Symphony No. 4: River Music

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Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 4.18.27 PM.png

Symphony No. 4: River Music


for mixed chorus and orchestra (2009)

  • Premiere: 9 May 2009 / The Palace Theater, Albany, New York / Albany Pro Musica / Albany Symphony Orchestra / David Alan Miller
  • Instrumentation:
  • "Commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller, Music Director"
  • Duration: 27'
  • Text: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain (E)

I. Largamente -- II. Allegro -- III. Sostenuto assai

David Alan Miller

David Alan Miller

Program note

"There are roughly three New Yorks,” wrote E.B. White in his classic essay Here is New York. “There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”

Born in the Midwest, I came to New York to seek my fortune as a composer of concert music. I have over the years, when feeling sick at heart, or in need of strength, periodically boarded the Staten Island Ferry to see “my” City, to watch it first recede into the Hudson’s mouth, and then, on the return trip, to enjoy the stirring, majestic view of the Manhattan skyline that millions of immigrants witnessed upon their arrival in America. I will never forget how I felt the first time I rode the ferry after the Towers were felled. I still take strength from the pilgrimage.

As a New Yorker, I have for over two decades ridden the train up and down the Hudson to Saratoga Springs, in order to compose at my beloved Yaddo, an artist colony there. These trips are always voyages of discovery in both directions: northbound towards the creative unknown of Artistic Retreat; southbound to the hurly-burly of Career.

That same train served as my commute to and from Rhinecliff, where for a decade I disembarked each week to teach at Bard College, and where I now travel with my wife and son to visit his grandparents. I’ve made most of the major decisions of my adult life while observing the sun either rise or set over the Hudson. The hypnotic sound of the rails, the sense of suspension between places that travel creates, the glorious river, always moving; these things have always helped me to think, to plan, to create.

As E.B. White categorized his New Yorks, I have categorized my Hudsons: the first movement (in which the chorus sings words by Mark Twain about another river) explores the Hudson Upstate as a metaphor for that which is gained and lost when a person reaches the Age of Reason. The second is a portrait of the Hudson as it meets the ocean. The third (in which the chorus sings words by Walt Whitman) is a musical evocation of the thoughts and the views I’ve had over the years as I watched the Lordly Hudson flow by during those countless commutes.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered River Music, with the Albany Pro Musica Chorus, under the direction of Music Director David Alan Miller on 9 May 2008 in Albany, New York.

— Daron Hagen, 2008

Palace Theater, Albany, NY.

Palace Theater, Albany, NY.


Daron Hagen’s Symphony No. 4: River Music, which received its world premiere, was inspired by the Hudson River from Hagen’s many commutes north on Amtrak from New York City. The 80-voice Albany Pro Musica, under the able direction of David Griggs-Janower, sang expertly on two of the three movements with texts from Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and Walt Whitman’s “Specimen Days.”

Although Hagen had not intended the work to be site specific, the outer two movements with the chorus were very riparian in scope. The lyrical lines were long with expansive, grand gestures — very like the river is in the south part of the state, occasionally Coplandesque in its openness. The chorus sang much of the time in unison — sometimes first the women and then the men — in accessible ranges that never strained their voices. The moods were peaceful and flowing with flutes as birdsong in the third movement. The orchestra sounded luminous.

The second instrumental movement was choppy and churning, very fast and with bright brassy colors. This was supposed to be where the Hudson meets the ocean. Conductor David Alan Miller was precise with the multi-metered, rhythmic music. The orchestra was a little less even but still energized.

The orchestration was clean and Hagen chose colors admirably suited to his inspiration. His movement endings had great panache. The large crowd seemed to like the work, which besides its flowing pastoral quality was often like a sunny, warm embrace. Even better, Hagen’s work was able to hold its own with one of the great staples of the repertoire: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

— Geraldine, Schenectady, NY9 May 2009

The Hudson, photographed by the composer on 15 January 2014.

The Hudson, photographed by the composer on 15 January 2014.

