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8.559303 - SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 2, 'Partita' / Fantasia / Violin Sonata / Winterreise
José Serebrier (b. 1938)
Symphony No. 2 (Partita) (1958)
Upon graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music in composition in 1958, I applied for the apprentice conductor position with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which was given in tandem with the Dorati Fellowship for study in composition at the University of Minnesota. During the two wonderful years in Minneapolis I wrote my most ambitious work, a Partita for large orchestra. The genesis of this large work, later sub-titled Symphony No. 2, was a commission from Mrs Faith Smyth of Chicago, my first commission. I had met her through the composer John Lamontaine, whom she had commissioned many times, and later through pianist Jorge Bolet. Mrs Smyth was a major sponsor of a film on the life of Franz Liszt so that Bolet could play the piano in it. Although his superb playing was only used as sound, and he was never seen, this movie was the catalyst to bring Bolet back into the concert circuit. Mrs Smyth was also helpful at the start of Leontyne Price's career, by commissioning a work especially for her, which in turn led to concert engagements. A woman of many interests, she was also instrumental in getting the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks into production.
I seem to remember that she decided to commission me very soon after she met me and heard some of my music. Dorati heard about Mrs Smyth from me, and befriended her at once. The result — she paid for the recording of his symphony, the last recording Dorati made in Minneapolis for Mercury. While Dorati did invite me to conduct my early Elegy for Strings with the orchestra, he was not particularly encouraging whenever we spoke about a composing career. It had to do with the practicality or lack of it, more than with any consideration of talent. He was a better than average composer himself, but obviously frustrated that nobody performed his music. I conducted the world première of his difficult Missa Brevis, for chorus and percussion, in a concert I organized myself in Minneapolis.
Partita turned out to be a large four-movement work. The opening movement, a Prelude, uses Latin American-sounding rhythms and colours, only the second time I resorted to these, after my Piano Sonata, written the previous year at Curtis. The second movement, Funeral March ( Poema Elegiaco ) is in a sombre Slavic mood, in full contrast to the rather indifferent opening movement. The third is actually a transition, an interlude, leading to a grand finale, an intricate fugue in which the theme of the Funeral March transforms itself little by little into an irreverent conga/candombe. The work ends with a jazz semi-improvisation, based on the same Latin mould.
Mrs Smyth may have had something to do with the invitation I received from Howard Mitchell, the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, to have this work given its première by his orchestra, under my direction. This was in 1960, eleven years before the construction of the Kennedy Center, so the première was at the orchestra's home, the mammoth auditorium of the D. A. R. Constitution Hall. It was an instant success with the public. The critic of the Washington Post was the notorious Paul Hume. His first review of Partita was devastating. The next day, at a gala luncheon for supporters of the orchestra, Hume was introduced to me. I extended my hand, and he said: "Are you shaking hands with me after what I wrote in today's newspaper?" I said "Of course I am". In fact I had not yet seen the newspapers, and did not see his review until after the luncheon. Hume was the guest speaker. His speech consisted in reading no less than a dozen reviews from the premières of such works as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Tchaikowsky's First Piano Concerto, and so on, all of them damning, amusingly devastating reviews. That was his form of apology to me, he added, for writing negatively about my work, indicating, in a remarkable show of modesty and fallibility, that time has a way of correcting such early judgments. His statements had the benefit of creating controversy and expectations around my piece, especially since none of the 300 guests at the luncheon had yet heard it, and would be attending the repeat performances that night or the following evening. The opening concert, the previous evening, was only attended by some thirty people.
It was a very special night. 8 November 1960, was election night in the United States, the night that John F. Kennedy was elected. TV sets had been set up in the lobby of the concert hall, and the scattered few people in the audience kept wandering in and out to the lobby to follow the results of the close election. When the concert ended even the musicians ran to the TV sets backstage. At that time, by ten in the evening, it was still unclear if Nixon or Kennedy would win. In the following evenings the concert hall was completely full, and Hume wrote a follow-up review, in which he re-considered his early statements, indicating that the work gained with each hearing, and he now even admired it. I was quite impressed by his willingness to retract. I also recall not being bothered at all by his negative comments.
Some months later, when I was teaching temporarily at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, I had a telephone call from Robert Whitney, Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, with the marvellous news that he had decided to record my Partita, but there was a "catch". Partita was too long for a 1961 LP recording, and one of the movements would have to be sacrificed in order for it to fit on the LP, and he had already decided to skip the Funeral March. Would I agree? I agreed, as it was my first music to be recorded, but I was not pleased, as this was an intrinsic section of the work, the one that Copland had favoured. The Louisville Orchestra at the time was one of the most imaginative and progressive in America. With a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it had embarked on an ambitious project to record a large number of new works. Whitney was a visionary. He did a great job with rehearsing and performing my work, and the local critics loved it as much as the public. When I was working with Stokowski in New York, he decided to open his Carnegie Hall season with the American Symphony Orchestra with the Funeral March, but he asked me if I would consider changing the title… that's how Poema Elegiaco was born.
