John Harbison ::::: Schirmer News Spring 2010

John Harbison ::::: Schirmer News Spring 2010


Schirmer NewsNews Web Page Is there something within the inner life of some music that audiences just simply understand? This question of the universality of music — and the art of communicating it to audiences — endures for John Harbison. Beyond the engaging rhythm and harmony of his compositions, for him the strength of his music is rooted in the musical structures he creates.

Harbison conceived of his Double Concerto (which premieres April 8 featuring violinist Mira Wang and her husband, cellist Jan Vogler, with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) as a concerto for two soloists who have a musical (and/or personal) relationship. Here, Harbison takes the idea of close relationships and creates phrases that operate with a certain kind of musical language — what he takes to be the nature of close relationships. Presumably, the performers working on the piece (and perhaps some percentage of listeners) might have a conception of this structure. However, as Harbison suggests, "it is also very much up to me not to mind when someone does not pick that up," and to let the music speak to each individual as it will.

Listen to Harbison discuss
the premieres and his thoughts
on the universality of music.

 Similarly, in his new work for two pianos, Diamond Watch (which premieres April 30 in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, featuring Robert Levin and Ya Fei Chuang), Harbison again constructs a piece based on relationship. For this work, dedicated to the retirement of MIT professor Peter Diamond, Harbison's inspiration was Diamond’s love and close relationship to the game of baseball (not to mention Diamond’s baseball themed last name). In the duo, Harbison structures the piece as a set of theme and variations, but never states the theme — he just suggests it through each consecutive variation. Again, to him it’s not important if this structure is apparent, he comments, "many people will recognize what the theme is, but if not, they will get something just from the discourse of the piece."

This question of universality is illuminated within the structure of a composition itself. In music, (like baseball) a seemingly arbitrary set of rules are set in motion, that, whether one consciously understands them or not, appear to work quite naturally. These structures appeal to audiences on many levels from the universal to the esoteric.

As Harbison explains: "My ability to follow Beethoven variations puts me in certain relationship to the piece that other listeners don’t have. I get a lot of pleasure out of being able to follow the music in close detail; however, that doesn’t mean other listeners are not having some sort of valuable connection to the event." It is this universal quality, this "something about music that comes across to anyone," which Harbison looks to in his own compositions and reflects in the beautiful structures he creates.

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