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ClassicsOnline Home » HARBISON: Piano Trios / Gatsby Etudes / The Violist's Notebook / 10 Micro-Waltzes
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. Of his Piano Trio No. 2, Harbison writes: ‘[It] makes little contact with the Mozart-to-Shostakovich central trio repertoire, and a great deal with the transparency, ambiguity, and shiftiness of Papa Joseph Haydn’. The Gatsby Etudes, ‘pianistically challenging and fun to play’, were written while Harbison was preparing the opera The Great Gatsby for production by the Metropolitan Opera. The Violist’s Notebooks were inspired by Bartolomeo Campagnoli’s (1751-1827) Caprices for viola, Harbison’s own instrument. Other works on this disc include an earlier piano trio and a cello suite, which the composer describes as ‘baroque in origins, more private, and very compact’.
By David Denton
John Harbison (b. 1938)
Piano Trio No. 2 • Gatsby Etudes • The Violist's Notebooks
John Harbison is among America 's most distinguished artistic figures. He has received numerous awards and honors, including two of the most prestigious: the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Harbison has composed music for most of America 's leading musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera (for whom he wrote The Great Gatsby, 1999), the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Born in New Jersey in 1938, he received an undergraduate degree from Harvard and the MFA from Princeton before joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he currently occupies an Institute Professorship, the highest academic distinction MIT offers to resident faculty. He also serves as President of the Copland Fund. His works include four string quartets, four symphonies, a ballet, three operas, a cantata, and numerous chamber and choral works, more than fifty of which have been recorded on leading labels such as Harmonia Mundi, New World, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Naxos and Koch. He has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the American Academy in Rome, and numerous festivals, including Tanglewood, Marlboro, and Aspen, and is currently principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music in Boston. He has just had the premières of Milosz Songs (for the New York Philharmonic and Dawn Upshaw ), But Mary Stood (for the Cantata Singers, Boston ), and Concerto for Bass Viol (for fifteen orchestras). Other recent works include Darkbloom (for the Boston Symphony), Songs America Loves to Sing (for the Atlanta and DaCapo Chamber Players), Symphony No. 4 (for the Seattle Symphony), Piano Trio No. 2 (for the Amelia Trio), the motet Abraham (commissioned for the Papal Concert of Reconciliation in Rome ), the complete version of his ballet Ulysses, Requiem (for the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Piano Sonata No. 2 (for Robert Levin), and String Quartet No. 4 (for the Orion Quartet).
Piano Trio No. 2 (2003)
The most exploratory, diverse body of music for this combination – not its sonority and virtuosity but its ability to adjust to an infinity of formal designs and strange notions – is by Joseph Haydn. At our Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, while presenting only seven of the twenty or so masterpieces he made for piano, violin and cello, we noticed how much more unpredictable, experimental, and speculative they are than his more presentational, public quartets and symphonies. Intimate news-filled letters from Haydn to the performers, who then pass on their secrets, intimations of immortality and jokes to whatever listeners are ready, his trios suspend expectation, live in the moment. As long or as short as they need to be, they encourage us to listen without assumptions.
It was not until I heard my Trio No. 2 in performance that I realized how marked I had been by very regular contact with Haydn's trios. My trio makes little contact with the Mozart-to-Shostakovich central trio repertoire, and a great deal with the transparency, ambiguity, and shiftiness of Papa Joseph Haydn. He had the Joker in his pack, also the Ace of Spades: he could entertain, reassure, and frighten, all in one piece, and his aesthetic, at least, is still available.
Trio No. 2 was composed for the Amelia Trio, commissioned through funds from Joan and Irving Harris, the Caramoor International Music Festival, the Simonds Foundation, Tom and Vivian Waldeck, and Judy Evnin.
The opera The Great Gatsby was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to honor the 25th anniversary of James Levine's début. To assist in its preparation, the Met asked me to suggest a pianist to make a tape, with my participation, of the entire vocal score.
My choice was Judith Gordon. Her splendid account of the piece, in addition to its practical value, was a pianistic tour de force. As a measure of my gratitude, I made her a piece, the details of which she had already practiced. The three Gatsby Etudes do not follow the operatic chronology, but instead pursue some of its motivic trains of thought. They are pianistically challenging and fun to play. They connect without pause. They are dedicated, in gratitude and friendship, to Judy Gordon.
The Violist's Notebooks, Books I & II (2002)
The name Bartolomeo Campagnoli* is lost in the mists of history. I confess that I know nothing about him except that he wrote inventive, musical, satisfying viola etudes. In general, no pedagogical etudes need have any place in the education of a musician (I remember especially the miserable pedantry of the famous Kreutzer violin studies). But Campagnoli is recalled by a few violists as a good composer (probably a violist himself), a congenial spirit, a musician who encouraged us to expand our technique by dangling an elegantly musical carrot on a stick.
As I began keeping my violist's notebooks I thought of Campagnoli, his subversively challenging communications with his violist colleagues, then as now some of the best people in the world. My brief etudes are more compositional than technical studies. Each is dedicated to a violist, mostly hard-core, but a few doublers are included. Book I was assembled in the margins, over two years. Book II was written one a day, a self-assigned experiment. The pieces can be performed in any sequence or grouping.
*[ed: Bartolomeo Campagnoli (1751-1827), Italian violinist and composer. His compositions include 41 Caprices for Viola. ]
The Ten Micro-Waltzes make up the third of my "tapestry" pieces (joining Fourteen Fabled Folksongs and Songs America Loves to Sing ) in which a series of very short movements, in compact closed forms, is woven into a fabric that is more than the sum of its parts. In 2003-2004 Emmanuel Music, Boston, presented eight chamber concerts built around my music. The concerts were underwritten by friends of Emmanuel Music, dedicatees of the first eight waltzes. The last two are dedicated to the architects of the series.
Cucaraccia and Fugue
The convivial Cucaraccia and Fugue originated as a pendant to my Violist's Notebooks. It begins with a species of viola joke, and continues with a fugue that tends to take itself rather seriously, unlike the violists I know.
My Suite for Cello was composed at Nervi, near Genoa, Italy in 1993 shortly after completing my Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. I wanted to do a short piece of a very different character for the instrument that had held my attention over many months. The concerto is in many ways a discovered form, improvised to fit the material, and of a very demonstrative, public type. The solo piece is baroque in origins, more private, and very compact. The cello was the instrument my sister played. I heard most of its standard literature, repeatedly, while still in high school, and always think of the sound of the cello as her sound.
Trio (1968) was composed in Portland, Oregon for performance by Bentley Layton, violin, Helen Harbison, cello, and Robert Levin, piano, in a concert at Harvard University. It is clearly of its time, in the short-breathing sections, angular melodies, and nervous contrasts. It is also, from a 37-year perspective, moving toward an inclusive, non-doctrinaire vocabulary, and contains some lively sonorities and shapes.
The combination of piano, violin, and cello was seldom visited by composers in the 1960s, much more inhabited these decades later.
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