Stephen Albert's Symphony RiverRun
Symphony RiverRun, Albert's 1983 composition, is a symphony in four movements, its overall musical theme taking Finnegans Wake as its source of inspiration. This piece is one of my favorite works of music, and I cannot recommend it more highly -- I would attempt to review or describe it, but the notes below give a very full account.
|Liner notes from the Delos CD
Liner notes written by Richard Freed:
Stephen Albert was born in New York on February 6, 1941.
From the beginning, Albert has pursued a truly independent course, not as a rebel or an "outsider," but simply as a creative thinker who developed a personal outlook without regard for what may have been "in" or "out" in musical fashions, but with apparent concern for expression and communication. (Among the composers of the past whom he mentions as influential in his own work are Sibelius, who is generally undervalued today, as well as Brahms, Mahler and Stravinsky, who are certainly "in," and, in Albert's earlier years, Bartok and Ives.)
To Wake the Dead, composed 1977-1978, marked the beginning of Albert's response to that [James Joyce] literary stimulus. The song cycle TreeStone was the second, RiverRun the third, and Flower of the Mountain, composed for Lucy Shelton in 1985, brought the total of his Joycean works to four. Since the motivation for the first three of these came from Finnegans Wake, and Flower of the Mountain is a setting of the final pages of Molly Bloom's long soliloquy in Ulysses, it is surprising to have Albert tell us the A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the only work of Joyce's he had read in its entirety when he composed most of these works. "I didn't really read Finnegans Wake from beginning to end," he says; "I used it more or less as a reference work, the way other composers might use the Bible, finding certain passages in it that lend to musical treatment of a direct sort, such as actual song settings, or a more indirect sort, such as my symphony. The symphony in not really a programmatic work in the accepted sense: it represents my response to a Joycean stimulus, but that response is not the type that involves an attempt at direct imagery."
Albert is attracted, he says, to "the very musical rhythm of Joyce's language; among 20th-century poets, only T.S. Eliot and perhaps Yeats strike me as being more musical in that respect. The flashes of imagery are marvelous, and there is that convoluted nostalgia -- for under all his artful disguises and arcane language one finds a basic Irish sentiment which I for one like so much. In his work I discovered what I regard as a foreign language -- a language enormously suggestive of English, and of course directly related to English, but essentially a foreign language. Through this invented language he has been able to elusively chronicle man's endurance of tragedy and the whole human comedy . . . Finnegans Wake does not produce literal or direct images for me, but works in terms of generalized suggestions and impressions. This stimulus produces a sort of mental atmosphere that provides for me an escape from contemporary America -- in much the same way, I suppose, that the theological stimuli to which Bach responded provided him an escape from the realities of early 18th-century Leipzig."
Immediately after the premiere of RiverRun Rostropovich expressed his great enthusiasm for the work and his determination to record it. He performed the symphony again with his Washington orchestra two seasons later, and in those concerts of May/June 1987 RiverRun became the first American work to be recorded by him as conductor. The score, dedicated to Rostropovich, the National Symphony and the Hechinger Foundation, calls for three flutes, piccolo and alto flute, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contra-bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, xylophone, cymbal, triangle, glockenspiel, gong, chimes, bass drum, two harps, piano and strings. The composer provided this note of his own for the premiere:
"The Symphony RiverRun is one of two works begun at roughly the same time [early 1983]. The other work, TreeStone, is a song cycle based on selected passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the text of which forms a wildly distorted version of the Tristan and Isolde story, and is scored for soprano, tenor, and twelve instrumentalists. Both works were completed together, and they share the same musical materials. (I actually worked on the two compositions in constant alternation, though the materials common to both were put into TreeStone first.) They differ in the number and ordering of their movements, as well as their formal architecture and instrumentation."
The symphony and its four movements carry descriptive titles, not because the work is specifically programmatic, but in order to suggest its broad kinship to the song cycle (in which Ireland's Liffey River plays such a dominant role), and also to acknowledge the importance that Joyce's atmosphere in the TreeStone text had on my frame of mind. I did not do my composing to a specific programmatic outline; the titles of the symphony's four movements were affixed only after each of the respective movements was completed. The title I gave to the work as a whole, RiverRun, is in fact the very first word of the first sentence of Finnegans Wake.
The opening movement, Rain Music, is meant to convey the origins of a river. After the sharply accented chords of the movement's introduction, the music becomes quieter, suggesting an atmosphere of expectancy. The momentum of the movement gathers speed and power, finally ending with a return to the movement's opening chords, now climactically pitted against a repetition by the brass, bells, piano and harps of melodic fragments heard earlier in the movement.
While the full orchestra is heard throughout the two other movements, the inner ones are more lightly scored. The second movement, Leafy Speafing, omits the big brass and percussion; it is essentially for the strings, with two horns, woodwinds, piano, vibraphone, and harps. The alto flute's languid, cadenza-like opening is followed by a more tightly focused thematic idea from the solo viola. The two instruments then engage in a quiet dialogue against the softly changing chords until the river's relentless current reappears, now in a new guise. In mid-movement the opening dialogue reappears and is extended, but is soon swept away once again by the current. At the end is a coda in which the Voice of the River, held back until now, is heard for the first time from the horns in sharp relief over a rolling arpeggiated figure in the harps, woodwinds and strings. This brief concluding episode contains a sort of preview of what is to be encountered later as the central material of the final movement.
Instead of the conventional scherzo and trio, the third movement, Beside the Rivering Waters, is a fragmented march and scherzo. It opens with a children's song. The march, for the pit band, follows, and we are engulfed in a boozy wake, a lively funeral in which the participants try to escape their own fears of death and disconnection. The music of these two contrasting sections has a sort of music-box quality, but is altogether more raucous than that term might suggest -- pronouncedly so when the little pit band is interrupted, as it is regularly, by the large massed brass. The scherzo, in the middle, brings a return of the current, represented by a repeated idea, performed in turn by harp, piano and muted strings over a whirring background provided by those instruments in various combinations. Then the march returns abruptly, followed by the children's tune -- which is in turn transformed into a raucous pub song for the piano, saxophone and trumpet. The march, the children's tune and the subdued strains of the funeral are finally heard moving off in the distance.
Throughout the forth movement, RiversEnd, musical ideas from the preceding movements are recalled, while new elements (really old ones reconstructed and transformed) begin to appear as well. Night is falling, and the river is moving quietly into darkness. As it approaches the open sea its momentum builds and it soon becomes a torrent spilling into the ocean. The movement ends quietly, bringing the entire symphony to a close in an atmosphere of suspension and stillness.
To Wake The Dead -- (1978) This is a cycle of six songs and one instrumental interlude, with lyrics pulled from the text of Finnegans Wake.
TreeStone -- (1982) Another song cycle form Finnegans Wake, based loosely on the Tristan and Iseult legend.
Distant Hills -- (1987-89) For tenor, soprano & orchestra. Based on texts from Ulysses, this two-piece suite contains Sun's Heat and Flower of the Mountain.