Corigliano Symphony 1 Analysis Essay

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Portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were on display in the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night. Each of the quilt's 14,000 segments was created by a different person and dedicated to the memory of someone who died of the disease. There was also a table of literature about AIDS in the lobby; members of the New York Philharmonic wore red ribbons, and a note in the program announced that the orchestra's concerts through Tuesday, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, are "dedicated to those who have died of AIDS, those who are living with AIDS and those who help and support them." Finally, just after intermission, Mr. Slatkin introduced the work that provided the occasion for this focus on AIDS: John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1.

The 40-minute work was generated, the composer writes in the notes, by "feelings of loss, anger and frustration" as friends and colleagues have been felled by AIDS. In the score, inscribed next to melodic themes, are names of the deceased; one phrase recalls Paul Jacobs, the distinguished pianist for the New York Philharmonic. The first movement includes quotations from Albeniz's Tango as transcribed for piano by Leopold Godowsky, a favorite of another friend who died; the second recalls a music executive who descended into insanity as the disease progressed; the third movement's cello solos are derived from the instrumental improvisations of yet another victim of AIDS. The themes associated with these figures reappear in a mournful epilogue. The symphony is a gallery of the dead. The composer said he was inspired by the AIDS quilt.

Mr. Slatkin, in his introduction to the New York premiere of the symphony, said listeners didn't have to actually know what this piece is about, "but it helps." He noted the "astounding amount of attention" the work had received. It was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its centennial; the orchestra offered the work's premiere in 1990 and has already recorded it for Erato, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Critical praise has been unstinting and, given the popular success of Mr. Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles" at the Metropolitan Opera, expectations were high. Mr. Slatkin even promised the audience the "most riveting experience you will have of a new work in the concert hall."

This was an extraordinary preparatory burden for the New York premiere of a first symphony. The work had to bear not only the weight of the memorials inscribed within it, but also the expectations of those seeking a sonic counterpart to the AIDS quilt. In addition, the symphony was presented in a context that made it almost impossible to hear in purely musical fashion. Few works could have thrived under such pressures.

As it turned out, although the audience responded to the work with an ovation, and although the composer's sense of pain and loss is understandably intense, the symphony itself did not deserve all this attention. It has some clever transformation of themes and uses color imaginatively, but it has the character not of a first symphony but a first novel, in which personal experience is transported into the work without esthetic perspective. It is extraordinarily aggressive: to show anger and pain, it shouts and screams and harangues in triple-forte rage. These outbursts seem almost tantrums, they are so raw and so musically unmotivated.

The work's strongest moments are the offstage quotations of Albeniz; they have the effect of the ghostly recollections of a lost world in the composer's recent opera. There are also a few other examples of emotional tone-painting. Passages marked "nasty" in the score sound like the gibbering revolutionaries preparing to chop off heads in "Ghosts." The major mode of transition from one moment to the next is interruption.

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