I rely on the components of particular concerts to generate my musical materials. This commission from the New York Philharmonic provided me with a unique constellation of elements that eventually formed the basis of my approach to the work. My associations as a child – attending rehearsals and performances with my father, who was then the concertmaster of the Philharmonic – gave me the opportunity of getting to know many of the men in the orchestra both as artists and friends. This feeling of intimacy governed my decision to make sure that my first work for the Philharmonic utilized the entire orchestra. I was aware that, with a wind concerto, this is a potentially dangerous thing to do – to solve problems of balance most such pieces are discreetly scored for small ensembles – but it provided me with a fascinating challenge.
My regard for the musicians of the Philharmonic also shaped their role in the accompaniment to this Concerto. In it, each player has a chance to display solo virtuosity; often the work approaches being a concerto for orchestra in its demands. The soloist, Stanley Drucker, was first clarinetist of the Philharmonic in my youth. Knowing his special gifts enabled me to write music of unprecedented difficulty for the solo instrument, and gave me the idea that generates the first movement; the opening cadenza.
I. Cadenzas: The first movement is actually two cadenzas, separated by an interlude. It starts directly with the first cadenza, subtitled “ignis fatuus” (“Will-o’-the wisp”). Like that phosphorescent flickering light, this cadenza is almost audibly invisible. The soloist begins with a rapid unaccompanied whispering run. He then appears and disappears, playing as fast as possible, leaving glowing remnants behind in the orchestra. All the material for this movement is contained in the initial cadenza, including a central chord which functions as a tonic might in conventional harmony. This chord (E-flat, D, A, E-natural) is derived from the clarinet melody, and is held by the strings under the rapid clarinet passages of the last part of the cadenza.
The interlude begins with an orchestral tutti that transforms the original clarinet run into slow, almost primeval sounds in the lower winds, while the upper strings and winds play other fragments of the cadenza. The clarinet enters and shortly after begins to pull the orchestra ahead, goading it into a more feverish tempo. The low winds then accelerate and become secco and the solo clarinet and trombones begin a contest consisting of glissandi of jagged canons, until the strings burst forth in a bubbling contrapuntal reiteration of the original clarinet run. From here to the end of the interlude, the orchestra and clarinet race ahead, building energy and preparing the listener for the percussion bursts that introduce the second cadenza, subtitled “Corona solis.”
“Corona solis” (i.e., the crown or corona of the sun) is the macrocosmic version of the microcosmic “Ignis fatuus” – the opening cadenza transformed into blazing bursts of energy, accompanied by orchestral outbursts and dominated by the soloist. “Corona solis” builds to a peak that signals the entrance of the full orchestra. This in turn builds to a long-held climax in which the “tonic” chord from the “Ignis fatuus” boils with energy. The chord eventually diminishes in intensity until at last it is held only by four solo strings. The solo clarinet then enters pianissimo, and after assisting the disintegration of the held chord, it flickers and finally disappears into silence.
II. Elegy: The slow movement, , was written in memory of my father, who died on September 1, 1975. He had been concertmaster of the Philharmonic for 23 years and I still find it hard to think of the orchestra without him sitting in the first chair. So the idea of an extended dialogue for clarinet and violin seemed not only natural but inevitable. This duet has a special poignancy for me when I remember the many years that my father and Stanley Drucker were colleagues under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.
The Elegy begins with a long, unaccompanied line for the violins. The lower strings enter, and a mood of sustained lyricism introduces the solo clarinet. The prevailing feeling is that of desolation. I deliberately avoided an emotional climax in the Elegy, feeling that by sustaining the same mood throughout the music would achieve a heightened intensity. Structurally, this movement alternates two main melodic ideas. The first (in B) is introduced by the strings, while the second (in B-flat) is presented by the clarinet. A three-note motto (C-sharp, B, B-flat), grows from the alternation of the row tonalities and provides a third major element. The movement ends as it began, with the same long violin line, this time joined by the clarinet.
III. Antiphonal Toccata: The finale is my solution to the balance problems created by using the full orchestra in a wind concerto. Early on I made a decision to save some of the instruments (five French horns, two trumpets, and two clarinets) for the final moments of the Concerto. This gave the idea of physically separating them from the rest of the orchestra, and that, in turn, led to locating them in spatial positions so that they could be used antiphonally. An immediate problem arose: that of being able to synchronize the distant instruments with the orchestra. The relatively slow speed of sound can mean up to a one-second delay between the sounding of a tone and its perception at a distance in a concert hall, making precisely synchronized playing impossible. The solution, I found, was to write music which specifically shouldn’t be synchronized, and against these erratic patterns I superimposed the opposite rhythmic idea – that of a toccata, with its regular, tightly aligned motor-rhythmic pulsations.
Antiphonal Toccata is basically in two sections: the first uses alternating calls on the stage as well as motion across the stage, and the second involves the players situated around the hall. While the strings of the orchestra are seated conventionally, the brass and percussion are re-situated for this movement, so that they engage in antiphonal conversation. Trombones and tuba, usually placed near the trumpets, are here located to the left of the stage, while the trumpets are to the right. In addition, a set of timpani is positioned on either side.
The movement begins with an irregular rhythmic pulsation at the far right of the stage as the last stands of cellos and violas play a single note which slowly moves across the stands of strings from right to left, finally ending at the far left of the stage in the last stands of violins. Over this another note emerges in the trumpets in a slow, freely pulsating rhythm.
Three bassoons and a contrabassoon provide the first melodic material, a quote from Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sonata Pian e Forte, written in 1597. (The eminent musicologist Curt Sachs wrote that, with this piece, “The art of orchestration has been born.” Gabrieli was one of the first composers to specify that particular instruments play particular lines, but his main interest for me lay in his brilliant use of antiphonal instrumental choirs.) The Gabrieli motive develops into a large pulsating chord, which contains all twelve tones and forms the first of two tone-rows used throughout the movement. The solo clarinet enters, introducing the toccata rhythm (his part is marked “computer-like”) and the second of the tone-rows, this one presented melodically. This section is followed by antiphonal calls between the solo clarinet and the stage brass. The dialogues take the form of short repeated fanfares constructed so that the choirs of instruments do not play repeated notes together, an element of non-alignment that will be developed in the finale’s second section. Solo clarinet and orchestra build to a sudden sforzando.
Five offstage horns are now heard for the first time, playing a soft, cluster-like texture. This abrupt movement of the action off the stage is counterpointed by more onstage playing, including a recapitulation of the Gabrieli motive by four solo double-basses. The solo clarinet develops this material lyrically, and is joined by the two orchestral clarinets, placed right and left at the top of the hall. All play a slow descending triple-canon. The soloist interrupts with a soft but rapid restatement of his toccata subject, but the rooftop clarinets ignore this and re-echo the descending canon. Suddenly the toccata returns fortissimo in the orchestra, establishing a momentum that continues to the end of the movement. Conversations between solo clarinet and onstage trumpet and trombones are now extended to include two offstage trumpets (rear-center of the hall). A short but highly virtuosic cadenza leads to an outburst of all offstage instruments and to a buildup of the initial row-chord in the full orchestra. This is followed by an extended coda with a fortissimo restatement of the Gabrieli theme and an antiphonal ending.
— John Corigliano