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John Corigliano

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Symphony No. 1 (1988),
G Schirmer Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
40 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Corigliano Symphony No. 1 (1988),
Winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Composition, 1990
Winner of the Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance and for Best New Composition, 1991
Winner of the Grammy Award for Best Classical Album, 1996

Composer Note:

Historically, many symphonists (Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich, to name a few) have been inspired by important events affecting their lives, and perhaps occasionally their choice of the symphonic form was dictated by extra-musical events. During the past decade I have lost many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic, and the cumulative effect of those losses has, naturally, deeply affected me. My First Symphony was generated by feelings of loss, anger and frustration.

A few years ago, I was extremely moved when I first saw "The Quilt," an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing. I decided to relate the first three movements of the symphony to three lifelong musician-friends. In the third movement, still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.

Cast in free, large-scale A-B-A form, the first movement [Apologue*: Of Rage and Remembrance (apologue: an allegorical narrative usually intended to convey a moral.)] is highly charged and alternates between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering. It reflects my distress over a concert-pianist friend. The opening (marked "Ferocious") begins with the nasal open A of the violins and violas. This note, which starts and finishes the symphony, grows in intensity and volume until it is answered by a burst of percussion. A repeat of this angry-sounding note climaxes, this time, in the entrance of the full orchestra, which is accompanied by a slow timpani beat. This steady pulse –a kind of musical heartbeat—is utilized in this movement as the start of a series of overlapping accelerandos interspersed with antagonistic shatterings of antiphonal brass. A final multiple acceleration reaches a peak climaxed by the violins in their highest register which begins the middle section (B).

As the violins make a gradual diminuendo, a distant (offstage) piano is heard, as if in a memory, playing the Leopold Godowsky transcription of Isaac Albeniz’s "Tango" (made in Chicago in 1921), a favorite piece of my pianist-friend. This is the start of an extended lyrical section in which nostalgic themes are mixed with fragmented suggestions of the "Tango." Little by little, the chattering-brass motives begin to reappear, interrupted by the elements of tension that initiated the work, until the lyrical "remembrance"-theme is accompanied by the relentless pulsing timpani heartbeat. At this point, the lyrical theme continues in its slow and even rhythm, but the drumbeat begins simultaneously to accelerate. The tension of a slow, steady melody played against a slow, steady accelerando culminates in a recapitulation of the multiple accelerations heard earlier in the movement, starting the final section (A).

But this time the accelerations reach an even bigger climax in which the entire orchestra joins together playing a single dissonant chord in a near-hysterical repeated pattern that begins to slow down and finally stops. Unexpectedly, the volume of this passage remains loud, so that the effect is that of a monstrous machine coming to a halt but still boiling with energy. This energy, however, is finally exhausted, and there is a diminuendo to piano. A recapitulation of the original motives along with a final burst of intensity from the orchestra and offstage piano concludes the movement, which ends on a desolate high A.

The second movement (Tarantella) was written in memory of a friend who was an executive in the music industry. He was also an amateur pianist, and in 1970 I wrote a set of dances (Gazebo Dances for piano, four hands) for various friends to play, and dedicated the final, tarantella, movement to him. This was a jaunty little piece whose mood, as in many tarantella, seems to be at odds with its purpose. For, the tarantella, as described in Grove’s Dictionary, is a "South Italian dance played at continually increasing speed [and] by means of dancing it a strange kind of insanity [attributed to tarantula bite] could be cured." The association of madness and my piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend, whose wit and intelligence were legendary in the music field, became insane as a result of AIDS dementia.

In writing a tarantella movement for this symphony, I tried to picture some of the schizophrenic and hallucinatory images that would have accompanied that madness, as well as the moments of lucidity. This movement is formally less organized than the previous one, and intentionally so—but there is a slow and relentless progression toward an accelerated "madness." The ending can only be described as a brutal scream.

