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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Diotima (1976)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Programme Note
John Harbison Diotima (1976)
John Harbison was born in Orange, New Jersey, on 20 December 1938 and lives in Cambridge. Diotime, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress and dedicated to the memory of Serve and Natalie Koussevitzky, is dated 1 June 1875—1 February 1976, Token Creek, Wisconsin, Cambridge, Massachusetts. These performances are the first anywhere. The score calls for three flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes, high clarinet in E flat, two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, celesta, harp, strings, and percussion including cymbals, snare drum, tenor drum, xylophone, maracas, tambourine, tympani, triangle, bass drum, temple blocks, and two gongs.

Michael Hamburger’s translation of Diotima from Frederick Holderlin: Poems and Fragments (The University of Michigan Press, 1967) is reprinted by kind permission of Mr. Hamburger and of Routledge Kegan Paul Ltd., London, copyright owners.

John Harbison was brought up at Princeton, where his father, E. Harris Harbison, was professor of history and a legendary teacher of that subject. He went to Harvard, then, with a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship, to the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, and after that to Princeton for graduate studies in composition. His principle teachers were Boris Blacher, Roger Sessions, and Earl Kim. Except for 1968-69, when he was at Rockefeller Composer-in-Residence at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he has lived in Cambridge since 1963— until 1968 as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, since 1969 as a member of the MIT faculty. He has received commissions from the Rockafeller Foundation, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Naumburg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Just before beginning work on Diotime, he completed an opera on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale.

He has always been involved in performance, having worked as a pianist (jazz as well as “classical”), violinist, and conductor. At Harvard, he conducted the Bach Society Orchestra. In Berlin, he sang in the famous Spandauer Kantorei and was assistant to its conductor, Hanns-Martin Schneidt. There he also studied with Dean Dixon and later took a first prize in conducting at the Salzburg Mozarteum. In Boston, he is well remembered for his years – 1969-1973—as Music Director of the Cantana singers: his performances – gentle, fluid, non-beaty, horizontal, aware of 17th-dentury roots, exquisitely sensitive to textual and coloristic subtleties, always profoundly spiritual, with The World at the beginning of all—taught many of us to hear Bach in a new way.

His first response to the Koussevitzky Foundation’s commission for an orchestral piece was to plan a work that would “do everything”. The music, however, insisted on its own notions, dismaying the composer, who felt he was “evading an obligation and opportunity just to follow an off-center lyrical bent.” In retrospect, Harbison sees that as merciful delivery from an unimaginative aspiration to be more “mountebank-composer unfurling his bag of tricks.”

What emerged was a single-mined and insistent idea in the form of one long melody. For this, he suggests three stimuli. First, a realization of the immensity of what Roger Sessions had been doing for fifty years (amid immense lack of comprehension, even among the professionals), Sessions representing more than any living composer a passionate concern for “the long line.” Second, there was the single-mindedness of an orchestral work Chords by his friend, Fred Lerdahl (premiered at Tanglewood in August 1974), a work that consist only of chords and rhythms, and to which Diotima stands as a kind of inverse or complement. Finally and not least, Harbison recognizes “a certain cussedness which drives a person to do what isn’t being done.”

Harbison describes what happened after he begun work: “At various times in the unfolding of the long hymnodic line I was writing, I felt contrast was necessary and introduced a fats, violent counter-idea. Each time the result seemed forced and awkward, and I substituted a static passage which waits for the return of the melody. I was at a loss to understand why the great laws of contrast didn’t seem to apply only briefly at the end. It was with a strange new sense of confirmation and communication with the occult that I stumbled on Holderlin’s first Diotima poem, a hymn to personified beauty and the glorious classical age, which concludes with a tempest of NOW. It gave a sense of sanction, and also strengthen my conviction that the first generation of Romantics is always with us, their vision partially diverted and unfulfilled by what came after.”

Komm und besänftige mir, die du einst Elemente versöhntest
Wonne der himmlischen Muse das Chaos der Zeit,
Ordne den tobenden Kampf mit Friedenstönen des Himmels
Bis in der sterblichen Brust sich das entzweite vereint,
Bis der Menschen alte Natur die ruhige große,
Aus der gährenden Zeit, mächtig und heiter sich hebt.
Kehr' in die dürftigen Herzen des Volks, lebendige Schönheit!
Kehr an den gastlichen Tisch, kehr in die Tempel zurük!
Denn Diotima lebt, wie die zarten Blüthen im Winter,
Reich an eigenem Geist sucht sie die Sonne doch auch.
Aber die Sonne des Geists, die schönere Welt ist hinunter
Und in frostiger Nacht zanken Orkane sich nur.

Bliss of the heavenly Muse who with elements once imposed order,
Come, and for me now assuage the chaos come back in our time,
Temper the furious war with peace-giving, heavenly music
Till in the mortal heart all that’s divided unites,
Till the former nature of men, the calm, the majestic,
From our turbulent age rises, restored to its prime.
Living beauty, return to the destitute hearts of the people,
To the banqueting table return, renter the temples once more!
For Diotima lives as do delicate blossoms ion winter,
Blessed with a soul of her own, yet needing and seeking the sun.
But the lovelier world, the sun of the spirit is darkened,
Only the quarrelling gales rage in an icy bleak night.

