About this Recording
8.559173 - HARBISON: Four Songs of Solitude / Variations / Twilight Music
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John Harbison (b

John Harbison (b.1938):

Variations • Four Songs of Solitude • Twilight Music

John Harbison is one of America’s most prominent composers. Among his principal works are four string quartets, three symphonies, the cantata The Flight into Egypt, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and three operas including The Great Gatsby, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and first performed to great acclaim in December 1999. Harbison’s music is distinguished by its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, ranging from the grandest to the most intimate, pieces that embrace jazz along with the pre-classical forms of Schütz and Bach, the graceful tonality of Prokofiev, and the rigorous atonal methods of late Stravinsky. He is also a gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and was recognised in his student years as an outstanding poet (he wrote his own libretto for Gatsby). Today he continues to convey, through the spoken word, the multiple meanings of contemporary composition.

            John Harbison’s recent works and first performances include Six American Painters in versions for flute and oboe quartet, and String Quartet No. 4, a co-commission for the Orion Quartet by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, La Jolla Chamber Music Festival, and Caramoor Festival. He has written for the Boston Symphony a Requiem and Four Psalms, completed in 1999, commissioned by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago and composed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. There have also been important revivals at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Lyric Opera in Chicago of The Great Gatsby.

            Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Tanglewood, Marlboro, and Santa Fe Chamber Festivals, and the American Academy in Rome. His music has been performed by many of the world’s leading ensembles, and more than thirty of his compositions have been recorded by major record companies. As a conductor, he has led a number of leading orchestras and chamber groups. From 1990 to 1992 he was Creative Chair with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducting music from Monteverdi to the present. In 1991, at the Ojai Festival, he led the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Former music director of the Cantata Singers in Boston, Harbison has conducted many other ensembles, among them the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Handel and Haydn Society. For many years he has been principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music in Boston, leading performances of Bach cantatas, seventeenth-century motets, and new music.

            Born in Orange, New Jersey on 20th December 1938 into a musical family, John Harbison was improvising on the piano by the age of five and started a jazz band when he was twelve. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and earned an MFA from Princeton University. Following completion of a junior fellowship at Harvard, Harbison joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, in 1984, he was named Class of 1949 Professor of Music and, in 1994, the Killian Award Lecturer in recognition of “extraordinary professional accomplishments”; he has also taught at CalArts and Boston University and is currently on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival. In 1991, he was the Mary Biddle Duke Lecturer in Music at Duke University, with a publication forthcoming from Duke University Press. In 1998, Harbison had the distinction of being named winner of the important Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities. Among other awards the composer has received are the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize of 1980 for his Piano Concerto, and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989. With his wife Rose Mary Harbison, for whom he has composed much of his violin music, he runs the Token Creek Music Festival on the family farm in Wisconsin.

            He has a particular interest in furthering the work of younger composers, and serves on the boards of directors of the American Academy in Rome, the Copland Fund (as president), and the Koussevitzky Foundation, as well as juries of the Fromm Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Variations • Four Songs of Solitude • Twilight Music

Variations, completed in 1982, was commissioned by Frank Taplin and written for Rose Mary Harbison, David Satz and Ursula Oppens. The first inspiration for the piece was a statue of the Caananite fertility goddess dancing. I began a dance set: Spirit Dance, Body Dance, Soul Dance and Dervish-Finale. It then turned into a set of variations with the same four sections. The first three sections consist of five variations each and the last section is a fugal chase leading to an epilogue. The theme is presented in canon, against itself, in Variation 1. There are five more canons later on, each at a different time interval. The listener will perceive a clear harmonic outline, which gains in flexibility as the piece continues. The Variations have been often performed and prove elusive and challenging. Their classical surface has sometimes lured both performers and listeners into believing they are on firm ground.

            Four Songs of Solitude was composed during the summer of 1985 as a present for my wife, Rose Mary, who gave the first performance the following winter.  They are songs, not sonatas or fugues. The first song often returns to its initial idea, always to go a different way: the constant lyrical outward flow is balanced by a refrain line that occurs twice. The second song begins with a folksong-like melody, which is immediately answered by a more athletic idea in a key a half step higher. The dialogue between these ideas eventually fuses them together. The most intense piece is the third song, its melody carrying large intervals and leading toward increasingly brief and intimate reflections upon itself. The last song is the most virtuosic and intricate. Starting from a slow emblem, which is often restated, it begins a dance with an obstinate lower voice as accompaniment. This cycles out of control twice, but manages a fragile reconciliation at the end. The solitude is the composer’s but even more the performer’s. The player’s world is like that of the long distance runner, especially in challenging pieces like these, and I wanted our conversation in those hours of preparation to contain subjects of equal interest to both. The listeners can, if they wish, add in their own inner distances. The work was first performed in 1985 at Harvard University.

            Twilight Music was written directly after my first string quartet: both pieces move toward an abstract and compact way of working, in reaction to the large orchestral works that precede them. The quartet shows this obviously, being outwardly tense and without illusions. The present piece shelters abstract structural origins beneath a warmer exterior. The horn and the violin have little in common. Any merging must be trompe-l’oreille and they share material mainly to show  how differently they project it. In this piece the two meet casually at the beginning, and part rather formally at the end. In between they follow the piano into a Presto, which dissolves into the twilight half-tones that named the piece. The third section, an Antiphon, is the crux, the origin of the piece’s intervallic character. It is the kind of music I am often drawn to, where the surface seems simplest and most familiar, where the piece seems to make no effort, but some purposeful, independent musical argument is at work. The final section’s image of separation grows directly out of the nature of the instruments. The piece was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for performance by David Jolley, James Buswell, and Richard Goode.


 John Harbison

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