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Symphony No. 1

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: John Corigliano
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Nikolaj Znaider, violin Oct. 6 - 8, 2005
© Richard Freed
Many of John Corigliano's most significant works are "about" something--opera, film score, music for the theater, song-cycles, descriptive or "programmatic" concertos and other instrumental pieces. The First Symphony is very definitely in this category, as indicated not only in the headings of the respective movements but in the dedication as well. The pianist Sheldon Shkolnik and Mr. Corigliano were lifelong friends and frequent collaborators. In February 1969 Shkolnik was the soloist, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Irwin Hoffman, in the first performance of Corigliano's Piano Concerto after that work's San Antonio premiere the previous year, and the Symphony was not the only work the composer dedicated to him. This particular dedication, though, took a tragic twist, if not an entirely unforeseen one. Shortly before the Symphony's premiere Corigliano asked Shkolnik, who is actually described in the work's opening movement, for permission to dedicate the score to him, and Shkolnik, delighted by the gesture, was present at all three Chicago performances in the middle of March 1990. Barely a week later, though, the pianist was dead, and in the published score the dedication takes a memorial form. Shkolnik was of the victims of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, and his death so soon after the Symphony's premiere was a poignant reminder of what this music is about: the devastating disease known by the acronym AIDS.

The musical community has sustained perhaps more than its share of losses to this plague, and Corigliano was impelled to produce an expression of concern, of something more than lamentation or empty protest, focusing on the thousands of victims through the prism of those closest to him. When Leonard Slatkin conducted the New York premiere of the First Symphony with the Philharmonic in January 1992, parts of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt relating to musicians were displayed in Avery Fisher Hall. Several of the actual names of those lost friends and colleagues are in William M. Hoffman's text for the choral work Of Rage and Remembrance, which Mr. Slatkin conducted as a prelude to the Symphony when he first performed this work here. That work (which was recorded here at that time and is on the compact disc with the Symphony) is a sort of extension, or distillation, of what Corigliano undertook to convey in the Symphony: its very title is taken from that of the Symphony's first movement, and the music itself is adapted from the third movement.

Beyond this point, the background and content of the Symphony are best described by the composer himself, who has provided the following note.


Historically, many symphonists (Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich, to name a few) have been inspired by important events in their lives, and perhaps occasionally their choice of the symphonic form was dictated by extra-musical events. In the decade preceding the composition of my own First Symphony I lost many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic, and the cumulative effect of those losses, naturally, affected me deeply. My First Symphony was generated by feelings of loss, anger and frustration.

A few years before I undertook this work, I was extremely moved when I first saw "The Quilt," an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I had lost, and reflect on those I was losing. I decided to relate the first three movements of the Symphony to three lifelong musician friends. In the third movement, still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.

Cast in free, large-scale A-B-A form, the first movement ( Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance --the term Apologue defined as "an allegorical narrative usually intended to convey a moral") is highly charged and alternates between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering. It reflects my distress over a concert pianist friend. The opening (marked "Ferocious") begins with the nasal open A of the violins and violas. This note, which starts and finishes the Symphony, grows in intensity and volume until it is answered by a burst of percussion. A repeat of this angry-sounding note climaxes, this time, in the entrance of the full orchestra, which is accompanied by a slow timpani beat. This steady pulse--a kind of musical heartbeat--is utilized in this movement as the start of a series of overlapping accelerandos interspersed with antagonistic chatterings of antiphonal brass. A final multiple acceleration reaches a peak climaxed by the violins in their highest register, which begins the middle section.

As the violins made a gradual diminuendo, a distant (offstage) piano is heard, as if in a memory, playing Leopold Godowsky's transcription of Isaac Albéniz's Tango (made in Chicago in 1921), a favorite of my pianist friend. This is the start of an extended lyrical section in which nostalgic themes are mixed with fragmented suggestions of the Tango. Little by little, the chattering brass motives begin to reappear, interrupted by the elements of tension that initiated the work, until the lyrical "remembrance" theme is accompanied by the relentless pulsing timpani heartbeat. At this point, the lyrical theme continues in its slow and even rhythm, but the drumbeat begins simultaneously to accelerate. The tension of a slow, steady melody played against a slow, steady accelerando culminates in a recapitulation of the multiple accelerations heard earlier in the movement, starting the final section.

But this time the accelerations reach an even bigger climax, in which the entire orchestra joins together playing a single dissonant chord in a near-hysterical repeated pattern that begins to slow down and finally stops. Unexpectedly, the volume of this passage remains loud, so that the effect is that of a monstrous machine coming to a halt but still boiling with energy. This energy, however, is finally exhausted, and there is a diminuendo to piano. A recapitulation of the original motives along with a final burst of intensity from the orchestra and offstage piano concludes this movement, which ends on a desolate high A.

