The American 1980’s

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Leopold Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra over thirty years ago, one of his ambitions was to create a showcase for American musicians – including American composers. It may be hard to believe, but in 1962 the prejudice that Americans were somehow inferior to their European colleagues possessed considerable currency. Impresarios, critics, and public alike seemed to feel more confident with individuals with Slavic names, a German heritage, or French provenance. The notion was that they exemplified aesthetic “traditions” that were magically passed on from generation to generation. Within the realm of concert music, an American insecurity vis-à-vis Europe dates from the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, a startling percentage of the members of major orchestras in the United States were from Europe. To this day we undervalue the American music written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There still seems to be some sense of surprise, for example, when a work by John Knowles Paine or George Chadwick is played and turns out to be very good.

In the post-World War II era, matters began to change, helped no doubt by the European fascination with American jazz. Leonard Bernstein and Van Cliburn are perhaps the best-known American classical musicians from the mid-century to have successfully overcome the prejudice. American composers, however, have had a somewhat tougher task than American performers, since the blossoming of American compositional talent in the mid-century coincided with an accelerating decline of interest on the part of the public in contemporary music in general. Too much of a remarkable repository of fine twentieth-century American music remains unplayed. Leopold Stokowski, like his counterpart Serge Koussevitzky, worked to bring American composers out of their second-place status. Both of them commissioned and performed a staggering array of new American works. In his later years, Stokowski turned his attention to assisting American players and conductors. The American Symphony Orchestra is the legacy of that effort.

In 1992 the American Symphony Orchestra invited Richard Wilson to become its first Composer-in-Residence. In this capacity he has planned a concert devoted to American composers that fits within the larger artistic mission of the ASO. Earlier this year we played a concert of two works by composers from the former Soviet Union. We believed that, beyond their compelling musical properties, these works could be understood in the context of the momentous decade of the 1980s, which witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In some ways, the present concert can be considered something of a parallel. The 1980s, the era of Reagan and Bush, had a coherence made up of such diverse phenomena as neoconservatism, the explosion of interest in minimalism, and junk bonds. Behind these obviously journalistic phrases, however, was considerable activity and exploration by American composers. This concert highlights music from that decade by focusing on the work of four composers at mid-career, all of whom remain active and are currently at work on new projects. It is a particular pleasure for us to break the habit that is commonplace in most orchestras: the nearly exclusive focus on first performances and world premieres.

There is a terrifying incongruity between the effort and energy required to write a piece of music and the reality that, if the work is heard at all, chances are it will be heard only once. Months and years mirror themselves in a few brief moments on stage. Works of visual art don’t disappear, and books can be forever. But pieces of music need to be performed more than once for them to have even a fighting chance to gain the attention and affection of listeners. We hope that we have the opportunity once again in the future to give works from the recent past their much-needed second, third, fourth, or fifth hearing and to continue the tradition, started by Stokowski, of supporting and encouraging living American composers.

Happy Voices (1984)

By David Del Tredici

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Happy Voices is a fugue, the subject of which is in two halves. The first–for strings–is motionless, poised; the second–for woodwinds–a slither of chromatic movement. The interval of the tritone permeates this theme. Unlike the traditional fugue, in which the opening subject is almost without exception a single voice, my subject consists of two voices moving in constant rhythmic unison. With the second statement of this subject, a counter-subject is heard in the violas. Based on repeated octaves, its emphasis of triple meter in contrast to the duple meter of the main subject is crucial to the rhythmic vitality of the piece. A nervous, unstable, almost keyless harmony characterizes the music. This effect, created in part by a persistent use of sequential modulation through the circle of fifths, causes one key’s tonic too quickly to become the next key dominant, through a dizzying number of changes. As a result, the ear “mistrusts” what it momentarily hears as stable, seeking reassurance, rather, in a harmony of key that does not move so quickly. despite this frenetic, quirky motion, another quite jazzy theme, clearly derived from the fugue subject, makes a strong appearance. It is not until a motif from Quaint Events unexpectedly reappears as lyrical relief from this obsessive, chattering movement that the ear is appeased, reoriented–like meeting an old friend in a crowded, unfamiliar street.

In its first Happy Voices appearance, the cantabile and gracefully flowing antecedent is answered by a rude double-time consequent. In its second appearance, the process is reversed. All the while, fugal particles whirl through the texture, bombarding this new-old theme while interrupting its successive appearances. Only in its third presentation does the Quaint Events motif seem to right itself, restored to the balanced proportion and length that it had originally enjoyed.

This achieved, all the implacable activity hesitates, then gradually disintegrates. The opening fugal subject is presented in shorter and shorter segments, the woodwinds falter, and strings drop away, leaving only a solo violin haltingly playing the repeated notes of the opening motif. This is, however, only the calm before a storm: forces again quickly gather and, borne by the largest crescendo of the piece thus far, we arrive at the quodlibet, presented thunderously by the whole orchestra. “Quodlibet,” as defined by a musical dictionary, is “an unlikely, even surprising, combination of diverse themes.” In this case, not only are two of the Happy Voices themes combined, one atop the other, but the surprise comes with the realization that they fit, as well, above a grandly expansive theme from Quaint Events.

