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Composed: 1988
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3 = piccolos), 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets (2nd = E-flat, 4th = bass), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (2 glockenspiels, crotales, 2 vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, chimes, snare drum, 3 tom-toms, 3 roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, 3 bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, 3 temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, ratchet), harp, piano, 4 mandolins, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 7, 1993, David Zinman conducting

A native New Yorker, composer John Corigliano began life steeped in music. His father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic; his mother was an accomplished pianist. Corigliano attended public school in New York City (P.S. 241 and Midwood High School, both in Brooklyn), and studied composition at Columbia and at the Manhattan School of Music. He currently teaches composition at Juilliard, holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, and still resides in New York City.

His current catalog of compositions includes three symphonies and numerous other orchestral and band works, including concertos for percussion, violin, guitar, flute, oboe, and clarinet; chamber works including an award-winning string quartet; songs and choral works; and dramatic works including a full-length opera, The Ghost of Versailles. Corigliano has also created several noteworthy scores for films, beginning with Altered States in 1980. He won an Academy Award for his score for the 1997 film, The Red Violin. Other notable awards include the Spoleto Festival’s first prize in 1964 in its inaugural Chamber Music Competition; the Grawemeyer Award in 1991 for Symphony No. 1 (which has received more than 270 performances to date); and, a decade later, the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2. In February of this year, he won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Solo Album for his Conjurer: Concerto for Percussionist & String Orchestra, his fifth Grammy to date. 

According to the composer himself, John Corigliano was a reluctant symphonist, but he felt that it was the appropriate format for his Symphony No. 1. “My Symphony No. 1 was about world-scale tragedy and, I felt, needed a comparably epic form,” he wrote. Indeed, the AIDS epidemic affected him deeply:

“I was extremely moved when I first saw ‘The Quilt,’ an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I had lost, and reflect on those I was losing.”

The first movement – Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance – begins and ends on a single note, an insistent “A.” The note is thwarted by a percussive thwack, though the single note continues to reappear, each time interrupted by insidious percussive and brass interludes. This yields to a haunting melody in violins, juxtaposed with an offstage piano playing Isaac Albéniz’ Tango, a favorite work of Corigliano’s friend who is memorialized in this movement. Pieces of the Tango melody are taken up by various sections of the orchestra, though the brass and percussion interjections take over again until the violins and offstage piano return with the friend’s theme.

According to Corigliano, the second movement – Tarantella – was written in memory of a music executive and amateur pianist. A shocking percussive opening gives way to the tarantella, an Italian folk dance that is quickly interrupted by blaring brass and percussion. A dreamy clarinet feature follows, though this slowly devolves and seems to sink into a musical abyss. Corigliano has written that this movement represents his friend’s descent into AIDS-related dementia. “The ending can only be described as a brutal scream,” he wrote.

Chaconne: Giulio’s Song was written in memory of a college friend of the composer, Giulio, an amateur cellist. The chaconne, a recurring harmonic pattern, is followed by solo cello representing his friend. A second cello joins in, a remembrance of Giulio’s cello teacher. Various other “voices” are heard, solos that mimic short sentences written by collaborator William Hoffman (librettist for Corigliano’s opera) in remembrance of other fallen friends. The insistent “A” from the opening movement returns in the brass, then strings. Chimes and a thumping drumbeat introduce a violent funeral march and chaotic ending.

The final movement – Epilogue – begins with solo cello. Each of the friends and their music is recalled: the piano from the first movement, the clarinet playing the tarantella folk tune, the solo cellos. Antiphonal waves, led by brass, burble and churn underneath. The work ends on a dying “A” in the solo cello.

- Dave Kopplin