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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

60. Contemporary Voices, Part I – The New Symphonic School

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Since December 2009, I have been working my way forward in my new CD purchases from the music of the Ancient Greeks to the present day. Now in fall 2015, I have finally reached my last group of composers—those I have placed under the broad heading of CONTEMPORARY VOICES. Contemporary music as I define it is any music which is no more than twenty-five years old; it is also best that its composer still be alive, although we have lost several of our major composers over the last ten years or so. The year 1975 is also a major dividing line, although now forty years in the past: 1975 is approximately the birth of POST-MODERNISM when the Modernist drive to “make it new,” as the poet Ezra Pound had suggested earlier in the twentieth-century, finally seemed to evaporate or seem in vain to many composers. Indeed, this was also the decade in which Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten all died and which Aaron Copland retired. These four have been called the last universally-known composers, and since that time rock and American popular music have usurped the prestige of classical music with the public and posed their own aesthetic challenges to its composers. In effect, many composers have either retreated into academia, survived on state funding (a much easier proposition in Europe than in the United States), or chosen to integrate aspects of popular music into their own idioms. Popular music has undergone its own split since the 1970s: while the mainstream has become utterly commercialized, other popular musicians have attained an artistry of their own.

There are several components to my Contemporary Voices unit, some of which I have explored already and others that I will explore in the coming months. In November and December, my new listening has focused on a group of composers I consider part of a NEW SYMPHONIC SCHOOL. These contemporary composers are all interested in a restoration of extended form, traditionally symphonic or otherwise. While many employ the same Modern devices as their avant-garde counterparts, it is this interest in form that sets them apart. Most have produced major symphonies and concerti as a result, but this is not a requirement. Previously, music scholars have thrown around such varied terms as “Neo-Romanticism,” “Neo-Expressionism,” or even “Holy Minimalism” to describe certain of these composers, but I believe my term is more to-the-point and depends less on some previous movement for its own definition. “Symphonic” does not mean “orchestral” in this context, but instead refers to the long-form, developmental procedures first established in the eighteenth century.

Most of the composers who have taken a new interest in form without compromising a Modernist vocabulary have been Europeans, and there are strong representatives in the former Soviet states, the Nordic countries, and Poland as well as Western Europe. For the composers connected to the Soviet Union, Dmitri Shostakovich provided a strong symphonic example whereas Jean Sibelius provided that example for Nordic composers. Composers with Soviet ties include Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Valentin Silvestrov. Meanwhile, Nordic composers of this New Symphonic School include Finns Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kalevi Aho, and (possibly) Kaija Saariaho plus Danish composer Per Nørgård. The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki seems to have turned to symphonic forms due to his interest in dramatic contrast, although the strong ties Penderecki and his countryman Henryk Górecki had with Polish Pope John Paul II, their Catholic faiths, and the tradition of Polish Catholic music might have also been converting factors in their music. New Symphonic composers based in Western Europe where the tenets of Darmstadt had once reigned supreme include Wolfgang Rihm, Hans Werner Henze, György Ligeti, and Peter Maxwell Davies; the last three are all converts since their earlier music was also caught up in Darmstadt ideals. In the United States, composers like George Rochberg, David Diamond, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Joan Tower perhaps come closest to this New Symphonic School model. Below I have listed several highlights of my recent listening, although I have premiered plenty more music by these composers and others of the New Symphonic School in the past two months. Enjoy!

ARVO PÄRT (*1935): SYMPHONY NO. 4 ‘LOS ANGELES’ (2008). This is a very different work from the early symphonies, all of which Pärt had written from 1964 to 1971. Almost forty years later, a much mellowed Pärt returned to write his Fourth Symphony in 2008 thanks to a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Currently, it is my impression that there are two different processes in motion throughout this symphony: a slow, ebbing melody carried mostly by the strings, and a short rhythmic idea carried mostly by percussion with the help of pizzicati. The motives are not in conflict, although they interact and can actually occur simultaneously.

ALFRED SCHNITTKE (1934-1998): CELLO CONCERTO NO. 1 (1985-86). Not a new work for me, but also essential listening. Schnittke grew up as part of the Soviet Union's Post-Stalin avant-garde, and only reluctantly accepted the title of “Shostakovich's Successor” after this Soviet father figure died in 1975. Although a stroke in 1985 seriously slowed him down, Schnittke's music was highly-regarded in both the East and West in his last two decades. The Cello Concerto No. 1 was begun in 1985 before his stroke but completed afterwards in 1986.

ALFRED SCHNITTKE (1934-1998): SYMPHONY NO. 5 / CONCERTO GROSSO NO. 4 (1988). Also not new for me, but Schnittke is one of my favorites and deserves his due. This work reminds me of Ives' Symphony No. 4: both works are cosmic nightmares, with familiar march rhythms and other nostalgia placed amid all sorts of chaos. About the title, this is at once Schnittke's Fifth Symphony and his Fourth Concerto Grosso: really, the first movement of the Symphony is the Concerto, or the Concerto misshapenly grows out of the Symphony like a bad dream grows from reality.

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA (*1931): CANTICLE OF THE SUN (1997-98). Based on a text by St. Francis of Assisi, this composition is almost a cello concerto but not exactly. It is written for the strange combination of cello, chamber choir, percussion, and celesta. This video gives some insight into how Gubaidulina creates the otherworldly sounds of this piece. Gubaidulina is probably the composer who poses the greatest threat to my New Symphonic School conception since her main interest is in exploring sound; also she has only written one, quite unconventional symphony and she has as many concerti as semi-concerti like Canticle of the Sun. Regardless, she has come up with new forms to contain her ideas and has built a tonal context around her Modern vocabulary. Both of these factors make her music worth including with the New Symphonic School.

