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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.