Ned Rorem (b. 1923): Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3
Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, on 23rd October,1923. At the age of ten his piano teacher introduced him to the music ofDebussy and Ravel, an experience which Rorem describes as having changed hislife forever. At seventeen he entered the Music School of NorthwesternUniversity, and two years later the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia,where he now teaches composition, a post he has held for many years. He studiedcomposition with Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, and worked as Virgil Thomson'scopyist in return for orchestration lessons. From 1949 to 1958 he lived inFrance, a crucial period for his artistic development. Among his many awardsare a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute ofArts and Letters (1968). In 1998 Rorem was chosen \Composer of the Year" byMusical America, and two years later he was elected President of the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Letters. He has received commissions from the FordFoundation, the Lincoln Center Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, theAtlanta Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and many others. Theconductors who have performed his music include Bernstein, Masur, Mehta,Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Previn, Reiner, Slatkin, Steinberg, and Stokowski.
After his return to America, after many years in Paris,Rorem began publishing a long series of diaries that won great notoriety fortheir candid tales of his private life and the lives of many famous artists."Lies" is the latest installment in his diary. Rorem has said: "My music is adiary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from amusical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer's present moodwhich, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge quite otherwise".
Rorem is best known for his vocal music. Nevertheless, hisorchestral output is quite large, as is his list of choral and chamber music.Besides the three symphonies included on this recording, he wrote a StringSymphony, unnumbered, first given in 1985 by Robert Shaw and the AtlantaSymphony, with a recording that won the 1989 Grammy?« award for OutstandingOrchestral Recording, and other works include Air Music, a Violin Concerto, aPiano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra, a Concerto for English Horn andOrchestra, for the New York Philharmonic 150th anniversary, a Double Concertofor Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1998), and concertos for organ and for cello,nine operas, ballets, music for the theater and many works for chorus andorchestra, and large works for solo voices and orchestra.
The three numbered symphonies were written during arelatively short period, the first in 1950, the second in 1956 and the third in1958. I asked Rorem to write something about the First Symphony: "There are as manydefinitions of Symphony as there are symphonies. In Haydn's day itusually meant an orchestral piece in four movements, of which the first was inso-called sonata form. But with Bach, and later with Beethoven throughStravinsky, Symphony means whatever the composer decides. My First Symphonycould easily be called a Suite".
The First Symphony opens with a full brass exclamation,which quickly quietens and is answered by the winds, above a shimmeringaccompaniment on the strings. This leads to a lush statement in the stringsfollowed by a reinstatement of the opening brass motive. A second theme isheard in canon between the French horn and flute, above a rather complicatedcontrapuntal harp. This leads to a series of climaxes, and a briefrecapitulation. The charming second movement is a pastoral setting in the Faure tradition, taking the place of a scherzo. Roremlater made an arrangement of this movement for solo organ. In the slowmovement, the third, a lovely melody appears first in the flutes, and iscontinued in the oboe. After an early climax in the strings, the melody findsits way to the solo viola, in octaves with the flute. The middle section has the brass and winds singingthe melodic lines, followed by the entire orchestra. The recapitulation, for lackof a better term, is a total transformation of the original. The finale is avery playful, "happy" movement, that alternates between lively rhythmicsections and lyrical outbursts. The second motive was taken from an Arabwedding tune that Rorem heard on the radio in Morocco.
Rorem's habit of dating every movement gives us a glimpse ofthe process of the composition. He wrote the first movement in New York in thespring of 1948, only resuming work on the symphony eighteen months later. Therest of the work was completed in one month in Morocco. The slow movement wascomposed next, taking a week, followed by the second movement, written also inone week, with one week's rest in between. It appears that, like others beforehim, he was not quite sure of the order of the central movements. The FirstSymphony has been performed infrequently. After the premi?¿re in Viennaconducted by Jonathan Sternberg in 1951, it was played in 1956 by the New YorkPhilharmonic under Alfredo Antonini, and it was also heard in Oslo, Norway. In1957 the famous piano accompanist Edwin McArthur conducted it in Harrisburg,Pennsylvania, but it seems to have been mostly forgotten ever since.
The first movement of the Second Symphony opens with a shortstatement by the full orchestra, which comes to a halt as soon as it starts,and is repeated with slight alterations. It has the character of a brief introduction to the actual theme,presented in unison by the violas and violoncellos, a long extended melodyjoined little by little by the other strings and the woodwinds, always inunison. Eventually the opening motive becomes fast and playful, presented firstby the bassoons. It develops into a massive movement, as long as the followingmovements together. The slow second movement has the character of a lovelysong, and its open intervals make it unquestionably American-sounding. Thefinale is a scherzo-like divertissement, curiously using the piano for thefirst time, while abandoning the harp.
The composer later gave me the following note: "When JoseSerebrier resurrected my Second Symphony, it had not been heard for 43 years,and no program notes existed. Thus I have to strain my memory. The work wascomposed in January-March 1956 in New York City, where I was spending a briefwinter away from my regular home in France. It was commissioned by NikolaiSokoloff (whom I never met). He conducted the premi?¿re five months later in LaJolla, California. I heard it live for the first time in 1959 when Arthur Liefbrought it to Manhattan's Town Hall. That was probably its last performance.Now we must let the music sing for itself".
Leonard Bernstein conducted the world premi?¿re of the Third Symphonywith the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in April 1959, with greatpublic success. After Andre Previn's Carnegie Hall performance with the CurtisInstitute of Music Orchestra in 2000, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times:"The work has not been heard very frequently,but today its tonal, eclectic personality is current again: tonality is nowacceptable everywhere, and composers 40 years younger than Mr. Rorem writemusic that makes similar allusions." Indeed, since the 1959 premi?¿re the ThirdSymphony received only sporadicperformances. It was recorded in LP by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony(together with William Schuman's Seventh Symphony), long deleted, and to thisdate it has not been re-issued on CD. A recording of the Bernstein 1959premi?¿re was released a