The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Joseph Schantner Composer: Joseph Schantner
© Richard Freed

Angelfire, commissioned by the Howard Hanson Memorial Institute of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, was composed this year for Anne Akiko Meyers, who is giving the world premiere performances of the work in the present concerts.

In addition to the solo violin, the score, dedicated to Anne Akiko Meyers, calls for 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, timbales, bongos, large and small suspended cymbals, bell tree, claves, crotales, 4 tom-toms, large and small bass drums, wood blocks, tubular bells, glockenspiel, 4 brake drums, conga drum, large tam-tam, temple blocks, amplified piano, harp, and strings. Approximate duration, 15 minutes.


Joseph Schwantner's first orchestral work, Aftertones of Infinity, brought him the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 1979; two years later his chamber music Music of Amber earned first prize in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, and the year after that Leonard Slatkin appointed him the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's first composer-in-residence. By then Mr. Schwantner was being recognized everywhere as one of the outstanding American composers of his generation, and by now that reputation has been deepened and solidified with more prizes, awards, fellowships and grants, and, most significantly, by dozens of commissions from many of our country's most respected orchestras, soloists and chamber-music groups. With the National Symphony Orchestra, as with the Saint Louis Symphony earlier, Mr. Slatkin has recorded a collection of Mr. Schwantner's works, and both he and Marin Alsop, our guest conductor for the present concerts, have been conspicuous champions of his music in their guest appearances everywhere as well as with their own orchestras.

Having recently retired from the composition faculty of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, after 30 years there, Mr. Schwantner has taken up new duties at Yale University's School of Music, which he serves as professor of music and also as director of its concert series “New Music New Haven.” At the same time, he is composing as busily as ever; his September Canticles (In memoriam), for organ, brass, percussion and strings, is scheduled for its premiere in Dallas three months from now.

Although Mr. Schwantner has composed conventionally titled and structured concertos for percussion (composed in 1994 under a commission from the New York Philharmonic for its percussionist Christopher Lamb and enjoying ever expanding circulation since its premiere in January 1995 under Leonard Slatkin) and for piano (introduced in 1988 by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Mr. Slatkin, with Emanuel Ax, its dedicatee, as soloist, in New York's International Festival of the Arts), most of his concerted works, like the present one and the new one for Dallas, are given descriptive titles, with individualized layouts to suit the context. A work commissioned by the International Horn Society and introduced by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1999 is titled Beyond Autumn and designated a “Poem for Horn and Orchestra.” An earlier work for piano and orchestra (1984) is called Distant Runes and Incantations. As Mr. Schwantner advises in a note of his own, the work being introduced in the present concerts is the third in a series of concerted works he categorizes as “fantasies.”


Angelfire, the “fantasy” for violin and orchestra I composed for Anne Akiko Meyers, is the third in a series of “fantasies” I have written for solo instrument and orchestra. The first, From Afar, for the guitarist Sharon Isbin (1987), was followed by A Play of Shadows (1990), for the flutist Ransom Wilson. Each of these works is cast in a single arch-like movement that explores the unique sonic, articulative and expressive aspects of the respective solo instrument.

I am grateful to the Howard Hanson Memorial Institute of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music for its commissioning the new fantasy for violin, which I composed, as I did the two earlier fantasies, with a specific soloist in mind. Anne Akiko Meyers's beguiling stage presence masks a fierce and daring musical temperament, with a technical prowess and spirit that draw the listener into her deeply expressive world. That visit helped to frame my musical ideas for Angelfire.

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.

Joseph Schwantner