Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = piccolo, 3rd = alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 4 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 4th = contrabass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (1st in D, 2nd + 3rd in C), 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, marimba, tam tams, tubular bells, vibraphone, xylophone), celesta, 2 harps, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 10, 1985, with soloist Peter Serkin, Simon Rattle conducting (world premiere; commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association for Peter Serkin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic)
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” So opens the hermetically closed novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, a work that was to have a large influence on several of the post-World War II generation from Europe to Japan, especially Toru Takemitsu, perhaps Japan’s greatest 20th-century composer. Takemitsu used other word phrases from this treasure trove of neologism to title three other works of a Joycean inspiration to form a tetrad of “Wakean” works.
At the time of its composition riverrun was a product of Takemitsu’s contemplation of water as a compositional metaphor for a more porous harmonic river able to carry with its current not only the inevitable famous mid-20th-century ‘dissonances’ just able to keep their heads above swirling waters, but also earlier modalities and textures largely attributable to Debussy and Olivier Messiaen, which increasingly manifested themselves in his work from this point until his death.
“The music flows in the form of a musical tributary derived from a certain main current, wending its way through the scenery of night towards the sea of tonality,” Takemitsu wrote. “The motif, and the intervals of a major seventh and a minor third, almost like simple symbols, gradually disperse and always give birth to a variety of melodic sub-species. While they sometimes do confront one another, they do not necessarily represent a dialectic development, but continually keep occurring, disappearing and recurring.”
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.