About this Recording
8.559149 - ROREM, N.: Symphonies Nos. 1-3 (Bournemouth Symphony, Serebrier)
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Ned Rorem (b

Ned Rorem (b. 1923): Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3


Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, on 23rd October, 1923. At the age of ten his piano teacher introduced him to the music of Debussy and Ravel, an experience which Rorem describes as having changed his life forever. At seventeen he entered the Music School of Northwestern University, and two years later the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he now teaches composition, a post he has held for many years. He studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, and worked as Virgil Thomson’s copyist in return for orchestration lessons. From 1949 to 1958 he lived in France, a crucial period for his artistic development. Among his many awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). In 1998 Rorem was chosen “Composer of the Year” by Musical America, and two years later he was elected President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has received commissions from the Ford Foundation, the Lincoln Center Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Atlanta Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and many others. The conductors who have performed his music include Bernstein, Masur, Mehta, Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Previn, Reiner, Slatkin, Steinberg, and Stokowski.


After his return to America, after many years in Paris, Rorem began publishing a long series of diaries that won great notoriety for their candid tales of his private life and the lives of many famous artists. “Lies” is the latest installment in his diary. Rorem has said: “My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer’s present mood which, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge quite otherwise”. 


Rorem is best known for his vocal music. Nevertheless, his orchestral output is quite large, as is his list of choral and chamber music. Besides the three symphonies included on this recording, he wrote a String Symphony, unnumbered, first given in 1985 by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, with a recording that won the 1989 Grammy® award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording, and other works include Air Music, a Violin Concerto, a Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra, a Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, for the New York Philharmonic 150th anniversary, a Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1998), and concertos for organ and for cello, nine operas, ballets, music for the theater and many works for chorus and orchestra, and large works for solo voices and orchestra.


The three numbered symphonies were written during a relatively short period, the first in 1950, the second in 1956 and the third in 1958. I asked Rorem to write something about the First Symphony: “There are as many definitions of Symphony as there are      symphonies. In Haydn’s day it usually meant an orchestral piece in four movements, of which the first was in so-called sonata form. But with Bach, and later with Beethoven through Stravinsky, Symphony means whatever the composer decides. My First Symphony could easily be called a Suite”.


The First Symphony opens with a full brass exclamation, which quickly quietens and is answered by the winds, above a shimmering accompaniment on the strings. This leads to a lush statement in the strings followed by a reinstatement of the opening brass motive. A second theme is heard in canon between the French horn and flute, above a rather complicated contrapuntal harp. This leads to a series of climaxes, and a brief recapitulation. The charming second   movement is a pastoral setting in the Fauré    tradition, taking the place of a scherzo. Rorem later made an arrangement of this movement for solo organ. In the slow movement, the third, a lovely melody appears first in the flutes, and is continued in the oboe. After an early climax in the strings, the melody finds its way to the solo viola, in octaves with the flute. The middle  section has the brass and winds singing the melodic lines, followed by the entire orchestra. The recapitulation, for lack of a better term, is a total transformation of the original. The finale is a very playful, “happy” movement, that alternates between lively rhythmic sections and lyrical outbursts. The second motive was taken from an Arab wedding tune that Rorem heard on the radio in Morocco.


Rorem’s habit of dating every movement gives us a glimpse of the process of the composition. He wrote the first movement in New York in the spring of 1948, only resuming work on the symphony eighteen months later. The rest of the work was completed in one month in Morocco. The slow movement was composed next, taking a week, followed by the second movement,      written also in one week, with one week’s rest in between. It appears that, like others before him, he was not quite sure of the order of the central movements. The First Symphony has been performed infrequently. After the première in Vienna conducted by Jonathan Sternberg in 1951, it was played in 1956 by the New York Philharmonic under Alfredo Antonini, and it was also heard in Oslo, Norway. In 1957 the famous piano accompanist Edwin McArthur conducted it in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but it seems to have been mostly forgotten ever since.


The first movement of the Second Symphony opens with a short statement by the full orchestra, which comes to a halt as soon as it starts, and is repeated with slight alterations. It has the character of a brief  introduction to the actual theme, presented in unison by the violas and violoncellos, a long extended melody joined little by little by the other strings and the woodwinds, always in unison. Eventually the opening motive becomes fast and playful, presented first by the bassoons. It develops into a massive movement, as long as the following movements together. The slow second movement has the character of a lovely song, and its open intervals make it unquestionably American-sounding. The finale is a scherzo-like divertissement, curiously using the piano for the first time, while abandoning the harp.


The composer later gave me the following note: “When José Serebrier resurrected my Second Symphony, it had not been heard for 43 years, and no program notes existed. Thus I have to strain my memory. The work was composed in January-March 1956 in New York City, where I was spending a brief winter away from my regular home in France. It was commissioned by Nikolai Sokoloff (whom I never met). He conducted the première five months later in La Jolla, California. I heard it live for the first time in 1959 when Arthur Lief brought it to Manhattan’s Town Hall. That was probably its last performance. Now we must let the music sing for itself”.


Leonard Bernstein conducted the world première of the Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in April 1959, with great public success. After André Previn’s Carnegie Hall performance with the Curtis Institute of Music Orchestra in 2000, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times: “The work has not been heard very  frequently, but today its tonal, eclectic personality is current again: tonality is now acceptable everywhere, and composers 40 years younger than Mr. Rorem write music that makes similar allusions.” Indeed, since the 1959 première the Third Symphony received only  sporadic performances. It was recorded in LP by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony (together with William Schuman’s Seventh Symphony), long deleted, and to this date it has not been re-issued on CD. A recording of the Bernstein 1959 première was released as part of the boxed collection of New York Philharmonic broadcasts.


Rorem wants us to know that he wrote the five movements in a rather different order from the final version. He writes: “Of the five movements the second was written first, the first was second, the fourth was third, the third fourth, and the last was written last. I is a Passacaglia in C, a slow overture in the grand style. II was written originally for two pianos eight years before the rest, and incorporated as the second movement of the symphony. It is a brisk and jazzy dance. III is a short, passionate page about somnambulism, full of dynamic contrast, and coming from afar. IV is a farewell to France. V is a long and fast Rondo, in itself a Concerto for Orchestra”.


The first movement opens with a melodic pattern of descending thirds, which becomes the basis for the entire movement. A drum roll leads it without          interruption into the second movement, an Allegro molto vivace that takes the place of a scherzo. The third movement, (which Rorem told me is his favorite), plays like an interlude. It starts with a one-bar motive in the strings, which recurs several times like a ritornello, and it also closes the movement. In between, there are various duets of oboes and trumpets and a big         orchestral climax. This movement has the directness and charm of a Rorem song. The following slow movement is a pensive, pastoral setting, starting with a solo English horn and ending quietly. The playful finale exposes its rhythmic pattern first with the percussion, then the lower string and winds. It swiftly leads to the heroic-sounding theme, on the trumpets. This is cut very short, and the triumphant character is transformed into a pleading melody, but not for long. The heroic trumpets return, yet to dissolve into the pleading melody a second time. This is followed by playful orchestral fireworks, leading to a plaintive chant in the strings, based on the trumpet tune. Both elements succeed each other in rondo-like fashion, leading to a brilliant, climatic conclusion, this time unquestionably triumphant. The final bar is definitely playful.


José Serebrier

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