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Symphony No. 2 (1931)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In terms of external biographical facts, Roger Sessions and Randall Thompson have a great deal in common. Both were born in New York of old New England stock within just a few years of each other, and they died, only one year apart, in prestigious university towns where each had a long tenure as a professor of music (Sessions at Princeton, Thompson at Harvard). They cherished their American heritage yet loved Europe and stayed there for extended periods of time. Just as Sessions’s First Symphony was written in Florence, Thompson’s Second saw the light of day in Gstaad, Switzerland. The two men knew each other well; in fact, it was Sessions who first recommended his own teacher, Ernest Bloch, to his colleague.

In other respects, Sessions and Thompson could not be more different, and the two symphonies on the present program show how their paths began to diverge early in their careers. Thompson, who was to make his most important contributions in the field of choral music, was a born melodist and a lifelong Romantic at heart. His solution to the problem of American symphony was to produce a straightforward, light-hearted work that, in the words of the composer’s biographer Donald Francis Urrows, “accomplished two things: he wrote an integrated work of large dimensions along the ‘classical’ model . . . and he put into his music an element of nationalism.” The “two things” —classicism and nationalism—are fused seamlessly in Thompson’s Symphony. The syncopated opening motif of the first movement unfolds according to the most respectable Fortspinnung techniques: upward transposition, fragmentation, as well as gradual increases and decreases in the orchestral forces. A contrasting second theme appears in due course, contrapuntally combined with elements of the first theme. After a pensive central episode in a slower tempo, the rhythmic momentum returns in the modified and expanded recapitulation.

In the sweet melody of the second-movement Largo, the jazzy syncopations of the Allegro slow down sufficiently to have reminded an early reviewer of “an idealized ‘Old Man River.’” Strings and woodwinds take turns in the successive strains of this melody, whose final cadence includes a very conspicuous “blue note” played by the first horn: a minor seventh (B-flat) added to a C-major chord. Comments Urrows: “the ‘blue note’ . . . is not there for fun. It leads into the G-minor scherzo which follows . . .” This scherzo begins in an asymmetrical 7/4 time and adds even more metric complexities as it goes on. Both the melody and its underlying descending “walking bass” are repeated many times, yet the accents and the orchestral colors keep changing. The trio (middle section) is marked “Capriccioso,” and combines warm lyricism with some deliciously spicy harmonic clashes. In the finale, a hymn-like opening, which will return triumphantly at the end, frames a brilliant ragtime fantasy in mixed meters. The melodic material was inspired by popular music, yet Thompson developed his material with a great deal of sophistication, using the large symphony orchestra in a most effective way. Thompson’s Second Symphony was first performed by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on March 24, 1932.