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Name of Work

Harbison, John (1938-)
Quintet for Winds

Intrada: Moderato
Intermezzo: Allegretto-Lusinghando
Romanza: Andante
Scherzo: Prestissimo
Finale: Adagio-Alla marcia


May 21, 1998

Louise Dixon, Flute
Michael Henoch, Oboe
Larry Combs, Clarinet
William Buchman, Bassoon
Gail Williams, Horn

HARBISON - Quintet for Winds

Composed in 1978

Several years ago, the composer Roger Reynolds cast John Harbison as one of the Makers of music, who continually reworks the old, as opposed to one of the Searchers, who ever seeks the new. In Reynold's pantheon, the Maker is "essentially antiquarian" and "socially irrelevant." Harbison's response, as eloquent and powerful as his music, began with his own list of Searchers — Monteverdi, Haydn and Beethoven, Wagner, Schoenberg and Stravinsky — and concluded:

"It seems clear that no continuer or elaborator of a tradition qualifies, much less an outright declared conservative. This eliminates Bach, Handel, Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, Schubert, Bruckner, Bartok, Hindemith, and indeed the vast majority of other composers whose work was conceived within a tradition of communicative endeavor."

Harbison has made an important career as a modernist who evolved out of tradition — a stance that is often rejected outright by the members of the avant-garde, for whom progress necessitates a rejection of the past. But as much as any composer in this century, Harbison has proved that his outlook is not a contradiction in terms — that one can compose music that responds to today's issues in a language informed by the past. If this makes him a conservative, he is no more so than Bach or Brahms, to mention only two names drawn from Harbison's own list of Makers — composers who did not so much change as perfect musical style.

Harbison composes most of his music in the seclusion of his wife's family farm, in Token Creek, Wisconsin, just four miles down the road from Sun Prairie, where the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe grew up. There is something of O'Keeffe's no-nonsense spirit in his music — a "characteristically American search for clarity out of complex forces," Harbison says of the comparison. Although his writing displays a constant awareness — and even love — of musical tradition, it does not actually quote earlier music, as many recent composers have done (inviting the danger, as Harbison points out, that it will be the only memorable thing in the new piece).

Harbison's own eclectic past has informed his musical voice. In high school, he played the viola, and, after taking up the slide trombone, started a jazz band. After undergraduate work at Harvard, he studied composition with Roger Sessions and Earl Kirn at Princeton, and later with Boris Blacher in Berlin. At Harvard he led the Bach Society Orchestra, and later, as conductor of Boston's Cantata Singers, his programs revealed his great fondness for the seventeenth-century German composer, Heinrich Schutz. His own catalog includes a brass concerto influenced by Gabrieli, a viola concerto partly indebted to harpsichord music of Scarlatti, a chamber work about Schubert passing into the next world, and a big-band style piece called Three City Blocks. He has been awarded the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for his Piano Concerto, in 1980; the Pulitzer Prize, for the cantata, The Flight into Egypt, in 1986; and the coveted MacArthur Fellowship for a body of work of uncommon intelligence and certain — although never fashion-conscious — style. Harbison is obviously comfortable as one of music's most gifted Makers. "Searchers are born, not made," he says, “and composers who simply choose that role are sometimes willful obfuscators, the self-conscious avant-garde, those who seek the solace of being advanced for its own sake, and the impregnability of being incomprehensible.”

In his search for clarity and direct expression, Harbison rewards listeners and performers alike. He recalls that one of the joys of composing this Wind Quintet was the "opportunity to work with a number of resourceful, inquisitive, and fearless wind players in the mutually beneficial expansion of their repertory." The piece is, by the composer's own admission, extremely challenging to play, and it is Harbison's desire to push each instrument to the extreme edge of its abilities that gives the score its visceral power. In each of the five movements, in fact, Harbison raises the "virtuosity quotient" a bit higher, culminating in a frenzied and grotesque march that its a hair-raising high-wire act for five musical acrobats.

Program Notes by Phillip Huscher

Performed May 21, 1998

Performance Audio

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