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Gunther Schuller

Publisher: AMP

Symphony (1965),
Publisher
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Category
Orchestra
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
1965
Duration
22 Minutes


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Programme Note
Gunther Schuller Symphony (1965),
Commissioned by: Women’s League of the Dallas symphony Orchestra and the Fine Arts Department of the Dallas Public Library)
World Premiere: February 8, 1965

Composer Note:
In this work I have attempted to evolve certain contemporary analogies to the nineteenth and eighteenth century forms which have been generally considered obsolete and unusable in orthodox twelve-tone writing. It may come as a shock to the average listener that something as perfect as the symphonic form of the last century could be considered obsolete. But such is indeed the case, and for very good reasons too. The “sonata form”, for example, was not a haphazard discovery by certain late 18th-century composers, but rather a gradually evolving formal principle intimately related to the special properties of diatonic tonality. Once this tonality had been superseded by atonality, obviously the forms related to it also became invalid. As a result, most contemporary music, especially that of the last two decades (i.e. after neoclassic experiments of the twenties and thirties), has eschewed the symmetrical and binary forms of the 19th century. In fact, in recent decades, a point was reached where every piece had its own indigenous form, related not to some preconceived mould, but only to the inherent compositional raw materials the composer happens to have chosen to start with.

This situation has, of course, added to the problems for today’s listener by depriving him/her of a given formal frame of reference which, in one way or another, as always associated with earlier music. Thus the listener’s problems with “dissonance” and “atonality” are now aggravated by what seems (to him) to be”formlessness”, but is in fact only a greater degree of formal individuality. Moreover, 19th century forms, based on the duality of the tonic-dominant relationship which is the crux of tonality, evolved of necessity on purely harmonic rather than contrapuntal terms. This accounts for the limited use of contrapuntal fo9rms, such as the fugue or the passacaglia in 19th century symphonic literature. However, with the harmonic liberation offered by atonality, contrapuntal forms and techniques returned to their earlier position of prominence.

If we admit that it is more difficult to follow the inner workings of a four-part fugue than it is to follow the simple one-to-one relationship of a melody to its accompaniment, then we can readily see why contemporary music with its reappraisal of polyphonic thinking is so problematic for today’s listener, who has been spoon-fed almost entirely on non-polyphonic 19th century music, as a glance at any symphony program will affirm. As stated, this lack of experience with polyphony is compounded by the alleged “formlessness” and “dissonance” of the music.

An awareness of these issues has led me in regent years to reinvestigate certain aspects of earlier forms, which have either been overlooked by contemporary composers, especially those of the twelve-tone or serial persuasion (to which I myself belong), or misunderstood, as in the case of the neo-classicists. In point of fact, twelve –tone technique has only recently evolved to a stage in which analogies to tonal forms are once again possible. This not to say that we now wish to again imitate classical styles or initiate another back-to Bach movement. (We can leave that to Swindle Singers). It is not a question of style at all, but one of form and structure. It is a concern with certain universal and seemingly permanent values in these older forms which e can now deal with again for the first time in some 50 to 60 years without arriving at discrepancies and anachronisms.

It is a concern based on the premise—incidentally not shared by all of my colleagues—that new forms and conceptions need not necessarily replace the older ones, but can coexist in addition to them as viable alternatives. It may be that the true forms of contemporary music are those free, open and individual forms which the liberating changes in 20th century music have made possible. But in the meantime, certain enduring qualities of certain older forms have, in my opinion, not been entirely exhausted, and are ready for yet another re-evaluation.

The crucial factor that has made these preoccupations valid and indeed possible is a concept (or technique) called “combinatioriality”, derived by the American composer Milton Babbitt from certain twelve-tone principles and first used by Arnold Schönberg. combinatoriality is a vast subject, and it is impossible to describe even its essential functions in these brief notes. For the moment, suffice it to say that combinatoriality makes possible the establishment of specific internal pitch and interval relationships which shall govern an entire work, which are unique to it, and yet are part of a larger total system or techniques. These same words could be applied to tonality and its relation to symphonic forms. In other words, combinatoriality affords a condition analogous to tonality in certain aspects. Thus, the larger structural design of a work and certain specific “tonal” areas can be articulated by those special properties which combinatorial twelve-tone technique imparts.

