Wallingford Riegger’s Music for Orchestra, Op. 50

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961), began his long career as a modernist in 1927 with the string-orchestra piece, Study in Sonority. One of Cowell’s circle, he worked hard for a new-music collective, the Pan American Association of Composers in New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and in 1932 Nicholas Slonimsky performed Riegger’s first serial composition, Dichotomy in Berlin.  Riegger had learned the fundamentals of Schoenberg’s technique from Adolph Weiss, Schoenberg’s first American pupil, whose long monograph of Schoenberg’s method in magazine Modern Music in 1930 was crucial for the dissemination of serial thinking in the United States. Like many in Cowell’s circle. Riegger regarded Schoenberg’s method as a starting point, to be assimilated rather than emulated.

Although the onset of the Depression dissipated much of the energies of 1920s’s modernism, Riegger maintained creative continuity by working within modern dance, and he produced scores for some of the great American innovators of the period, among them Martha Graham, whom he venerated, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.  Switching gears in 1939, he returned to autonomous concert music once more, beginning an orchestral piece he titled Consummation. That work, laid aside at the time, eventually formed the nucleus of Music for Orchestra, written thirteen years later, in 1952.

Although a short work, Music for Orchestra nevertheless encapsulates many features of Riegger’s mature style. Although two twelve-tone rows, are placed at the head of the score, proclaiming its serial pedigree, one is at prime and the other a fifth away and their metaphoric dominant relationship foreshadows the post-tonal eclecticism of this work, with its final cadence impudently recalling dominant to tonic motion. The clarity of the motivic development, as we move from the opening clarion-call gesture to the Scotch snap of a new theme group is propelled by Rigger’s fondness for aggressive syncopated rhythms. In his own lifetime his rhythmic vigor was highly regarded and often pointed to as an American stylistic trait that differentiated his music from the kind of atonality explored by his European contemporaries.