Harbison: Symphony No. 5

Harbison: Symphony No. 5
He carried in it the music of the
earth, against the abyss.

— Czeslaw Milosz, Orpheus and Eurydice
“Concert music has aspirations.” Perhaps this quote refers to a distinction between different musics, or perhaps it spells out degrees of artistic measure. For John Harbison, this notion is vital to his art. To him, there is a grand cultural tradition in concert music that should be recognized.

Noble aspirations permeate Harbison’s work — he writes music that has “a sense of opportunity.” This grand sense is evident in his newest work, Symphony No. 5, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (his sixth commission from the BSO), which will be premiered on 17 April, with James Levine conducting, Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano, and Nathan Gunn, baritone. Harbison’s Symphony No. 5. sets text from three poems, each based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The first poem, by Czeslaw Milosz, Orpheus and Eurydice (the genesis of this project), sets the dark mood and the “meditation on loss” Harbison mentions in his program note to the symphony. The poem introduces the tragic irony and Orpheus’s path toward coming to terms with his loss of Eurydice.

The second poem, Relic, by Louise Glück takes the perspective of Eurydice and describes her torment, the “torment of mortal passions.” For Harbison, her voice reconstitutes a forward motion for the music, which is nearly immobilized during Orpheus’s journey out of the abyss.

The final poem, Sonnet to Orpheus II, by Rainer Maria Rilke (the last poem Harbison brought into the symphony) brings the other two texts together. Although the conclusion of Rilke’s poem is not entirely resolved, to Harbison, Rilke’s positive, humanitarian tone casts a much wider net than Milosz’s.

Rilke’s poem concludes the tragedy with hope, and asks readers to joyfully add ourselves to the “creatures of nature’s totality.” Perhaps there, appeased with our mortality, we can be at peace — a truly worthy aspiration.

painting: Orpheus and Eurydice by Federico Cervelli (1625—before 1700)

Symphony No. 5 30'
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