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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHWANTNER: Sparrows / Music of Amber
By Roger Thomas
BBC Music Magazine
Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943)
Sparrows • Soaring • Distant Runes and Incantations
Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro • Music of Amber
The American composer Joseph Schwantner, who celebrated his sixtieth birthday on 22 March 2003, is considered to be among the most successful and respected living composers in the United States. In 1978 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity. Music of Amber for chamber ensemble took first prize in 1981 in the p
restigious Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for Excellence in Chamber Composition.
Joseph Schwantner’s music is marked by the search for magic and bewitching sounds, whence the title Delicate Sounds, eliciting from the performers unusual effects, with the use of unusual additional instruments such as glasses or crotales. The present selection of music for chamber ensemble presents, with the flute piece and two songs with piano, compositions that are sensual and occasionally tonal, indeed almost impressionistic, demanding from the interpreters a fine
sense of nuance. The present portrait album was suggested by the great success of our concert in September 2000 with his Music of Amber.
Joseph Schwantner was born in Chicago in 1943 and received his academic education at the Chicago Conservatory and at Northwestern University, where he graduated in 1968. Subsequently he has served as a member of the faculties of Yale, Eastman and the Juilliard School. In May 2002 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Schwantner was official composer with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra in its Meet the Composer/Orchestra Residencies Program, sponsored by the Exxon Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. A documentary film was made about him, under the title Soundings. His music ranges from works for chamber ensemble to large-scale orchestral compositions, many of the latter regularly included in the programmes of the best known American orchestras. His most successful work must be his Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, also recorded on CD by RCA.
The music of Joseph Schwantner is at once identifiable, so unchanging is his musical language. He has been principally influenced by three other composers, George Crumb, Olivier Messiaen and Debussy. The first of these is perhaps the most important. Crumb, also an American, distinguished internationally for his refined, delicately drawn chamber works, like Schwantner, is fond of luminous sounds and unusual effects. We also find with him the frequent direction to hold the sustaining pedal of the
piano, to allow resonances to be heard. He also prefers mystical, symbolic poems as inspiration for his vocal and also for his instrumental works. Both composers are
distinguished by their free use of tonality and atonality. Messiaen’s music is marked by its use of harmony, which is very consistent and gives unequalled attention to sound colour within a formal section. Schwantner too seeks a sound system that gives certain direction to his harmonic practice, and is like Messiaen, who, in his piano music, seeks a placing of notes that gives bright, clear sounds. In spite of his modern musical language Messiaen, incomparably, never gave up tonal writing, but expanded tonality in a very individual way. The same is apparent in Schwantner’s music from the late 1970s. Debussy set music free from the chains of
functional harmony and was a pioneer, followed by such composers as Stravinsky, Bartók, Crumb, and also by Schwantner. He was the founder of a musical aesthetic expanded by French and American composers, not least through the teaching of the legendary Nadia Boulanger.
Schwantner’s early compositions are marked by virtuoso instrumentation and a feeling for colour, but not yet with the unmistakable sound that marks his
music from the end of the 1970s. In the works included in the present recording there are certain harmonic principles that may be briefly outlined:
Schwantner likes chords of equal intervals: (a) Most frequent is minor third harmony, harmonic material that is put together from two diminished seventh chords separated generally by a whole tone, for example C–E flat–F sharp–A–D–F–A flat–B. Closely associated with that is melodic writing marked by intervals such as the tritone, major seventh, and minor ninth. Schwantner likes to vary this pattern, often in brilliant descants. This is evident in Shadowinnower, the first of the Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro and major parts of Music of Amber.
(b) Soaring and, very substantially, Distant Runes and Incantations are marked by the use of major third harmony. Here two typical chords, F–A–C sharp–E– G sharp–C, or E flat–G–B–D–F–A–C sharp–E. This harmonic basis is significantly less tense and has a softer character.
(c) We occasionally hear harmony based on the fourth in Soaring, generally associated with an aggressive gesture. The wider fourths are for Schwantner more dissonant than the thirds. There is a particularly harsh harmony in fourths in Soaring, with E flat–A flat–D flat–D–G–C–C sharp–F sharp–B–C–F– B flat.
(d) Schwantner makes use of harmony based on the fifth for more lyrical effects. A particular example is Black Anemone, the second of the Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro. The first piano chord may be noticed as an example, G–D–A–B–F sharp–C sharp. This can be understood as the chord of G major, with the major seventh F sharp, the ninth A, and the eleventh as an overtone. A gently impressionistic almost siren-like sensuality distinguishes this form of fifth harmony in Schwantner’s work.
Sparrows was written in 1979 for the Twentieth Century Consort. The text consists of fifteen haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa.
