John Corigliano ranks among his generation’s most acclaimed American composers. His numerous honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Grawemeyer Award, the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Composition, and an Academy Award for his film score to The Red Violin.
Though establishing his reputation with his earliest works’ conservative idiom (complemented by his oft-professed imperative that modern music remain accessible), Corigliano has cultivated a technique as rigorously progressive as it is inviting. Joshua Bell has praised Corigliano’s language as “unique and unmistakable, yet rooted in the grand traditions of the past. While his music is often harmonically complex and rhythmically challenging, he also dares to write a simple, beautiful melody.”
Corigliano composed Snapshot: Circa 1909 in 2003 for the Elements Quartet.
When the Elements Quartet asked me to write a piece inspired by a photograph, I immediately thought of one I have had since I was a child. It was taken in Greenwich Village in my grandparents’ Sullivan Street apartment, which I have only seen in photos.
The photographer came to do a group shot of my grandparents, whom I never met, and their six children. After taking that picture, the photographer was coaxed into doing a shot of my father and his brother Peter performing on violin and guitar.
The picture has never ceased to move me. My father looked about eight years old, wearing knickers and earnestly bowing his violin, while my uncle, then a teenager, held a guitar in an aristocratic position and stared at the camera.
In the short quartet inspired by the photo, the second violin plays a nostalgic melody, while the other strings pluck their instruments in a guitar-like manner. This solo is obviously the boy violinist singing through his instrument. After the melody is completed, however, the first violin enters, muted, in the very highest register. In my mind, he was playing the dream that my eight-year-old father must have had—of performing roulades and high, virtuosic, musing passages that were still impossible for him to master. This young violinist grew into a great soloist—my father, John Corigliano, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for over a quarter century. He, as an adult, performed the concerti and solos that as a child he could only imagine.
The two violinists, boy and dream, join together at the end as the guitar sounds play on.
Patrick Castillo ©2014
Following his successes with two ballets set in the American West—Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942)—Aaron Copland began Appalachian Spring in 1943. He created the ballet score for the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, in whom he saw “something prim and restrained, simple yet strong about her, which one tends to think of as American.” He worked under the title Ballet for Martha until not long before the premiere, when Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, borrowing a phrase from Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.” The writer Edwin Denby summarized the scenario for the original program notes:
"A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house."
*Appalachian Spring debuted on October 30, 1944, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Given the limited dimensions of the 500-seat auditorium, Copland had orchestrated the score for just thirteen instruments. He followed up the next year with a concert suite for full orchestra, which kept all the essential aspects of the ballet while trimming some of the sections that were less relevant without choreography. His publisher later released the version heard here, which combines the original scoring for chamber ensemble with the structure of the concert suite.
Copland forged the unmistakable sound of Appalachian Spring out of simple and familiar musical materials. The first section builds a hazy wash of consonant sonorities, especially triads and the open intervals of fourths and fifths. The following section energizes similarly basic materials—octave leaps, triadic intervals and descending major scales—into spry dance music. There is a tender scene for the young couple, a lively romp depicting the revivalist and his dancing minions, and a brisk solo dance for the bride, which dissipates into a return of the gentle, triadic wash of the beginning.
The famous section that follows, starting with a theme in the clarinet, presents the tune of Simple Gifts, a Shaker dance song written in 1848 by Joseph Brackett. The humble melody fits seamlessly into the homespun, diatonic language of Copland’s score, and its increasingly grand variations propel the suite toward a transcendental climax.
Aaron Grad ©2015