ALBERT: Symphonies Nos. 1 2
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Stephen Albert (1941-1992)
Symphony No. 1 'RiverRun' Symphony No. 2
In 1983, the Sydney L. Hechinger Foundation commissioned Stephen Albert to write a work for the National Symphony Orchestra. That commission came about quite by chance: The 20th Century Consort, a group made up of members from the National Symphony Orchestra, had performed Albert's song-cycle To Wake the Dead,
a recording of which was heard by Mstislav Rostropovich, the orchestra's conductor. Albert received a phone call stating, "Slava wants to see you about writing a piece for the band," to which he replied, "Who's Slava? What band?" Rostropovich suggested that the work be a mass, but Albert suggested a symphony instead; the result was the symphony RiverRun.
The symphony is Albert's reflection on the cycle of Life, for which the River serves as a metaphor. The scope of ideas - life/death/rebirth - recall themes present in works of Gustav Mahler, whom Albert greatly revered. RiverRun
is a companion piece to Albert's song cycle TreeStone,
with texts excerpted from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
The composer was at work on TreeStone
when he received the commission for RiverRun
and accordingly worked on both simultaneously. A comparison of the two compositions opens a window into the deeper psychological meaning of the music. According to Albert:
Both works were completed together, and they share the same musical materials. (I actually worked on the two compositions in constant alternation, though the materials common to both were put into TreeStone first.) They differ in the number and ordering of their movements, as well as their formal architecture and instrumentation.
The composer, however, was quick to dispel any notion of Symphony RiverRun
as a programmatic work. The subject material provided a stimulus for composition - the music's descriptive qualities are a reaction to that stimulus.
In this, his first symphony, Albert adheres to the convention of the four-movement symphonic design. However, the form of each movement is idiosyncratic.
The opening movement, Rain Music,
is an allegro with an introduction. However, the composer dispenses with sonata-allegro form. In the introduction if you listen closely, you can almost hear a fragment of the opening measures of Beethoven's Pathetique
sonata. By the third measure, the ascending thirds are transformed, and we enter Albert's personal world. In the wake of two stark sounding chords in the strings and winds, the introduction continues with tremolos in the strings, light winds, harp, and piano, suggesting drops of rain falling upon the Liffey River. Against this backdrop, short melodic fragments are woven into the orchestral fabric. These become thematic and appear later in the Symphony.
Throughout the Allegro,
ostinatos (repetitive patterns) performed in the low register depict the incessant current of the river and are occasionally interrupted by chordal passages. The final climax occurs at the end of the movement as a series of four chords, similar to the pair of stark chords heard in the introduction, now in reverse order. The prolonged closing chord sounds unresolved.
The second, slow movement of the symphony, Leafy Speafing,
contrasts with the first not only in tempo but also in its orchestral palette. Brass and percussion, which were featured prominently in the first movement, are absent. The ensemble emulates a chamber orchestra.
The movement is laid out in four sections. Exchanges between featured soloists, duos or trios against the orchestra characterize the first and third, while alternation between ostinato and contrapuntal passages distinguishes the second and fourth. Ostinato passages increase in intensity until reaching a climax, signaling the section's end. During the coda a new theme is introduced, labeled by the composer as The Voice of the River,
which will figure prominently in the fourth movement.
The form of the third movement is evocative of a classical scherzo (or minuet) and trio, but Albert instead uses a scherzo preceded by a march. A jagged fanfare in the opening measures is followed by a tune, marked in the score, " like a children's music box,
" and is heard against an accompaniment that sounds harmonically askew. This tune is the only tune notated in Finnegans Wake,
with Joyce's lyrics. Albert set the tune with Joyce's' lyrics in another of his song cycles, To Wake the Dead.
Originally it is an Irish folk song titled ' Mush Mush'. This tune is succeeded by a March Theme,
which purposely does not line up with its accompaniment, suggesting a nightmarish boozy wake.
The scherzo contrasts with the "march and wake" as the current of the river returns in the form of whirring ostinatos in the strings. Against this backdrop, a new theme is introduced in the solo violins and cello, developed from materials introduced earlier. After the return of the March Theme
and the " children's music box theme,
" now cast as a rowdy pub song, the music gradually fades into eerie silence followed by a haunting final chord - whose pitch material is derived from the now familiar arpeggiated motif spread across extreme registers.
In the fourth movement Albert dispenses with traditional forms, and instead develops his own, characterized by three climactic sections, each surpassing the previous in intensity, separated by more suspenseful sections. The movement opens with a theme introduced by the horn that is answered by the arpeggiated motif in the lower strings, evocative of the river's churning waters. Against this background, a theme labeled by Albert as The Voice of the River,
arises in the horn and violins. Various instrumental combinations utter the theme, until its transformation is given to a lone oboe, which ushers in a suspenseful section, set against a tri-tone pedal point tremoloed in the double basses. The first and third climactic sections begin with an ascending theme in the lower strings, joined by brass and winds consisting of overlapping half-diminished chords. The climax suddenly breaks off, followed by materials evoking imagery of the "children's music-box" heard in the third movement. An ascending sequence of minor thirds in whole tones initiates the second climactic section. A beautiful theme performed by the solo oboe is heard in the following section. The third climax is the longest and most agitated, featuring tremolos in the piano. Here, the Voice of the River
theme is joined with the theme heard in the solo oboe. These themes are repeated with growing intensity. However, the final statement in the brass and winds marked ff,
is incomplete, interrupted by a motif taken from the first movement in the glockenspiel and piano. This signals the beginning of the coda where the Voice of the River
theme is juxtaposed with earlier motifs, until they gradually fade away. The final note of the river theme is C#, the same as the final bass notes in the first three movements. However, C# is heard together with D# sustained in the double basses, which, in conjunction with the orchestral diminuendo seems less final, and perhaps suggests the unending cycle of life with all of its uncertainties. Ron Petrides
--- Composer's Note
The Symphony RiverRun
is one of two work