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,
all is still there, the fragrance of rain in the grass
as I remember it, and the sough of the wind in trees,
the flight of the clouds and the disquiet of the human heart.
Only my heart’s disquiet is no longer there.
(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.
from notes by Laurie Shulman © 2005