08 August 2023

A Tale of Three Symphonies

Columbo in an airport café with a briefcase full of marked bills, there’s an unfinished brandy on the table, and the waitress asks him for a dollar ten for his root beer. And an impossibly open airport interior with no TSA screening. Those days are gone, folks.

Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

— Incorrectly attributed to Sinclair Lewis

I set to writing my first symphony when I felt I was really ready to write one, and because I had wished to write one for a long time. Perhaps a decade before, I’d made a brief sketch for a symphony which I would leave unpursued. So this time, it was for real. It felt great when the symphony (the “Henning First”) was “in the can.” Perhaps I hoped there would be an odd chance that I might convince a conductor to perform it, which would entail finding (a) an orchestra with a board and mission open to presenting a symphony written by a living composer, as well as (b) a conductor who believes in the piece. (b) is overall an easier matter, I find, than (a) I should perhaps mention almost incidentally both that (unlike so many other pieces of mine) I here deliberately eschewed a colorful title, deciding instead that the no-frills “Symphony Number One” would make do. Also that I so designated it because I was confident that it would not be the only Symphony I would write. As I say, I was open to the hope, but (barring a kind of miracle–which has not materialized) I was not going to be much surprised that the piece would sit around unperformed indefinitely. Very well.

As a general thing, symphonic bands are typically more open than orchestras to music composed by living composers, so I decided that the “Henning Second” would be a Symphony for Band. I composed the first movement (of three) during the summer some months before my stroke. Finishing the symphony was a musical motivation I had while I was still in rehab following my stroke, before I really applied myself to composition again. Well, I did complete the second and third movements, but I have not as yet had any more success in arranging any reading/performance of the second symphony than I did for the first. I'll repeat that, in the first place, I know I’m not the first composer to have orchestral music in his portfolio languishing unperformed and, in the second, I wrote the pieces on spec, so (almost by definition) there has been no demand in the universe for them. I was therefore approaching a decision not to write another substantial piece until there should be some favorable augury. Before clinching that decision, though, I thought, Let me write a piece for strings alone, as perhaps a piece easier to “sell” than either of the first two symphonies. I felt I would avoid the raw designation “Symphony Number Three” and compose a memorial piece for the late Louis Andriessen, one of the composers with whom I had worked while I was at the University at Buffalo. In some later blog post I will address the question of whether the piece gets anywhere. In the spirit of Read Twice Before Posting, I am a little concerned that the element of complaint may loom larger than either seemly or necessary. Even as I contemplate not launching another speculative large-scale composition for the time being, I am not wailing to the heavens, why, oh why did I even write this music? I am proud of the music. I like the music. I believe an audience would like the music. Any disappointment is no matter of How can the Universe do this to me?! but entirely the passion with which I stand by my work.

One curiosity more: As evinced on this blog, I originally planned the Symphony for Band to be four movements. I might wonder if the decision (subsequent to my stroke) to “reduce” the symphony to three movements had to do at all with any reduction in confidence in my composing as I recover from the stroke, but I feel that the decision was simply so that the complete symphony would run about half an hour, that I felt making the piece longer would increase the difficulty in marketing the piece. Since the piece at present has zero currency in the market, the question may seem moot.


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