The third movement (Chaconne: Guilio’s Song) recalls a friendship that dated back to my college days. Giulio was an amateur cellist, full of that enthusiasm for music amateurs tend to have and professionals try to keep. After he died several years ago, I found an old tape-recording of the two of us improvising on cello and piano, as we often did. That tape, dated 1962, provided material for the extended cello solo in this movement. Notating Giulio’s improvisation, I found a pungent and beautiful motto which, when developed, formed the melody played by the solo cello at this point in the symphony. That theme is preceded by a Chaconne, based on twelve tones (and the chords they produce), which runs through the entire movement. The first several minutes of this movement are played by the violas, cellos, and basses alone. The chaconne chords are immediately heard, hazily dissolving into each other, and the cello melody begins over the final chord. Halfway through this melody a second cello joins the soloist. This is the first of a series of musical remembrances of other friends (the first friend having been a professional cellist who was Giulio’s teacher and who also died of AIDS).

In order to provide themes for this interweaving of lost friends, I asked William M. Hoffman, the librettist of my opera The Ghosts of Versailles to eulogize them with short sentences. I then set those lines for various solo instruments and, removing the text, inserted them into the symphony. These melodies are played against the recurring background of the chaconne, interspersed with dialogues between the solo cellos. At the conclusion of the section, as the cello recapitulates Giulio’s theme, the solo trumpet begins to play the note A that began the symphony. This is taken up by the other brass, one by one, so that the note grows to overpower the other orchestral sonorities. The entire string section takes up the A and builds to a restatement of the initial assertive orchestral entrance in the first movement. The relentless drumbeat returns, but this time it does not accelerate. Instead, it continues its slow and somber beat against the chaconne, augmented by two sets of antiphonal chimes tolling the twelve pitches as the intensity increases and the persistent rhythm is revealed to be that of a funeral march.

Finally, the march-rhythm starts to dissolve, as individual choirs and solo instruments accelerate independently, until the entire orchestra climaxes with a sonic explosion. After this, only a solo cello remains, softly playing the A that opened the work, and introducing the final part (Epilogue).

This entire section is played against a repeated pattern consisting of waves of brass chords. Against this, the piano solo from the first movement (the Albeniz/Godowsky "Tango") returns, as does the tarantella melody (this time sounding distant and peaceful), and the two solo cellos, interwoven between, recapitulate their dialogues. A slow diminuendo leaves the solo cello holding the same perpetual A, finally fading away.

