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Aaron Jay Kernis

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Second Symphony (1991)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Programme Note
Aaron Jay Kernis Second Symphony (1991)
Composer Note:

My Second Symphony was written in 1991, begun just after the Persian Gulf War took place. The absurdity and cruelty of this war, in particular the "surgical" nature of its reliance on gleaming new technological warfare used at a safe distance made an enormous and lasting impression on me. It awoke me to the brutality and hollow moralizing of which nations are all too easily capable and led me to examine the culture of war and genocide in our time. The Gulf War was the first war in which, as an adult, I "witnessed" (through the media) my country's participation. In addition, the Symphony was fueled by a time of great personal change, and signifies both a loss of innocence and an important shift of tone in my music. However, this Symphony is not programmatic: it describes no progression of images or engagements, though its movement titles are direct. The development of the work's musical motives is compact and abstract, yet highly linear.

One image from the war that did influence the last movement came from news reports of a civilian apartment building (mistakenly thought to be a military installation) that was flattened by American bombs just before the end of the war - its 500 civilian inhabitants were killed instantly. The Second Symphony began a series of works touched by world conflict and human suffering which include my NEW ERA DANCE for orchestra, my cor anglais concerto COLORED FIELD (1993 - also recently transcribed as a cello concerto), piano quartet STILL MOVEMENT WITH HYMN (1994) and concerto for violin and strings LAMENT AND PRAYER (1995). (All of these works have been recorded on Decca/Argo, but I believe they are out of print in the UK). The Symphony was commissioned by Carillon Importers, Ltd. on behalf of Absolut Vodka for one of the series of concerts they presented at Lincoln Center in New York City during the early 90's. (Coincidentally the war began on my birthday in 1991 (15/1) and the Symphony was premiered on that same date a year later following the war's end). It was premiered by Hugh Wolff and the New Jersey Symphony in 1992 and was later recorded by Wolff and the City of Birmingham Symphony for Decca/Argo.

— Aaron Jay Kernis

  • Conductor
    Hugh Wolff
    Phoenix USA:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Hugh Wolff
  • Ensemble
    Peabody Symphony Orchestra
    Marin Alsop
…the most electrifying piece – and performance – is of the emotionally charged Second Symphony (1991), begun after the end of and as a reaction to the First Gulf War. Although not programmatic, the movement sequence of ‘Alarm’, ‘Air/Ground’ and ‘Barricade’ gives an indication of the work’s expressive thrust. ‘Alarm’ is reminiscent of some of the late Christopher Rouse’s more vivid orchestral works (no bad thing; he also wrote a fine Flute Concerto), but Kernis is his own man, as the symphony’s gripping denouement affirms.
Guy Rickards, Gramophone,01/01/2020
Aaron Jay Kernis' Symphony No. 2, in the cauldron of the listening process, is "about something." The composer's eclectic, tonal language, with its enormous palette of coloristic devices, sets him apart from his contemporaries, but, so, refreshingly, does the complete absence of irony in his writing.

But what seems most gripping is the manner in which the edgy instability of the 30-minute symphony coheres as a formal structure. The querulous brass and the acerbic harmonies in the opening movement, "Alarm," yield to the lengthy middle section, "Air/Ground," where a hopeful melody swarms under diabolical wind commentaries, where turbulence arises from nothing...Yet the final "Barricade" thrusts us into an eternal fox-hole. Above us, the timpani gears up for a conflagration. The strings intone a leaping Mahlerian motive; it dissolves in a volley of brass that reassembles into something approximating a death march...Kernis seems unique today in exploiting the symphonic form as a medium of profoundly personal expression.

Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Chronicle,01/01/0001
The most ambitious of the new works was Aaron Jay Kernis' Symphony No. 2....His style is eclectic, with Romantic leanings, and much of his music has a magic and originality that has made him a composer to watch.

Kernis' Symphony No. 2 is an angry, topical work....He appears to (feel) that anger and anguish are best expressed in an unequivocal tonal language that is lyrical, colorfully orchestrated and punctuated by unrestrained percussion. He has cast his 28-minute work in three movements, the first of which, "Alarm," is an aggressive, insistent stretch of clangorous, thick-textured writing that bombards the listener with conflicting impressions.

Within the movement are strains of virtuosity and chaos, of control and mechanistic power gone wild. The finale, "Barricade," is similarly driven, with angular, pleading string lines, pained expansions of those lines in the wind and brass, and a (thunderous) percussion finale.

The work's heart, though, is its long central movement, "Air/Ground." Here, lyrical themes are supported with harmony that is bitter though not especially dissonant. There are dreamy interludes, and sections of lush string chording with a Vaughan Williams accent. But the sense of menace never fully subsides.

There is much to admire in this deeply felt symphony.

Allan Kozinn, The New York Times,01/01/0001
Kernis' Second full of contrasts in violence and compassion, and concludes with one of the more stupefying climaxes ever written. As in his recent Symphony in Waves, Kernis proves he has an arresting new voice in American music that deserves to be heard again and again.
Bill Zakariasen, The New York Daily News,01/01/0001
(Kernis's) three-movement symphony is a magnificent mobilization of orchestral forces, from the opening detonations of percussion and strafing by strings, to the final, deafening roar of gongs...
Bob Groves, The Bergen Record,01/01/0001
Kernis’s Second Symphony seethes and bellows, seemingly driven by the Furies... That second movement broods and consoles and is most beautifully and naturally paced... It is a most moving discovery and one I urge you to share...
Rob Barnett,,01/01/0001
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