Arnold Rosner: Orchestral Music, Vol. 4

Album Information

Arnold Rosner: Orchestral Music, Vol. 4

1 Scherzo for Orchestra, Op. 29a (1964) 11:51

Concerto Grosso No. 2, Op. 74 (1979) 24:30
2 Lento; Allegro 8:47
3 Adagio 7:09
4 Allegro molto 8:23

5 Variations on a Theme by Frank Martin, Op. 105 (1996) 18:37

6 A My Lai Elegy, Op. 51 (1971; rev. 1993) 25:36
Trumpet solos: Paul Beniston

Total Timing: 81:04

All Premiere Recordings

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Nick Palmer, conductor
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, 5-6 September 2023
Walter Simmons, producer
Jonathan Allen, engineer
Music available from

Liner Notes

During his fifty-year 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, imbuing this language with the lavish orchestration and emotional drama of turn-of-the-20th-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. This recording illustrates the vast range of expression found in Rosner’s music: Scherzo, written when the composer was 19, represents his early style, before he had any significant formal study of composition; Concerto Grosso No. 2 illustrates his approach to neo-classicism; Variations on a Theme by Frank Martin is both a homage to a composer Rosner greatly admired and one of the few examples of his treatment of variation form; and A My Lai Elegy expresses both rage at the senselessly cruel violence of the incident commemorated and hope that humanity will find a way to rise above such brutality. Yet despite this great variety of stylistic approaches the 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 Shostakovich, 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 document successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

Rosner 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 Scherzo for Orchestra, Op. 29a, in 1964, immediately preceding his Piano Concerto No. 2 (available on Toccata Classics TOCC 3068). Originally part of a larger work he later deemed unsuitable for public performance, the Scherzo offers a relatively light-hearted insight into the idiosyncratic usages that intrigued the young composer: in particular, simultaneous juxtapositions of both major and minor harmony, and the use of modal scale forms, rather than simply major or minor. The piece begins in a somewhat rollicking manner, with a theme in the Lydian mode in the tonality of C. This is soon interrupted by a somewhat comical canonic treatment of the theme by the three trombones. A second, gently lyrical theme is introduced by the strings, and is soon picked up by the woodwinds. The boisterous mood returns as a variant of the initial theme is pursued and becomes increasingly rowdy. A tender and delicate trio, marked coma una canzonetta, presents a dramatic contrast to the scherzo proper. Its theme, not unrelated to the scherzo theme, is developed through Rosner’s characteristic approach to modal counterpoint. The scherzo material returns, now abbreviated, bringing the piece to an emphatic and triumphant conclusion. After repeatedly reinforcing a tonic of C, the resounding final cadence irreverently proclaims its tonality as E, asserting itself in major, then switching to minor.

Rosner developed his own approach to neo-classicism through his sonatas, quartets, and other chamber works. One of the most ambitious of such efforts was his Concerto Grosso No. 1, dating from 1974 (and available on Laurel LR-849CD). Five years later, in response to a commission from Carl Topilow, he decided to delve into the concerto grosso concept once again. Dedicated to Topilow, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 received its first performance in 1981, with the Arapahoe Chamber Orchestra conducted by the dedicatee. Rather than opposing a small instrumental group against a larger instrumental group in the common Baroque paradigm, Rosner’s approach in his concerti grossi was more a focus on the straightforward development of short, bracing motivic ideas within dry, stringent textures that eschew the luxuriance of some of his other work. Both concerti grossi are scored for classical, rather than full romantic, orchestra. The first movement begins Lento, as fragments gradually cohere into a theme with two main motifs, one focused on the intervals of a second and a fourth, the other a stepwise descent. (The thematic material of the next two movements is somewhat related to these motifs.) The tempo increases to Allegro, as the two motifs are tossed back and forth vigorously among instrumental groups. The severity is somewhat leavened by the addition of a sweetly lyrical theme derived from the initial motifs. A busy contrapuntal development energizes the movement, until it comes to a close with a return of the Lento introduction.

