About this Recording
8.559257 - ALBERT, S.: RiverRun / Symphony No. 2
English 

Stephen Albert (1941-1992)
Symphony No. 1 'RiverRun' • Symphony No. 2

 

In 1983, the Sydney L. Hechinger Foundation commissioned Stephen Albert to write a work for the National Symphony Orchestra. That commission came about quite by chance: The 20th Century Consort, a group made up of members from the National Symphony Orchestra, had performed Albert's song-cycle To Wake the Dead, a recording of which was heard by Mstislav Rostropovich, the orchestra's conductor. Albert received a phone call stating, "Slava wants to see you about writing a piece for the band," to which he replied, "Who's Slava? What band?" Rostropovich suggested that the work be a mass, but Albert suggested a symphony instead; the result was the symphony RiverRun.

The symphony is Albert's reflection on the cycle of Life, for which the River serves as a metaphor. The scope of ideas – life/death/rebirth – recall themes present in works of Gustav Mahler, whom Albert greatly revered.

RiverRun is a companion piece to Albert's song cycle TreeStone, with texts excerpted from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The composer was at work on TreeStone when he received the commission for RiverRun and accordingly worked on both simultaneously. A comparison of the two compositions opens a window into the deeper psychological meaning of the music. According to Albert:

Both works were completed together, and they share the same musical materials. (I actually worked on the two compositions in constant alternation, though the materials common to both were put into TreeStone first.) They differ in the number and ordering of their movements, as well as their formal architecture and instrumentation.

The composer, however, was quick to dispel any notion of Symphony RiverRun as a programmatic work. The subject material provided a stimulus for composition – the music's descriptive qualities are a reaction to that stimulus.

In this, his first symphony, Albert adheres to the convention of the four-movement symphonic design. However, the form of each movement is idiosyncratic.

The opening movement, Rain Music, is an allegro with an introduction. However, the composer dispenses with sonata-allegro form. In the introduction if you listen closely, you can almost hear a fragment of the opening measures of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata. By the third measure, the ascending thirds are transformed, and we enter Albert's personal world. In the wake of two stark sounding chords in the strings and winds, the introduction continues with tremolos in the strings, light winds, harp, and piano, suggesting drops of rain falling upon the Liffey River. Against this backdrop, short melodic fragments are woven into the orchestral fabric. These become thematic and appear later in the Symphony.

Throughout the Allegro, ostinatos (repetitive patterns) performed in the low register depict the incessant current of the river and are occasionally interrupted by chordal passages. The final climax occurs at the end of the movement as a series of four chords, similar to the pair of stark chords heard in the introduction, now in reverse order. The prolonged closing chord sounds unresolved.

The second, slow movement of the symphony, Leafy Speafing, contrasts with the first not only in tempo but also in its orchestral palette. Brass and percussion, which were featured prominently in the first movement, are absent. The ensemble emulates a chamber orchestra.

The movement is laid out in four sections. Exchanges between featured soloists, duos or trios against the orchestra characterize the first and third, while alternation between ostinato and contrapuntal passages distinguishes the second and fourth. Ostinato passages increase in intensity until reaching a climax, signaling the section's end. During the coda a new theme is introduced, labeled by the composer as The Voice of the River, which will figure prominently in the fourth movement.

The form of the third movement is evocative of a classical scherzo (or minuet) and trio, but Albert instead uses a scherzo preceded by a march. A jagged fanfare in the opening measures is followed by a tune, marked in the score, " like a children's music box," and is heard against an accompaniment that sounds harmonically askew. This tune is the only tune notated in Finnegans Wake, with Joyce's lyrics. Albert set the tune with Joyce's' lyrics in another of his song cycles, To Wake the Dead. Originally it is an Irish folk song titled ' Mush Mush'. This tune is succeeded by a March Theme, which purposely does not line up with its accompaniment, suggesting a nightmarish boozy wake.

The scherzo contrasts with the "march and wake" as the current of the river returns in the form of whirring ostinatos in the strings. Against this backdrop, a new theme is introduced in the solo violins and cello, developed from materials introduced earlier. After the return of the March Theme and the " children's music box theme," now cast as a rowdy pub song, the music gradually fades into eerie silence followed by a haunting final chord – whose pitch material is derived from the now familiar arpeggiated motif spread across extreme registers.