These principles afforded me the opportunity to write a four movement symphony which, though employing very advanced compositional techniques, allows for the return to formal procedures used by Bach, Beethoven and others, without being esthetically in discrepancy with them. This is not to say that the music will sound like Bach or Beethoven, but that the underlying formal structures will at least provide a known and previously experienced point of reference.

In this way elements such as repetition or recapitulation, taboo in latter-day twelve-tone or serial works, could be organically incorporated in the work. More than that, the second movement contains a six-part fugue and a four-part double canon (by inversion), while the third movement is a full-blown Scherzo with a contrasting trio and shortened return of the Scherzo. Beyond that, each movement employs different aspects or variants of the basic twelve-tone row, creating thereby a movement-to-movement progression of “key relationships” analogous to those in a Beethoven symphony. Let us say (the “key” here being not a diatonic tone center, but the total chromatic pitch content ordered in a singular way by the composer specifically for this work). Thus, the first and fourth movements use the primary “tonic” twelve-tone row, the other movements various derived rows (or sets)—derived in a manner analogous to that in which a minor key is derived from its “relative” major. By the same token, the first and fourth movements provide a structural frame surrounding the two central movements, the first movement introductory in character, the last a closing movement containing both a recapitulation and a Coda.

Space limitations do not permit even a superficial analysis of the complete work. Let me, therefore, single out only a few salient points in regard to the second and third movements. The second movement is indebted conceptually to both Bach and Webern, perhaps the two greatest contrapuntal masters of their respective eras. The opening fugue is organized in the manner of Bach’s so-called “permutuational” fugues, in which the various contrapuntal lines are combined in strict patterns of order (chosen, of course, by the composer). Each individual line in the fugue, Howe ever, is orchestrationally fragmented in terms of Schönberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie (literally tone-color-melody), in which a single melody is played not by one instrument but by many, linked together into a sort of “chain” of colors and timbres). This instrumental fugue is interlocked with a recapitulation thereof, this time in the percussion instruments, the entire passage serving as an interlude to the next section: the aforementioned double canon, which again makes use of “tone-color-melody”. This too is recapitulated by the percussion, leading this time to one of the two possible alternatives to polyphony: monody/in complete contrast then, the solo horn sings its long-line melody, accompanied sparsely only at cadential points.

The third movement is involved with time and structural proportions (in an architectural sense), which proceed on several levels simultaneously, both large and small. The basic Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo format (ABA) is presented in the proportions of 4 to 2 to 2 ¼. Lest some readers think this is new or merely the “mathematical aberrations” of a modern composer, let me hasten to add that the great masters of the past were very conscious of such proportional relationships, although they may not have stated them in numerical terms. The average Beethoven Scherzo or Mozart Minuet, for example, could easily be stated in ratios of 4 to 2 to 3! These durational proportions are also maintained in each of the three sections, i.e. A is also divisible into 4 + 2 + 21/4, as is B (the trio) and the shortened return of A. The trio moreover emphasizes the “romantic” solo instruments, clarinet and horn (in it’s a sections) and is in part constructed in the strictest symmetrical patters. The B-section of the Trio consists of a two-part form; the second half of which is an exact reverse of the first half. And all through this brief section symmetrical structures abound.

If I have pointed out certain of the “technical” features of the work, I have not done so with any intentions of either intellectual intimidation or an A-priori theoretical justification of the work. These remarks are offered simply as an aid to those who are interested in coming to the piece with some prior knowledge of its workings. Beyond that, the composer hopes that the expressive (emotional) content of the music will speak for itself.

I should like to add that the first three movements succeed each other with very short pauses, while there is a normal between-movements pause prior to the finale.

— Gunther Schuller

  • Ensemble
    Dallas Symphony Orchestra
    Conductor
    Donald Johanos
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