SCHWANTNER: Sparrows. Distant Runes and Incantations. A sudden Rainbow.

by Walter Simmons



SCHWANTNER: Sparrows. Distant Runes and Incantations. A Sudden Rainbow. Lucy Shelton, soprano (Sparrows); Ursula Oppens, piano (Distant Runes); St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. NONESUCH 9 79143-1, produced by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz.

This new release is part of Nonesuch’s “Meet the Composer Orchestra Residency Series,” devoted to music by those composers selected to participate in the residency program sponsored by Meet the Composer, one of the most active organizations in this country dedicated to promoting new music. Each orchestra participating in the program selects a composer for the residency. The responsibilities of the chosen composer include reviewing new scores submitted to the orchestra, organizing concerts of new music, and generally serving as a new-music advocate, as well as writing a work for the orchestra to perform. The program, which has been operating for about five years, has been successful in a number of ways, especially in fostering alignments between conductors and composers who ostensibly share artistic affinities. This is an excellent way for both orchestra and conductor to gain a deeper and more intimate understanding of the composer’s work, and should enable them to communicate this understanding to the audience via more effective performances. Multiplied across the various participating orchestras throughout the country, these relationships should produce persuasive representations of our more prominent composers. This has, indeed, happened, as we witness a time of remarkable visibility for a number of younger composers, accompanied by considerable exposure for their music.

Of course, as in any situation in which the number of desirable positions is much smaller than the number of appropriately qualified applicants (which is the case throughout the classical music business), the program is extremely vulnerable to political factors. Hence the composers selected for the residency program are essentially those whose political manipulations have already brought them some prominence—those whom one of the resident composers smugly described to me as the “big guns.” There is also the unwarranted assumption that a composer is an appropriate person to undertake the varied responsibilities outlined above. In the situations that I have observed, the resident composers have used their new-music series, at best, to feature only composers who share their particular stylistic points of view or, at worst, to reward their friends and students. Perhaps the assumption is that, across the country, this will balance out. In any case, there are those in the music world whose primary function is knowing the contemporary repertoire, and it would seem that such individuals might be more appropriate to select and present new music than composers, for whom a broad awareness of the compositional scene is, at best, a peripheral interest.


My remarks about the Meet the Composer program appear here only because the release at hand provides the opportunity—not because of anything related to Joseph Schwantner’s residency, which lasted from 1982 until 1985. Partly because of Leonard Slatkin’s astute and vigorous support of contemporary music, his collaboration with Schwantner has been especially successful in bringing the composer’s music before the public—not only in St. Louis, but virtually everywhere he has conducted. This release is a revealing document of their relationship.

The music of Joseph Schwantner has been amply represented on disc during the past few years, giving me numerous opportunities to comment on it (see Fanfare 4:3, 6:1, 7:2, 7:6, 8:3). The three new offerings are consistent with his previous works, and leave me with the same ambivalence I have expressed before. In one sentence, Schwantner writes beautiful background music. He is fond of fanciful titles, often taken from poetry of his own that serves as evocative program note or, in his words, “a poetic backdrop for the music.” His word images tend to suggest a vivid fantasy-world of cosmic mystery. (Here are some typical lines from the poem he wrote to accompany Distant Runes and Incantations: “Behold your barren realm, shrouded knight of the leaden fortress,/a disquieting luminescence bathes the barehilled expanse,/the unbroken circle of the moon’s dark halo chills the spectral landscape,/odious shadows dance on withered stone, a grave harmony softly lingers.”) The music fits precisely the tone and mood suggested by the words. Schwantner is expert in creating breathtaking instrumental sonorities that entrance the ear immediately. Thus the surface of the music has tremendous appeal—more, I think, than his comparable contemporary, John Adams.

But Schwantner’s repertoire of sonority-gesture effects is limited: hushed, sustained chorale-type passages, shimmering arpeggios glistening with a varied array of delicate percussion sounds, and more assertive moments that feature syncopated brass and more powerful percussion effects—these serve as the aural basis of most of his music. However, more serious than his circumscribed language is the complete absence of thematic argument, contrapuntal development, or anything else that might provide a dynamic structural coherence. Thus its effectiveness is essentially cinematic, and, indeed, Schwantner could be the finest composer of film music today—at least, for a particular sort of film. But as a listening experience, the result is akin to the “new age psychedelia” that appears rapidly to be building a large constituency outside the traditional concert halls.

In view of the flimsiness of Schwantner’s structures, it is not surprising that his most successful works are those supported by a text, e.g., New Morning for the World, with its spoken excerpts from the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., vocal works such as Magabunda (Nonesuch 79072) and Sparrows, recorded here. Scored for soprano and a chamber ensemble consisting of piccolo, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, harp, and a large percussion group,  Sparrows is a continuous setting of 15 haiku by the Japanese poet Issa. The work is a shinniug example of how lush and richly varied a small instrumental ensemble can be, while the vocal line pursues a gently florid course throughout, moving smoothly from almost pop-folk lyricism through atonal austerity and back, with dream-like episodes suggestive of a Renaissance dance and a Baroque minuet that enter and depart with gentle subtlety. Composed in 1979 and thus the earliest of the three works presented here, Sparrows makes a lovely and inviting introduction to the music of Schwantner. Its haunting sound-images are very pleasing and remain in one’s consciousness. Like most of his vocal music, it was composed for the soprano Lucy Shelton, who also recorded it previously on an excellent two-disc set featuring the Twentieth-Century Consort and produced by the Smithsonian Institution (N 022). That performance was fine and so is this, although it moves along a bit faster—perhaps a shade too much so.

Distant Runes and Incantations, composed in 1983, is relatively disappointing. Scored for piano and chamber orchestra, the work is something of a tone poem with piano protagonist. However, in this work one becomes painfully aware of the absence of thematic focus, and of Schwantner’s excessive reliance on a limited repertoire of sound-images. As indicated by the poetic lines quoted earlier, the work suggests a Pre-Raphaelite fantasy—vivid and colorful, but thin and shallow. The music, identifiable as Schwantner’s from the first note, evokes a haunting mood of mystery and portent. The piano serves something of an obbligato role, comparable, in a sense, to Loeffler’s PaganPoem. But, bereft of thematic substance, it has little to do and nowhere to go. Thus for all the evocative effectiveness of the work, the listener is left quite unfulfilled.

Sudden Rainbow followed in 1984, dedicated to Slatkin, and a direct outgrowth of the Meet the Composer residency. This, as far as I know, is Schwantner’s most conventionally “symphonic” piece of orchestral music and, though only 13 minutes long and in one movement, might be viewed as his contribution to the “Concerto for Orchestra” genre, by dint of its flamboyantly coloristic use of the large instrumental ensemble. Once more the work proclaims the composer’s identity from the start, but is uncharacteristically extroverted, with more rapid, vigorous, and varied activity than his usual norm. Yet again devoid of thematic argument, it remains essentially static and image-oriented, its hectic activity unable to move it from one place to another.

Schwantner has the qualities that often produce a cult following: a unique, accessible, and idiosyncratic “sound” and compositional approach, followed consistently, which can function like a drug for those on a sympathetic wave-length, for whom its shortcomings and weaknesses are irrelevant. Whether he has as yet acquired such a following I do not know, but this release, beautifully recorded and expertly performed, will certainly fill such an appetite.