After graduation from the University of Minnesota, and Dorati's departure from Minneapolis, with my Guggenheim grants finished, life became a big question mark. While driving back to New York I stopped for gasoline in a small city in upstate New York, and read a newspaper announcement that on that same evening the local orchestra was auditioning conductors. With spirit of adventure, I called to ask if it was still possible to apply. The audition was successful, and I became the music director of the Utica Symphony, a semi-professional orchestra. The position in Utica was so underpaid that the only housing I could afford was a little room at the YMCA. I think my salary was $2000 per year. The position came as a package with a part-time position as Assistant Professor at the local college to teach violin and composition, which paid some additional sum. This school, part of Syracuse University, used makeshift classrooms, and was new and poor, but at least I had my own office, and a school library room where I could compose. It was in this school library/cafeteria that I wrote every note of my Fantasia for String Quartet. The noise and the constant chatter failed to distract me. I enjoyed writing this piece, which I did on commission from the Harvard Musical Association in Massachusetts. During my last months in Minneapolis, Dorati told me that he had noticed an announcement that this association had a competition to commission a string quartet. I applied for it and won the contest. The prize money was quite small, but it included a première by members of the Boston Symphony, at the Harvard Musical Association's beautiful salons at Harvard. The première, in the spring of 1961, was a wonderful event, acclaimed by the press. Later, Wladimir Lakond, the editor at Peer Music suggested a string orchestra version of it, with double basses added, and he published both versions.
After a short introduction that sets the mood, a folk-like melody of melancholy nature is followed by a persistent solo violin that uses unexpected melodic and harmonic structures. This recurrent solo, a sort of devil's trill, is purposely out of place. Its closest "cousin" would be the solo violin in Mahler's Fourth Symphony, a work I did not know at the time. The music goes back and forth in a truly improvisatory manner that justified the title. The closest it comes to a set form is the recapitulation of the solo violin section, which leads to an unexpected, driven coda. This ending may come as a surprise, since the bulk of the piece is so lyrical. The title has to do with the free form of the piece, but it was also a kind of homage to Stokowski/Disney's wonderful film. When I wrote Fantasia I had not yet started to work with Stokowski in New York (that would come eighteen months later), but he had already given the premières of two of my works, the First Symphony in Houston, and the Elegy for Strings in New York.
Sonata for Violin Solo, Op. 1 (1948)
I had only taken a few violin lessons when I began writing the first segments of my Sonata for Violin Solo. At the time I had no idea what a sonata was, nor any other musical form, or key-relationships, or anything else about music theory. The piece evolved purely out of intuition. Many years later, after it was published, I was surprised to hear that somebody at a university in Texas had made a special analysis of it, which went on for many pages, discussing the formal structure and the key-relationships. This essay was published in 1965. There are indeed some things that can be analyzed, as an afterthought. The opening melodic line, which recurs from time to time, has a modal quality. The piece seems to evolve naturally, developing a form of its own, like a well-planned improvisation. The "appoggiatura" over a major-seventh chord, which becomes a recurring element, would later become almost obsessive in many of my early works. The piece is very difficult to perform, making virtuosic demands at every stage. I quoted extensively from this sonata in my Winter Violin Concerto, written more than forty years later, to tie a full circle between my earliest and my most recent work. More recently, when I wrote Winterreise, loosely based on the violin concerto, it also quoted from that first attempt at composition.
The genesis of Winterreise goes back to 1991 when I was commissioned to write a violin concerto. The concerto had to be the last piece of a puzzle, a violinist's idea to record the four seasons — not Vivaldi's, but by four twentieth-century composers. We had Rodrigo's Summer Concerto, Milhaud's Spring Concerto, and eventually we found an Autumn, a salon piece for violin by Chaminade. I was asked to write a winter concerto to complete the cycle. The concept and form of the work evolved, rather ironically, while walking on the beautiful white sand beaches of Key Biscaine, Florida, at Christmas that year. I had never meant to portray literally the season of winter. My winter concerto would have to be a poetic vision of winter, not so much the actual season but the winter of life, the time approaching death, when presumably all memories come back in a flash; when reality, futility, purpose, memories all mix in a mocking parade, a never-ending dream.
I could not write it fast enough. It was my first large-scale orchestral work in several decades, but I seemed to take off where I had left before. There was a major change in approach. Thanks to the more open times, I now felt free to write as I felt. Soon after it was written and recorded, the Violin Concerto was played in New York, Miami, London, and Madrid within a short time, and published both by Peer Music and by Kalmus. It was recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
From the start I felt that it contained the roots of a purely symphonic piece, a short impulsive utterance based on the same idea. When I was approached with the plan to do a recording of my music, I went back to that initiative, and produced a Winter's Journey, the title I gave it originally. To give it Schubert's title was daring, but in time the piece became Winterreise, like some people's names become them. In fact the piece quotes almost every composer but Schubert. Towards the climax of the piece, the first quotation is from Haydn ( Winter from The Seasons ), which has a mysterious ambience. Then a heroic quotation from Glazunov ( Winter from The Seasons ) in counterpoint with Tchaikovsky's First Symphony, "Winter Dreams". Eventually, all three tunes appear together. If one listens carefully, the Dies irae can also be heard towards the end, evolving naturally from the Haydn quotation. I did not imagine at the time that one day I would be recording Glazunov's entire ballet The Seasons, which I recently did.
The piece is like a train ride, when one rides backwards and all images fly by slightly distorted, never to return. All the trees are covered with snow and the lakes are frozen. Icicles cling to the train's windows. There is no sky; everything seems blinding white.
© José Serebrier
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