Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra (2000),
Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Music
Having proclaimed as a young composer that I would "never write a symphony," I look with some surprise at the premiere of my second.
My thought then was that there were so many great symphonies in the repertoire that I could satisfy only my ego by writing yet another. Only the death of countless friends from AIDS prompted me to write in our largest orchestral form. Mahler once described writing a symphony as creating a world. My Symphony No. 1 was about world-scale tragedy and, I felt, needed a comparably epic form.
This second symphony has a different genesis. The Boston Symphony contacted my publisher with a request that I write a second symphony to honor the l00th anniversary of their justly famous Symphony Hall. At first I declined, stating my earlier reservations about writing in this form, and offered another kind of orchestral piece, but they were quite insistent.
I started thinking about what I could do that would feel truly symphonic, and my thoughts turned to the String Quartet I composed for the farewell tour of the Cleveland Quartet in 1996.
Two things about the quartet-as-symphony intrigued me. Firstly, the Quartet, like Symphony No. 1, drew from very intense human feelings. The symphony dealt with inadvertent loss: death. The quartet, written as it was as the valedictory piece for the disbanding Cleveland Quartet, dealt with chosen loss: farewell.
Secondly, I knew even as I was composing it that the string writing had acquired a very orchestral quality. Just as Beethoven’s Grossa Fuga stretches quartet playing past its limits, so does my quartet stretch the players’ range, dynamics, emotional energy and technique. And, interestingly, the Beethoven is often played by orchestral strings in the concert hall.
Once I decided that the quartet was indeed ripe for orchestral expansion, I wrestled with how that should best be accomplished. Rescoring it for full orchestra — or even strings and percussion — would certainly expand the piece’s timbrel palette. But wouldn’t that in fact diminish the intensity of the work, even as its dynamic range widened? Part of the intensity of strings derives from their relatively limited (say, compared to brass) dynamic range. Fortissimos must be achieved by intensity, not volume. If even the Grossa Fuga were redone for full orchestra, tension would yield to bombast. So my final choice was to leave the work in the strings, rewriting it when necessary and adding to it when the opportunity arose. And, to come full circle, this also satisfied my reservations about writing another symphony in a repertoire of masterpieces: the string symphony is another animal entirely, and there aren’t many of them.
It was not a simple task. My quartet is in five movements, three of which are notated in spatial notation. This means that the players do not count beats, but play more freely rhythmically, coordinating at various points but totally independent in others.
Obviously four lines of quartet can do this wonderfully well. Freed from beat, the players can do individual fluctuations relying on their musicianship and the eye- to-eye coordination that a solo quartet can maintain to align at just the right moment.
This is the sort of a thing that a great quartet can do magically, but with fifty strings playing instead of four (and a two-or-three day preparation period instead of the extended rehearsals chamber music demands) three of the quartet’s five movements would be quite chaotic if it were not re-thought and completely re-written.
On the other hand, the number of violins, violas and violoncelli in the string orchestra (as well as the addition of contrabassi) made it possible to augment chordal passages by dividing the sections and thus achieve new and thicker harmonies. Virtuoso passage work could be simplified for playability by dividing the runs between members of the orchestral sections. And the textures benefitted as well. For example, in certain sections of the Quartet (such as the center section of the third movement’s night music) the four players strained somewhat to give the illusion of many answering voices. Now I could use a vast orchestral complement of strings soloistically to echo each others’ calls.
The result of this is a work that deals with the string orchestra as a whole body of sound unique in itself, and this transforms the string quartet to symphony and the string section to string orchestra.
Architecturally, the 35-minute work is in five movements that bear a superficial resemblance to the arch-form principles of Bartok’s fourth quartet (movements I and V are related and movements II and IV are related, with III as a central "night music"), but in fact all five movements of the symphony are also united by similar motives and thematic content. Specifically, the symphony is based upon a motto composed of even repetitions of a single tone, and a sequence of disjunct minor thirds. There are also four pitch centers recurring throughout the work: C, C-sharp, G and G-sharp.
