John Harbison was born in Orange, New Jersey, and studied at Harvard University, where he sang with the Harvard Glee Club. He later studied with both Walter Piston and Roger Sessions. In 1987, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Flight Into Egypt, which was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group and the L.A. Philharmonic as well as the Cantata Singers and Ensemble. Harbison attempts to “make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh large designs, to reinvent traditions.” Snow Country is scored for oboe and string orchestra. In the composer’s own words: “Snow Country was composed in January 1979, during an unusually dark Wisconsin winter. It was commissioned by the New England arts patron and scientist Dr. Maurice Pechet in honor of the birthday of his friend Sir Derek Barton. It was composed for the oboist Peggy Pearson, who gave the first performance of both versions of the piece, with string orchestra and with string quintet. The piece was withdrawn for three years, as being not substantial enough for its eleven minutes duration. Late in 1982 a certain mellowness set in, perhaps occasioned by the piece’s healthy resistance to attempts at revision, and subsequently Snow Country has reentered the small catalogue of pieces for oboe and strings, where it has started to find its proper place. It has proven popular with performers, as a distant relative of the Swan of Tuonela, demonstrating that composers cannot always tell which of their pieces will “go” and which will stay. Snow Country’s white terrain actually conceals earth colors, engendered by tonal tensions between B minor, its home ‘key,’ and C minor, the neighbor key, which challenges its hegemony. A middle section in F major seems distant from both homes. The oboe is sometimes primary, sometimes a voice in the texture, submerged only to reemerge as a final lonely voice, braced against a longer winter.”
- Jessie Rothwell is a freelance writer and musician living in Los Angeles.