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Rivering Waters

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Stephen Albert
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hugh Wolff, conductor / Emanuel Ax, piano, plays Chopin Apr. 4 - 6, 2013
© Thomas May

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a
commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle & Environs." So begins the
cascade of words that is Finnegans Wake, the novel/experiment/endlessly unfolding
riddle over which James Joyce (1882-1941) obsessed for 17 years before publishing it
in 1939. Ever since, generations of fans, scholars, and code-breakers have tried their
hand at deciphering the hypercomplex enigmas of a hermetic text the author himself
described as his "monster."

In a recent rumination in The New York Review of Books about his adventures
wrestling over the years with Finnegans Wake, contemporary novelist Michael Chabon
wonderfully describes the impact of that first word, "riverrun": "a word unprecedented,
enigmatically uncapitalized, with a faintly Tolkienesque echo, to my nerdish ear, of
Rivendell and Rohirrim." The neologism also appealed to composer Stephen Joel
Albert who chose the word as the title for his Joyce-inspired Symphony No. 1
(1983-84), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1985. He was in his creative prime
and finishing work on his Second Symphony when a fatal car accident on Cape Cod
tragically cut short the composer's career at the age of 51.

The National Symphony Orchestra and then-music director Mstislav Rostropovich
played a key role in bringing Albert's considerable gifts to the attention of the music
world. When Rostropovich heard a recording made by the 20th Century Consort of his
song cycle To Wake the Dead (1977) -which also draws on Finnegans Wake-he was so
impressed that he arranged for a Hechinger Commission for a new orchestral work,
which became the Symphony RiverRun (Albert's own spelling of the Joycean portmanteau word). Rostropovich also led the NSO in the premiere recording of the work (available on Delos) and toured with the shortened version we hear on this program (prepared at the conductor's request) to Japan and the Soviet Union-just before the breakup of the latter.

Albert, a native of New York City, began composing in his teens and studied with
Elie Siegmeister and Bernard Rogers, as well as with Darius Milhaud and George
Rochberg. Following the success of RiverRun, he spent three years as composer in residence with the Seattle Symphony. One of his last projects, a Cello Concerto commissioned for Yo-Yo Ma, won a posthumous Grammy. Like so many composers of his generation, Albert went through an early period experimenting with varieties of atonal and electronic music. But he was in the vanguard-together with David del Tredici-of American composers who led a revival of richly colorful tonality in the 1970s and 1980s that is sometimes referred to as neo-Romanticism. There's something of an irony in the fact that despite the once-prevalent (and rather reductive) critique of neo-Romanticism as a "reactionary" impulse, Albert found such a font of inspiration in Joyce's most avant-garde work.

In fact while writing the Symphony RiverRun, Albert simultaneously worked on a sort of mirror composition based on texts from Finnegans Wake: the song cycle TreeStone, which uses some of the same musical material as that of the Symphony. He nevertheless emphasizes that RiverRun was not intended to be "read" as a programmatic work. The titles of its four movements "suggest its broad kinship to the songcycle (in which Ireland ‘s Liffey River plays such a dominant role)" and also point to "the importance that Joyce's atmosphere in the TreeStone text had on my frame of mind." Still, he did not compose "to specific programmatic outline" and the movement titles "were affixed only after each of the respective movements was completed."

For this program conductor Hugh Wolff has chosen to perform the shorter version of the work mentioned above, to which the composer gave the title Rivering Waters. This version comprises movements one ("Rain Music") and four ("River's End") of RiverRun; the other two movements (which Albert omitted from Rivering Waters) are "Leafy Speafing" (second movement) and "Beside the Rivering Waters" (the march-andscherzo third movement, which incorporates references to a drunken pub song). Albert's Symphony begins with a pathos-laden introduction that soon opens onto a richly evocative soundscape, with intimations of water droplets glistening and falling. Not that this is merely "picturesque" scene painting: the power of Albert's thought lies in the way he correlates musical fragments into a larger momentum, creating a sonic analogue to "the origins of a river." The sense of gathering speed and power, writes the composer, carries forward from the "tremulous atmosphere of expectancy" of the opening. The movement culminates in a powerful reverse echo of the opening chords against bright orchestral tintinnabulations.

The two inner movements (not heard here) feature lighter scoring, but Albert again
calls on the full panoply of his resources in the finale, which is structured as a sequence of growing climaxes. Within its progress he interpolates ideas from earlier in the score, suggesting a kind of nocturne while "the river [moves] quietly into darkness," in the composer's words. "As it approaches the open sea its momentum builds and it soon becomes a torrent spilling into the ocean." But the movement-and, with it, RiverRun-comes to a gently ambivalent end "in an atmosphere of suspension and stillness."