A new lyrical theme appears, almost casually, as the music briefly calms. A faster version of the quodlibet section returns and it, in turn, grows still faster. As the excitement mounts, the briefly glimpsed lyrical melody takes on a more and more insistent, even ecstatic prominence. This theme, too, is combined into the quodlibet matrix. (Quodlibetissimo!) However, at this point in the fugue, when one theme has struggled to the fore, the other motifs, like a gang of howling furies, are not far behind, below, or above, seeking to wrest it from its sovereign place. Every possible contrapuntal device is now given full, exuberant play and, at length, with trumpets proclaiming victoriously the theme associated with Alice in Part I of Child Alice, the climax of the movement arrives.

From this point on, the energy gradually subsides; the intense rhythmic pulse relaxes. The harmonic movement, still slitheringly chromatic, slows. After a portentous roll on the timpani, the music comes finally to rest on a long-held A-flat minor chord. Harps embroider a fragile texture, mysterious winds rise, while horns solemnly proclaim a tritone melody.

The last dying notes of the horn melody are picked up now by the violins, which give it new vigor. Ceaselessly, above and below this theme, woodwinds and brass chatter the opening fugue motif. This perpetuum mobile grows and grows. After a grand climax, the music softens, though the momentum never slows down. Suddenly, breathlessly, it all vanishes.

Voyants (1989)

By Peter M. Wolrich

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Commissioned by Radio France, this work evolved from an image of the piano as a voyant (‘seer’) predicting, imagining or calling forth dire events. The piece comprises four sections which follow one another without pause. The first section begins with the piano alone. Above a repeated kinetic figure, consisting of broken, atonal chords, the piano brings out a rising chromatic melodic line which will be seen to anticipate the climactic third section. Woodwinds enter with figures emerging out of, and sympathetic to, the texture of the piano. A gradual crescendo ensues as the counterpoint becomes more dense. Before a climax is reached the music stops abruptly, leading into the second section.

The second section is more reflective than the first. Fragmentary ideas in strings and percussion, instruments that appear here for the first time, ruminate in isolation and without apparent direction. The material in the orchestra is polytonal, against which the piano and piccolo pit dissonant rhythmic spurts which are unsympathetic to the strings and, again, serve to anticipate the rhythmic climax of the third section.

It is as though the orchestra, which does not acknowledge the piano’s “vision” in the first section, has turned in upon itself. Simultaneously, the piano, consumed by its foreshadowing of future events, resists the orchestra and seeks to spur it on. In the third section, the cataclysmic vision of the piano is fully realized. The orchestra builds to a terrifying climax. The piano, in frenetic agitation that employs elements from the first section, sets up the harmonic material for this climax. The entire orchestra, at maximum density, presents a slow but inexorable crescendo of greater and greater agitation. The piano leads the orchestra to the brink of the ultimate climax and then suddenly disappears, not to be heard from again in this section. Thus the climax occurs in the orchestra alone, fortissimo. There is a marked increase in tempo. Lower strings ascend and woodwinds descend as the apocalyptic vision of the piano is realized. In the course of a decrescendo, various instruments are eliminated and the harmonic density is progressively reduced to a single tritone-which, in turn, disappears. Chimes toll the section to an end. We find the piano listening silently as its dire predictions have come to pass, made real by the orchestra.

Like the first, the final section opens with a piano solo that, rather than anticipating or predicting, reflects on what has happened. The texture is now homophonic rather than contrapuntal. Interpolations recall the broken, atonal chords of the first section and the harmony of the climactic third section. Calmness has replaced intense agitation. The upper strings enter with an ascending harmonic progression that is accompanied by descending harmonies in the lower strings. The piano interpolates dissonant to denote how notes are connected-whether legato or staccato, tenuto or pizzicato, glottal or smooth. Each musical instrument has its individual style of articulation. In a work for full orchestra, the many contrasts in attack reminiscences of the second section. Accompanied by tolling chimes, the woodwinds and strings intone the chord which opened the second section. A final sounding of the chimes stops the woodwinds, and the chord from the second section lingers in the strings and then dies away.

“Keys to the City” for Piano and Orchestra (1983)

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In September, 1982, I received a phone call from The Brooklyn Bridge

Centennial Commission, an organization established by the city of New York, Edward I. Koch, mayor. Hearing the word “commission,” I immediately thought I was about to receive one. I was wrong. What I did receive was an invitation to submit a previously-composed work for a contest to be judged blind”- or, more accurately, “deaf.” The winner would then be commissioned to compose a celebratory work in honor of the upcoming hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, a structure which itself had been fourteen years in the making, during which many men lost their lives. This work would be performed on May 24th 1983, a mere eight months later.

I was told that many older, distinguished composers would be competing and that Andy Warhol had already been commissioned to do the official poster for the occasion. There was to be a multi-million dollar Sound-and-Light show, and the most spectacular fireworks display in the history of the city. My immediate reaction was that I did not stand a chance. Now on the verge of turning forty, I look back in amazement at the good fortune of a twenty eight-year-old composer who at that time had his first symphony to finish for Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony as well as another commission to compose a piece for narrator and orchestra, The Encantadas, for the Albany Symphony.

