Cracking the Joseph Schwantner Code

I’ve been trying to cozy up to Joseph Schwantner’s music in preparation for an hour-long, national special I’m producing about the composer. But it’s been harder than I expected, and recent blogs I’ve read about approaching classical music from the outside give me new sympathy for those who can’t drum up much enthusiasm for it.

Schwantner, who used to live in Rochester and teach at the Eastman School, is prowling at the top of the classical food chain these days, especially since the American Symphony Orchestra League selected him to be THE composer for the nation's largest commissioning consortium of orchestras. That’s kind of like being named U.S. poet laureate with the promise that every high school English teacher in the country will recite your new poem over their school loudspeakers. A lot of people will hear Schwantner’s new piece performed by dozens of orchestras in 2008-2009. (He’s working on it right now: I’ll write more about it another time.)

On a recent trip to Rochester, NY, Schwantner gave me a copy of a hyperion CD featuring the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performing several of his works. The first one that’s caught my ear is “Beyond Autumn,” a tone poem for horn and orchestra. I’ve been listening.

A splash of chimes, shimmering cymbals, and thundering timpani call up anxious quivers from the strings. Offstage, a horn soloist blares out minor sixths with sudden, brassy crescendos like predatory roars. The minor sixth intervals repeat over and over in a mournful and ominous conversation between the soloist and orchestra. The horn player comes into focus. The first time I heard the solo line, I thought of a lion stalking a herd of antelope. The second time, I happened to be driving. I took a wrong turn and got lost.

The next section of the tone poem moves into a more lyrical vein with the soloist ascending and descending a metaphorical staircase in great bounds over a repeated, two-chord pattern from the orchestra. The strings follow his lead, climbing up and then sliding back down.

About halfway through “Beyond Autumn,” everything syncs up, the horn plays a gentler sequence of thirds, and the conversation settles on safer grounds. In my mind, the harmonies recall Jeff Beal’s CD “Alternate Route” or certain funeral hymns. They’re beautiful in a sad way.

Following the calm section arrive storminess, more yawning, anxious minor sixths, and voracious, expressive playing from horn soloist Gregory Hustis.

In the liner notes, the composer praises the French horn for its ability to sound heroic, powerful, bold, and brassy. “On the other hand,” he writes, “it has this extraordinary ability to be intimate, and to sound distant.” I heard all of these qualities in “Beyond Autumn.” I admire the work’s craftsmanship and emotional depth, but I’m not sure I want to hear again and again.

In today’s Washington Post, writer Anne Midgette describes her experience trying to cozy up to Brahms, a composer she isn’t especially fond of.

“Brahms is not a composer who makes my heart leap when he walks into the room,” she writes. “Rather, I greet his appearance as you would the entrance of a person at a party whom you're not all that eager to talk to, even though you may have had intense and intermittently rewarding conversations over the years.”

I thought of my reaction to Joseph Schwantner when I read that. I look forward to a few intense and rewarding conversations, but I wish it weren’t such hard work. I wish he’d walk in, open his arms, and tell me a good joke.

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Read Anne Midgette's excellent article on Brahms:



Schwanter and Brahms...well, actually just Brahms

It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that Brahms, while leaving a party, turned and exclaimed, "if there's anyone here I failed to offend, I apologize."

I suspect he wouldn't be fond of Anne Midgette, either.