John Corigliano (born 1938) is the first living composer I have included in this series on orchestra music by American Composers. He has lived his whole life in New York City, and teaches composition at both the Juilliard School and the City University of New York. His website, www.johncorigliano.com, has a biography and information on new recordings of his music. (For the record, I own all of the recordings of his music.) He has written an opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, as well as film scores, a string quartet, vocal music, concertos and symphonies. My first exposure to his work was with the Symphony No. 1.
I can remember driving in the car and listening to an arts report on NPR. They were talking about the world premiere of the symphony by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I hadn’t yet heard of Corigliano, but I had a great interest in any American composer (and still do). They played an excerpt from the opening of the first movement, and it hit me like a lightening bolt. I was blown away, and had to pull the car over to the side of the road. I screamed when the excerpt stopped, and immediately set out to find the recording to hear the entire work.
Corigliano served as Composer in Residence for the Chicago Symphony in 1988 to 1989. His Symphony No. 1 was premiered in March of 1990 by the Chicago Symphony, and the live recording was made into an album on the Erato label. Corigliano was inspired to finally write a symphony after seeing the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a huge art project bringing awareness of the scope of the AIDS Pandemic. He had lost friends, colleagues and loved ones to the AIDS crisis, and used the very public form of symphony to memorialize three of them, expressing some of his feelings of loss, anger and frustration at this ongoing health tragedy. If you want to refresh your memory of the events at the beginning of the AIDS Pandemic, I would suggest the book “And the Band Played On” by the late Randy Shilts, or the 2014 HBO television movie “The Normal Heart”. There are many levels on which these were not humanity’s finest moments.
The first movement starts with just the note “A”. That sounds simple, starting with the tuning note that the orchestra matches at 440 hz. The nasal, strident, tension filled tone of the pitch burns like a hot glowing coal. Strings are not bowing together, vibrato is not blending, and the tone sears instead of singing. That tone is interrupted by percussion a couple of times before the rage bursts into flames with the whole orchestra. This passage knocks me on my posterior every time I hear it. The musical material representing anger alternates with a softer “remembrance”, portrayed by an off stage piano playing a piano transcription of Isaac Albeniz’s Tango. This piano piece was a favorite of a pianist-friend of John Corigliano, for whom this large A-B-A movement is a memorial. This is powerful, emotional music.
The second movement is a bitterly ironic tarantella, written in memory of a friend of Corigliano that was an executive in the music industry. The tarantella theme is taken from a set of piano pieces for four hands that Corigliano wrote for some amateur pianist friends. Those pieces contained a tarantella dance movement dedicated to this friend. A tarantella is a dance music from southern Italy, whereby the victim of a tarantula bite will dance with increasing speed to exorcise themself of the hysterical insanity inflicted by the spider bite. When this friend of Corigliano contracted AIDS, his mind was ravaged by AIDS dementia in a horribly bitter decline. The symphonic movement portrays periods of relative lucidity with episodes of hallucinatory madness, as the Tarantella theme is fragmented, hurried and divided among many instruments of the orchestra. The end of the movement is a brutal scream.
The third movement is a Chaconne, and takes its theme from an old tape of Corigliano improvising with a college friend and amateur cellist. The solo cello represents his friend, and also his friend’s cello teacher who died of AIDS. There are other musical friends memorialized less explicitly in this song-like movement. The last movement is an Epilogue, which brings back the Tango theme, the Tarantella melody and the solo cello theme to recapitulate the whole work. The symphony ends with the same single note “A” that began the piece, now fading away. This 40 minute work is one of the most powerfully moving pieces of music I know.
Since John Corigliano is still alive, I don’t feel right linking this post to YouTube content that might break copyright. (I will warn you that the one video available at the time of this writing that advertises to be a complete performance of the symphony leaves off the final Epilogue.)
I would recommend the performance by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra that is available on Spotify. I believe that John Corigliano himself preferred this performance to the world premiere recording, at least at one time.
I don’t know if this music is the stuff that one can really be said to “enjoy”. It is a memorial that captures the anger, pain, frustration and powerlessness that one feels with the loss of a loved one, as well as the loving memories one has of their life. I hope you find it a moving experience and a worthwhile listen.