KALEVI AHO (*1949): HORN CONCERTO (2011). Like his teacher Einojuhani Rautavaara, Aho has written a number of largescale operas, symphonies, and concerti throughout the course of his career. Since the dawn of the new millennium, it has been a goal of Aho to write a concerto for every instrument in the symphony orchestra: this project is nearly complete with twenty-four concerti written, including, interestingly enough, an award-winning concerto for the electronic instrument known as the theremin.

PER NØRGÅRD (*1932): SYMPHONY NO. 3 (1972-75). Danish composer Per Nørgård’s Third Symphony is an overwhelmingly beautiful work which represented a major landmark in the development of his compositional idiom. Whereas his earliest works were well-rooted in the Nordic tradition of Sibelius and Nielsen and his next batch of works embraced the theories of the post-serialist avant-garde, the Third Symphony was his first fully-integrated realization of the “infinity series” he had discovered in 1959. The aural experience stands apart from the theory, however, and there is a particularly beautiful moment at the opening of the second movement which possesses that same unshakably right feeling which inhabits the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI (1933-2020): SYMPHONY NO. 7 ‘SEVEN GATES OF JERUSALEM’ (1996). Since the 1970s, Penderecki has created a cycle of eight symphonies, more than a dozen concerti, and several big choral works. What I have heard often gives the impression of Bruckner revisited. The Seventh Symphony with its seven movements premiered in 1997 and was written to celebrate the third millennium of the city of Jerusalem. Penderecki himself conducts this live recording. Neither Penderecki’s Seventh Symphony nor his Chaconne (next) were new listens for me, but both are worth sharing here.

KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI (1933-2020): CHACONNE (2005). Penderecki's Chaconne is a late addition to his Polish Requiem originally completed in 1984. The immensely beautiful Chaconne was written in memory of Pope John Paul II in 2005. And, just when you thought Penderecki only wrote ugly music...

HENRYK GÓRECKI (1933-2010): LITTLE REQUIEM FOR A CERTAIN POLKA, OP. 66 (1993). I am not much of a Górecki fan, I have decided: I find his harmonies, rhythms, and formal construction all a bit simplistic, and I am not quite ready to attribute these simplicities as intentional. I did, however, enjoy Górecki's Little Requiem for a Certain Polka, Op. 66, a later work from 1993. It is not a traditional choral requiem, but instead makes nice use of piano, chimes, solo violin, and several other instruments.

WOLFGANG RIHM (*1952): JAGDEN UND FORMEN (2001). Jagden und Formen is an exciting work which will take further listening to fully grasp. If nothing else, the orchestration reminds me of the pointillist approach often taken by Webern, Boulez, or for that matter Frank Zappa. Its title (in English, “hunting and forms”) points toward the whole idea of labeling these composers as a New Symphonic School. Plus, Rihm has made several versions of this work in his quest to improve its form.

WOLFGANG RIHM (*1952): TUTUGURI, PART II (1980-82). I thought I was actually listening to Taiko drummers when I first premiered Tutuguri, Part II. For forty minutes, it is nothing but percussive pounding and shouting. If that were a bad thing, I would not be sharing it here...

HANS WERNER HENZE (1926-2012): SYMPHONY NO. 7 (1983-84). If Penderecki returns to Bruckner for his foundation, Henze returns to Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek and in particular the works these two were writing in the 1920s and early 1930s. His Symphony No. 7 starts with a movement called Tanz which I find reminiscent of the opening of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony. I was not impressed with the composition the first time I heard it, but re-listening now I can hear all its particulars more clearly.

GYÖRGY LIGETI (1923-2006): PIANO CONCERTO (1985-88). The Piano Concerto is one the first orchestral works of Ligeti’s final compositional phase. As in the youthful works Ligeti wrote while still in his native Hungary, there is a folksy element but it has now been incorporated with the Modernist vocabulary Ligeti learned through his encounters with the core composers of the Darmstadt School. Each movement is like a different episode from the intense rhythms of the first movement to the desolation of the second movement, the perpetual motion and intersections of the third, the disorder of the fourth, and finally the sarcasm of the fifth.

LEO BROUWER (*1939): EL DECAMERÓN NEGRO (1981). Cuban composer, conductor, and guitarist Leo Brouwer may also be placed with the New Symphonic School. Although his music once reflected avant-garde tendencies, since the late 1970s he has described his style as “national hyper-Romanticism” in that it combines traces of his Afro-Cuban heritage with traditional techniques and a touch of minimalism. His 1981 composition El Decamerón negro was his first piece for solo guitar to exhibit the traits of this new stylistic phase.


LEARN MORE! For further reading on the composers of the New Symphonic School, definitely look into Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After. Although Griffiths’ main focus is the Darmstadt School, their contemporaries, and the composers who have continued the Modernist drive past Darmstadt’s prime, Griffiths discusses many of the composers I associate with the New Symphonic School in various places. Alexander Ivashkin has also published a fascinating collection of Schnittke’s writings as A Schnittke Reader in which Schnittke discusses not only his own compositions but also works by Ligeti, Luciano Berio, and others. Stay tuned: there is more to come in Part Two of Contemporary Voices!

JSH 15.12.10

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ CollegeLouisiana’s designated honors college located on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. While there, Jackson completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Louisiana, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, blogs at MusicCentral, and continues to study other aspects of music in his spare time. His four-movement Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 at Abendmusik Alexandria.

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