John Harbison: Symphony No.4


American composer John Harbison composed his Fourth Symphony in 2003 after a commission from the Seattle Symphony came through. The work was premiered in Seattle in June 2004 by the Seattle Symphony, with Gerard Schwarz at the helm. Harbison was very detailed in his programme notes, shedding light on the difficult time he was having personally:


“One morning at eight, in Bogliasco, Italy, where I was working, I received a phone call – two o’clock the caller’s time. I cannot describe the knowledge that struck during that call except to say that the breath of mortality, bearing at this moment on the person closest to me, came suddenly and radically near.

Other action temporarily impossible, I went to work and by eleven A.M. had composed in every detail the fourth movement, which (perhaps superstitiously) I have not subsequently revised. This “Threnody” is not about loss but about the imminence and inevitability of loss at times we of course do not choose. Its early completion, far ahead now of the rest of the piece, affected the character of the whole symphony, especially the last movement, whose ritual formality embraces the frantic dance and march which attempt to modify its character.”


The Music

Cast into five movements, the Fourth Symphony lasts c.28 minutes in duration. Harbison makes good use of a large orchestra, calling on a number of percussionists and brass players. 


Movement I – Fanfare

In working on a large piece I often begin by following the strongest impulses that present themselves, independently, until they begin to form a large, inter-dependent design. This piece began (as it begins) with a brash fanfare answered by solo instruments in a more informal friendly conversation.”

The bombastic opening fanfare is full of colour and energy. Harbison’s distribution of dissonance creates intrigue in the music which is then carried through the rest of the symphony. The jaunty string theme is passed to the woodwind who jest with the other sections with this memorable theme. As Harbison layers the textures together, the opening theme blossoms into fruition as the rich harmony sings out. This short opening movement concludes with a flute flourish.

Movement II – Intermezzo

“The second “movement” questions these certainties – mysterious bell-sounds, pauses, long spun-out circling string solos, and a concluding recessional, a brief tambeau for Stravinsky (set on a Venetian canal.)”

An opening creeping theme opens the Intermezzo movement. Harbison employs the tuned percussion and harp in abundance in this movement, as their glistening textures accompany soloists throughout. A mysterious sounding chain of soloists take over, starting with a French horn. Harbison chooses instruments with very different timbres to create a unique sequence of themes. The tempo throughout is reserved which builds the intensity of the music throughout. A small reprise to the opening theme closes this atmospheric movement. 


Movement III – Scherzo

“A third constellation, reasserts the healthy energies of the first section, two games of play with simple rhythms, surrounding a reflective island.”

Next, a jaunty Scherzo joins the mix. The bassoons lead the opening statement of the theme. Harbison utilises the woodwind and percussion the most in this movement, with intricate writing and clever harmonic language dominating his style. Waves of tranquility lay between the chaotic scherzo theme, giving the listening a real feast for the ears. As the tempo picks up near the end of the movement, the thrill of the music becomes much more prominent. A theme played in unison by the strings dominates the last minute of music, as Harbison’s hard work begins to pay off. The movement concludes with a percussion interlude.


Movement IV – Threnody

The lyrical fourth movement is chiefly led by the strings with a rich and broad melody. The woodwind and brass subtly accompany as the theme is drawn out across the movement. Harbison’s string writing here is bold and solid in technique and presentation, and this subsequently leads to an almighty climax section that is both thrilling, but also reserved. As it began, this movement finishes quietly.


Movement V – Finale

“In making the last movement I thought of the wonderful Emily Dickinson line, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”.”

The final movement of the Fourth Symphony opens with a call and response figure between the strings and brass. Intricate interludes between the different sections of the orchestra ensue, with the strings bounding off with a quick-paced theme.  Perhaps the most intricate movement of the five, the finale is bursting with angular rhythms, bold unison playing and virtuosic solo lines. The music concludes with an almighty theme enhanced by the side drum, leading to a dramatic finish.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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