ROSNER: Nocturne, Op. 68; Tempus Perfectum, Op. 109; Symphony No. 6, Op. 64

by Walter Simmons



ARNOLD ROSNER: Nocturne, Op. 68; Tempus Perfectum, Op. 109; Symphony No. 6, Op. 64

London Phiharmonic Orch., Nick Palmer, cond., TOCCATA Classics. All music available from the Estate of Arnold Rosner; For further information, visit www.ArnoldRosnerMusic.com

During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner (1945–2013) produced a body of work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalogue comprises compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and wind band, several large-scale choral works and many chamber, solo, and vocal pieces.

Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmonic and rhythmic devices of the polyphonic music of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. These roots can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in virtually all his music. To them he added a free triadicism and exotic modalities, intensified in some works by more contemporary harmonic dissonance, combining this language with the lavish orchestration and emotional drama of late-nineteenth-century Romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely an integration of earlier styles, is the way he shaped his unusual language to embrace an enormous expressive range – far broader than one might imagine possible – from serene beauty to violent rage. Illustrating the vast range of expression found in Rosner’s music, the works on this recording run the gamut: In Tempus Perfectum the connection to early music is obvious, despite certain anachronisms; in the fierce Modern Romanticism of the Sixth Symphony the connection is barely detectible; while the Nocturne reveals traces of early music within a conception that might be termed post-Modernist Impressionism. Yet despite its fusion of seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners.

Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Some sounds in particular appealed to him – juxtapositions of major and minor triads, as well as modal melodies – and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family, fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition, encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavours, and so he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of fifteen, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing: sonatas, symphonies, concertos and more – not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labours. His composer-heroes at the time were Hovhaness, Vaughan Williams and Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his earlier creative work.

Graduating from NYU before he turned twenty, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was in 1966, when serialism was the dominant style in university music departments, and young composers were often coerced, directly or indirectly, into adopting it. Rosner often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he would say that he ‘learned almost nothing’ from these pedants. Although most of his peers capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he had submitted as his dissertation. Realising that they would never accept the kind of music he considered meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation – the first ever – on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this task successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

He devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough Community College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death. During the course of his compositional career, his musical language gradually expanded from its idiosyncratic and intuitive beginnings, as the mature works on this recording illustrate. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.

Rosner composed his Nocturne in 1978, dedicating it to his former student Louis Blois, who later became a published authority on the music of Shostakovich and other Soviet composers. During the late 1970s Blois had been studying astronomy, so Rosner sought in this work to suggest the movement of planetary bodies within the vastness of space. The work begins by evoking a mysterious, swirling atmosphere, irregularly interrupted by sudden vehement outbursts. Gradually, melodic fragments begin to emerge, at first tentatively, then slowly taking shape within the ethereal backdrop. About halfway into the work, the melodic fragments coalesce into a passionate melody in the strings, still surrounded by the swirling gestures and textures. The melody develops further, achieving greater prominence by the support of the rest of the orchestra. After a climax is reached, the intensity of the music gradually recedes into the eerie atmosphere with which the piece began.

Tempus Perfectum is a term from the late Medieval period that referred to the rhythmic meter designated today by the time signature 9/8. This indicates a meter of three beats per measure, each of which is subdivided into three smaller units. Rosner’s piece, composed in 1998, is a modern adaptation of the instrumental canzona, a genre that existed—with evolving meanings—for centuries. The point of departure for this piece is the type of canzona that flourished in Italy during the late Renaissance. Hence this is a work in which the connections between Rosner’s style and early music are clearly evident.

Not surprisingly, Tempus Perfectum maintains a 9/8 meter virtually throughout the work, as the canzona theme pursues its course in a neo-late-Renaissance manner. However, what is most unusual are sequences of triads—often in a different tonality from the canzona theme—that are superimposed over that theme at various points during the piece. These harmonic sequences, though written so as to conform to the 9/8 meter, audibly contradict that meter, as well as conflicting with the tonality. Listeners familiar with Rosner’s Gematria (Toccata Classics TOCC0368) will recognize this technique from that work, where it appears in perhaps its fullest application. In Tempus Perfectum, these harmonic sequences follow a course of their own, as each reappearance is successively longer and more fully orchestrated, until a climax of sorts is reached, after which the music diminishes in volume and speed. 