Receiving its premiere, Daron Hagen’s Symphony No. 4 “River Music” honored the Hudson River Quadricentennial and featured the Albany Pro Musica singing texts of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Though the composer said the piece reflected his struggles with the onset of middle age, the characteristics of water - surging, pooling, cascading and continually flowing onward - still came through beautifully. Midlife seems to be giving Hagen the confidence to be conservative in his writing, for his score was tuneful and old fashioned in a mid-20th century American way.

The delivery of texts was often rhythmically staggered among the vocal sections, again bringing to mind the rippling effect of water. The first movement emphasized female voices, often in a rather limited midrange, but the men had their moments in the finale, singing in a gentle and affecting whisper.

The piece was at its best in the purely orchestral sections. Birdcalls and budding flowers came through in the more tender moments, while a central movement was a gentle urban scherzo. After several boisterous themes were introduced, they piled on top of each other with clarity but never obvious cleverness. If only more composers could deliver the ASO pieces as well crafted, intelligible and concise.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 completely wiped Hagen’s tunes from memory, but Hagen had his effect on the Mahler as well. His rich and fertile score emphasized the modern austerity of Mahler’s 1889 effort. In the long horizon of the opening movement, David Alan Miller’s tempos probably weren’t any slower than standard but the sunrise did seem a long time in coming.

— Jody DaltonAlbany Times Union5/10/09

Daron Hagen is an old-school composer. In other words, he's not afraid to think big. Sure, he's written sundry little chamber and solo works. But at age 47 — relatively young for a composer — he's already composed six operas. They include "Shining Brow," on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, which was just released on disc by Naxos, and "Amelia," which premieres in May 2010 at the Seattle Opera.

Given that Hagen has also written three previous works for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, music director David Alan Miller probably didn't have to think long about which composer should be commissioned for a new work in honor of the Hudson River Quadricentennial. The nod went to Hagen, whose latest work will open Saturday's concert at the Palace Theater, the concluding program of the symphony's current season about exploration.

"David wanted a big sprawling symphony for chorus and orchestra that would tell the story of the Hudson River," says Hagen, who lives in New York. "Frankly I couldn't think of a more ungainly project unless I put it in some kind of broader context. Pieces with chorus aren't done that often anyway and I wanted something that could be performed (other places) and still make sense."

Hagen's solution was to write a symphony — his fourth — that honored the occasion but also spoke to a larger, even universal, appreciation of rivers. Toward that end, he drew on texts by Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

But Hagen also infused the piece with his own personal relationship to the Hudson.

"I taught for 10 years at Bard College and commuted up and down the Hudson. It was always on my left or right during that long period," says Hagen. "And my wife's folks live in Rhinebeck, so for the next 10 years, I've been commuting to the same town to visit my in-laws." Hagen has also traversed the Hudson Valley for numerous residencies at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs. He serves on its board, and portions of the new piece were written there.

Hagen's Symphony No. 4 "River Music" is about 38 minutes long and cast in three movements. The opening draws on texts from Twain's "Life on the Mississippi."

"It's his memoir and one of the most poignant things he ever wrote. He became a river boat pilot because he loved the river, but then that took all the romance out of the river because it was his job," says Hagen. "That's a midcareer concern of mine, too. I don't know if I've gained more or lost more by learning my craft. Twain uses water imagery as his way of talking about that issue."

Hagen characterizes the central movement, scored for orchestra alone, as a "dark scherzo," that depicts his experience of living at the mouth of the Hudson (otherwise known as Manhattan). In the final movement comes an excerpt from Whitman's Civil War journal "Specimen Days," which Hagen describes as "a moment of absolute grace and purity."

"I've made most of the major decisions of my adult life while observing the sun either rise or set over the Hudson," continues the composer. "The hypnotic sound of the rails, the sense of suspension between places that travel creates, the glorious river — these things have always helped me to think, to plan, to create."

— Joseph DaltonAlbany Times Union5/7/09