Celebrating Zwilich’s First Symphony

Mayday! May Day. May 1st. As good a day as any to celebrate beginnings.

Here’s a question for you: What does it mean to write a first symphony? Perhaps for Beethoven it meant self-assertion, a way of setting himself apart from his classical forebears. Perhaps for Brahms it meant living in a world after Beethoven and composing in the company of his by turns inspiring and oppressive ghost. Perhaps for Mahler it meant showing that the symphony had a place in an age of Wagner and Strauss, that it had sufficient epic pull in a concert culture of program music. Perhaps for Bruckner it meant a path toward the divine. Perhaps for Prokofiev and Shostakovich it meant something about returning to the classical origins of the form, reminding a twentieth-century audience that symphonies didn’t have to be hour-long plummetings into the pool of Weltschmerz, although they knew plenty about that. And after the wars? And in the U.S.? Perhaps it came to mean something like. . .self-assertion, at individual and national levels, or living in a world after. . .well, after lots of things—a world of post-ness—or a claim that a first symphony could possess epic pull or was a path to the divine or that it could still manage classical deftness. In fact, it gradually came to mean all those things and more: an overburdened opportunity, and so very irresistible for it, even in a post-symphonic age. I caught the symphonic bug early myself and attempted a three-movement Symphony No. 1, not that anything particularly useful came of it except perhaps an appreciation for composers who could manage it better than I. And it so happens that two fellow San Antonio composers are even now laboring away at symphonies (Brian Bondari, and James Syler, on his second).

(Nexus entry.)

The album I listened to for this entry contains a Symphony No. 1, of course, a work that scored the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Some of the aims of this particular first symphony are probably similar to those proposed above. Possessed of an immense lyrical wealth akin to late Mahler or Berg or the agonizing side of Shostakovich, it has about it the atmosphere of the epic. At the same time it’s three relatively brief movements taken together clock in at a modest seventeen to eighteen minutes, terser even than most of Papa Haydn’s. The composer (still living) was, as the awarding of the Pulitzer indicates, an American, and here’s where things get more interesting. Does it sound like the great American symphony, and if so, how?

I heard Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s First Symphony long ago as an undergraduate but then hadn’t heard it in the intervening (ahem) years until I recently pulled it from the shelf of the listening library in order to revisit what I understood as an important American work in the genre. Zwilich [pronounced ZWILL-ik] was, after all, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, a mighty accomplishment in the early 1980s, which, although it was post­-many things, was also pre-many others. I speculate that the prize committee heard in Zwilich’s First something that did sound American to them, not in a flag-waving sense but in a finger-on-the-pulse one, and that they also understood that the composer’s accomplishment represented an important part of the American story, as indeed it did and does.

But the thing that strikes me so powerfully as I return to this symphony is how skillfully Zwilich makes a Euro-American hybrid. I hear the aching strings of Mahler and Berg—she was a violinist first, and it shows—but the texture is far leaner, clear and direct, even Coplandesque at times, primed for effective communication with a larger, American public. In the liner notes for the album, Zwilich explains that she had “long been interested in the elaboration of large-scale works from the initial material.” That might sound like a Schoenbergian way of talking about what happens in symphonic space, but when you listen to the opening of the First Symphony, you hear a major third once, then a second time, then a third time, and that repetition establishes the rising motive that becomes a theme. This strategy—the straightforward communication through repetition of a simple initial idea, a germ, that will give rise to the rest—is more appropriate to Beethoven’s Fifth than to most works with such notable modernist credentials. Mass communication of classical music, like Texaco sponsoring broadcasts from the Met from 1931 to 2003, sounds pretty American, doesn’t it?

The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, isn’t it?

But more is needed to make that communication work than the repetition of an ascending major third, however beautifully varied or artfully orchestrated. And Zwilich does give more. The central developmental section of the first movement doesn’t sound like but is informed by melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestrational logic reminiscent of the action-oriented music of late-1970s and early-1980s big-budget Hollywood film scores. More specifically, I hear the development section as a cousin of John Williams’s score for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). There’s probably more to say about specific connections between film scores and (latent) narrativity in Zwilich’s symphony. Richard Dyer writes in the liner notes that, despite the fact that the composer usually waits for commissions, she began her First Symphony before she had one, and that the “first fifteen bars,” from which “everything in the work arises,” she felt “compelled to write.” Who knows what lies behind this, what it was that compelled her? But the lyrical language of the work, which moves between anguish and repose, opens the door to the narrative imagination. We needn’t walk through. It’s easy enough to accept Zwilich’s work as “absolute music,” and my suggestion about a certain affinity with contemporaneous film scores is about the materials of music: notes, rhythms, and textures. Moreover, these notes, rhythms, and textures link what was going on in the classical season of orchestras in the late 1970s and 1980s and what was going on (or starting to go on) in the pops season. Finger on the pulse indeed.

(Nexus exit.)

ETZ, from the composer’s website. . .

As always, there’s so very much to say. A work like Zwilich’s First Symphony deserves lengthier exposition, a rich and nuanced reading: it is a worthy and wonderful work, and important since Zwilich has to date written four other symphonies. Go listen to it if you haven’t, or listen to it again if you’ve forgotten it. But this album contains two other fine works as well—Prologue and Variations (1984) and Celebration (1984)—all played admirably by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under John Nelson. Celebration particularly fascinated me on this listening, unmistakably evoking the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony and anticipating the Tarantella movement of Corigliano’s First Symphony. If neither of those works seem particularly celebratory in those places, then you’ll understand something of my fascination with the rhetorical riddle of Zwilich’s title. And discovering for the first time or rediscovering something fascinating is well worth celebrating.

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