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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Symphony No. 3 (1990)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
24 Minutes
Programme Note
John Harbison Symphony No. 3 (1990)
Composer Note:

Symphony no. 3 was composed for the Baltimore Symphony and its conductor David Zinman. It is dedicated to the orchestra's former Composer in Residence Christopher Rouse.

David Zinman and the orchestra have splendidly performed my first two symphonies, and the first thoughts for this one came while I was in Baltimore for the Second Symphony (the commission for a new piece had already been discussed). Among the first musical images were a carillon melody associated with the church of San Ilario, near Genoa, a long violin line with percussion accompaniment, and a drum pattern I associated with the Baltimore swing era hero, Chick Webb. The focus on percussion led naturally to the dedication to Chris Rouse, from whom I have learned much on these and other matters.

The piece is a continuous progression of temperamental movements each of which necessitates the next, and for whom the following designations were found: Disconsolate, Nostalgic, Militant, Passionate, and Exuberant.

I hope the conductor and the players find these adjectives helpful, but the listener may prefer to focus on a more fluid psycological progression, with its momentary victories and defeats, and its release at the end. As with my first two symphones, the piece got its title only after other avenues were explored. It is not Five Pieces because these follow out of each other and refer to each other. It is not a Suite because their is no stylization, or clear connection to the dance. It is a symphony in the late twentieth century sense, a music requiring space, a certain sonorous latitude, and existing in the foreground. In something over twenty minutes it wants, after its span, to inhabit like minds, spirits and bodies, perhaps at moments when they least expect, thus confirming that it needed to be expressed as music and not something else.

-- John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    Albany Symphony Orchestra
    David Alan Miller
  • Ensemble
    Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
    James Levine
  • 19 OCT 2017
    Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA
    Boston Philharmonic Orchestra
    Benjamin Zander, conductor

    Other Dates:
    22 October - Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA
    21 October - New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall, Boston, MA
  • 19 FEB 2012
    Barbican, London
    London Symphony Orchestra
    André Previn, conductor
  • 19 FEB 2012
    Symphony No. 3 UK Premiere
    Barbican, London
    London Symphony Orchestra
    André Previn, conductor

Harbison's THIRD SYMPHONY packs a real wallop. Here is introspective end-of-the-millennium American music as powerful and expressive as any around. No wonder David Alan Miller calls Harbison "the dean of American composers." The work began with a dramatic descending figure, a musical trip down Armageddon hill that gradually disperses. Lyric wind melodies were absorbed and transmogrified into spooky, wonderfully orchestrated sections. A section with bells, literal and figurative, changed the mood only briefly. Harbison rewrote the finale to make it more uplifting, but as in a Fuseli painting of the elfin world, danger still lurks in the woods. Every note of this symphony invites rehearing and personal analysis. It may be an American masterpiece.
Ron Emery, Albany Times Union,01/01/0001
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