A Vision in Sound
Jennifer Higdon b. 1962
Jennifer Higdon
b. 1962
Jennifer Higdon
blue cathedral

While grief can paralyzes ordinary individuals, it can inspire great artists to create their finest works. We owe many of the greatest masterpieces in classical music to the ability – in fact, sometimes the emotional need – of their creators to embark on the disciplined outpouring of emotion that constitutes great art. Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, Brahms’ Horn Trio, for example, were composed in response to the death of a loved one; Schubert’s final works, the Quintet in C major, the song cycle Die Winterreise and others sustained him as he approached his own death. Jennifer Higdon composed blue cathedral as a memorial to her brother.

Composer, flutist and conductor Jennifer Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in composition, a B.M. in flute performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma from The Curtis Institute of Music and is currently on the music composition faculty of the Curtis Institute. She has received many national awards and grants, and her list of commissioners is a veritable who’s who of American music. Her music is extensively performed and also recorded.

Higdon composed blue cathedral in 1999 on commission from the Curtis Institute to commemorate its 75th anniversary. It premiered the following year and has become one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works in the United States, receiving more than 50 performances in the 2004 -'05 season alone.

Higdon expressed some of her thoughts about the creation of this vaguely programmatic work: “When I began blue cathedral, it was the one-year anniversary of my (younger) brother’s death, so I was pondering a lot of things about the journey we make after death. …I was imagining a traveler on a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky (therefore making it a blue color). …I wanted the music to sound like it was progressing into this constantly opening space, feeling more and more celebratory...As the journey progresses, the individual would float higher and higher above the floor, soaring towards an expanded ceiling where the heart would feel full and joyful.”

The sound of high-pitched bells and percussion throughout blue cathedral creates an ethereal atmosphere, while Higdon’s own instrument, the flute, and her brother’s, the clarinet, give an intimate personal dimension to the piece. The work opens quietly, with whispered cellos and the delicate sounds of bells. Example 1 The solo flute introduces the main theme of the work and is joined by the clarinet. Example 2 The two instruments expand on the theme together, gradually building in volume and orchestration until reaching a dance-like climax. Example 3 After returning to the gentle sounds of a flute duet and solos for English horn with glockenspiel. Example 4 Additional instruments enter one by one including oboe, violin and cello. The tempo picks up leading into an almost military incarnation of the theme for low brass and percussion. Example 5

Higdon, using a host of musical effects created by the high range of the strings, bells and percussion, restates the main theme with the full orchestra. The piece ends quietly, returning to the main theme again with flute, clarinet and English horn over gently muted strings. As the clarinet fades, a prepared piano, with two screws added to change the timbre to sound more like a clock chiming, gives thirty-three strikes in groups of three, representing the age of her brother when he passed away. Example 6
Kenji Bunch b. 1973
Kenji Bunch
b. 1973
Kenji Bunch
Symphony No. 1: Lichtenstein Triptych

There are currently no audio examples for this work

Composer and violist Kenji Bunch is a native of Portland, Oregon who graduated in both viola and composition from Juilliard. He has recently returned to his native city after 22 years in New York, where he composed, performed, and taught at the Juilliard pre-college school. As one of only three composers selected nationwide to inaugurate the Meet the Composer “Magnum Opus” Project, he composed his Symphony No. 1: Lichtenstein Triptych in 2004. Bunch still maintains an active career as a performing violist with the Flux string quartet, which is dedicated to performing cutting edge new music, and the performing composer group Ne(x)tworks. Comfortable in many musical genres, he also plays fiddle and sings in the bluegrass band Citigrass, and has been a featured guest performer with many noted rock and jam bands.

Bunch used three Roy Lichtenstein paintings from the 1960s as inspiration for his Symphony. Pop artist Lichtenstein (1923-1997) used the hard-edged images of the classical comic strips as a means to satirize contemporary popular culture. He described pop art as “Industrial painting.”

Bunch writes: “Ever since a high school art class exposed me to the work of the late Roy Lichtenstein, I’ve found inspiration in his ability to re-contextualize vernacular images as serious art. Often, I find myself working toward a similar goal with my music- to refit elements of popular music for the formalized environment of the concert hall. Thus, it seemed a natural step to dedicate my first major orchestral work to his work.” Bunch sees himself as writing in a “cartoon sound world” that pays homage to sound track composers Carl Stalling, Bernard Hermann and to a degree Leonard Bernstein. The Symphony is eclectic, moving freely from classical to jazz, pop and movie music. Just as Lichtenstein co-opted the styles and clichés of advertising and comic strips, Bunch borrows from cartoon music and film soundtracks.

The first painting, "Varoom!" is a big explosion, the word itself coming at the viewer in the middle of a starburst of yellow that resolves into a spiky halo of red and black rays. In an interview as part of his Meet the Composer grant, Bunch said: “What I love about it is we see this big colorful boom! on the canvas, and we don't know how it got there. Is it a good thing or bad thing? I love the ambiguity! I wanted to write music that sort of suggests what this explosion could be and what might happen before and after. So the music is all about big buildups and climaxes and denouements.

