• John Harbison
  • Symphony No. 2 (1987)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 3(pic).2+ca.2+Ebcl+bcl.2+cbn/4.4.2+btbn.1/timp.3perc/hp.pf/str
  • 22 min

Programme Note


In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession]
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whomever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

—Czeslaw Miloz

Miloz’s poem, says John Harbison, was his “theme song” during the composition of Symphony No. 2 Language is an issue here, as it has been for many American composers in recent years. Along with the score of his new symphony, Harbison gave me tapes of two recent pieces, Remembering Gatsby, an overture written for Robert Shaw and Atlanta Symphony and using material from a Great Gatsby opera he had once hoped to write, and Flight into Egypt, a work devoted primarily to Baroque works, of which Harbison was once music director. Remembering Gatsby is a delectable entertainment, 1920s elegant; the astute Flight into Egypt, for which Harbison was last month awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Music, comes from his Heinrich Schutz bent. Work on these two compositions overlapped work on the new Symphony No. 2, which, he said, I would find to be between these two poles.

What these works have in common is a passion for clarity. In conversation, Harbison referred to his Bermuda Triangle as “gritty.” He wrote that piece—for amplified cello, tenor, saxophone, and electronic organ—in 1970, and it bothers him now as not having enough precision in its harmonic movement and therefore not enough expressive range either. Harmony is the element of musical composition that interests Harbison most, and he has been concerned to escape a style “that reduces your harmonic possibilities.”

Neither Boston nor San Francisco specifically asked Harbison for a symphony, but he is happy to have turned these two commissions into the occasion for venturing, in his mid-forties, into that genre. Among other things, he finds it’s a pleasantly American thing to so: “Americans like to assert their independence of dialectical imperatives like ‘The Symphony is Dead! So much of American musical achievement has been stated in this form.” He cites the names of Sessions, William Schumann, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Anrew Imbrie, Irving Fine, and, with special enthusiasm, Harold Shapiro, whose Symphony for Classical Orchestra he regards as on of the most beautiful of twentieth-century compositions and which he was especially pleased to recommend to Andre Previn for Los Angeles. He also mentions as heroes Michael Tippett, “a later emerger with an extraordinary body of work—his symphonies take the medium somewhere it hasn’t been,” and Sibelius, whom he calls “the Schoenberg of the symphony, in the sense of blasting out new ground.” Given his excitement about Tippett and Sibelius, it is not surprising when he says that his own interest is in “the symphony as tone poem without a plot.”

Harbison’s first bulletin about the Symphony No. 2 as work-in-progress said that it was to be subtitled Four Hymns, the sections to be called Dawn, Daylight, Dusk and Darkness. Four Hymns has been dropped, but the four movements retain their headings. This, says Harbison, was his “first useful organizing thought about the piece.” Slowly, the symphonic entity began to take shape, which to Harbison means movements that are interdependent, that need each other for balance, that “sit next to each other in the right way.” They do not necessarily have to be related thematically, he adds: “That’s a confusion that entered in the nineteenth century.”

Something else that was in Harbison’s mind as he wrote was that the first conductor of the new symphony would be Herbert Blomstedt, whose rehearsals and performances, particularly of Brahms Fourth Symphony and Max Reger’s Hiller Variations, he had observed and admired in Pittsburgh. He was impressed especially by Blomstedt’s skill at sorting out polyphony, at making the basses play with independence of sonority, and getting block chords to sound polyphonically. “He is not one of those conductors who are always facing the first violins and conducting the melody. Amazingly few ever have anything to say to the basses and cellos.” These are skills and inclinations that are just the thing for he music Harbison believes. He thinks of his music as needing to be “worked” in rehearsal: “I am very much not interested in doing ‘Ravel,’” he says, in other words, in writing textures that are virtually conductor-proof: “I don’t edit the piece for performers. Of course I’m not trying to be obtuse either, but you get a more dynamic performance if the performers have to work it out. This is definitely not music for conductors who are through with rehearsals when it’s ‘together.’”

The general strategy is to move from a somewhat fragmented music to coherent song and then to dissolve once more, and Harbison points out that this in a way is the design of the whole symphony. The melodic lines are often highly embellished, the scoring is colorful, active, and covers the entire range of the orchestra. A distinctive feature of Harbison’s orchestral language—one, he suggests, derived from Baroque music (or Baroque by way of Schumann)—is an unusual prevalence of doublings, that is, of having different instruments play the same music at the same time, especially strings and double reeds. Another is restraint with percussion. Harbison calls for a large and varied batterie but uses it with remarkable precision and economy.

DaylightConbrio, non pesante—is built upon a scurrying of quick sixteen-notes presented three ways, first in four-four time, then in triplets, finally in alterations of fours and threes. Violins with oboes and clarinets are the characteristic sonority. This triple statement is twice varied. At its climax, this development becomes what Harbison calls “the quarrel of pulses,” the music being all but reduced to its rhythmic elements. The movement ends surprisingly with a cods (grazioso) for the four clarinets, music which leads to and anticipates the next movement. Maneuvers of this kind are rare in Harbison’s work. His music is not often about transitions: “I like the state more than the transition, unlike Elliott Carter, fro example, whose music is all transition. You don’t see the sun come up: It’s daylight suddenly.”

Twilight,” says Harbison, “is my favorite time of day, and it is the time I do most of my work.” And Dusk, marked Poco largo, lambente (flickering lightly and gently over a service), is the slow movement that is the heart of the symphony. Violins and violas sing an expansive melody that is several times punctuated but not deterred by flashes of lightning and sudden blazes of sound. As the melody is altered and developed, it takes on a luminous pianissimo accompaniment of glockenspiel, vibraphone, harp, and celesta. As it continues, it opens at moments into chords, like a fan (a technique known in jazz parlance as a “thickened line”). And as before, wind solos, beginning with flute, clarinet, bassoon, and oboe, signal that the music is about to arrive at a close. The last gesture in the coda is an exceptionally beautiful passage for soft trumpets and trombones against a sustained and dissolving chord for strings. As the strings disappear, a sextet of reed instruments appear to take their place, and this final chord is also the bridge into the finale.

Darkness—Inesorabile—is of course a nocturnal piece, and her, says Harbison, “I have given a lot of thought to Blomstedt and to the textures I hear him unravel in Pittsburgh.” The first clearly defined idea is a rhythmically complex one sounded by muted brass. To this, woodwinds ass a counter-melody of stable, almost marchlike gait. The third element is slow to enter the pieces—it was in face also late to enter the composer’s mind— and it consists of triplets cutting across the four-four meter and makes constant allusion to the “nervous” element of the first idea. (“Admirable restraint in percussion, I must say,” comments Harbison as he reads these pages.) Late though this third element is, it also proves to have the most staying power, surviving and providing most of the material for the coda while, characteristically, the other themes tend to dissolve. The music rises to a climax, and the effect is emphasized by the symphony’s first and only ostinato. Here is where Harbison acknowledged that his original ending was not dark enough to be consonant with its expressive line sop far. The music ends quietly, thematic fragments appearing at wider intervals. Finally there is another sustained string chord against which woodwinds, impassively marking the time, signal The End.

—Michael Steinberg




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