In the fourth movement Albert dispenses with traditional forms, and instead develops his own, characterized by three climactic sections, each surpassing the previous in intensity, separated by more suspenseful sections. The movement opens with a theme introduced by the horn that is answered by the arpeggiated motif in the lower strings, evocative of the river's churning waters. Against this background, a theme labeled by Albert as The Voice of the River, arises in the horn and violins. Various instrumental combinations utter the theme, until its transformation is given to a lone oboe, which ushers in a suspenseful section, set against a tri-tone pedal point tremoloed in the double basses. The first and third climactic sections begin with an ascending theme in the lower strings, joined by brass and winds consisting of overlapping half-diminished chords. The climax suddenly breaks off, followed by materials evoking imagery of the "children's music-box" heard in the third movement. An ascending sequence of minor thirds in whole tones initiates the second climactic section. A beautiful theme performed by the solo oboe is heard in the following section. The third climax is the longest and most agitated, featuring tremolos in the piano. Here, the Voice of the River theme is joined with the theme heard in the solo oboe. These themes are repeated with growing intensity. However, the final statement in the brass and winds marked ff, is incomplete, interrupted by a motif taken from the first movement in the glockenspiel and piano. This signals the beginning of the coda where the Voice of the River theme is juxtaposed with earlier motifs, until they gradually fade away. The final note of the river theme is C#, the same as the final bass notes in the first three movements. However, C# is heard together with D# sustained in the double basses, which, in conjunction with the orchestral diminuendo seems less final, and perhaps suggests the unending cycle of life with all of its uncertainties.

Ron Petrides

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Composer's Note

The Symphony RiverRun is one of two works begun at roughly the same time, nearly two years ago. The other work, TreeStone, is a song cycle based on selected passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the text of which forms a wildly distorted version of the Tristan and Isolde story, and is scored for soprano, tenor, and 12 instrumentalists. Both works were completed together, and they share the same musical materials. (I actually worked on the two compositions in constant alternation, though the materials common to both were put into TreeStone first.) They differ in the number and ordering of their movements, as well as their formal architecture and instrumentation.

The Symphony and its movements carry descriptive titles, not because the work is specifically programmatic, but in order to suggest its broad kinship to the song-cycle (in which Ireland 's Liffey River plays such a dominant role), and also to acknowledge the importance that Joyce's atmosphere in the TreeStone text had on my frame of mind. I did not do my composing to specific programmatic outline: the titles of the symphony's four movements were affixed only after each of the respective movements was completed. The title I gave to the work as a whole, RiverRun, is in fact the very first word of the first sentence of Finnegans Wake ('riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…').

The opening movement, Rain Music, is meant to convey the origins of a river. After the sharply accented chords of this movement's introduction, the music shimmers with a tremulous atmosphere of expectancy. The momentum of the movement gathers speed and power, finally ending with a return to the movement's opening chords, now climactically pitted against a repetition by the brass, bells, piano, and harps of melodic fragments heard earlier in the movement.

While the full orchestra is heard throughout the two outer movements, the inner ones are more lightly scored. The second movement, Leafy Speafing, omits the big brass and percussion; it is essentially for the strings, with two horns, woodwinds, piano, vibraphone, and harps. The alto flute's languid, cadenza-like opening is followed by a more tightly focused thematic idea from the solo viola. The two instruments then engage in a quiet dialogue against softly changing chords until the river's relentless current reappears, now in a new guise. In mid-movement the opening dialogue reappears and is extended, but is soon swept away once again by the current. At the end is a coda in which the Voice of the River, held back until now, is heard for the first time from the horns in sharp relief over a rolling arpeggiated figure in the harps, woodwinds, and strings. This brief concluding episode contains a sort of preview of what is to be encountered later as the central material of the final movement.

Instead of the conventional scherzo and trio, the third movement, Beside the Rivering Waters, is a fragmented march and scherzo. It opens with a children's song. The march, for the pit band, follows, and we are engulfed in a boozy wake, a lively funeral in which the participants want to escape their own fears of death and disconnection. The music of these two contrasting sections has a sort of music-box quality, but is altogether more raucous than that term might suggest – pronouncedly so when the little pit band is interrupted, as it is regularly, by the large massed brass. The scherzo, in the middle, brings a return of the current, represented by a repeated idea, performed in turn by harp, piano, and muted strings over a whirring background provided by those instruments in various combinations. Then the march returns abruptly, followed by the children's tune – which is in turn transformed into a raucous pub song for the piano, saxophone, and trumpet. The march, the children's tune, and the subdued strains of the funeral are finally heard moving off in the distance.

Throughout the fourth movement, Rivers End, musical ideas from the preceding movements are recalled, while new elements (really old ones reconstructed and transformed) begin to appear as well. Night is falling, and the river is moving quietly into darkness. As it approaches the open sea its momentum builds and it soon becomes a torrent spilling into the ocean. The movement ends quietly, bringing the entire symphony to a close in an atmosphere of suspension and stillness.

