Change of pace — my symphony

I’m writing this from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where I’m waiting for a flight to Sioux Falls, SD. There I’m going to hear the premiere of my new symphony, played by the Dakota Chamber Orchestra, the chamber wing of the South Dakota Symphony. Which, in turn, is an orchestra that’s getting some deserved buzz among professionals. Delta David Gier, the music director, does a terrific job, doing big, unusual repertoire, and getting the orchestra to play exceptionally well.  He also programs a lot of new music, and commissioned this piece from me.

But when I call this piece a symphony — and in fact that’s its name, Symphony  — I’m smiling more than a little. A symphony has come to mean a major, deeply serious piece, and this one isn’t all that serious. It’s a symphony in the 18th century meaning of the word, which means that it’s meant as entertainment. In the 18th century, after all, music wasn’t considered a very high art, and instrumental music, because it didn’t have any words, wasn’t thought to be serious at all. (This is beyond any dispute. See, for instance, Mark Evan Bonds’ book, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven.) So all of Haydn’s symphonies were meant as entertainment, and so were most of Mozart’s, or maybe all of them. It’s a bit of a gray area, for the last few, because the understanding of instrumental music was starting to change, and some people were starting to say it was serious. Still, the full conviction of that didn’t hit till after 1800.

So I wrote my version of an 18th century symphony — four movements, in the usual forms: sonata form, lyrical slow movement, scherzo, and finale, again in sonata form. (And yes, I know the scherzo is mostly a 19th century innovation; so sue me.) In these forms, I used musical styles that would be familiar to my audience — echoes of 18th century music, but also blues, pop, and bluegrass. Not that the piece is a pastiche, but all these elements are in it. The ensemble is the same one Haydn used for his early symphonies: two oboes, two horns, bassoon, and strings.

Though I also indulged myself in a solo string quartet, because one way this piece departs from the 18th century — and God knows, it’d have to; we’re in the 21st century now — is that its texture is quite a bit more detailed than most of what you’d find in Haydn. You’ll understand that I’m hardly saying I’m better than Haydn, but only that I’ve absorbed so much music in which many things go on at once — Prince, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Steve Reich, so much else — that now I think that way, too, and it’s reflected in everything I write. That might be why this piece is only 13 minutes long.

There’s a lot going on at any one time, so there’s less need for the music to spread out lengthwise. You can see the score and listen to computer demos of the music here. Just scroll down till you see “Symphony” and click on the proper links. And here are some tidbits about the four movements:

First movement:

The main part of this is fast and bright, but I started with a slow introduction, just as Haydn often did. And here I snuck in a bit of pop culture — tiny, soft fanfares, that emerge in the solo string quartet. I was thinking of the 20th Century Fox movie fanfare, which (especially in past generations) kicks movies off with a fine sense of cheesy theatrical grandeur. My fanfares aren’t theatrical or grand, but they’re meant as a wistful echo of those old, simpler days. (It’s not for me to say if they’re cheesy — or whether, if they are, that this would be all that bad.)

Second movement:

Unabashed pop. A doo wop ballad, straight out of the 1950s, complete with a blatantly cheesy jump, toward the end, up a half-step into a new key. I loved every moment of writing this, and I’m completely unashamed of it. But I do have to say that this isn’t straight doowop. (It’s no more 1957 now than it is 1757.) I keep introducing new tunes, and piling them on top of each other, which is the kind of thing classical composers do. An old friend of mine once said my music was sentimental and cerebral.

Third movement:

The scherzo section is broadly rhythmic. The trio is pure ear candy, a shameless indulgence, maybe even more shameless than the  doowop ballad. (18th century composers wrote ear candy in their trios; I’ve heard some especially shameless examples from Antonio Rosetti.) And then midway through the trio, the music starts to play in reverse. If nobody hears this, that’s just fine. I worked really hard to make the reversal sound seamless. When the scherzo returns, it’s the literal retrograde of the beginning — the same music played backwards. This you might be able to hear, if you listen; scales that went upward now go down. But, again, you don’t have to hear it. The game I’m playing here is that the music flows perfectly well in both directions, and even sounds pretty much the same.

Fourth movement:

A romp –the fastest, most rhythmic music in the piece, and also the quietest . The entire development section is meant to be greatly hushed. Though finally there’s a big climax, with some virtuoso celebration from the first horn. The South Dakota horn player says that he accepts the challenge, and I’m eager to hear how he’ll do with it.

The premiere is Thursday night. They’re going to play the piece three more times, in three other South Dakota cities. I’ll get recordings, and I trust that I’ll be able to put them on line. And of course if any other orchestra would like to play this piece, I can e-mail the parts.

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  1. Rafael de Acha says

    Dear Greg, Glad to see you up and about again and writing your blog! I recently broke my leg in a similar household accident to yours and often have thought about you. In bocca al lupo with your symphony~


    And my sympathy to you! Note to other readers of my blog: Broken legs are not contagious…they really aren’t…

  2. Paul A. Alter says

    I listened to the computer-based version of said symphony last night, and I must say it is an impudent little rascal, and I loved most of it.

