About this Recording
8.559331 - CORIGLIANO, J.: Mr. Tambourine Man / 3 Hallucinations (Plitmann, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)

John Corigliano (b.1938)
Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan
Three Hallucinations (from Altered States)


When Sylvia McNair asked me to write her a major song cycle for Carnegie Hall, she had only one request; to choose an American text.

I have set only four poets in my adult compositional life: Stephen Spender, Richard Wilbur, Dylan Thomas (whose poetry inspired a full-evening oratorio, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy) and William M. Hoffman (who collaborated with me on, among other, shorter pieces, the opera The Ghosts of Versailles). Aside from asking Bill to create a new text, I really did not have a specific work that I ached to set to music. Of course I knew the magnificent poetry of Dickinson, Whitman, and other great artists of previous centuries, but I wanted to set something by a living author. Something that spoke to everyone – even people who did not read poetry – in today’s language.

I had of course heard of the folk/ballad singer songwriter Bob Dylan. No one who lived in the ’60’s could not have heard of his songs and recordings – they were everywhere. Except in my record collection. I have never been a fan of folk music (excepting for some amazing Irish melodies), and was busily occupied thumbing through my Stravinsky and Copland fascinated with their elegant simplicities and ferocious complexities. I was drawn to some of the melodies of the great musicals of Gershwin, Kern or Rodgers, and my ear spun around when I listened to the unpredictable and zany music of The Beatles, but it was always the music that drew my attention, not the texts, and most popular music just passed me by.

So I was surprised when a colleague suggested that I look into the poetry of the songs of Bob Dylan. Having not yet listened to the songs, I decided to send away for the texts only. That way, if I wanted to set them to music, I could not be influenced by his musical choices.

So I bought a collection of his texts, and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard—and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language. I then contacted Dylan’s manager, who approached him with the idea of re-setting his poetry to my music.

I do not know of an instance in which this has been done before (which was part of what appealed to me,) so I needed to explain that these would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs, which I decided to not hear before the cycle was complete. Just as Schumann or Brahms or Wolf had re-interpreted in their own musical styles the same Goethe text, I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be. Nor would their settings make any attempt at pop or rock writing. I wanted to take poetry I knew to be strongly associated with popular art and readdress it in terms of concert art—crossover in the opposite direction, one might say. Dylan granted his permission, and I set to work.

I chose seven poems for what became a thirty-five minute cycle. A Prelude: Mr. Tambourine Man, in a fantastic and exuberant manner redolent of the ‘60’s, precedes five searching and reflective monologues that form the core of the piece; and a Postlude: Forever Young makes a kind of folk-song benediction after the cycle’s close. Dramatically, the inner five songs trace a journey of emotional and civic maturation, from the innocence of Clothes Line through the beginnings of awareness of a wider world (Blowin’ in the Wind,) through the political fury of Masters of War, to a premonition of an apocalyptic future (All Along the Watchtower), culminating in a vision of a victory of ideas (Chimes of Freedom.) Musically, each of the five songs introduces an accompanimental motive that becomes the principal motive of the next. The descending scale introduced in Clothes Line resurfaces as the passacaglia which shapes Blowin’ in the Wind. The echoing pulse-notes of that song harden into the hammered ostinato under Masters of War; the stringent chords of that song’s finale explode into the raucous accompaniment under All Along the Watchtower; and that song’s repeated figures dissolve into the bell-sounds of Chimes of Freedom.

Listeners familiar with Dylan’s music for these songs will no doubt be surprised at these settings. Folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody: reflecting the emotion or the sound of the words is simply not what folk music tries to do. Whereas concert composers from Bach on down often change the melodic and accompanimental settings of the words to reflect the particular colors and sounds, as well as the feelings and meanings, of the text. Obviously I belong to this latter category of composer, and this is reflected in what you’ll hear.

The original song cycle was for voice and piano, first performed by Sylvia McNair at Carnegie Hall on 15 March 2000. When I was invited to orchestrate it, I wanted a fully-trained virtuosic concert singer who could still perform in a more “natural” voice. I didn’t want her to need to give an ‘operatic’ performance of texts so antithetical to that cultivated sound just to project over the orchestra. So I have specified “amplified soprano” for the orchestral version, which was given its première by Hila Plittman with the Minnesota Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano on 24 October 2003.

Three Hallucinations for Orchestra is based upon music written for Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States. The three pieces—Sacrifice, Hymn, Ritual—are interconnected in this score, as well as interrelated motivically and melodically. In the film, Mr. Russell devised several extended religious hallucinations, and the outer two movements of this work (Sacrifice and Ritual) are taken directly from the original film-score.

Sacrifice begins with a slow introduction setting up a trance-like state. This mood is savagely interrupted by the bleating sounds of oboes playing in a highly primitive manner depicting the pagan slaying of a seven-eyed goat and biblical images superimposed against other images of death (primarily the death of the leading subject’s father). An ornamented and repeated single note figures not only in the development of this movement, but also as the motivic material of the final movement’s ritual dance.

Other ingredients combine with the oboe motive—specifically the interval of the tritone (flatted fifth) and melodic fragments of the hymn Rock of Ages, and the movement ends with a superimposition of all the themes and an extended glissando for the entire orchestra.

The second movement, Hymn, develops and extends the previously heard fragments of Rock of Ages, in a piano and organ version reminiscent of a revival meeting. Blurry visions of choral “Amens” float in and out of the texture, and orchestral variants of the hymn interrupt the proceedings from time to time.

The last movement, Ritual, interrupts the previous movement with frenzied energy, and the momentum leads to a savage ritual dance (in the film, the Hinchi Indians’ mushroom rite). The full orchestral forces are augmented by two sets of four timpani each, and the work ends in a burst of cumulative energy.

John Corigliano

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