I’m guilty. I freely admit it. I still believe in orchestras and composing symphonies. As I write this, I’m flying to Phoenix to hear Michael Christie conduct a young soprano named Victoria Vargas and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in the debut of my Symphony No. 5.
What in the world is a symphony, anyway? Virgil Thomson, listening to my first symphony, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1991, told me that a symphony is whatever the composer says it is. My mentor David Diamond, whose tenth symphony I likened to “a massive tombstone suspended over the audience” in a review for Ear Magazine (He was far from amused; I was very young.), called my second symphony, premiered by the Oakland Symphony in 1993, “a brilliant, idealistic hot mess.” (He was right: it was an enormous aesthetic belly flop — but, oh, the splash it made!) My third, premiered in 1998 by the Wisconsin Philharmonic, as far as Ned Rorem was concerned, finally “got it right — but it’s no Aaron (Copland, not Kernis), Schuman (Bill, not Robert), or Harris third.” (One reason composers avoid using the term “symphony” is that critics still prostrating themselves before the classics come loaded for bear and who needs the hassle?) I was busy writing operas for the next decade. My fourth was premiered in 2009 by the Albany Symphony and included (as if only to make it that much more unlikely to ever be repeated) a huge chorus. The conductor, during a preconcert talk we gave together, wondered aloud “why composers bother to write symphonies anymore.”
Why bother? Because, for better or worse, the symphony remains the greatest technical and aesthetic challenge and resulting statement that a serious composer can attempt outside of opera — and I’ve already written nine of those.
Virgil’s quip notwithstanding, symphonies do tend to have a few things in common besides their composers’ lofty ambitions. Because symphonies tend to be long, they require of the composer a command of large-scale musical structure — form remains the great fascination of all mature artists. The moniker itself invites comparisons with the great symphonic works of the past and accepts the proposition that a serious composer is more than just a “visionary” unknowingly reinventing the wheel, but rather part of a continuum much larger than they, just as a parent is. In short, writing a symphony means that you still believe in them. And I do.
The big, quasi-nationalistic, possibly “preposterously public” American symphonies of the 40s, written when such “Big Statements” were still “okay,” remain our country’s noblest contribution to the west’s musical repertoire, despite the long aria of denigration sung by the generation of modernists writing huge chamber works that followed. That generation, by and large, avoided writing them. Copland’s “uncommon man,” which he folded into his third symphony, and which he never intended in a gender-specific way, sings out with undiminished brilliance, the pilot fish commentaries upon it that have followed notwithstanding.
“Why did you write this?” asked Leonard Bernstein when I played him a recording of the last movement of my second. “Because if I’m gonna fail, I want to fail big,” I responded. “Good man,” he said. I was in my 20s then, and the stakes then were so much smaller. Colleagues like the indomitable Richard Danielpour and Lowell Liebermann were taking on the “big form,” too, and suffered for awhile being unfairly branded as arch-conservative for their trouble. I’m still amazed that so many composers and conductors think that it is “contemporary” to put wrong notes in or reckon that the inability to modulate from one key to another suavely constitutes anything but a musical handicap.
Claude Debussy avoided the issue by calling his symphony “La Mer.” David Diamond, like Gustav Mahler before him, dreaded coming to the point at which he had to decide whether to exceed Beethoven’s nine with his own tenth. Composers can be pretty crafty in their avoidance: sometimes they sidestep a tricky number (not to mention potentially unflattering comparisons) by calling their new symphony “Das Lied von der Erde,” for example, or — like Rorem and Schuman — “String Symphony.” Bernstein, Copland and Rorem titled three symphonies by number each. In any event, Roy Harris wrote 18; Shostakovich 15; Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin composed nine. Brahms could not bring himself to exceed four. God bless Alan Hovhaness and his 67 (or maybe 73!).
There are many kinds of hubris to which a serious, ambitious composer can succumb. One is thinking that one has written a great opera the first time out. Another is undertaking the writing of a fifth symphony, knowing in your bones that Beethoven’s hangs, at once weightless and all-heavy, over you like an enormous tombstone.
I recently read this truism, attributed to Curtis Institute of Music opera department head Mikael Eliasen: “I’m so often frustrated with contemporary music. How can one truly communicate through the arts after the devastation of the Second World War?” Re-creators ask this question. It made me recall that Witold Lutoslawski posed virtually the same question to me during a lesson in Evian in 1983 while looking through one of my pieces. Then, he closed the music, looked me in the eye and answered his own question: “The answer is to create works of art. Create. Or the bad guys win.”
That’s why I’m on a plane to Phoenix. I still believe in symphonies, the repertoire, the arc of history and the Big Statement. Guilty as charged. Too late to take the Fifth.