About the time that Joseph Haydn concluded those English triumphs that had begun with the honorary doctorate at Oxford, Friedrich Holderlin, a young poet, former student of theology, and now scraping together a living as a tutor, began a tragic love affair with Suzette Gontard, whose children he was to teach at their house in Frankfurt. Like Beethoven, he was born in 1770. Hegel and Schelling – the former another exact contemporary, the latter four years younger – were his companions at the University of Tubingen. Schillet befriended him, published him, and helped him find his first posts as tutor. His poetry first appeared in print in 1791. For a little over a decade, he wrote odes, elegies, and other verse forms that are complex in thought and language, of vast breadth in their rhythm,, a fascinating and unique fusion of Hellenism and Christianity, expressed in language that joins an elevated classical style with startling and touching colloquialisms of his native Swabian speech. He wrote a novel Hyperion, worked for years on a play the Death of Empedocles, and translated Sophocles and Pindar (his version of Sophocles’ Antigone has been set as an opera by Carl Orff). Possessed always by poignant awareness of his essential solitude and of the threat of impending darkness, Holderlin began to suffer spells of insanity. For a few years, there were lucid passages, but from 1806 until his death in 1843, he lived in totally absented condition, first and briefly in hospital in Tubingen, and from 1807 on, overlooking the lovely Neckar River from a tower room in the nearby house of a kindly carpenter. His work was hardly known during the 19th century: Brahms was virtually alone in setting his poetry to music in the Song of Destiny. Stefan George and Rilke were along the modern writers who discovered him. Now he is a large figure in the landscape of German literature, mentioned in the same breath as Goethe and Schiller, and probably much more read than the latter. A fate, and indeed a voice, not unlike that of William Blake.

Susette Gontard, from whom he was separated when he was dismissed from his post in 1798 and with whom, for a while, he carried on an anguished correspondence, died in June 1802, the month of Holderin’s collapse. His name for her was Diotima, and this he addressed several poems to her. The original Diotima – the ‘o’ is long and stressed— occurs in Plato’s Symposium. Socrates calls her his instructress in the art of love. She may well be a fictional character he has invented for the occasion –at any rate, Socrates describes a conversation with her in which she teachers him as he is given to teaching others (and as he has just set Agathon straight). About Holderlin’s Diotima it should be understood that she shared his sense of the Greek ideal –actually quite a radical posture for the day— and that their conversation was invaluable to him as a means of clarifying his thoughts and feelings on that subject.

Harbison’s Diotima is not a setting of Holderin’s (in the sense that, say, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending could be called an instrumental setting of George Meredith’s poem). The poem is, rather, parallel to and a confirmation of the composition. “Parallel” wants to be understood with caution: the static interludes that interrupt the melody have no counterpart in the poem. The melody begins almost at once, piano but intense, in oboe and violins. The first interruption comes as trilling flutes, a great wash of harp sound, repeated notes and arpeggios in piccolo and clarinets, and disembodied string chords. Syncopated brass chords make a transition to the return of the melody, its sound enriched with a new and flowing figuration in harp and second violins. After another interruption, the melody comes back – or rather, continues – with a new chorale as counter-melody. At the next resumption, the accompanying figurations are quicker than before, and they have sufficient energy to end for dominating the texture entirely. After another interruption and resumption/return, the music becomes quiet: the feeling is clearly one of coda. But after that coda comes another – the raging gale in the icy bleak night, one minute of agitated, violent sound, all new, unbeholden to anything we have heard earlier. But what remains in the memory afterwards is the melody. The violent allegro is merely “now.” The melody, the peace-giving, heavenly music is the assurance that Diotima lives as do delicate blossoms in winter.

—Michael Steinberg

John Harbison likened his Diōtima to a tone poem in its connections to German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s work of the same name, declaring that the piece prophesizes the mind going, creating a puzzling sense of “ecstatic vision,” demolished by the last two lines of the piece. The sense of stopping and searching never left the piece’s core, which the orchestra explored with great depth. Most interestingly, Harbison mentioned that he didn’t trust symphonic players with swinging jazz motives: everything on the page is strictly written how he’d like it to sound, escaping an assumed jazz sound that can so often become bungled in the overarching theme. His swinging rhythms, curiously, did not sound like jazz, rather a puzzled, searching lilt.
Rachel Fuller, Boston Musical Intelligencer,31/10/2017
John Harbison’s Diotima was a cloudy orchestral daydream, with a slowly unfurling melody in the violins perforated by inquisitive interruptions. One section, an intricate dance of harp and flute, was especially arresting. The clamorous ending roared up out of nowhere, shocking everyone back to earth.
Zoë Madonna, Boston Globe,30/10/2017
[Harbison's] work is sometimes thorny, angular and rhythmically dense; other times, sweet as the sun. Diotima veers toward the latter mood. Diotima was Plato’s fanciful instructor in . . . the appreciation of beauty
Keith Powers, WBUR the ARTery ,26/10/2017
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