Revisiting a significant CSO commission and world premiere in honor of Pride Month

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1: a cultural milestone honoring AIDS victims

Daniel Barenboim and John Corigliano

Terry's Photography

For years, John Corigliano had shown no interest in writing a symphony, but as he began to lose friends, one by one, to AIDS, he realized he had a subject worthy of music’s biggest kind of orchestral statement. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first composer-in-residence, Corigliano wrote this symphony on a commission from the Orchestra to honor its centennial. He began composition in June 1988 and completed the score the following summer. It was generated, as he said, “by feelings of loss, anger and frustration.” Daniel Barenboim, then the CSO’s music director designate, led the Orchestra in the world premiere in Chicago on March 15, 1990. Two months later, Tony Kushner’s sweeping play, Angels in America, was first performed in workshop; these two important works of art stood as cornerstones of a new cultural awareness of gay life in this country and the devastation of AIDS. Corigliano’s score is dedicated to the memory of Chicago pianist Sheldon Shkolnik, who died of AIDS a week after the premiere, which he attended.

. . . Written by a composer who was openly gay, the symphony also marked a pivot for the Chicago Symphony, for the first time in decades championing a work of art that was in close conversation with its own time.

Corigliano’s symphony marked a watershed moment in contemporary music. As the earliest big musical memorial to those who died of AIDS, and written by a composer who was openly gay, the symphony also marked a pivot for the Chicago Symphony, for the first time in decades championing a work of art that was in close conversation with its own time. Barenboim readily grasped the significance of the score: “It is wonderful that composers like John Corigliano write music that is not disassociated from our society but reflects our everyday life and the problems we face as human beings.” He led the work in Chicago again in 1992, and took the symphony on tour to Carnegie Hall, Madrid and London. The recording he made with the Chicago Symphony received two 1991 Grammy awards — for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Orchestral Performance. In April 1991, Corigliano’s Symphony received the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, which is often called music’s Nobel Prize. The Chicago Symphony later played it at the Ravinia Festival under Marin Alsop and Christoph Eschenbach, who also led the work in Orchestra Hall. The symphony has since been widely performed around the world.



John Corigliano’s program note, written for the 1990 world premiere

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 extramusical 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 Symphony no. 1 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.

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. . . . 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 a free, large-scale A-B-A form, the first movement (Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance) is highly charged and alternates between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering. [An apologue is an allegorical narrative usually intended to convey a moral.] It reflects my distress over a concert-pianist friend contracting the disease. The opening (marked “Ferocious”) begins with the nasal open A of the violins and violas. This A is gradually taken up by the other stringed instruments, but now played on stopped, rather than open strings, giving it an increasingly hard and intense quality, until it at last resolves to G-sharp. This motive will prove critical to the rest of the score. A repeat of this motive 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 chatterings of antiphonal brass. A final multiple acceleration reaches a peak climaxed by the violins in their highest register, which begins the middle section.

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. [Stephen Hough was the offstage pianist for the world premiere performance.] 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.

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 in the first violins.

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 tarantellas, seems to be at odds with its purpose. For the tarantella, as described in Groves Dictionary of Music, 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: Giulio’s Song) recalls a friendship that dated back to my college days. Giulio was an amateur cellist, full of that enthusiasm for music that 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 [performed by Principal Cello John Sharp at the premiere]. 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 pitches (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 symphony’s final part (Epilogue).

This last section is played against a repeated pattern consisting of “waves” of brass chords. To me, the sound of ocean waves conveys an image of timelessness. I wanted to suggest that, in this symphony, by creating sonic “waves,” to which purpose I partially encircled the orchestra with an expanded brass section. Behind the orchestra, five trumpets are placed with the first trumpet in the center; fanning outwards around the orchestra are six French horns (three on each side), four trombones (two on each side), and, finally, one tuba on each end of the semicircle of brass. The waves begin with a high note in the solo trumpet; then they move outward and around the orchestra, so that the descending brass notes form chords. A slowly moving pattern of four chords is thus built; this repeated pattern creates sonic waves through the Epilogue. Against these waves, 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