John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1

Written by Richard Murison

In the world of classical music, you typically need to die before your music gets taken too seriously.  Kind of a bummer from a career-building perspective.  So many major classical composers did not enjoy anything like their well-established reputations during their lifetimes – stand up and take a bow Bruckner, Mahler, Berlioz, etc.  I guess once you’re dead, your oevre is sort of set in stone, and you can’t go about upsetting the pronouncements of the ‘experts’ by releasing a confounding new work.

Even so, there are today a number of living composers whose work does gain a grudging degree of respect, and one of those is the American composer John Corigliano, who turned 80 earlier this year.  I am a huge fan of his Symphony No 1, written thirty years ago in response to the then-emerging AIDS crisis, and subtitled “Of Rage And Remembrance”.  It was inspired by the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt, an enormous mosaic made up of thousands of separate quilts, each an individual memorial woven by friends and relatives of a person who had died of AIDS.  Corigliano was inspired to create a musical memorial in commemoration of the many personal friends he had lost to the disease.

At the time, he was composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the CSO premiered and recorded the work under the prestigious baton of Daniel Barenboim.  The work had actually been commissioned by Sir Georg Solti, but Solti declined to set aside the time to learn and conduct it.  Although this was – and still is – by far the weightiest, and most ambitious work yet to emerge from Corigliano, he remains best known to the general public for his score for the movie “The Red Violin”, for which he received the 1999 Oscar for Best Film Score.

Symphony No 1 swings violently between passages of rage, serenity, helplessness and nostalgia, as it weaves a musical AIDS quilt in remembrance of three particular musician friends around whom the work is structured.  One particularly effective device is an off-stage piano playing Albeniz’s Tango in D which in the CSO recording emerges ghost-like behind a curtain of shimmering strings.  Unusually, for a major work of the last century, Corigliano manages to express both modernity and originality without being derivative of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, which towers so massively over the compositional landscape of the 20th Century.  The composition has received numerous awards and accolades.  I am hoping that I will one day be able to catch a live performance, which is not an unreasonable ambition as the piece does get performed quite widely.  Incredibly, it seems it was performed here in Montreal a couple of years back, and I never got to hear about it!

The opening movement sets the stylistic tone for the work straight off the bat with a loud metallic clang and a strident, portentous single note – an A as it happens (A for “AIDS”?) – held for a seemingly interminable time, before resolving into a jarring G#.  It repeats, this time resolving into a different, but equally uncomfortable, D#.  In the wrong hands, it can descend into parody before the symphony has a chance to get off the ground.  Think of one of those old Disney cartoons where the hapless mouse finds himself on a podium conducting an orchestra, and his every accidental gesture produces a blaring sound from the orchestra, and you’ll get the idea.  So, within the first minute, a listener can get a good sense of what kind of performance is about to unfold.

The opening serves to introduce a jumbled cacophonous fanfare, following which the movement proceeds through waves of nostalgia for good times past, interrupted by bouts of rage at the unfairness and horror of the terrible AIDS disease.  The ghostly apparition of the off-stage piano is really the signature moment of the whole work, and in the right hands can be truly magical.  It introduces a dream-like nostalgic section that makes a serious effort to establish itself before chattering interruptions start to break the mood, building a rising, inexorable, and almost uncontrollable tension which culminates in a series of pounding, dissonant chords, repeated over and over, slowing down, but without diminishing in intensity and ferocity, before grinding to a painful halt.  Some of the earlier themes and motifs then return, including the off-stage piano, as the movement works its way to an exhausted close, ending on a dreamy reflection of that extended opening note, A.

In 1970, Corigliano wrote a set of dances entitled “Gazebo Dances”, of which the final dance was a Tarantella dedicated to a musician friend.  Many years later the friend succumbed to AIDS, and in particular suffered badly from dementia brought on by the disease.  The second movement of Symphony No 1, a tarantella, is based on this earlier work.  It illustrates his intelligent and witty friend’s descent into schizophrenia, hallucination and eventual madness.  The tarantella’s theme is constantly interrupted by blaring interjections which gradually take over the piece, eventually totally subsuming its receding moments of lucidity.

The final movement (or movements, as the final ‘Epilogue’ is formally listed as a separate movement) is complex and layered.  It is titled “Chaconne: Giulio’s Song” and was inspired by an old 1962 tape of Corigliano and ‘Giulio’ improvising on piano and cello.  A lengthy solo cello, eventually joined by a second solo cello, makes use of material from this tape, but then Corigliano sprinkles in a number of short musical themes, each set for a solo instrument, and each representing another of the composer’s friends lost to AIDS.  These are interwoven into a dialog between two solo cellos, over the ongoing backdrop of the chaconne.  This exposition eventually, and quite unexpectedly, ends with the sudden unannounced return of the A note, which heralds a recapitulation of the symphony’s opening bars.  The Epilogue sets in, and we bid a final farewell to the symphony’s three main protagonists – the off-stage piano playing Albeniz’s haunting Tango, the second movement’s Tarantella, and the third movement’s solo cellos … which closes the symphony where it began, on that long-held single A, fading away to nothing.

