SCHWANTNER: Sparrows / Music of Amber
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Joseph Schwantner (b.1943)
Sparrows Soaring Distant Runes and Incantations
Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro Music of Amber
The American composer Joseph Schwantner, whocelebrated his sixtieth birthday on 22nd March 2003, isconsidered to be among the most successful andrespected living composers in the United States. In 1978he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestralwork Aftertones of Infinity. Music of Amber for chamberensemble took first prize in 1981 in the prestigiousKennedy Center Friedheim Award for Excellence inChamber Composition.
Joseph Schwantner's music is marked by the searchfor magic and bewitching sounds, whence the titleDelicate Sounds, eliciting from the performers unusualeffects, with the use of unusual additional instrumentssuch as glasses or crotales. The present selection ofmusic for chamber ensemble presents, with the flutepiece and two songs with piano, compositions that aresensual and occasionally tonal, indeed almostimpressionistic, demanding from the interpreters a finesense of nuance. The present portrait album wassuggested by the great success of our concert inSeptember 2000 with his Music of Amber.
Joseph Schwantner was born in Chicago in 1943and received his academic education at the ChicagoConservatory and at Northwestern University, where hegraduated in 1968. Subsequently he has served as amember of the faculties of Yale, Eastman and theJuilliard School. In May 2002 he was elected to theAmerican Academy of Arts and Letters. Schwantnerwas official composer with the St Louis SymphonyOrchestra in its Meet the Composer/Orchestra ResidenciesProgram, sponsored by the Exxon Corporation, theRockefeller Foundation and the National Endowmentfor the Arts. A documentary film was made about him,under the title Soundings. His music ranges from worksfor chamber ensemble to large-scale orchestralcompositions, many of the latter regularly included in theprogrammes of the best known American orchestras.
His most successful work must be his Concerto forPercussion and Orchestra, also recorded on CD by RCA.
The music of Joseph Schwantner is at onceidentifiable, so unchanging is his musical language. Hehas been principally influenced by three othercomposers, George Crumb, Olivier Messiaen andDebussy. The first of these is perhaps the mostimportant. Crumb, also an American, distinguishedinternationally for his refined, delicately drawnchamber works, like Schwantner, is fond of luminoussounds and unusual effects. We also find with him thefrequent direction to hold the sustaining pedal of thepiano, to allow resonances to be heard. He also prefersmystical, symbolic poems as inspiration for his vocaland also for his instrumental works. Both composers aredistinguished by their free use of tonality and atonality.
Messiaen's music is marked by its use of harmony,which is very consistent and gives unequalled attentionto sound colour within a formal section. Schwantner tooseeks a sound system that gives certain direction to hisharmonic practice, and is like Messiaen, who, in hispiano music, seeks a placing of notes that gives bright,clear sounds. In spite of his modern musical languageMessiaen, incomparably, never gave up tonal writing,but expanded tonality in a very individual way. Thesame is apparent in Schwantner's music from the late1970s. Debussy set music free from the chains offunctional harmony and was a pioneer, followed bysuch composers as Stravinsky, Bartok, Crumb, and alsoby Schwantner. He was the founder of a musicalaesthetic expanded by French and American composers,not least through the teaching of the legendary NadiaBoulanger.
Schwantner's early compositions are marked byvirtuoso instrumentation and a feeling for colour, butnot yet with the unmistakable sound that marks hismusic from the end of the 1970s. In the works includedin the present recording there are certain harmonicprinciples that may be briefly outlined:
Schwantner likes chords of equal intervals:
(a) Most frequent is minor third harmony, harmonicmaterial that is put together from two diminishedseventh chords separated generally by a whole tone, forexample C-E flat-F sharp-A-D-F-A flat-B. Closelyassociated with that is melodic writing marked byintervals such as the tritone, major seventh, and minorninth. Schwantner likes to vary this pattern, often inbrilliant descants. This is evident in Shadowinnower,the first of the Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro and majorparts of Music of Amber.
(b) Soaring and, very substantially, Distant Runesand Incantations are marked by the use of major thirdharmony. Here two typical chords, F-A-C sharp-E-G sharp-C, or E flat-G-B-D-F-A-C sharp-E. Thisharmonic basis is significantly less tense and has asofter character.
(c) We occasionally hear harmony based on thefourth in Soaring, generally associated with anaggressive gesture. The wider fourths are forSchwantner more dissonant than the thirds. There is aparticularly harsh harmony in fourths in Soaring, withE flat-A flat-D flat-D-G-C-C sharp-F sharp-B-C-F-B flat.
(d) Schwantner makes use of harmony based on thefifth for more lyrical effects. A particular example isBlack Anemone, the second of the Two Poems ofAguedo Pizarro. The first piano chord may be noticedas an example, G-D-A-B-F sharp-C sharp. This canbe understood as the chord of G major, with the majorseventh F sharp, the ninth A, and the eleventh as anovertone. A gently impressionistic almost siren-likesensuality distinguishes this form of fifth harmony inSchwantner's work.
Sparrows was written in 1979 for the TwentiethCentury Consort. The text consists of fifteen haiku bythe eighteenth-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa.
Instead of reproducing the aesthetic of the haiku, withits sharply outlined images, Schwantner's musicabsorbs the meaning and character of these naturalisticand universalist images and expresses them in acomprehensively lyrical musical form. He thus creates aseries of what might be called dream-stages. Thesestages reach from exuberant harmonies, harshdissonance, effusiveness finally to gentle hope.
Schwantner draws freely from fully varied stylisticprecursors to represent the poetic imagery.
Reminiscences of Renaissance dances and baroquepolyphony can be heard. By the process of reconcilingcontrasting musical styles with the continuity of thework, Schwantner successfully makes these styles hisown. The wide range of atmospheres and colours iscreated by a setting whose acoustical possibilities areused in a most profound and creative way. The voice issupported by three instrumental groups, woodwind,strings (tuned a semitone lower, to add a particularfullness to the whole ensemble), and a combination ofpiano, harp and percussion. The sound of the percussionis strengthened by the strings, which strike the crotalesor antique cymbals with their bows, evoking an otherworldlysound to accompany The River of Heaven. Theinstrumentalists must also sing at various key points inthe whole work. This chorus element accompanies thereferences to sparrows at the beginning and end of thetext. On the first occasion this exotic effect produces amysterious atmosphere of threatening danger, while atthe end this effect is particularly intimate, touching andeven soothing.
Soaring was written in 1986 and is a short, highlyvirtuosic high-wire act for flute and piano. Inaccordance with the title, Schwantner follows hisfavourite practice, fanning out chords that give this andmany other pieces their sweeping character. The pianobegins with an intense introductory gesture thatarticulates the harmonic element engaged throughoutthe work. Following the piano's opening, the fluteenters with a series of declamatory phrases that interactcontinually with the piano in a dialogue. The twoinstruments form a continuous mu