1) on-stage — 4 flutes (1st and 2nd doubling piccolos), 4 oboes (4th doubling english horn), 3 sections of clarinets in Bb, 2 bass clarinets; contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 trumpets in Bb (1st and 2nd doubling D trumpets), 4 horns in F, 2 euphoniums, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (4 or 5 players), piano, harp;2) surrounding the audience — clarinet in Bb, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone;, 11 trumpets in Bb (7 or 9 ossia), 2 horns in F, percussion (3 players), string bass;3) marching band — flute/piccolo, clarinet in Eb, 2 trumpets in Bb, 2 trombones, percussion (1 player, same as surround player 2)
For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material. In this case, the shape was influenced by a desire to write a piece in which the entire work is conceived spatially. But I started simply wondering what dramatic premise would justify the encirclement of the audience by musicians, so that they were in the center of an arena. This started my imagination going, and quite suddenly a title appeared in my mind: Circus Maximus.
The Latin words, understandable in English, convey an energy and power by themselves.
But the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome was a real place -the largest arena in the world. 300,000 spectators were entertained by chariot races, hunts, and battles. The Roman need for grander and wilder amusement grew as its empire declined.
The parallels between the high decadence of Rome and our present time are obvious. Entertainment dominates our reality, and ever-more-extreme “reality” shows dominate our entertainment. Many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as the mobs of imperial Rome, who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show.
The shape of my Circus Maximus was built both to embody and to comment on this massive and glamorous barbarity. It utilizes a large concert band, and lasts approximately 35 minutes. The work is in eight sections that are played without pause:
I. Introitus — Trumpets and percussion surrounding the audience play fanfares, signaling the opening of the work. The full band enters with a primitive call from the clarinets. A short central section features the lowest winds and brass followed by the joining of the offstage and onstage ensemble playing together this time, and reaching the first climax of the work.
II. Screen/Siren — A saxophone quartet and string bass call from the 2nd tier boxes in seductive inflections. Other instruments scattered around the hall (clarinet, piccolo, horns, trumpet) echo the calls, which are suddenly interrupted by…
III. Channel Surfing — Our need for constant change echoes the desires of the ancient mob, only now we can access it all by pressing a button. Music in this section is constantly interrupted by other music and comes from all sections of the hall.
IV. Night Music I — Tranquility in nature. Away from cities, forest sounds suspend time. Animals call to each other.
V. Night Music II — The hyper night-music of the cities pulse with hidden energy and sudden flashes. Sirens and distant battles onstage build the tension to…
VI. Circus Maximus — The peak of the work incorporates all the other movements and is a carnival of sonoric activity. A band marching down the aisles counterpoints the onstage performers and the surrounding fanfares. Exuberant voices merge into chaos and a frenzy of overstatement.
VII. Prayer — In answer to this, a long-lined serene melody is set against a set of plagal (IV-I) cadences that circle through all the keys. The rising line grows in intensity against the constantly changing harmonies as the chords overlap from stage to surround trumpets and back.
VIII. Coda: Veritas — Music from the Introitus enters almost inaudibly, but grows in intensity until it dominates the “prayer” music, and the surrounding trumpet calls reach an even higher peak. A gunshot ends the work.
– John Corigliano