— John Corigliano

  • Ensemble
    Chicago Symphony
    Daniel Barenboim
  • Ensemble
    National Symphony Orchestra
    Leonard Slatkin
    RCA Victor Red Seal:
  • Ensemble
    National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic
    David Alan Miller
An enormous canvas befitting an enormous and wrenching theme, the death from AIDS of several of Corigliano’s friends and colleagues during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s. Full of rage – ear-splitting rage – and the most touching tenderness, symbolized by an off-stage piano representing one of the composer’s dedicatees, and a solo cello another, the Corigliano reminded us of the almost medieval savagery, cruelty and despair of this modern plague. It is a piece, that, 30 years later, still retains all of its keening sadness and desperate anger… ----
Robert Harris, Toronto Globe and Mail,20/03/2014
That this moving and evocative piece has become a monument of the past rather than of the present is a good thing: AIDS is treatable, its hold broken, at least in the United States. The symphony has lost none of its rage and sorrow, but the source of the rage has receded. We are left with a relic of bygone pain and anger, a kind of nostalgia that is well suited to the classical concert hall, bringing the work into line with so many other great landmarks of the canon.
Anne Midgette, The Washington Post,19/03/2014
...The best came first, with a fiercely committed and powerful performance of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1. This 40-minute symphony is known by the title of its first movement: “Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance.” Mr. Corigliano wrote the piece in 1988, having been moved by viewing the AIDS quilt. The symphony is a musical quilt in memory of friends he had lost to the disease. When it was introduced, this wrenching, frenzied score proved a salve for countless listeners coping with their grief...Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra were presenting the work with the distance of a quarter century. Perhaps it is more possible now to hear the piece as a compelling symphonic score, especially as played in this shattering performance. The first movement begins with an ominous, sustained, single note that swells until percussion batters it down and the orchestra fractures into shards and fragments. The music evolves with stretches of frenzy and whelping bursts. But then, from offstage, the sound of a piano playing an Albéniz tango, a favorite work of the friend being memorialized, is heard, and the orchestra almost dissolves into diffused, mournful textures. The second movement, Tarantella, is reined in, in a sense, by the dance form, which actually strengthens its emotional punch. Eventually, with ingenious compositional skill and effective understatement, Mr. Corigliano depicts his friend’s descent into AIDS-related dementia: The music dissolves into fuzzy textures, disjointed phrases and sensations. The third movement, “Chaconne: Giulio’s Song,” written for an amateur cellist friend of the composer, pits searching cello lines against a backdrop of aching, pungent harmonies. The final movement, Epilogue, recalls music already heard and brings the piece to a gurgling, ruminative conclusion. There was a long standing ovation when Mr. Corigliano appeared onstage with Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times,18/03/2014
Anger. Disease. Hope. No hope. Terror. Madness. Love. Grief. Despair. Death. Memory. Composer John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, composed in 1988 as an AIDS elegy, reflects on all of the above. That's an ambitious exercise. And it is a remarkable work, a 40-minute howl from the composer's soul that, criminally, is not often performed. Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have decided to correct the state of affairs by taking the work on their North American tour, which opened Tuesday at Davies Symphony Hall. The performance was immensely powerful, visceral, whipping between tender agonies and hammer blows. After a quarter century, Corigliano's opus can stand as a universal commentary on life and fate -
Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News,12/03/2014
The focal work of the evening was Corigliano's SYMPHONY NO. 1, a piece written for the Chicago Symphony, which first performed in 1990. This is a programmatic elegy in memory of the composer's friends and loved ones who have died of AIDS. Corigliano's openly emotive, deeply personal response to the devastating loss brought on by the scourge has held up remarkably well on purely musical terms. The score has been adopted by many orchestras and has received two recordings, including a Grammy-winning disc under Daniel Barenboim's direction. The angry Apologue moves from rage to remembrance, its fury giving way to elegies for three friends. The second movement is a nightmarish Tarantella, a musical depiction of AIDS dementia, that unravels as it plunges ahead ever more violently. Most affecting of all is the third movement in which two cellos interweave a 12-tone chaconne. This is a remarkable piece [of] powerful emotional undercurrent [with an] ingenious way high-decibel violence melts into the most tender sentiment and back again.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,12/03/2014
Thursday night's news was that the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought back the urgency of Corigliano's work in an astonishing performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The symphony, which now has the character of a vivid canvas of human struggle, never sounded stronger or more important
Mark Swed, LA Times,07/03/2014
Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 is a passionate work with many layers of meaning built into it. As the composer explained before the performance, he sees much of the work as an "epitaph without words" and dedicates specific portions of the composition to personal friends felled by AIDS. He sees the ebbs and flows as a way to characterize "floating in a sea of memory" and achieves this by a rather unique placement of the instruments on stage, including a piano being played completely out of sight. The personal linkage between composer and the piece he has written was delivered with absolutely brilliant intricacy by the WSO, with Mickelthwate conducting the players to a fever pitch. There was intensity and emotional heft to the rise and fall that existed between the "rage and remembrance" soul of the music.
Jeff Monk, Winnipeg Fress Press,31/01/2011
There are all kinds of reasons why the current Chicago Symphony subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall are significant. But the most compelling is that they mark the arrival of a major new orchestral score, one that addresses a terrible crisis of our time and also manages to make impressive sense on abstract esthetic terms. That score is John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, which was first performed Thursday night and which this writer heard on Friday night. Inspired by the AIDS quilt in which loving remembrances of the dead were stitched together to form a communal fabric, Mr. Corigliano's 43-minute symphony honors his own departed and departing in music that is by turns anguished, hysterical and deeply moving. ...Music is the most abstract art, and its application to topical issues can sometimes seem forced, a too-easy purchase on the emotions. But Mr. Corigliano has always been a theatrical composer, overtly or covertly, as his opera and his film scores attest. This symphony sounds almost overwrought at times in its emotional extremism. Yet it is also full of an esthetic coherence that could convince even one utterly ignorant of its inspiration. Knowing that inspiration only lends it a greater poignance.
John Rockwell, The New York Times,18/03/1990
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