Composer Steven Stucky



Coming Home: On Writing a Second Concerto for Orchestra

by Steven Stucky

October 2003

One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past, to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind. I am the kind who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have cleared the path ahead. The kind who, instead of dynamiting the locomotive of musical tradition, only wants to hitch his own wagon to it. One archetypal pair often cited to illustrate these polar opposites is Wagner and Brahms — the first a revolutionary innovator; the second a master of synthesis, a conservative who venerated the traditions he inherited from Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann and consciously built on them.

Of course nobody is all one type or the other. Wagner could never have invented himself so stunningly without the help of his own heroes, and Brahms could never have found his own, unmistakable voice without a strong sense of his own value. Nearer our own day, perhaps John Cage came closer than most to complete independence from musical traditions, but he depended heavily on philosophical traditions instead. Even Edgard Varèse, fierce iconoclast though he was, could not really abandon the brilliant insights of his teacher, Feruccio Busoni, nor in fact did he ever really give up certain very conventional formal patterns in constructing his pieces. Years ago, in some academic journal, I read an article entitled “Not Even Varèse Can Be an Orphan.” I’ve long since forgotten any of its content, but that wonderful title has stuck with me.

I’m no orphan, either. True, in my student days — like most young composers — I worried mostly about whether my music was really original, about whether I really had a voice all my own, or whether at least I might someday achieve one. Over the years, though, I’ve stopped thinking about whether there is anything uniquely mine in the music I write, and have begun noticing instead how what I do links me to the music I love most by earlier composers, and by my own contemporaries too. Nowadays I sometimes talk about my Household Gods, those founders of the great twentieth-century musical traditions I still depend on: Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, Sibelius, Ravel, Berg, and many others. Their DNA is still in my musical genes, as it is in the genes of so many of the composer colleagues and friends of my own day to whom I feel closest musically — Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, James MacMillan, and John Adams, to name only a few. I think more and more clearly now, too, about how the work of certain later twentieth-century composers is indelibly part of me: Ligeti, Xenakis, Messiaen, Berio, and especially Lutoslawski. If as a young man I wanted to run away from home and heritage, by now I have come full circle. Now I spend a lot of my working day rummaging through the family album of my musical forefathers, brothers, sisters, and cousins, doting on all those connections instead of denying them. In place of the ritual parricide that Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence,” I have converted to a sort of ancestor worship.

This attitude is not for everybody, of course. I have sometimes wondered whether it is entirely healthy even for me. I have sometimes worried that, because I have spent much — perhaps even too much — of my adult life as an academic, I think more like a music historian than might be good for any composer’s necessary sense of independence. Yet even this worry has dwindled in recent years, to be replaced by a feeling of liberation in embracing the kind of composer I really am. I have felt that liberation more and more keenly in my last few works. I don’t know whether this has made the music better or not — others will have to judge — but it has given me more and more pleasure in doing my work.

Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in my new Second Concerto for Orchestra. The piece is a real homecoming in many ways. For one thing, its first movement, Overture (with Friends), enshrines essential personal loyalties, using musical code to refer to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my musical home for almost sixteen years, and to many of the people most important to me there. More than that, though, the music of all three movements makes connections to many of the members of my musical family tree.

Some of these are conscious homages, put there quite deliberately as I composed the piece. The first movement, for example, echoes a texture from the first movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (the two-handed one), as well as Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks and in turn the piece Knussen himself was honoring, Stravinsky’s Fireworks. Later in the movement, there are admiring glances at orchestral textures from two Sibelius works, En Saga and the first movement of the Third Symphony. The second movement, too, has souvenirs from Debussy’s La Mer, Brahms’s E-flat clarinet (or viola) sonata, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and other works. The finale even borrows briefly from an earlier orchestral work of mine, Son et lumière. Looking back at the score now, some months after finishing it, I can detect other affinities, too, not so consciously planted: to Salonen’s LA Variations, to Britten, to Adams, and of course to my mentor Lutoslawski, some of whose compositional practices remain fundamental to my own technique, ten years after his death and several decades after my impressionable student phase.

Like all these composers, I am devoted to the symphony orchestra as a medium: to its unmatched colors, to its incomparable power, to the unparalleled thrill that you can only get by hearing a hundred brilliant artists together, putting their brains and muscles and spirits into a united gesture of human communication. For me, writing in the symphonic tradition is not about living in the past — copying past styles, repeating past messages — but about composing in a present that still contains the best of the past. It’s not about being “accessible” — that much-abused term that too often means merely undemanding — but about believing that any style of music made with skill and conviction and vigorous invention can create its own kind of accessibility. It’s not about insisting on tonality, or for that matter on atonality; not about equating the beautiful with the merely pretty; not about labels like romantic or avant-garde, conservative or progressive.

What does this all mean for listeners and performers — for the “end users” of the piece? Surely not that they should approach my new concerto as if it were a treasure hunt or a music history lecture, straining to catch musical souvenirs as they go by. (A good way to ruin a concert!) Instead, I hope that knowing something about my private hopes and allegiances can help others feel the security and freedom to listen and play their very best. I remember years ago a first rehearsal with another American orchestra. At first, the sounds that came out of that orchestra were pretty terrible — like somebody’s caricature of crabby modern music. After a few moments, the conductor stopped them, announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, think Debussy,” and started again. That was all it took; the orchestra relaxed and played my music beautifully. It was a powerful lesson. If you assume that something is going to be incomprehensible, it will be. But if you expect to understand it, then you will.

© Steven Stucky

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