schedule of commissions. He taught at Chicago Conservatory College, Pacific Lutheran University and Ball State University before moving to Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.
After nearly three decades at Eastman and a stint at the Juilliard School in the mid-1980s, Schwantner joined the Yale University faculty in 2001 as Professor of Music and Director of the Yale concert series ‘New Music New Haven’. In 2002, however, he left Yale in favour of the scenic hills and forests of New Hampshire. ‘I am now a freelance composer and love having my own schedule’, he says. Schwantner remains much in demand as a composer.
A Sudden Rainbow (1986) is the earliest of the compositions on this disc and the only one for orchestra without soloist. In a way, however, this is a quasi-concerto for orchestra in the sense that it has demanding parts for every section. Like many composers of his generation, Schwantner has taken full advantage of modern expanded percussion ensembles in his orchestral works. A Sudden Rainbow calls for amplified piano and celesta and gives a prominent role to pitched and unpitched percussion. In addition, Schwantner entrusts the horns with prominent motivic material that recurs in various guises throughout the work.
Pictorial imagery is rarely absent from Schwantner’s music. His imaginative and evocative titles attest to his keen interest in extramusical inspiration. A Sudden Rainbow is cast in a one-movement symmetrical arch form, a form that takes its cue from a natural phenomenon, as the composer explains:
I found the analogy between the developing musical structures and nature’s rainbow appealing and endlessly engaging. The luminescence and prismatic beauty of a rainbow, always a dazzling visual phenomenon, proved to be an alluring and seductive stimulus for me throughout the composition’s evolution.
A rainbow contains the pure colors of the visible spectrum in consecutive bands; it is formed in the sky by the refraction, reflection and dispersion of the sun’s rays in falling rain or mist. In a somewhat analogous fashion, the music often unfolds in stratified layers of orchestra color. Elements of musical continuity, contrast and development as well as other aspects of organization are shaped by the balance of timbral and spatial forces at play in the work.
In addition to the sonic tapestry of the winds, brass, and strings, the piano and celesta, harp and percussion often join collectively to form an expanded instrumental ensemble which produces a profusion of unusually rich and vivid sonorities and textures. This orchestral aggregate comprises one of the principal coloristic strata emphasized throughout much of the work. At times, specific musical ideas are projected within the orchestral fabric so as to create ‘echoes’ and ‘double images’ which act as a kind of musical correlate to the phenomena of reflection and refraction found in rainbows.
The opening, upward-sweeping gesture, presented by the winds and percussion, contains a collection of eight pitches which function as the primary source for the melodic, harmonic, timbral, and textural ideas that are generated and developed in the work.
A Sudden Rainbow was a Meet-the-Composer Residency Commission during Schwantner’s tenure as composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Symphony. The premiere took place on 1 February 1986 under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. A Sudden Rainbow was subsequently awarded Third Prize in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards (1986), then was nominated for a Grammy in 1987 as ‘Best Classical Composition’.
Schwantner has a history of linking powerful poetic images with his music. His work-list includes few traditional titles like symphony, sonata, or quartet, but instead comprises evocative names like Distant Runes and Incantations, Dreamcaller, and Through Interior Worlds. Clearly this is a composer with imagination, a keen interest in language and literature, and a vivid sense of imagery. In terms of his music, that has translated to bright instrumental color and a gift for exploring the sound range of individual instruments.
That thinking is very much in evidence in Beyond Autumn: ‘Poem’ for horn and orchestra (1999), a work that Gregory Hustis and the Dallas Symphony premiered in September 1999. The poem of the subtitle appears at the head of the score:
Beyond Autumn …
Schwantner is the poet. ‘The poem provides the poetic impulse that suggests musical analogues’, he observes. ‘There’s a close affinity between images evoked by poetry and a wellspring of musical ideas that come out of those images. Certainly in the case of Beyond Autumn, I was also thinking about the nature of the horn and its capabilities. It’s an instrument with an enormous range of dynamics and expressive potential. On the one hand it can be heroic, powerful, bold and brassy. On the other hand, it has this extraordinary ability to be intimate, and to sound distant.’
Gregory Hustis believes that Schwantner has achieved all these qualities in Beyond Autumn. ‘Its message is strength, sadness and nobility’, says Hustis. ‘The biggest challenge is trying to capture the dramatic flavour. This is not, from a technical standpoint, the most difficult horn concerto ever written, although it requires considerable endurance and stamina. Schwantner asks for tremendous freedom. He is more concerned that the mood and expression come through rather than demanding a literal rendition of the notes as written. He is insistent with some of his themes. I think he encourages his listeners to be thoughtful.’