Stephen Albert

 

Life is ultimately unpredictable and dependent upon contingencies. Every composer, whether aware of it or not at the time, will write, or start to write, a last piece. It might be a minor addition, a short song or incidental piece of chamber music, or it might be a work of major importance, of large scope and scale. Whatever its character, it is largely left to chance, maybe mixed with some part conscious will, in what state of completion it remains: just some early fragments; a detailed outline of the whole, but missing most details of surface; a mostly finished piece, but for a few unknown areas; or if luck would have it, a perfectly – or almost perfectly – completed work, missing no more than a few, minor editorial ambiguities. There are of course the famous cases: Mozart's near completion of his Requiem in his final hours; Mahler's sketches in declining detail of his Tenth Symphony ; Beethoven's making final arrangements, as it were, by writing a new last movement to replace the Grosse Fugue in his Quartet Op. 130.

For Stephen Albert it was his Symphony No. 2, a large-scale work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which he was hard at work on at the time of his tragic, unexpected and untimely death in an automobile accident in December 1992. At 51, he was in his prime and he could not have had the slightest inkling when he remarked to his publisher in late October that the piece was nearly complete, that he would never actually finish the work. He did mention at the time, however, that what he needed mostly to do was orchestrate his rough draft and that it would take him about three weeks to complete the work. He also reflected around that time that the process of composing the piece had been uncharacteristically fluid and unproblematic, which was contrary to his more usual sense of struggle and anxious decision making. At the time of his death, he left 67 pages of manuscript.

As a colleague and friend of Stephen, I was asked by his publisher, G. Schirmer, if I would be willing to undertake the task of completing the work. When I accepted the task of finishing this piece, it was admittedly with some reluctance. As I leafed through the many pages of densely written, sometimes extremely difficult-to-decipher manuscript that constituted his final draft of the symphony, I wondered, frankly, whether there was a piece there or not. It was therefore with a growing sense of relief and excitement that, during the months I worked on it, it became increasingly clear that the entire work was indeed there. What remained was the orchestration of a little over half the symphony, as well as the filling in of a number of editorial details.

What was orchestrated was left in various degrees of completion. In general, the score could be broken into three stages of completion: sometimes very explicit indications for all instruments, sometimes shorthand markings specifying what instrument might play a primary voice, while leaving out details of surrounding parts, or sometimes with nothing but a short score showing all notes and rhythms, but without any indication as to what instrument is playing. While it was clear that the three-movement orchestra piece was written from beginning to end with, in one way or another, every measure in between accounted for, I would not want to gloss over the fact that there were intermittent ambiguities and perplexities that sometimes required more than just decisions in regard to instrumentation.

That being said, I would emphasize that I did not compose a single measure. With the exception of the orchestration and adding of dynamics and expressive markings, I believe the piece to be complete as Stephen left it. In general, I also did not delete anything from the original. The one exception is about half a page in the third movement; I am convinced this was a sketch for an idea that was eventually discarded, and timing indications in the manuscript tend to support this assumption. I added notes only in a few instances. There were several passages in which I assumed certain figures should continue to be repeated, even though this was not indicated in the manuscript. Most other examples of addition relate to the mechanics of orchestration and do not, I believe, involve significant departures from Stephen's original intentions.

The title, Symphony No. 2, was also Stephen's own, not an editorial afterthought. His first symphony is called RiverRun and is amongst a number of his pieces that are in some way inspired by or use text from the works of James Joyce, which include Treestone, Flower of the Mountain, and Sun's Heat. Clearly for his second symphony he did not wish to suggest any allusions to Joyce. Stephen's music is, in general, connected with music of the past, particularly with the orchestral music of such early twentieth-century composers as Debussy, early Stravinsky, and Bartók, particularly in a late piece like Concerto for Orchestra. He was drawn to the rich orchestral colours, tonal underpinnings, and emotional breadth of this body of work and much of his work reflects this influence, in its harmonic language, brilliant orchestration, and in its intricate textures and use of musical figures and motives. He was keenly aware of his anachronistic position, at least in regard to much of the post-war European music being written, and in conversations on the topic liked to make the distinction between innovation and originality. What constitutes innovation is essentially clear, but his point was that originality does not require innovation as a precondition. Within a well established language or style there is ample room for originality, but to understand such uniqueness, finer distinctions, subtler discriminations must be made – and it was from this point of view that he sought to create and refine his voice. In this context it is interesting to consider his Symphony No. 2. By using titles and material from Joyce in his other compositions, he was establishing a marker for his work in the early twentieth century, but in using simply "symphony" he points to an earlier era, to that of the grand Romantic symphonists, like Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Sibelius (a composer he much admired) – and indeed this is reflected strongly in the musical rhetoric of the piece. To take one from many possible examples, note the trombone chorale at the beginning of the last movement. The orchestration, the sense of grandeur and nostalgia, all recall the surface and emotional background of this earlier generation of composers. Of all his works, this symphony seems to be imbued most with this sensibility. Whether this was just the character he desired for this piece or was part of a more general aesthetic movement in this direction, we will never know.

