John Corigliano is an Academy Award-winning composer who was born in New York in 1938. His parents were extremely musical. His father was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years, and his mother was a music educator and pianist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied further at the Manhattan School of Music. He has written a variety of styles for many different ensembles, but the primary ensemble of his choosing has been the symphony orchestra.
He came to notability when at the age of 26, his Sonata for Violin and Piano won First Prize in the chamber music competition at the Spoleto Festival in Spoleto, Italy. This propelled him into the world of professional composition. He has been commissioned by numerous orchestras and world famous ensembles. He has won several prestigious awards, for example, his Symphony No. 1 won Grawemeyer Award for Composition and his second Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize. He has also composed music for several films. His work for The Red Violin was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
His Symphony No. 1 from 1988 is one of his only two ventures into the genre of the symphony.
Cast in free, large-scale A-B-A form, the first movement [Apologue*: Of Rage and Remembrance (apologue: an allegorical narrative usually intended to convey a moral.)] is highly charged and alternates between many different moods. The opening open A of the violins and violas. This note, which starts and finishes the symphony, grows in intensity and volume until it is answered by a burst of percussion. A repeat of this angry-sounding note 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 shatterings of antiphonal brass.
The second 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 sets short simple melodies against the recurring background of the chaconne, interspersed with dialogues between the solo cellos. At the conclusion of the section, 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 final part.
This entire section is played against a repeated pattern consisting of waves of brass chords. Against this, the piano solo from the first movement 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.
This work bears much similarity to Corigliano’s Second Symphony, although several things are different. The Symphony No. 2 is a free form work with less structural material than the First. The Symphony is essentially an expansion and re-orchestration of Corigliano’s String Quartet No. 1. While the work is essentially in the typical style of Corigliano, it is also not as emotionally charged as the first Symphony.
The First Symphony was composed in response to the AIDS epidemic occurring across the country. Each movement deals with the various losses and challenges that many people faced at this time, especially the composer himself. The Second Symphony was composed for the 100th Anniversary of Boston Symphony Hall. Because of the vast difference in origin of the two works they feel quite different on a spiritual or emotional level.
The First Symphony struck me as quite shocking and emotional. I was familiar with Corigliano’s Fern Hill for choir, but was less familiar with his instrumental works. The Symphony is definitely very personal to Corigliano. He obviously felt a great many emotions while writing this piece. It is truly a virtuosic work.
Elizabeth Bergman. Of Rage and Remembrance, Music and Memory: The Work of Mourning in John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 and Choral Chaconne. American Music. Vol. 31, No. 3 (Fall 2013). p. 340-361. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/americanmusic.31.3.0340.
Mark Adamo. "Corigliano, John." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 3, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/42480 .