Daugherty began composing Metropolis Symphony in 1988, inspired by the celebration in Cleveland of the fiftieth anniversary of Superman's first appearance in comics. When the score was completed in 1993, he dedicated it to David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who had encouraged him to compose the work. The piece evokes an American mythology that one discovers through reading comic books.
Lex derives its title from Superman's business tycoon foe Lex Luthor. Marked "Diabolical" in the score, this movement features a violin soloist (Lex) who plays a difficult fast triplet motive in perpetual motion, pursued by the orchestration and a percussion section that includes four referee whistles placed quadrophonically on stage.
Krypton refers to the exploding planet that Superman escaped as an infant. A dark soundworld is created by glissandi in the strings, trombone, and siren. Two antiphonal fire bells are played throughout the movement, as it evolves from a recurring solo motive in the cellos into ominous calls from the brass. Gradually the movement builds toward an apocalytpic conclusion.
Mxyzptlk is named after an imp from the fifth dimension who regularly wreaks havoc on Metropolis. This brightly orchestrated movement is the scherzo of the symphony, emphasizing the upper registers of the orchestra. It features dueling flute soloists who are positioned stereophonically on either side of the conductor. Rapidly descending and ascending flute runs are echoed throughout the orchestra, while openstringed pizzicato patterns, moving strobe-like throughout the orchestra are precisely choreographed to create a spatial effect.
Oh, Lois! invokes Lois Lane, Clark Kent's romantic interest and fellow news reporter. Marked with the tempo "faster than a speeding bullet," this five-minute concerto for the orchestra uses flexatone and whip to provide a lively polyrhythmic counterpoint that suggests a cartoon history of mishaps, screams, dialogue, crashes, and disasters, all in rapid motion.
Red Cape Tango was composed after Superman's fight to the death with Doomsday, and is the final and most popular movement of the piece. The principal melody, first heard in the bassoon, is derived from the medieval Latin death chant Dies irae. This dance of death is conceived as a tango, presented at times like a concertino comprising of a string quintet, brass trio, bassoon, chimes, and castanets. The tango rhythm, introduced by the castanets and heard later in the finger cymbals, undergoes a gradual timbral transformation, concluding dramatically with crash cymbals, brake drum, and timpani. The orchestra alternates between legato and staccato sections to suggest a musical bullfight.
Compared to Daugherty's other works, his ecclectic musical background is far less apparent. In pieces such as Raise the Roof, Daugherty's experience with playing in garage bands is almost too apparent, but here, the rock, jazz, funk, and other popular genres that infiltrate much of Daugherty's music are largely suppressed.
Daugherty points out in the program notes for the piece that each movement can be performed separately, yet they are all connected through the compositional metaphor of Superman. I found this to be an extremely clever way to parallel the writing of comic books. While the plot is connected by setting, characters, etc., each comic book has its own story/conflict that is generally independent of other editions.
"Michael Daugherty." Official website. Accessed May 2, 2014. http://www.michaeldaugherty.net/index.cfm.
Vunderink, Todd. "Daugherty, Michael." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/42537.