I told the caller that it was not my habit to participate in competitions and terminated the conversation abruptly. The Brooklyn Bridge. What a masterpiece of construction! What a work of art! What composer would not find endless inspiration in this great subject. These thoughts went round and round in my mind that day after the phone call, and they kept me up half the night. Perhaps it was a combination of inspiration and the greedy eighties-when more was more-which caused my insomnia. Anyway, what harm could there be in sending a tape and a score of my first piano concerto, say?

The next day, I telephoned the Centennial Commission and said that, if they would still have me I would, after all, like to be considered.

After a few weeks, another phone call. I had won the contest. I would be given full artistic freedom in selecting a medium for the piece. The glamour and elegance of Rhapsody in Blue and the evocation of New York’s great composer, George Gershwin, impelled me toward the decision to compose another piano concerto. Besides, playing it myself would assure me a ring-side seat at the fantastic celebration, which promised to draw two million people to both shores of the East River, not to mention countless others watching on television. I felt pride in having been selected to associate my music with the Brooklyn Bridge-to say nothing of having finally won a contest.

Thus began my romance with the Brooklyn Bridge. I read Hart Crane and McCullough’s The Great Bridge. I studied its history. Visiting the bridge at different times of day and night, I observed its structure, its content and its context. I watched the light play through cables composed of billions of strands of steel. I listened from the foot bridge to the whine of the cars below. I studied paintings, poems and songs which had been made in tribute to the bridge over the years. I even gave a champagne party for my friends on it one starry midnight. And, I composed furiously.

I had precious few months to write the piece, make a two-piano version of it for a dedication ceremony of the United States Commemorative Postage Stamp, and–of course–to learn the solo part.

Keys to the City is in one continuous, eighteen-minute movement. The intervallic structure of the piece is derived from the form of the bridge itself – a series of interlocking twelve-tone rows based on the bridge’s arches and curves. A collection of inter-related and connected episodes –which suggest to me the bridge in its various moods from dusk to dawn – bind everything together. The piece opens with an orchestral tutti in the key region of B, which I think of as the key of darkness. The opening theme (the notes B, C-sharp, E, C-sharp, E-flat, D) returns later as a ground bass, giving rise to a boogie-woogie cadenza in the piano which then infects the entire orchestra. After a series of subsiding sections, followed by a number of explosive bursts, the piece, having passed through every other key, arrives at B-flat, the key of light. The Brooklyn Bridge centennial celebration was a night I will never forget. But the actual first performance of Keys to the City–outdoors, without a tent, (the bridge was closed to traffic for the first time in a hundred years so that a cascade of fireworks in the shape of a water fall running the entire length of it could descend into the river below), under the Brooklyn Bridge at Fulton Ferry landing-was something of an anti-climax. After so much excitement and anticipation, (Ronald Reagan was rumored, right up until moments before the party began, to be planning a surprise appearance by helicopter. As it turned out, a helicopter did float in-but bearing Ed Koch and Alfonse d`Amato), with the east river filled with boats all tuned to one of the five AM radio stations simulcasting the proceedings, and the roar of the crowds, the sounds of the orchestra could barely be heard as they were caught up by the swirling wind (my music had to be held on the music stand with huge clothes pins) and disbursed into the night air. When the piece began, the flash-bulbs and cameras of photographers from twenty-seven countries standing right in front of the orchestra was louder in my ears than the brass section behind me whose fortissimo notes wafted into the vast sky above.

Articulations (1989)

By Richard Wilson

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The dictionary instructs us that an articulated locomotive is one that has two or three connected sections. It is in this sense that I first mean the title of my work, for the piece falls into three sections that are played with only a brief pause between. (These pauses are “live” rather than “dead:” not a time for coughers to cough, critics to scribble, or latecomers to be seated.) But other meanings of articulated should not be ruled out: “Making clear and distinct,” expressed, formulated or presented with clarity,” or “having distinct areas organized into a coherent or meaningful whole” are, it seems to me, pertinent and laudable goals for a composer.

My piece necessarily illustrates yet a third meaning of articulation, which is the common musical use of the word to denote how notes are connected-whether legato or staccato, tenuto or pizzicato, glottal or smooth. Each musical instrument has its individual style of articulation. In a work for full orchestra, the many contrasts in attack and release are an important part of the musical substance if only because they form the very basis for timbral distinctions. It is also the case that phrasing, so important to musical expression, depends on paying the most careful attention to the various means of articulation.

The subtitles “Unrest,” “Introspection,” “Quickening” are intended to convey a sense of the character of each portion of the work as well as to imply a generalized psychological progression. The extended central movement, which culminates in an oboe solo, engages in an inward sorting out which, by simplification and reduction, strives to define primary musical aims. Through it, the fitful, unsettled opening is transformed to a closing that is confident and life-affirming.

Articulations is dedicated to Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony, who commissioned it.