    Over the past hundred or so years, I have been moaning that classical music had gotten too far from its roots — dance. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, ad infinitum wrote music that, somewhere or other within its duration, was based on dances. But the modernistic [has to be read with scorn] guys wrote stuff that even PDQ Bach, with his notorious two-left feet, wouldn’t have tried to pass off as dance.

    Your little rascal of a symph returns to the roots. And even I — a notorious hater of all popular music written since the big-band era [see note below] — enjoyed the doo-woop derived passages in the second movement.

    Now, if only more musicians would follow your lead.

    *There is an exception or two. One of them is “She wore an itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini” in the original Brian Hyland (?) arrangement, which is masterful.

    Now about that CD you warned us about . . .?

    “Impudent!” I love that. A composer friend heard the piece in South Dakota– actually he heard it five times — twice in rehearsal, and three times in performance — and called it “quirky.” So, impudent and quirky. Not bad at all.

    Thanks for listening, Paul. Your comments warm my heart. Though I always want to stick in a personal disclaimer, applying to me, but of course not necessarily to anyone else. I like a lot of modernist music, and I don’t see my symphony, or anything else I write, posed against modernism. In fact, Webern is a constant influence on everything I compose. When I said that to the composer I mentioned above, he caught on right away — “Yes, in the pointillistic scoring.” (See the score of the last movement.) I went through a modernist crucible at one point in my composing life, learned a lot, was influenced forever, and don’t regret a moment of it.

    Which is certainly not to rebuke anyone who really does find my music a refreshing alternative to modernist scores. Modernism had far too much influence, as I’ve said many times.

    And, Paul — thanks so much for your comment on my doowop movement and your love of big band music. I always thought of that doowop movement as, secretly, a version of doowop as if scored for big band. I say “as if” becuase the ensemble I used — two horns, two oboes, bassoon, and strings — is very, very far from a big band, and in fact it’s a kind of orchestration tour de force to create something like a big band feeling with that ensemble. But if Paul sees any resemblance, then I’m very flattered.

  3. Paul A. Alter says

    A long-time buddy of mine, same age as me, went to a concert recently: Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn.

    He said that, of the three, the only one he enjoyed was the Haydn.

    I know that feeling myself. More and more, FJH is rising higher and higher on my enjoyment scale. I think he’s due for a significant surge within the next twenty years.

    That’s good and bad. It’s good if it means that SOMEONE is appealing to people. It’s bad if it means orchestras have to reduce the players on stage in order to play music that people want to hear.

    What is it about the Haydn symphony that made it popular in its time? I don’t know that, but I can list some of the characteristics:



    -acknowledged popular music and dances of its time.

    -humor, ranging from wit through things such as refusing to end a phrase when it seemed it would (continuing on, instead) thru the sheer nonsense of fiddles tuning up in the middle of a movement of the “distrait” symphony.

    Greg’s symphony relates to most of those characteristics. It should be popular, but it may not be, because when people pay big bucks, they want to hear a big orchestra.

    But there is no reason why the characteristics listed above cannot be orchestrated for the big symphony.

    Morton Gould did that in his “Latin American Symphonette” and “American Symphonette No. 2″ They were new music in old bottles — a modern orchestra playing modern music within the format of the “classical” symphony. They were popular. Me and all my buds loved them. And one movement from each — the Guaracio and the movement featuring the trumpet — got played on radio shows and juke boxes.

    If we hadn’t been immersed in the “if it ain’t hard to listen to, it ain’t worth listening to” syndrome, more composers would have followed Gould and it is likely we wouldn’t be playing to gray headed, dwindling, audiences.

    So, there, I said it and I’m glad/

  4. says


    This question is not meant to be confrontational, but rather provocative, in that I’m interested in your ideas. Given your very deep pessimism about the future of music, which seems almost fatalistic and times, as though concert music’s demise is inevitable, why did you write this piece?

    Thanks in advance, and I look forward to hearing it.

    Steve, I’ve been wondering when someone would ask me some variant of this question. So thanks for breaking the ice!

    I don’t have any simple answer. I like classical music. I like writing it. I like hearing the music I write. If I didn’t compose, I’d feel I had a limb I wasn’t using. And then there’s something else. Comfortable as I am with these future-of-classical-music questions, I’m even more comfortable being a musician among musicians. That’s my natural home base. I think like a musician; I hear like a musician. I went to see the movie telecast (if that’s the term) of the Met’s “Il Trittico,” and while the people I’m with have much that’s interesting to say about the staging and the experience of seeing live opera in a movie theater, I come out raving about a chord at the climax of “Suor Angelica” — high C for the soprano, G in the bass, while the rest of the orchestra piles up D, F, A, and C. A pure postwar pop-music chord, decades before its time. I heard the chord, and could all but see the musical notation floating right in front of my eyes. That’s the kind of thing my mind tends to fasten on, during performances.

    When I’m thinking about music in this way, and even more when I’m composing, I don’t get involved in future-of-classical-music thoughts. I love music too much. The future is another story. Maybe the performances where I can think about classical music details, and hear my music done, will diminish or die out. There certainly seems to be a chance of that. I’ll mourn, if that happens. But I’m sure something will survive, and that I’ll have plenty of chances to write music of some kind.

  5. says

    Yes, you like to hear the music you write. And perhaps, just as much, the music you hear in your imagination demands to be written down and heard outside your head.

    Especially when a commission is involved! :)