The symphony is in three movements. The large scale and sweeping gestures of the first movement, along with its lyrical conception and use of sharply chiseled leitmotiv-like melodic ideas, evoke some of the vital aspects of these earlier symphonists, while the harmonic language and orchestration connect strongly to Albert's established voice.

Compared to RiverRun, this movement relies far less on ostinato, an essential element in the structure of this earlier orchestral piece, and far more on the creation of an unbroken melodic line which is ceaselessly transferred from instrument to instrument. The multifarious thematic ideas are all subsumed within a grand melodic structure which, even in the most forceful and excited passages, never abandons an outward effect of lyrical expression. Of all the movements, the manuscript for the first is the most complete and specific, giving very detailed directions in regard to orchestration for much of the movement. The use of register in this movement is essential: the occasional use of only the high register, like the opening passage for two clarinets, does not contradict, but further emphasizes the generally low tessitura of this movement, which creates an earthy, dark and richly expressive sound world.

The second movement, brief by comparison with the two outer ones, is a bright and at times sarcastic scherzo. It nimbly and engagingly moves from forceful exuberance, to light-hearted playfulness, to mocking satire. The issue of scale and proportion is important here. For by making this movement considerably shorter and by nestling it between the two more expansive movements, Stephen makes it seem parenthetical, subordinate. This is significant because this movement, far more than the other two, evokes earlier works like RiverRun. While he was trying to forge a new sound-world in this piece, he also wished to hold on to his essential voice, but sought to contain it. Conversely, one senses these Romantic impulses are already present in RiverRun, but always held carefully in check. While the manuscript is very specific in regard to all the notes and rhythms, it is the least detailed in terms of instrumentation. Since the nature of the material seemed much more in line with the world of RiverRun, I was able to use Stephen's orchestrational language in this piece as a guide, which includes the significant use of the piano, particularly in the higher register, muted brass, and mallet percussion such as vibes and glockenspiel.

The final movement recaptures the lyricism and drama of the opening one, and there is, in fact, about two-thirds of the way through, a quotation of the first movement. The gentle, expressive and memorable theme in the strings at the beginning sets the tone of the movement and returns in various transformations. Following a continual struggle between contrasting musical ideas, the movement and the entire symphony are brought to a triumphant and expansive conclusion. From a standpoint of reconstruction, this movement was the most problematic. Not only was most instrumentation not specified, but some of the musical material was sketched in less detail than in the preceding movements. This was true particularly of the ending section. Luckily, although Stephen in general mentioned very little about his work while it was in progress, he happened to have made a comment to his wife, Marilyn, which proved very helpful in the completion of this final section. He said to her once that she would like the ending of this piece because, unlike most of his other works, this piece would not end softly and serenely – a characteristic she had questioned from time to time – but with a forceful and climactic conclusion. Once I was aware of the overall effect Stephen intended, I was able to understand fully the significance of what was written in the score. On first glance, it looks like it might trail off to nothing as in his other pieces, but with this additional information I could see that many figures were meant to be repeated that Stephen had not bothered to write in the score, and rather than ending with a single line it built to a large orchestral tutti.

This is the première recording of Albert's Symphony No. 2 and its pairing with RiverRun not only offers listeners a chance to hear these two major contributions to the orchestral repertoire, but also to compare the two pieces. There are of course broad similarities, particularly in Stephen's characteristic harmonic vocabulary and his lush, evocative use of the orchestra, but there are also important differences and it is in these subtle but significant differences that we can trace his development as a composer and as an artist. When discussing musical form and structure, he liked to make the distinction between predictability and inevitability. To be predictable was simply boring. For him, the most intense, the most memorable points in a piece were those that were unpredictable, but nonetheless felt totally inevitable. Looking back, a life can seem that way too. Although one could endlessly wonder what his Third Symphony might be like, in the end it is great to have these two thoughtful, finely crafted and expressive pieces.

Sebastian Currier

 


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