WEB EXTRA: Classical Commentary: A modern symphony for a modern affliction

While AIDS is not a typical inspiration for a piece of classical music, one musician’s tragic loss was the catalyst for a symphony. John Corigliano, who composed the music for “The Red Violin,” wrote the symphony for three of his friends who had died or were dying of AIDS. He heard his contemporary piece, “Symphony #1,” performed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center last Thursday.

Contemporary visual art brings to mind random splashes of paint on a canvas, or sculptures of unintelligible objects. Modernist visual art was meant to be pure expression, without reference to the world, and it placed essential emphasis on its own form and structure. In recent years, artists have started to combine modernist ideas with elements of representation and narrative.

Contemporary music, like art, at first has an alienating and “I-could-easily-smash-the-keyboard-and-make-those-sounds” aesthetic; it has moved away from relying on the melodies, harmonies and beats that form the basis of older classical music and popular music. Without having to obey all the old rules, contemporary music has very few boundaries and thus gives the composer more freedom to say what he wants, as Corigliano has with “Symphony #1.” This is music about ideas, and it sometimes does not provide the instant emotional gratification that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or “Fur Elise” would. With some investment in the language of contemporary music, one can hear ideas in the music that are often extremely provocative and powerful.

In Corigliano’s piece, there are ugly, sudden bursts of furious strings with long pauses and beautiful, melodic strains in between. The music seems to reflect the virus, which can be in someone’s body for years and suddenly start to affect one’s immune system. Other pieces of music have to do with AIDS; this piece is AIDS. While other songs speak about the virus (Bruce Springsteen’s dark, depressing “Streets of Philadelphia” and Jonathan Larson’s pieces in Rent), about their friends having it, and their reactions, or the drugs used to calm the effects of the virus; this piece did none of that. The power of the piece is far from depressing, but also far from comical. Rather, as Corigliano says of the first movement, the piece is “ferocious,” and it juxtaposes moments of defeat and frustration with the beauty of what was lost. The piece shows both the experience of being sick and what it feels like to have friends or loved ones who are ill.

To write the symphony, Corigliano asked his librettist to write epitaphs for his friends who had died. Then, he set them to music and took out the words. Later, he wrote another, choral version of the piece and put the words back in. GW professor Robert Baker, tenor, who is teaching a class about text and diction in music, sang at the first NSO performance and on the recording of this piece, entitled “Of Rage and Remembrance.” Baker asks, “Is music without text a lesser entity? What is the linguistic intention (of the composer)? Is there a story?”

In the question and answer session with the audience that followed the performance, Corigliano explained that he composed “Symphony No. 1” to honor specific individuals: “I essentially wrote this for three of my friends who had died from AIDS.” He did not create this to promote funding for research or any political purpose in the struggle against AIDS, or to represent people’s emotions. However, we can all identify with Corigliano’s sense of loss, even if not for a loved one due to AIDS. Listeners can relate the music to suffering as a universal idea, a human emotion that is obvious in the mixture of disparate melodies, harsh tones, chaos and lyricism of “Symphony No. 1.”

The writers are students of Jessica Krash, a music professor.

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