The second movement, Adagio, is slow and somber. A highly chromatic and rather elaborate theme is introduced by the cellos, and answered by the flute, then by the first violins. The movement has something of the feel of a passacaglia, as different instruments enter with variants of the main theme, although it is really a relatively free development of these elements. The finale is an energetic Allegro molto, based on the triplet figure that appears at the outset and continues throughout the movement. One final point: Despite Rosner’s longstanding fondness for major-minor juxtapositions, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 is one of the only instances in which Rosner concludes a work with a major-minor chord.

Variations on a Theme by Frank Martin has a somewhat interesting background. Max Schubel (1932-2010) was a composer who was also responsible for a wildly eccentric new-music record label called Opus One, which flourished during the 1970s and early 80s. In 1984 Opus One released the first recording of Rosner’s music. As the two men became friends, Rosner learned that Schubel’s favorite composer was the great Swiss master Frank Martin (1890-1974), who was also a favorite of Rosner. Rosner dedicated the work to Schubel. As Rosner’s archivist, composer Carson Cooman, wrote:

Variations on a Theme by Frank Martin was written in 1996 and is based on a small theme by the Swiss composer that Rosner had found “irresistibly haunting” for many decades. The theme is a very brief passage from Martin’s Der Cornet (1945), a large monodrama for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rosner uses the theme purely as a “found object” for his own musical conception. The theme is first presented (in Rosner’s treatment) and is then followed by five contrasting variations.

Taken from the final portion of the fourth song, Wachtfeuer, the theme is treated not in the familiar manner of being clothed in a sequence of different styles of musical apparel. Instead, the motifs that comprise the theme are developed through a brilliant series of episodes of varied character that explore the full potential of the striking theme, introduced at the opening in a somewhat funereal setting. After the theme has been established, the first variation, Grazioso, embeds the theme within a context of sweeping passages, in which fragments are tossed from instrument to instrument. The second variation, Adagio, is searching and mysterious, embedding fragments of the theme. The third variation, Allegro, continues to toss fragments of the theme back and forth, but now within a light-hearted treatment that begins in a gigue-like manner, before it evolves into something more akin to a waltz. Variation 4, another Adagio, develops the theme in solemn counterpoint. The fifth and final variation, another Allegro, begins majestically, as it gradually leads to a full statement of the theme, before receding to a hushed conclusion.

Rosner was a confirmed pacifist, and opposed war and violence in all its manifestations. So it is not surprising that the brutal massacre of some 500 men, women, and children in the Vietnamese district of My Lai in 1968, carried out by American soldiers, aroused in Rosner a profound sense of outrage. This war crime has often been called the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War. Then, in 1970 members of the National Guard shot and killed unarmed college students at Kent State University in Ohio, during a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War. Eleven days later police opened fire on students at Jackson State College in Mississippi for reasons that still remain unclear. These incidents only intensified Rosner’s sense of grief and horror. So he decided to compose a major work to commemorate these horrifying events. A My Lai Elegy was the result, completed in 1971, and dedicated to the victims of these three incidents. In 1993 Rosner returned to the work in order to make some minor revisions in the orchestration.

A My Lai Elegy is not a programmatic work, simulating incidents or other events surrounding these tragedies, although some passages clearly evoke impressions of the violence. Rather, for the most part it attempts to capture, in free sectional form, some of the feelings and emotions that Rosner experienced in reaction to these events, including foreboding, violent outrage, grief, and hope for the future. Rosner’s sense of urgency is reflected in passages in which references to both Shostakovich and Hovhaness appear in undisguised form. The work had its premiere in 1974, with the Colorado Philharmonic under the direction of Carl Topilow.

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 considered 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). A staunch advocate of the music of Arnold Rosner, he and Rosner were close associates for more than forty years. Simmons is also active as a record producer, responsible for more than a hundred first recordings.