Symphony No. 1 ("RiverRun")

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            Stephen Albert was an impressively talented American composer who studied with luminaries, achieved great recognition early on, and produced an impressive body of work before his untimely death at the age of fifty-one in 1992.   That said, it does little justice at all to the remarkable musician and thoughtful human being that he was.  His reflections upon the artistic process, what it means to create art that speaks to our collective humanity, and the relationship between the musical past and contemporary music were extraordinarily articulate and cogent.  As both composer and critic he poked holes in the received values of the classical musical world with alacrity.  He sincerely believed—and his craft is eloquent testimony thereof—that much of the art music of the last century failed to reach out and speak authentically to most of the artistic community.  Like most of his young—and not so young—contemporaries, he began his career firmly ensconced in the academic camp of the atonal serialists.  But, after a series of “successful,” but personally unsatisfying, efforts in that austere style, so popular after WW II, he made a sea change into a completely different musical approach.

            That to which he deeply objected in the mainstream of classical musical culture (and our training of young composers) was a pronounced disconnect with the great musical traditions of the past.  He believed that music that survived the test of time, and that which touched hearts and minds was musical art that communicated coherence—especially harmonic coherence—and which grew organically out of melodic material, scales, and harmonies chosen for that purpose.   He was dedicated to color and textures that are obviously connected with much of the Romantic tradition, and in general consciously took much of Brahms, Mahler, Bartók, and early Stravinsky as artistic models.   Or at least, as points of departure for a truly contemporary direction that was nonetheless based in a coherent tradition.  So, critics laud him for his proto-Romantic, at times lush, music that garnered broad acclaim from professionals and the general public, alike for its singular voice.

            He studied early on with a variety of well-known composers and teachers, and in his twenties began to enjoy recognition from all of the prestigious foundations, eventually receiving commissions from major orchestras.   His Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, RiverRun (later also called his first symphony) sealed his position as one of America’s first-rate young composers.  Shortly after his death in a tragic automobile accident, he posthumously received a Grammy for his Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma.

            A deep and informing interest of his were the works of James Joyce--especially Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and they figure prominently in four of his major compositions.  In the years 1983-84 he was working simultaneously on the important song cycle TreeSong and  the symphony, RiverRun (the title of the latter coming from the first line in Finnegan’s Wake).  Both of Albert’s compositions are inspired by allusions in Finnegan’s Wake to the Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde, and broader themes of mankind’s fall, as well repeating cycles of human existence.  The symphony openly is derived from the song cycle, and the two works enjoy a “coupled relationship.”  But, more specifically, the symphony’s four movements are conceived as reflections of images in the novel of the Liffey River in four different settings—in reality and metaphorically.  The river flows through the center of Dublin before entering the Irish Sea, and, like the Mississippi River, has immense cultural significance.  Albert spoke at length of the importance of Joyce’s imagery evoked by the river, and its direct basis for the four movements of the symphony—even alluding to the river as “speaking to the city of Dublin like a lover.” While it is tempting to search for a story, or “program,” to hang upon what we hear in RiverRun—Albert makes pellucidly clear that, as in Joyce’s novel, there is no straightforward narrative thread.   Joyce’s work informs the structure of Albert’s music, but one will search in vain for that clear thread.  Both are largely episodic and abstract.  In other words:  it’s just about refracted images of the Irish river, inspired by the turgid and abstract episodes of the novel.

            The first movement, “Rain Music,” evokes the beginning of the river as streamlets, rising in Liffey Head Bog.  While The Moldau of Smetana may come to mind, the composer is adamant that it shouldn’t!  Fair enough.  “Leafy Speafing” stems from perhaps the most famous chapter in Finnegan’s Wake, described by the author as “a chattering dialogue across the river by two washerwomen who as night falls become a tree and a stone.”  They are discussing two ancestors who were in love—who, obscurely, were Tristan and Isolde, but who are also metaphors for the city and river as lovers.  In the third movement, Albert is inspired by his vision of children playing (there’s a nursery tune) juxtaposed with a wake replete with a funeral dirge.  An allusion to a drinking song undergirds the adults’—and all humanity’s--desire to block thoughts of death.  And then we return to the children, just as all would like to return to childhood.   Finally, “River’s End” is just that:  the river’s inexorable passage down to the sea, broadening as it glides to the ocean’s darkness, mystery, and finality.

-Wm. E. Runyan

© 2024 William E. Runyan