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ClassicsOnline Home » ALBERT, S.: In Concordiam / TreeStone (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Stephen Albert is counted as one of the most accomplished pioneers of ‘The New Romanticism’: a generation of composers seeking to reclaim some of the emotional expression lost through the rigors of intellectual Modernism in music. Inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, TreeStone is a moving exploration of the tragic legend of Tristan and Iseult. In Concordiam reveals the range and complexity of Albert’s style in uniting angular dissonance with mellifluous harmonies. Albert worked closely with the Seattle Symphony on this work, revising it during his three year tenure as composer-in-residence. Albert’s Symphony No 1 ‘RiverRun’ is available on Naxos href="/catalogue/product.aspx?pid=8.559257">8.559257.
By Daniel Coombs
Stephen Albert (1941–1992)
In Concordiam • TreeStone
During the 1970s and 1980s, two important trends emerged in American music as alternatives to what struck many observers as the arcane and hermetic high-modernism that had come to dominate composition after the middle of the twentieth century. The first of these new developments was the “minimalism” pioneered by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and others. The second was what came to be called “The New Romanticism.”
The latter tendency was, in some ways, the more surprising. In reclaiming not only certain features of traditional harmony but the dramatic rhetoric of nineteenth-century composition, the practitioners of “The New Romanticism” explicitly rejected a central tenet of modernism, its revolt against the musical past. In particular, these neo-Romantic composers sought to reclaim for music a degree of emotional expression they felt had been sacrificed by their high-Modernist predecessors.
Stephen Albert was perhaps the most accomplished pioneer of “The New Romanticism.” A native of New York, Albert began composing during his adolescence under the tutelage of Elie Siegmeister. He subsequently studied at the Eastman School of Music, the Philadelphia Academy of Music and the University of Pennsylvania. He also spent time in Stockholm, where he worked with Karl-Birger Blomdahl. Albert’s music quickly gained recognition, earning the composer commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, The Philadelphia Orchestra and other major ensembles, an appointment as Composer in Residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and a faculty post at The Juilliard School, and a series of impressive awards, most notably the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Albert produced more than a dozen orchestral compositions, as well as works for smaller ensembles and for voices. This impressive body of work undoubtedly would have grown in size and scope had the composer lived to develop it. Tragically, Albert died in an automobile accident in December 1992, at age 51.
In Concordiam, a composition for violin and orchestra, reveals the range and complexity of Albert’s style. The work unites angular, dissonant writing with mellifluent harmonies having clear tonal foundations. Albert initially wrote the piece in 1986 and revised it two years later, during his Composer in Residence tenure with the Seattle Symphony.
The composition’s title indicates something of the musical workings of the piece. Albert noted that different groups of instruments within the orchestra have proprietary thematic material. Trumpets, metal percussion, violins, low strings, woodwinds and horns all sound distinct ideas. The solo violin serves, Albert explained, as a “mediator” between these instrumental groups and the thematic material associated with them. In time, the composition’s diverse ideas come together harmoniously, in several senses of that word. The resulting movement from disparity to concord explains, and is explained by, the composition’s Latin title, which best translates as “into harmony.”
The arresting trumpet fanfare that begins the piece is echoed by bells and plucked strings, then by woodwinds and finally by the solo violin. This music is strident and decidedly modern in its harmonic contours. But immediately the violins and violas answer quietly with a series of soft, widely spaced chords that convey quiet mystery. As these harmonies continue to unfold, the violin, in a rough-hewn cadenza, ruminates on the implications of its initial utterance. Albert’s superimposing of a restive, angular soliloquy against seemingly imperturbable harmonies in the strings calls to mind the musical allegory of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which seems very much the progenitor of this passage.
With the conclusion of the soloist’s cadenza, the focus turns to the orchestra—specifically, to the woodwinds, who trace song-like lines in unison and in rich contrapuntal tapestries. The solo violin rejoins the proceedings, spinning out a new theme loosely related to the woodwinds’ music. Albert now begins to develop this theme, the music growing increasingly energetic until it reaches a cadenza for the solo instrument. The composer now revisits each of his ideas, beginning with the violin’s theme but touching on the trumpet fanfare, the bell sonorities and other elements. In the final minutes of the piece, these different elements join together in seemingly joyful accord, the violin exultantly reiterating a signature five-note figure belonging to its theme and leading its colleagues quite literally to harmony in the form of a radiant A major chord at the conclusion.
Stephen Albert repeatedly drew inspiration from the writing of James Joyce. Among his compositions based on Joyce’s works are the cantata Distant Hills, with texts from Ulysses; the song cycle To Wake the Dead and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony RiverRun, both prompted by Finnegans Wake; and TreeStone, also written as a response to Joyce’s final novel. Albert composed the latter work in 1983, concurrently with Symphony RiverRun. The two pieces are related not only in their Joycean inspiration but through shared musical material. Indeed, Albert described them as “adaptations of each other.”
Scored for soprano and tenor accompanied by a small orchestra, TreeStone treats Joyce’s gloss on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, a recurring motif in Finnegans Wake. The tale of the ill-fated lovers “hovers ghost-like throughout the novel,” Albert observed, “never wholly perceived but nearly always felt.” Joyce, the composer continues, renders “an abbreviated, irreverent and often deranged version” of the medieval romance, “communicated in coded fragments…challenging our reason and powers of intuition.”
Albert prefaces the first of the six songs that comprise TreeStone with an instrumental prologue. Here a shimmering texture of metal percussion, high-pitched pizzicato and isolated woodwind sounds create an atmospheric “rain music.” A wistful clarinet arabesque serves as a transition to the song I am Leafy Speafing, in which the soprano presents the voice of the Liffey River flowing through Dublin. In Joyce’s characteristically allusive language, she sings to the city, calling forth memories they share. Albert’s orchestral setting develops both the “rain music” and the clarinet arabesque in a movement that is as freely associative as its text.
A Grand Funferall, the second song, combines somber and antic music to create an air of raucous surrealism. The scene is a wake for the deceased Tristan and Iseult, but a truncated funeral dirge and fragments of Latin liturgy given out by the tenor are overwhelmed by a children’s ditty, a bit of parlor song and generally excessive exuberance.
The third song, Sea Birds, brings a marked change of tone. Its text recalls the ocean voyage during which Tristan and Iseult succumbed to their fatal passion, imagining the lovers’ first kiss as seen by birds flying over their ship. The first sounds evoke the lonely vessel on the water. The more animated music that follows suggests the fluttering and swooping of the titular birds.
The next two songs, Tristopher Tristan and Fallen Griefs, also view the legendary lovers from an unusual perspective. Their texts are from a chapter of Finnegans Wake in which two washerwomen stand on opposite banks of the Liffey, gossiping as they launder. Their discourse, which flows as freely as the river between them, touches on a scandalous liaison of young cousins, these being Tristan and Iseult. In the first song, restless rhythms intimate the eager gossip of the women. The ensuing song, Fallen Griefs, is more sober, touching on the sorrows of she who, Joyce wrote, “wove a garland for her hair…of fallen griefs of weeping willow.”
The final song takes its text from the most famous portion of Finnegans Wake, a long passage known as Anna Livia Plurabelle. As darkness descends over the river, the elder washerwomen grow weary. One complains, “I feel as old as yonder elm.” The other feeling as “heavy as yonder stone.” Slowly, they become that which they have named, the first transformed into a tree, her companion into a stone. Tree and stone, TreeStone: a symbol of eternity and enduring nature, which Albert intimates poetically in the final measures of the piece.
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ALBERT, S.: In Concordiam / TreeStone (Seattle Sym...