"Hagen describes the work in spiritual terms—" writes Joseph Dalton, "a reflection of the current stage of his writing as well as the mystical aspects of the three paintings he selected." Those three paintings, from the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art, where the work was premiered, were displayed when the Chamber Symphony was performed; the audience was invited to view them before and after the performance.
The first movement, entitled Woman Praying, is inspired by a painting of a young girl kneeling before a small altar, which is seen from the back, by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923), an American who spent most of his career in Europe and is associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Hagen responded with a movement based on a twelve note passacaglia that he first used in the first movement of his Trio Concertante (1984) and then recast in the first movement of the (withdrawn) ballet score Interior, commissioned in 1988 by the Juilliard Dance Division. The use of the passacaglia has a number of important associations for Hagen. Writes the composer, 'I have used it over the years in emotionally febrile musical contexts; I think of this particular passacaglia as the basis for the sort of 'circular dreaming' one experiences when ill.' Indeed, the painting that Hagen last responded to with this material was Degas' 'Interior — the Rape.' Hagen writes, 'I gave the girl in Vedder's painting a past (in my imagination) by associating her with that passacaglia. Maybe she is praying because she has been the victim of some sort of assault. Of course, the audience isn't expected to know this, but I believe that they intuit that something is wrong and that is the context in which I wanted them to experience Vedder's painting.'
Thomas Cole's (1801-1848) Gardens of the Rensselaer Manor House inspires Hagen to create a set of variations on an original waltz tune. (Hagen takes the title of Cole's painting for his movement's title.) Cole, a founder of the Hudson River School of painters, renders an idyllic garden scene with a basket of flowers strewn on a path, as though left by someone called away in haste. "The tension between the decorative (the landscape) and the narrative (the abandoned flowers) is acute. The dropped basket of flowers electrifies the painting for me," Hagen writes, "because we don't who the carrier was or why he or she dropped them in the midst of all this beauty. Perhaps it was the girl from Vedder's painting? Is this the scene of the assault?" During the course of the variations, what begins as a simple, diatonic waltz tune becomes increasingly chromatic, "decidedly decadent," Hagen notes. "I wanted to describe a lovely afternoon (or a life) gone quite wrong and ending very badly." The movement ends with the music of the first movement returning, the notes of the waltz tune having been transformed into the notes of the passacaglia.
The final movement, entitled Finale, is based on Captial Region painter Thom O'Connor's (born 1937) abstract modernist painting of a cruciform entitled Ancient Dream IV. "When I saw this painting in the context of the other two," writes Hagen, "I knew that this was the emotional and psychological place in which the girl (and I) had to end up after the events of the first two paintings / movements. Are we seeing a crucifix through tears?" Hagen's music is more epigramatical than narrative or developmental in this movement. Ideas from the previous movements are put into musical collage with several new ideas, creating an abstract musical space that is nevertheless emotionally evocative, intimate, and introspective.
Commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra for the Capital Region Heritage Project, 2003, the Chamber Symphony was first performed at the Albany Institute of History and Art by members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by Music Director David Alan Miller on 8 March 2003.