This short movement utilizes two kinds of muted playing. It opens and closes using a "practice mute" (which reduces the sound to a whisper) while the central section employs a standard "sordino." Threads of sound gently appear from and disappear into silence. They have an unfocused and ambient feel because each of the players is playing very slightly out of synchronization with the others. Gradually the texture becomes clearer, and the basic elements of the symphony are introduced: two of the pitch centers (G and C-sharp), the disjunct minor thirds (here ascending), and a serene chordal fragment based upon the repeated single-tone motive. The movement ends as the ascending thirds disappear into silence.
Slashing evenly-repeated chords for full strings begin the movement and are counterpoised against a suddenly-faster solo quartet playing in a manic, almost pop-like manner. They alternate and build into a rapid 16th-note passage using both the repeated single-tone motive and the disjunct minor thirds. A recapitulation of the slashing chords leads to a gentle trio: a chaconne based upon the chordal fragments in the prelude is played by a concertino group, while the other players provide lyrical counterpoint. A return to the opening material and an even larger and wilder recapitulation of earlier material brings the movement to a frenetic end.
Some years ago during a vacation in Morocco, I stayed at the Palais Jamais in Fez. My room overlooked the old city and during the night (about 4 a.m.) I was awakened by the calls of the muezzins from the many mosques in the city. First one, then another, and finally dozens of independent calls created a glorious counterpoint, and at one moment all of the calls held on to a single note (pure accident) and the result was a major chord. The calls died away, a cock crowed and a dog barked to announce the sun. This Nocturne recalls that memory — the serenity of the Moroccan night, the calls (here composed of motivic fragments of repeated notes and minor thirds) and the descent to silence and the dawn.
I have always been fascinated by counterpoint. In this process, a theme set against a steady beat is given a highly individual rhythmic profile with long notes, short notes and syncopations, so that when it is played against other material its line will stand out clearly. An opposing theme, also set against this same steady beat, will have a different rhythmic profile; it will rest when the first theme plays and vice versa. This enables us to hear both themes independently, note against note.
I always wondered if voices could be made independent by exactly the opposite method: the themes would all be composed of even beats, with absolutely no rhythmic profile. Instead of both themes set against a common beat (which would result in chords) each voice would travel at a different speed (or tempo). The misalignment that occurs when two rhythmically identical themes travel at two different speeds (say, 60 versus 72 beats per minute) would separate them as surely as syncopation does within a common beat.
The problem comes in trying to execute such a technique. One cannot simply instruct the players to play at these different tempi, for it is impossible to sustain them precisely for any length of time. Therefore, these independent lines must be accurately notated in a common rhythm, even though they are not heard that way. While this is difficult to play, it is not hard to hear; listen for example to the opening viola subject answered by a slightly slower second violin while the viola continues at its own tempo.
The movement is marked “severe,” and there is a starkness to this music brought about not only by the dissonant material (the subject is composed of both the repeated tone and the disjunct minor thirds, this time descending), but also by the total independence of the voices. They seem to travel alone, unrelated to each other, yet identical to each other. There are two sections in the Fugue where the string choirs unite in a common rhythm. This is usually accomplished by one or another of the sections “catching up” with the others. Other elements include asynchronous “chases” in the violins and violas and a serene (and synchronous) slow section. Formally the Fugue is traditional, with an exposition, central section and strettoed recapitulation.
The ending of the Fugue is joined to the Postlude. In this movement, the lower voices are spatially offset by a solo violin entrance, muted, on the highest C-sharp. The registral distance between the solo violin and the other strings remains vast in this first section: this quality of separation is meant to impart a feeling of farewell to the entire movement. An ornamental recitative-like section in the lower choirs follows, and in time the solo violin joins them in a unity of emotionally charged playing. An impassioned climax leads to a long descending passage, which gradually changes into the asynchronous ambient-sounding threads of the first movement, and with the addition of practice mutes and an exact retrograde of the opening music, the symphony fades into silence.
— John Corigliano