Rosner composed his Symphony No. 6 in 1976, three years after its predecessor. The Symphony No. 5, an orchestral Mass based on the plainchant Salve Regina, is a work of transcendent spiritual ecstasy, an apotheosis of the composer’s unique adaptation of Renaissance polyphony (Naxos 8.559347). Its successor is largely the emotional and spiritual antithesis of that work—an expression of the rage and bitterness that were significant components of Rosner’s personality—musical and otherwise. Unlike much of his music, this symphony may be described as an example of the distinguished canon of American Neo-Romantic Symphonies, as represented by such composers as Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello. The symphony is replete with so many striking events that a description such as this can reveal only the broadest outlines.

The opening Allegro agitato is an overwhelming expression of emotional turbulence that offers virtually no respite during its ten-minute duration. Revealing only the most remote connection to traditional sonata allegro form, the movement displays some of the most ferocious and explosive music Rosner ever composed. The element of tonality—often irrelevant to his music—is largely absent. The movement opens with a bold statement of a motif (a) characterized by a chromatic angularity unusual for this composer, with prominent dotted-note rhythms. This motif immediately launches a free development that spins off several related motifs. Among the most significant of these are (b) which features the “Scotch snap” rhythm (a short-long pattern with accent on the short note), (c) a stepwise rising-and-falling motif, and (d) another stepwise motif that revolves chromatically around a pivot-note. These four motifs are the essential thematic elements of the movement and are subjected to extensive development. This development proceeds through sections displaying great dynamic contrasts, until a running passage builds gradually to a cataclysmic climax in which all four motifs are combined, with additional emphasis provided by generous contributions from the percussion. This is followed by a moment of relief featuring motif (c), before motif (a) brings the movement to a powerful conclusion.  

The second movement, Adagio, evokes a hushed atmosphere before introducing a mysterious introductory theme played by the English horn, answered by the harp, followed by the clarinet. This theme develops slowly, gradually building to the presentation of the movement’s emotional highlight, a mournful melody first suggested softly by a muted trumpet, then stated in full by the strings. A second section follows, with a subdued melody characterized by trills and other ornamentation. This melody bears a slight connection to the rising and falling motif of the first movement. As it develops, the melody builds to a statement of some grandeur before it subsides. The introductory theme returns, first in the horn, then flute. A dynamic eruption highlights the introductory theme, now forcefully stated by the trombones, leading to a passionate restatement of the mournful melody heard earlier, now building to a tremendous climax, extended considerably by a varied restatement of the introductory theme. As this recedes, the ornamented melody returns, bringing the movement to a hushed conclusion. Worthy of note are clashes of major vs. minor harmony—one of Rosner’s favorite effects—heard throughout this movement, as well as striking orchestral effects that contribute to the evocation of a mood of hushed solemnity.

The third movement, the most complicated portion of the Symphony, comprises several sections: Grave; Allegro; Grandioso; Grave. It opens with a full orchestral statement of a stern, stately theme, rife with major-minor conflicts. A variant of this theme is played softly by the flute, followed by a further variant by the solo trumpet. An Allegro follows, transforming the opening theme into a rapid pattern that starts with just a few instruments against an agitated running pattern that functions along the lines of a counter-subject. As other instruments enter, the first violins and trumpet initiate a fugato that builds in intensity and volume. After some development of the material the trumpets and lower brass follow with a canon featuring rhythmic augmentation of the main theme. The texture becomes more complex as additional elements are added, some in contradictory rhythmic patterns, as the fugal texture dissipates. Soon a more peaceful, flowing motif, hinted at earlier, is introduced by the English horn, followed by variants of both themes in the French horn, then trumpet, against a subdued background texture. These two themes are treated in alternation until the counter-subject reappears in stretto. Further development of all three ideas continues, leading to a grand return of the stately opening gestures, but with a remote variant of that theme, which increases in intensity until it stops abruptly. The final Grave section opens with a dramatic statement of anticipation, followed by an ethereal reminiscence of the movement’s various motifs. A series of strident, cataclysmic eruptions follows, in alternation with further hushed reminders of the previous themes in woodwind and brass solos. This alternation suggests a conflict between outbursts of rage and attempts at a self-soothing serenity. After a lengthy trumpet valediction, the symphony comes to a somber conclusion.

Walter Simmons, musicologist and critic, has written extensively on American composers who maintained an allegiance to traditional musical values. He is the editor of a series of books, ‘Twentieth-Century Traditionalists’, published by Rowman and Littlefield. He wrote the first two volumes himself (under the Scarecrow Press imprint): Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), which treated the lives and works of Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini and Hanson, and Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin (2011). As a staunch advocate of the music of Arnold Rosner, he is deeply familiar with much of his output; he and Rosner were close associates for more than forty years.