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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Symphony No. 4 (2003)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
27 Minutes
Programme Note
John Harbison Symphony No. 4 (2003)

Composer Note:

Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony with funds from Richard and Constance Albrecht; it is a pleasure to celebrate their faith in the future of concert music.

In some way the Symphony began with a summer drive to the Hollywood Bowl in 1986, my first day in L.A., with the person who became my best friend there, Deborah Card. She has "collaborated" with me on The Most Often Used Chords for the LA Chamber Orchestra, and again on this fourth symphony.

I have been fortunate that my symphonies were written for orchestras (Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Seattle) that had experienced my music before. And I am fortunate to place the piece in the hands of Gerard Schwarz, one of new music's irreplaceable champions.

In working on a large piece I often begin by following the strongest impulses that present themselves, independently, until they begin to form a large, inter-dependent design. This piece began (as it begins) with a brash fanfare answered by solo instruments in a more informal friendly conversation.

The second "movement" questions these certainties - mysterious bell-sounds, pauses, long spun-out circling string solos, and a concluding recessional, a brief tambeau for Stravinsky (set on a Venetian canal.) A third constellation, reasserts the healthy energies of the first section, two games of play with simple rhythms, surrounding a reflective island.

Fine, these, but still introductory - some kind of pedal note, or downbeat needed to be heard next to ground the five-movement design I perceived from the first glimmer, but I couldn't bring it in. I decided to wait and outlined a final movement instead-healthy, celebratory, integrated. But everything remained very provisional, lacking a clarifying center.

One morning at eight, in Bogliasco, Italy, where I was working, I receive a phone call - two o'clock the caller's time. I cannot describe the knowledge that struck during that call except to say that the breath of mortality, bearing at this moment on the person closest to me, came suddenly and radically near.

Other action temporarily impossible, I went to work and by eleven A.M. had composed in every detail the fourth movement, which (perhaps superstitiously) I have not subsequently revised. This "Threnody" is not about loss but about the imminence and inevitability of loss at times we of course do not choose. Its early completion, far ahead now of the rest of the piece, affected the character of the whole symphony, especially the last movement, whose ritual formality embraces, the frantic dance and march which attempt to modify its character.

In making the last movement I thought of the wonderful Emily Dickinson line, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes."

-- John Harbison

...a well-crafted work of surprising dimensions and mercurial temperament. With its genteel use of dissonance, the piece is conservative in style. The symphony begins with a rather grand fanfare - insistent strings balanced with brass and tightly held rhythms - that one might think would set the tone for the piece. But in fact, it does not. It merely announces the beginning of a journey... The Intermezzo is appealing and lyrical, while the Scherzo is refreshingly piquant, with a free-flowing section that lends the typical scherzo sensibility an almost novel sensation, occasionally popular in its references...[both] provide imaginative breadth. The fourth movement, "Threnody," gives the work its emotional depth. At first this song of lament is quiet, but then it evolves into a cry of anguish.
RM Campbell, Seattle Post-Intelligencer,01/01/0001
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