The CSO/Barenboim release on Erato captured the live performance of Symphony’s premiere.  Barenboim conducts with precision – always his calling card – and the complex orchestral sound is nicely presented.  Conducting (and recording) a premiere of a modern symphony always represents an enormous challenge for a conductor.  He has no points of reference to go by, never having heard it performed in advance of the start of rehearsals.  Generally speaking, the end result will rarely stand up for long as a reference interpretation if the work ends up being widely performed.  Nonetheless, it was a surprising success, and was recognized at the 1996 Grammys with the award for Best Classical Album.  It is available in red book only.  However, the interpretation itself is rather lukewarm, neither conductor nor orchestra seeming willing to make an emotional investment in the performance.  There’s a lot of going-through-the-motions on show.  You can almost hear Barenboim sighing, pondering “I wonder what Beethoven would have made of this?”.  Nonetheless it has its high points.  In particular, the crucial off-stage piano is captured wonderfully, and the pangs of nostalgic longing it delivers remains unmatched.

The symphony was next recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, coupled with a related work “Of Rage and Remembrance”.  The Slatkin recording is more highly regarded among the critics, and one gets the immediate impression that he actually likes the piece more than Barenboim does.  It is overall a more polished performance.  The playing is more confident and assured, and the Symphony as a whole seems to come together a little more coherently.  But in the end it still fails to say much more about the work than Barenboim and the CSO.  It just says it more forcefully, and more confidently.  And more bass-heavily.

Another widely-available recording is by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, an annual one month long summer school orchestra for outstanding young orchestral musicians, in this instance conducted by David Alan Miller and released on Naxos.  Here we have a much more frantic and in-your-face interpretation, perhaps truer to Corigliano’s vision than either the Barenboim or the Slatkin, but ultimately perhaps a little over the top in terms of its apocalyptic aesthetic.  It is seriously lacking in subtlety, and the contrasts between the Rage and Remembrance elements are simply too stark and too relentless to hold together over repeated listening.  The playing itself almost careers out of control in places, but you really have to give them a solid A for effort and sheer commitment, which often counts for more than a sleek, sophisticated tone with music like this.  And that bass drum slam is awesome to behold!  I must mention a technical faux-pas that always annoys the crap out of me.  David Alan Miller’s breathing – indeed his downright snuffling – intrudes gratingly during the quiet passages.  But overall, in terms of providing an insight into where Barenboim and Slatkin fall short, it has a lot going for it, and I do rather like it.

I have a bootleg recording by the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by James Judd, recorded live in glorious 24-bit 192kHz.  While the recorded sound is absolutely terrific, musically it adds nothing in terms of interpretive insight to what Barenboim and Slatkin have already put out there, and the quality of the playing is not to the same standard.

Why do I think there is more to come from this work?  Well, try this for starters:


It is a crummy YouTube recording of the second movement (the Tarantella) performed by a Rutgers University orchestra, conducted by one Peter Stanley Martin.  The occasion of the performance is a concert which forms part of Martin’s master’s thesis.  This is a spectacular interpretation by a young man who, if he had just a smidgeon more stage presence, might make a successful career as a professional conductor (such are the vagaries of the profession).  Oh, and at the end of the video, the white-haired gentleman making his way up to the podium to heartily congratulate him is none other than John Corigliano himself.  I would really love to hear Martin conduct the whole symphony – particularly with a first rate professional orchestra at his disposal.  Any wealthy patrons of the art out there interested in funding a project?…..

I mentioned that this movement has its origins in an earlier work, Gazebo Dances, and here is the same conductor, elsewhere in the same recital, playing the Tarantella from Gazebo Dances.  In effect, we get to see the same individual, as interpreted by John Corigliano, both before and after the ravaging effect of AIDS on his sanity:


But we’re not quite done yet.  If you are inspired as much as I am, and are willing to go the extra mile, there is a Japanese recording made by a minor Tokyo orchestra, the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tatsuya Shimono.  It was released on SACD by Avex Records and is available by mail order.  Finally, we have an interpretation to make you sit up and take note.  This really is quite good.  Shimono attacks the symphony with commitment, and a keen ear for the overall narrative arc.  He is, by and large, on top of his players, and one gets the impression that they have learned to enjoy and appreciate the Symphony as much as he does.  If one wished to pick nits, it would be with the Japanese character of the orchestral players, who appear reluctant to loosen their collars and play with a bit of an edge.  Also, the off-stage piano fails to evoke the dreamy, ethereal quality we hear in the Barenboim recording.  But this performance offers, thus far at least, the best interpretation of this standout symphony while we wait in hope for Yannick Nézet-Séguin to get around to it.  And the DSD sound is exceptionally clean, dynamic, and detailed.

Those of you who enjoy classical music should try and find some time to listen to this magnificent modern symphony.  Both the Statkin and the Miller are available on TIDAL, Qobuz, and Spotify … and even on YouTube for that matter.  Unfortunately, the Barenboim and Shimono (and the Judd, obviously) are not.  It is a work that I hope (and believe) will eventually establish itself in the standard repertoire – but, sadly, probably not until its composer has duly shuffled off his mortal coil.

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