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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Piano (1978)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
24 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
John Harbison Concerto for Piano (1978)

My Piano Concerto was composed in 1977 and 1978 at Token Creek, Wisconsin. It is dedicated to Robert Miller, who gave its first performance, with Gunther Schuller conducting the American Composers Orchestra. The same performers have recorded it for CRI.

The first movement (Moderato cantabile) is a fantasy, which implies for me not looseness, but a discovered form, with its own demands and rewards. The melodies are characteristically long, and recur with new harmonizations. The second movement (Alla marcia—Alla canzona—Alla danza) has a “last movement character”; forthright and clear-cut. Where is the middle movement? It is housed in both.

As in my recent violin concerto, the intent is to give the medium what it requires at this point from the composer. The piano is no longer ruler of the household and the concert stage; it has a future, but only through coming to terms with the lost age of its dominance.

—John Harbison

Harbison’s Piano Concerto is in two movements, the first of which is quite free in the expressive sense, having something of the character of an improvisatory fantasy, though it is far more closely argued than that description would suggest. Harbison discussed its history in his own program note:

“The Piano Concerto began in the margins of another piece, and it wasn’t until one-third of the first movement had appeared that I began to give full attention to it. At that point phrases existed like lines for a poem not yet assigned their special place in the flow. The phrase which forms the piano’s third entrance became the predominant image; the movement became a fantasy upon that melody, with the piano’s first tow phrases assuming a more introductory character, answered by orchestral refrains. The expressive goal for the movement is the solo “cadenza,” which meditates on motives from the main melody, introducing some new thoughts at its climax.

“The nothing of a fantasy need not suggest looseness, but a kind of discovered form with its own rigors and rewards.”

The piano’s opening idea has something of a Chopinesque character, with the melody in the right hand tracing ever wider ares in what sounds like a flexible rubato against the beat (though it is precisely delineated), while the left hand supports the melody and marks the even beats of the opening 4/4 meter. The orchestra response is muted, rather dark. The piano enters again with a more dramatic treatment, to which the orchestra responds appropriately. The third piano entrance is the definitive statement of melody with its gradually widening ares, repeated immediately in the violins and clarinets, while the piano offers a decorative commentary.

The dialogue grows increasingly forceful and agitated, though with lyrical interludes, until a substantial restatement of the opening material (the first piano and orchestra statements) leads to a climactic, powerful statement for the unaccompanied piano, into which the orchestra impetuously bursts with its most robust statement yet, though it quickly dies away into the quiet, if uncertain, close.

To quote the composer again:

“The second movement presents a more straightforward continuity, exploring more openly the colors of the solo instrument and the orchestra. The complementary ideas of orchestra-as-piano and piano-as-orchestra, so appealing to composers in the early nineteenth century, are recalled here from a new vantage point. The mystery and magic of the piano lie in the pedal, and the “romanticism” for this concerto lies in its diffusion of piano pedal sonorities through the whole orchestra.”

The second movement is in three discrete sections, respectively in the style of a march, a song (canzona), and of a dance. The opening Alla Marcia reveals in its melodic irregularities against a steady rhythmic background and in its crispness the composer’s affection for Stravinsky, one of his favorite composers. The middle section of the movement, Alla canzona, is a romantic waltz, complete with oom-pah accompaniment under the graceful melodic line. This suddenly breaks into the delightful close, Alla danza, which plays cunningly with our rhythmic expectations. The mood is that of a jig or tarantella, based on the standard 6/8 or 12/8 meter, but unexpected 5/8 bars cause a jolly jolt here and there, as the soloist races along against the dancing orchestra to the final tutti crash.

—Steven Ledbetter

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