Hustis considers that the orchestra is a partner with the soloist, as is the horn section. Schwantner calls for the horns to be placed front stage left, where the cellos usually are. ‘The idea is to put a visual and sonic emphasis on the horns in general’, the composer says, ‘and more specifically on the soloist.’ He achieves the latter by placing the soloist offstage at the beginning of Beyond Autumn, and exiting to a recessional at the conclusion. Schwantner explains: ‘Even when the horn is among us, it is capable of this lontano sound. So, the piece starts with a brief introduction and the first horn utterance has the soloist play rather dramatically, but offstage, out of sight of the audience. You have this sense of distance built into the piece, which is a metaphor for one aspect of the horn’s personality.’
Schwantner describes Beyond Autumn as a single-movement arch-like rondo design, approximately seventeen minutes long. Serving as a musical fulcrum at its centre is a chorale introduced first by flute and strings, then lower woodwinds, including all the horns – the only time in the piece that the horn section and soloist play the same music. The composer considers Beyond Autumn to be a very direct piece in terms of its musical expression. Listeners may notice the frequent use of a minor sixth, the primary interval that permeates much of the piece, and particularly the soloist’s line. ‘Minor sixths have a very special quality when played by the horn, rather mournful, at least to my ears’, declares Schwantner. He points out that the piece is unlike a traditional concerto in that it has no substantial section of fast, virtuosic music. Rather, it is virtuosic in the control it requires to master long, extended lines, often in the horn’s high register.
Beyond Autumn was commissioned by the International Horn Society with assistance from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. It was premiered by Gregory Hustis and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and is dedicated to the memory of Jack Rossate, the composer’s father-in-law.
Beginning in 1987, Schwantner embarked on a series of fantasies for solo instrument and orchestra, each composed with a specific performer in mind. The first, From Afar (1987) was for the guitarist Sharon Isbin. A Play of Shadows for flautist Ransom Wilson followed in 1990. Angelfire: ‘Fantasy’ for amplified violin and orchestra (2001) was the third in this series of fantasies. ‘Anne Akiko Meyers’s beguiling stage presence masks a fierce and daring musical temperament’, says the composer. ‘[Her] technical prowess and spirit draw the listener into her deeply expressive world. That visit helped to frame my musical ideas for Angelfire.’
Like its predecessors in this series, Angelfire is cast as a one-movement arch form. Schwantner has written: ‘The music begins with several strongly punctuated gong-like pedal tones in the orchestra, followed by a series of incisive and declamatory phrases for the solo violin, articulated in its lowest register. Emerging from this rather stark and austere texture is a recurring and increasingly prominent phrase presented by the strings, which gradually reveals the work’s primary harmonic kernel. These clear, straightforward and direct initial elements form the basis for all of the musical materials generated, transformed and developed throughout the work.’
Angelfire was commissioned by the Howard Hanson Memorial Institute of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Schwantner wrote it for Anne Akiko Meyers, and the score is dedicated to her.
Along with the rest of the United States – and indeed the world – Joseph Schwantner was deeply affected by the events of September 11, 2001. September Canticle: ‘Fantasy’ for organ, brass, percussion, amplified piano and strings (2002) is his personal tribute to the nearly three thousand people who lost their lives that day, and his meditation on the impact of the event.
The piece originated as a commission. Following each of its Dallas International Organ Competitions, the Dallas Symphony has commissioned an organ concerto for the winner. Schwantner was chosen to compose for James Diaz, who garnered first prize in the Second Triennial Dallas International Organ Competition in March 2000. September Canticle was the result. Jesús López-Cobos conducted the premiere performances in February 2002.
While he was composing, Schwantner kept returning to verse by the Swedish poet and Nobel laureate, Pär Lagerkvist. ‘His moving words continued to resonate in my mind’, Schwantner has written.
All is there, only I am no more,
(Text from Evening Land by Pär Lagerkvist, translated by W H Auden and Leif Sjöberg. © 1975 by Wayne State University Press. Copyright renewed. Used with permission of the publisher.)
Cast in a single extended movement, the work opens quietly and simply (lontano e sospeso) with a D flat major chord sustained by strings in their upper register. Against this suspended backdrop, the cellos, double basses and tubular bells (played offstage) intone an insistent and disconcerting D natural. Gradually, the strings slowly descend with a chromatic sequence of tonal suspensions and resolutions and finally advance to an obsessively recurring six-tone sonority (A, D, F sharp, A flat, D flat, F) that generates the primary harmonic kernel employed throughout the work. These introductory musical elements comprise the principal building blocks for much of the composition.
Laurie Shulman © 2005