Instead of reproducing the aesthetic of the haiku, with its sharply outlined images, Schwantner’s music absorbs the meaning and character of these naturalistic and universalist images and expresses them in a comprehensively lyrical musical form. He thus creates a series of what might be called dream-stages. These stages reach from exuberant harmonies, harsh dissonance, effusiveness finally to gentle hope. Schwantner draws freely from fully varied stylistic precursors to represent the poetic imagery. Reminiscences of Renaissance dances and baroque polyphony can be heard. By the process of reconciling contrasting musical styles with the continuity of the work, Schwantner successfully makes these styles his own. The wide range of atmospheres and colours is created by a setting whose acoustical possibilities are used in a most profound and creative way. The voice is supported by three instrumental groups, woodwind, strings (tuned a semitone lower, to add a particular fullness to the whole ensemble), and a combination of piano, harp and percussion. The sound of the percussion is strengthened by the strings, which strike the crotales or antique cymbals with their bows, evoking an otherworldly sound to accompany The River of Heaven. The instrumentalists must also sing at various key points in the whole work. This chorus element accompanies the references to sparrows at the beginning and end of the text. On the first occasion this exotic effect produces a mysterious atmosphere of threatening danger, while at the end this effect is particularly intimate, touching and even soothing.
Soaring was written in 1986 and is a short, highly virtuosic high-wire act for flute and piano. In accordance with the title, Schwantner follows his favourite practice, fanning out chords that give this and many other pieces their sweeping character. The piano begins with an intense introductory gesture that
articulates the harmonic element engaged throughout the work. Following the piano’s opening, the flute enters with a series of declamatory phrases that interact continually with the piano in a dialogue. The two instruments form a continuous musical thread, with the flute forcefully projecting its voice, while the piano provides a supportive backdrop. The materials here later formed the basis of a larger more extended work, A Play of Shadows (1990), a fantasy for flute and chamber orchestra.
Distant Runes and Incantations was written in 1984 as a kind of piano concerto with full orchestra. In 1987 Schwantner arranged it for chamber ensemble. This version is scored for solo piano, flute (also piccolo and alto flute), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), percussion and string quartet. The title of the work is taken from a verse of an independent poem that provides a poetic support for the music. Schwantner explains that this is a procedure that he has used in various pieces, as, for example, in the orchestral Aftertones of Infinity (1978) and Music of Amber (1981). Although the work is not particularly programmatic in conception, the poem provided a source of extra-musical imagery continued throughout the development of the work, fitting with and forming the composer’s musical ideas. The music consists of a single extended movement in which the piano weaves continual threads through the texture. The piano has the principal responsibility for the presentation of simple musical elements, sharing, mixing and uniting these elements with other instruments.
Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro were written in July and August 1980, the third of five works composed for the American soprano Lucy Shelton. The work was first performed by her and pianist Margot Garrett on 25 November 1980 in Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The texts are taken from a
bilingual collection of poems under the title Sombraventa-dora / Shadowinnower by the American poet Aguedo Pizarro. While the original poems were written in Spanish, the work uses an English translation by a friend of the poet, Barbara Stoller Miller. The surrealist images and magical poetic landscapes that the
poems evoke reflect, the composer tells us, the vocal quality that he found most bewitching in Lucy Shelton’s singing, and the result was an attempt to bring together these two irresistible worlds. The two songs are very different. Shadowinnower is a rather aggressive, harmonically tense song, consisting of various small sections. Here there are minor-third sounds that also play a large part in Music of Amber, both works often using the same musical material. The special feature of the first song is (apart from the pipe, performed by the singer and pianist in two places) is the very effective introduction of four crotales, played by the singer as she sings, a very unusual demand. Black Anemones, the second song, offers a great contrast with the dramatic and complex first song. On the one hand is the vocal line melodious, singable and catchy, while the work is harmonically based on fifth overtones, as in two lyrical passages in Sparrows. The result is a work of a tender, very romantic, nostalgic, even ecstatic character.
Music of Amber, written for the New York Music Ensemble in February 1981, is scored for flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin, cello, piano and
percussion. The first performance was on 10 April 1981 at the Civic Center in Chicago. In the same year the work won first prize in the chamber music category
at the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. The first movement, with the subtitle Wind Willow Whisper, was originally commissioned by the Fromm Music
Foundation to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Da Capo Chamber Players and was performed by them in March 1980 at the Alice Tully Hall. Because of the
relatively short duration of the movement a second movement was written and the first movement was enlarged by the extension of the percussion part. The
second movement, with the subtitle Sanctuary, provides a formal counterbalance, and at the same time reveals and develops further musical material from the first movement. The work is dedicated to the American patron Paul Fromm. There is a short poem before each of the two movements.
English version by Keith Anderson
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SCHWANTNER: Sparrows / Music of Amber