The Symphony RiverRun is one of two works begun at roughly the same time, two and a half years ago. The other work, TreeStone, is a song cycle based on selected passages from James Joyce's Finnegan's 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 a 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 Finnegan's Wake ('RiverRun past Eve and Adam from swerve of shore to bend of
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, woodwind, 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, River's 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.