In the second movement, Bunch switches from unrestrained energy to the sentimental nostalgia of 1940s movie music, inspired by Lichtenstein’s We Rose Up Slowly, a picture of lovers embracing underwater. Musical allusions to Mahler (the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony) and Wagner pervade the movement, including a quote of the famous “Tristan” chord progression that symbolizes the love that can only be resolved in death. Bunch describes the movement as and example of “hyper-romanticism.” He gives his own instrument, the viola center stage to open the movement.

The third image shows a couple riding in a car; she is blond with her eyes half closed and her neck swathed in a leopard skin collar; he is at the wheel, black-haired and looking at her out of the corner of his eye. Randomly spaced lines of black and white symbolize that the car is going very fast. This movement is a moto perpetuo of manic cartoon energy.
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky 1839-1881
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition (Orch. Maurice Ravel)

Modest Musorgsky, one of the wild cards of nineteenth century Russian music, left very few completed scores by the time of his early death from alcoholism. Of his meager output, the operas Boris Godunov and the uncompleted Khovanshchina, some songs, the short orchestral score St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, have stood the test of time. Although Boris and St. John’s Night are most often heard in Nikolay Rimsky Korsakov’s “corrected” version, they now are considered among the highlights of Russian music. Musorgsky was a member of the “Mighty Five” – together with Mily Balakirev, Aleksander Borodin, Cesar Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov – whose goal was to further the pan-Slavic movement and Russian nationalist music.

In July 1873 Musorgsky’s close friend, the young architect and painter Victor Gartman (The Germans mistakenly called him Hartmann, an error that has been perpetuated in much of the old literature – there is no H in the Russian alphabet), died suddenly. The following year a posthumous showing of his drawings, paintings and designs was presented in St. Petersburg. Much of Gartman’s work was fantastic and bizarre in nature, elements which held a special fascination for Musorgsky, who set out to create a musical memorial to his friend in the form of a suite of piano pieces. He depicted his impressions of ten of the pictures, portraying himself as the observer in the Promenade that introduces the work and serves as connector between the tableaux.

A striking aspect of the suite is the nearly complete absence of any subjective emotion in a work directly inspired by a great personal loss. Musorgsky gives us his personal impressions of Gartman’s art, but rarely of his feelings about Gartman’s death. Even in the Promenade, strolling from picture to picture, he portrays a cool, objective viewer rather than a grieving friend. Example 1

There is no evidence that Musorgsky ever planned to orchestrate the suite, although many of the pieces stretch the piano to its limits, crying out for orchestration. The score was not published until five years after the composer’s death, at which point other composers started its long history of orchestrated versions. The first was Mikhail Tushmalov in 1890, followed by Sir Henry Wood, Lucien Cailliet, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy and many others. But the most popular and by far the most successful “recomposition” is the one by Maurice Ravel, done in 1922 under a commission from the conductor Sergey Koussevitzky.

One of the most striking features of Musorgsky’s piano version, further enhanced by Ravel’s orchestration, is the vivid tone painting that enables the listener to actually visualize the painting. And it’s a good thing too since the originals of some of Gartman’s works upon which the suite is based are either lost or inaccessible.

In addition to the Promenade the pictures that inspired the ten tableaux of the suite are:

1. Gnomus: A sketch of a little gnome on crooked legs, said to be a design for a nutcracker. Example 2

2. Il vecchio castello: A medieval castle before which a troubadour sings a love song. The mournful sound of the alto saxophone was Ravel’s stroke of genius. Example 3

3. Tuileries: Children quarreling and nurses shouting in an avenue in the Tuileries garden in Paris. Example 4

4. Bydlo: A Polish oxcart with enormous wheels, plowing through the mud, gradually approaching, passing by and disappearing again. Example 5

5. Ballet of the chickens in their shells: Aa design for a scene from the ballet Trilby. Example 6

6. Two Polish Jews: One rich, Example 7 the other poor Example 8 – No picture by Gartman corresponding to this tableau has ever been found. The subtitle “Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle” is a late addition, not by Mussorgsky. Ravel uses the basses and a solo muted trumpet to represent the two characters.

7. The market place of Limoges: French women quarreling violently in the market. Example 9

8. Catacombs: The interior of the catacombs in Paris illuminated by lantern light with the figure of Gartman himself in the shadows. Example 10

8a.“Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (“With the dead in a dead language”): The promenade, in the minor mode and like plainchant, constitutes the second part of the Catacombs. Example 11

9. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs: Baba-Yaga, the hideous old crone of Russian folklore, who lives in a hut supported on fowl legs and flies around in an iron mortar was Gartman’s design for the face of a clock. Example 12

10. The Great Gate of Kiev: Gartman’s design for a memorial gate in Kiev in honor of Tsar Alexander II. The design is in the massive Old Russian style, topped by a cupola in the shape of the helmet of the old Slavic warriors. While Musorgsky was only able to approximate the sound of the devout congregations singing old Church Slovanic chant, Ravel's sound is much closer. Example 13 But pianists simply run out of fingers imitating the deep sustained sound of the Russian churchbells, Example 14 while orchestra has infinitely more flexibility in its ability to sustain notes and create the most subtle textures and colors. Example 15 in other passages he used not only the obvious bells, but also tuba and violins to capture the combined sound of large and small bells. Example 16

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014