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ClassicsOnline Home » HARBISON: Chamber Music
Born in 1938 into a musical family, John Harbison studied at Harvard, and with Roger Sessions at Princeton. He is one of America’s most accomplished musicians, with four symphonies, three operas and a Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata to his credit. Harbison’s music is distinguished by its exceptional range, from the blues-influenced settings of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in North and South, to the use of eastern modes in his Book of Hours and Seasons. John Harbison’s Four Songs of Solitude are available on Naxos 8.559173.
John Harbison (b. 1938)
North and South is a cycle of six settings of poems by Elizabeth Bishop. It is divided into two books, each of similar proportion. Book One, dedicated to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, begins with the first of Bishop's Four Songs for a Colored Singer. In an interview with Ashley Brown, Bishop said, "I was hoping someone would compose the tunes for them. I think I had Billie Holiday in mind. I put in a couple of big words because she sang big words well… As for music in general, I'd love to be a composer." After this rhetorical opening comes a setting of a typically elusive love-and-loneliness Bishop incantation, Late Air. The third song, Breakfast Song, was never published. It was transcribed, in progress, by Lloyd Schwarz while visiting Bishop during a hospital stay.
Book Two, dedicated to Janice Felty, begins with another, even more emphatic, declamation from Songs for a Colored Singer. It is followed by Song, a poem from the time of North and South, Bishop's first book, but published later. Finally, another very private lyric, Dear, My Compass…, which was discovered by Lloyd Schwartz in an inn in Ouro Preto, Brazil, an eighteenth-century mountain town where Bishop bought a house in 1965. Schwartz writes, "Here is the unmistakable voice of Elizabeth Bishop, here the fairy-tale vividness and coloring-book clarity of images…; the geographical references – and restlessness – of the world traveler, the delicate yet sharply etched jokes…the apparent conversational casualness disguising the formality of the versification; the understated yet urgent sexuality; even the identification with animals."
The première of North and South took place in the summer of 2000 at the Token Creek Festival, performed by Janice Felty, mezzo-soprano, and Craig Smith, piano. The ensemble version was commissioned by the Chicago Chamber Musicians. They presented its first performance on 13 May 2001, at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago with mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Six American Painters was commissioned by radio station WGUC Cincinnati in honour of Ann Santen, for performance by Cincinnati Symphony principal flautist Randall Bowman. Bowman gave the first performance on the Linton Music Series, 14 April 2002, with Timothy Lees, violin, Michael Strauss, viola, and Eric Kim, cello.
Each of the movements was begun as a musical description of six paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eventually they ranged further and it seemed more helpful to name them for the painters rather than for the specific paintings. I wanted to evoke the artists' after-images, rather than any of the individual paintings. When I look at a picture, I take away a general impression, a mood or colour, that dominates the details; in music, on the other hand, I am apt to remember the details, a tune or a harmony. I wanted these movements to be a perceivable whole, an act of seeing. Like many musicians, I have always felt that looking at art has been the least alert of the things I do. I was hoping to develop my visual sense. The movements tend toward brevity. I had two intentions: not too slow, and not too long.
I also made, for the oboist Peggy Pearson, a version for oboe and strings, replacing one of the movements, adapting others. She gave its first performance on the Winsor Music Series with Bayla Keyes, violin, Mary Ruth Ray, viola, and Rhonda Rider, cello.
The Three Wise Men, (from Christmas Vespers), for brass quintet and narrator, alternates the familiar and beautiful narrative from the book of Matthew with elaborated "engravings" of each scene by the brass. In some performances, including the première on CBS-TV by the Eastman Brass, with Charles Kuralt as narrator, the performers choose to use the two chorale-preludes I provided as optional, introductory processionals, How brightly beams the morning star, and Oh come, oh come Emmanuel.
The suite begins with a prelude depicting the long journey of the Wise Men, its changing wide-open terrain, its optimistic, loping pace.
The first lines of text, "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem … there came wise men," draw a response from the brass which sets the format for the suite as a whole. The three Wise Men are personified by B flat trumpet, horn, and trombone, with an early medieval cast (so often I have seen them in very early Flemish paintings as merchants from Bruges). Herod is spoken by the tuba. The plainsong-like motive of the Star and the Prophecies is introduced by, and later associated with, the higher C trumpet.
Each ensuing scene is then an enactment of the text just pronounced, ending with a postlude, the reflective departing journey, a deliberate tip of the hat to the master of this kind of music-for-use, Paul Hindemith. (At this point some performers add my baro-classical version of The Twelve Days of Christmas as a festive recessional.)
The Three Wise Men was a second – and an accurate and felicitous – fulfilment of a commission from the Eastman School and its president, Robert Freeman. The first offering, now Magnum Mysterium for brass (no narrator), had proven too elusive and mysterious. I felt joy and ease in the writing of this one, and pleasure in the "matching" of the instruments to the characters and scenes they portray.
Book of Hours and Seasons, Goethe Settings for voice, flute, violoncello, and piano, began with the setting of Um Mitternacht written in 1973 for D'Anna Fortunato (and revised in 1982). Gradually other Goethe settings and an interlude were added. Immer und überall uses four eastern modes which then form the basis of an instrumental piece in four sections. This Interlude is a miniature "Seasons" with the listener invited to decide where the cycle begins. The outer movements express my devotion to the German language and Goethe's poetry. The bell-like chords which begin Um Mitternacht have echoes in all the movements. The first performance took place in a concert by Seraphim on 13 March 1976, in Cambridge, MA, with D'Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano, Constance Boykan, flute, Helen Harbison Abrahamian, cello, and John Harbison, piano.
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HARBISON: Chamber Music