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ClassicsOnline Home » COHN: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7 / Variations on The Wayfaring Stranger
Celebrating his 80th birthday year in 2008, American composer James Cohn studied with Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow and Bernard Wagenaar, graduating from the Julliard School in 1950. Cohn’s first love is the symphony orchestra, and the works presented on this disc are like pages from a diary. The four movements of Symphony No. 7 are essentially four landscape paintings in sound. Symphony No. 2 is a musical equivalent to four scenes from a drama. Variations on ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ is a memorial to two dear and generous friends who were like parents to the composer and the Waltz in D is essentially a bittersweet dance in waltz tempo.
James Cohn (b.1928)
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7 • Variations on ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ • Waltz in D
James Cohn was born in 1928 in Newark, New Jersey, and took violin and piano lessons there. Later he studied composition with Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow and Bernard Wagenaar, and majored in Composition at the Juilliard School, graduating in 1950. He has lived and worked for many years in New York City. He was initiated into Sigma Alpha Iota (International Music Fraternity) as a National Arts Associate in 1998, by the Tulsa Oklahoma Alumnae Chapter and is now a member of the New York Alumnae Chapter.
Cohn has written solo, chamber, choral and orchestral works, and his catalog includes three string quartets, five piano sonatas and eight symphonies. Some have won awards, including a Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Prize for his Symphony No. 2 and an A.I.D.E.M. prize for his Symphony No. 4 (given its première in Florence at the Maggio Musicale). Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony introduced the composer’s Symphony No. 3 and Variations on ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’, and his opera The Fall of the City received its première in Athens, Ohio, after winning the Ohio University Opera Award.
He has had many performances of his choral and chamber music, and worldwide use of his music commissioned for television and cinema. His most recently completed orchestral works are the Violin Concerto, commissioned by the American violinist Eric Grossman, and the Piano Concerto, as well as a new piano piece, both commissioned by the internationally renowned Argentine pianist Mirian Conti. Another recent commission is for Three Bon-Bons for the New York Treble Singers. His most recent chamber music works are The Grecian Festival, commissioned by the Laurel Ensemble of California, the Trio No. 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello, commissioned by Sigma Alpha Iota and given its world première at Sigma Alpha Iota’s annual Convention in the summer of 2006 at Orlando, Florida, Three Dances for Clarinet and Guitar, commissioned by Raphael Sanders and David Galvez, Toccata and Fugue for David Galvez, guitarist, Duo for Clarinet & Violin, commissioned by Julianne Kirk and Adda Kridler, Mozart Fantasy and Fiesta Latina, both commissioned by the wind quintet, the Quintet of the Americas. Commissions for other works have come from The McKim Fund in the Library of Congress (for the Concerto da camera for violin, piano and wind quintet), Pennsylvania’s ‘Music At Gretna’ festival (for the Mount Gretna Suite, for chamber orchestra), Jon Manasse (for the Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Strings), Christopher Jepperson (for Three Evocations [Clarinet Concerto No. 2]), Jeffrey Silberchlag (for the Concerto for Trumpet and Strings) and Claribel (the Belgian 30-piece clarinet ensemble) (for the three-movement suite Caprice).
Symphony No. 7 was composed in 1967. The first movement opens with a short ostinato passage in the lower instruments, with melodies above it which alternate in mood between pensive and explosive. The second movement is lyrical and philosophical. The third movement is in fast 3/4 time, with the melody alternating between a deadpan formality and semi-hysteria. The fourth movement is a rondo with a driving insistent melody, occasionally relieved by short, cryptic but lighthearted statements.
Symphony No. 2 was composed in 1948, when the composer was still a student and studying with the Dutchborn composer Bernard Wagenaar. The symphony, in four movements, was written as the composer’s thesis for graduation from the Juilliard School of Photo of James Cohn by Steve Leiffer Music, in New York City. The first movement, in 3/4 time is, by turns, both defiant and reflective. The second movement is a fast frantic scherzo in 6/8 time, alternating between obsessive driving figurations and short jazzy passages. The third movement, which is slow and in 3/4 time, is based on a serial tonerow, in which the row is heard in two voices a minor third apart. Although the writing is serial in construction, the composer wanted it to be emotionally expressive, alternating between sad, moody and passionate exclamations. The fourth movement is a fast rondo in 4/4 time, with initial statements alternating between the violas and the contrabasses. This work won a prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition and was given its première in Brussels by the Orchestra of Radio Belgium, conducted by Franz André.
Variations on ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ was written in 1960 in memory of two dear friends of the composer who died within weeks of each other: Dr. Ernest G. Abraham and his wife, the noted pianist Maryla Jonas. The main theme, from which the twelve variations arise, is a folksong that was sung by Americans in the South at the end of religious gatherings and camp meetings. It begins with the verse “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, that’s traveled through this world of woe, and there’s no grief, sickness or danger, in that bright world to which I go”.
The Waltz in D was written in 1957 and was originally scored as an octet for brass instruments. It was subsequently re-scored for solo piano, and then later arranged for symphony orchestra, as the composer could hear it in orchestral garb. The work alternates between insistent and wistful passages.
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COHN: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7 / Variations on The ...