The second movement (Tarentella) was written in memory of a friend who was an executive in the music industry. He was also an amateur pianist; in 1970 I wrote a set of dances (Gazebo Dances) for piano, four hands for various friends to play, and dedicated the final movement, a tarantella, to him. This was a jaunty little piece whose mood, as in many tarantellas, seems to be at odds with its purpose. For the tarantella, as described in Grove's Dictionary, is a "South Italian dance played at continually increasing speed [and] by means of dancing it a strange kind of insanity [attributed to tarantula bite] could be cured." The association of madness and my piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend, whose wit and intelligence were legendary in the music field, became insane as a result of AIDS dementia.

In writing a tarantella movement for this symphony, I tried to picture some of the schizophrenic and hallucinatory images that would have accompanied that madness, as well as the moments of lucidity. This movement is formally less organized than the preceding one, and intentionally so--but there is a slow and relentless progression toward an accelerated "madness." The ending can only be described as a brutal scream.

The third movement (Chaconne: Guilio's Song) recalls a friendship that dated back to my college days. Giulio was an amateur cellist, full of that enthusiasm for music that amateurs seem to have and professionals try to keep. After he died several years ago, I found an old tape recording of the two of us improvising on cello and piano, as we often did. That tape, dated 1962, provided material for the extended cello solo in this movement. Notating Giulio's improvisation, I found a pungent and beautiful motto which, when developed, formed the melody played by the solo cello at this point. . . That theme is preceded by a chaconne, based on twelve tones (and the chords they produce), which runs through the entire movement. The first several minutes of this movement are played by the violas, cellos and double basses alone. The chaconne chords are immediately heard, hazily dissolving into each other, and the cello melody begins over the final chord. Halfway through this melody a second cello joins the soloist. This is the first of a series of musical remembrances of other friends (the first [of them] having been a professional cellist who was Giulio's teacher and who also died of AIDS).

In order to provide themes for the interweaving of lost friends, I asked William M. Hoffman, the librettist of my opera The Ghosts of Versailles, to eulogize them with short sentences. I then set those lines for various solo instruments and, removing the text, inserted them into the symphony. These melodies are played against the recurring background of the chaconne, interspersed with dialogues between the solo cellos. At the conclusion of the section, as the cello recapitulates Giulio's theme, the solo trumpet begins to play the note A that began the symphony. This is taken up by the other brass, one by one, so that the note grows to overpower the other orchestral sonorities. The entire string section takes up the A and builds to a restatement of the initial assertive orchestral entrance in the first movement. The relentless drumbeat returns, but this time it does not accelerate. Instead, it continues its slow and somber beat against the chaconne, augmented by two sets of antiphonal chimes tolling the twelve pitches as the intensity increases and the persistent rhythm is revealed to be that of a funeral march.

Finally the march rhythm starts to dissolve, as individual choirs and solo instruments accelerate independently, until the entire orchestra climaxes with a sonic explosion. After this, only a solo cello remains, softly playing the A that opened the work, and introducing the final part (Epilogue).

This entire section is played against a repeated pattern consisting of waves of brass chords. To me, the sound of ocean waves conveys an image of timelessness. I wanted to suggest that in this symphony, by creating sonic "waves," to which purpose I have partially encircled with orchestra with an expanded brass section. Behind the orchestra five trumpets are placed with the first trumpet in the center; fanning outwards around the orchestra are six horns (three on each side), four trombones (two on each side), and finally one tuba on each end of the semicircle of brass. The waves begin with a high note in the solo trumpet and then move upward and around the orchestra so that the descending brass notes form chords. A slowly moving pattern of four chords is thus built; this repeated pattern creates sonic waves throughout the Epilogue.

Against these waves, when they begin, the piano solo from the first movement (the Albéniz/Godowsky Tango) returns, as does the tarantella melody (this time sounding distant and peaceful), and the two solo cellos, interwoven between, recapitulate their dialogue. A slow diminuendo leaves the solo cello holding the same perpetual A until it finally fades away.


This symphony was the first work Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra recorded together, during the second of Mr. Slatkin's two seasons as music director designate before he became full-time music director in 1996, and the recording, as already noted, received top honors in that year's classical Grammy Awards. Mr. Slatkin has championed Mr. Corigliano's music throughout his career and formed an enduring friendship with him. He recorded several of the composer's works in Saint Louis, and a month before introducing the Symphony here he conducted the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of The Ghosts of Versailles. The "memory play in the form of an oratorio" A Dylan Thomas Triptych, a Hechinger commission, was introduced in these concerts in March 1999 and Mr. Slatkin subsequently performed it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. Along the way he has presided over NSO performances of several other Corigliano works, and the composer's D.C. Fanfare was one of the celebratory pieces commissioned for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Kennedy Center. It was particularly gratifying for Mr. Slatkin, then, that it was his friend John Corigliano who made the actual presentation of the Gold Baton Award bestowed upon him by the American Symphony Orchestra League during that organization's national conference in Washington four months ago.