Quincy Porter: Symphonies No. 1 & 2


Quincy Porter

Symphony No. 1

Poem & Dance

Symphony No. 2

Sinfonia Varsovia

Ian Hobson, conductor

Quincy Porter

The three decades reaching from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal into John Kennedy's New Frontier did more than carry the United States to a pinnacle of economic and military might. They also encompassed an explosive period of cultural development. Drama, dance, painting and literature flourished; Hollywood and radio had their heyday; television took root in the family living room. And concert halls reverberated with the new “American sound” trumpeted most famously by Aaron Copland and Roy Harris.

Into this bubbling cauldron of creativity, we add the Pulitzer Prize-winning talents of composer Quincy Porter. Born in 1897 in New Haven, Connecticut, Porter was the son and grandson of Yale professors; it was axiomatic that he go to that university too. He studied composition there under Horatio Parker, in Paris under Vincent D'Indy and in Manhattan and Cleveland under Ernest Bloch. With Bloch's intercession, he was hired at the Cleveland Institute of Music to teach theory, and he also performed as violist with the ambitious de Ribaupierre Quartet.

Returning to Paris in 1928, he spent three pivotal years composing, producing such mature and prize-winning works as his second violin sonata and his third string quartet. Though not a student of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, he did show her his 1930 piano sonata. Of the sudden burst of passion punctuating the placid slow movement, she reputedly remarked — perhaps a bit less than ingenuously — “For a staid New Englander, this is an unusual climax.”

Back in the States, the staid and bespectacled New Englander moved from Cleveland to upstate New York, teaching music at Vassar College, and then to Boston, where he served as dean and then director of the New England Conservatory — taking time to help found, along with Aaron Copland and several other leading composers, the American Music Center in Manhattan.

In 1946, the year his father died, he returned to his alma mater. Until retiring in 1965, at Yale he stayed, first as Battell Professor of Theory at the Music School, then as master of Pierson College — barely enduring the presence of a certain other Yale professor, the internationally celebrated composer, Paul Hindemith; Yankee conservative and German modernist remained professional antagonists until Hindemith went on to Zurich in the early 1950s.

Ties to the past ran deep in the Connecticut composer. He took pride in the pioneer lineage on both sides of his family. During his adult years in New Haven, he lived with his wife (the violinist Lois Brown) and their two children in the same house he had grown up in, and they spent their summers in a house his father had built on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. He retained his boyish fascination with gadgetry and tinkering to the end of his life; that end came in 1966 when, at the age of 69, he died of a stroke, seated in his television room, watching the Yale-Princeton football game.

It is from his overall loyalty to tradition and his neoclassical esthetic bent that the distinguishing qualities of Quincy Porter's music derive — its crystalline clarity of line, its balance and lyricism. He could certainly wield contemporary devices: mixed meters, keylessness, flashy rhythmic complexity. But he exulted in and excelled at music's more private expressiveness, especially the intimacy afforded by small ensembles and song.

His contributions to chamber music earned him the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal in 1943, and critics rate his ten string quartets among the finest produced in 20th-century America. His ability to fashion handsomely controlled, flowing passages as well as volcanic surges of intensity is equally evident in his viola, violin and harpsichord concertos and the Concerto Concertante (winner of the 1954 Pulitzer Prize) — and also in the three orchestral pieces featured on this disc.

Symphony No. 1

When in 1936 Arturo Toscanini left the New York Philharmonic to direct that new offspring of the radio age, the National Broadcasting Company Symphony Orchestra, the Phiharmonic took some tentative steps to encourage modern American music — measures virtually unthinkable under the Eurocentric Italian conductor. One of those was a competition for new orchestral works, to be submitted pseudonymously by their composers. The award for the 1936-37 season went to Gardner Read, but Porter won honorable mention for his entry, Symphony No. 1. (Incidentally, one of the losers, using the pseudonym XYZQ, was Aaron Copland. His entry? El Sálon México.)

Completed in the autumn of 1934, while he was still teaching at Vassar, Porter's first symphonic effort calls for a slightly larger than average orchestral ensemble, with triple woodwinds and trumpets, plus harp. His original program notes describe the music as “absolute” rather than programmatic; in other words, with no particular story or extra-musical idea behind it.

A glance at his score, however, indicates he may have had something else in mind at first. Its three movements were initially titled “Strophe,” “Antistrophe” and “Epode,” implying that the classically attuned Porter had at some point meant to model his symphony on a classical choral ode — a three-section Greek verse form of elevated, intellectual tone.

Why did Porter ultimately cross those titles out? Perhaps he felt them too pedantic, too Ivy League-ish. But if in fact he had intended the piece to be an orchestral version of an ancient ode, and if odes were typically inspired by some noteworthy person, event or aspect of the physical world, what then was Porter's inspiration? What was his subject?

His program notes, coyly calling the piece “an attempt to give expression to feelings and emotions which the composer had no other way of setting down,” provide no answer. Even so, the music's vaguely pastoral atmosphere — evoked especially in the first movement by the eerie woodblock, as insistent as a woodpecker compulsively pecking a tree, and in the second by prominent reeds and hypnotically rocking strings — hint at something sylvan, majestically uncivilized, a disquieting, wordless awe of nature.

However hazy his true inspiration, Porter's skill in orchestration and design is clear. Other composers of the day were busily erecting massive blocks of sonorities, juggernauts of sound. Porter's gift was to highlight individual voices and make each instrument sing. Structurally, he imbeds subtle rhythmic echoes of the first movement in the second and of the second in the third. Less subtly, he brings the slow movement to an unexpected early climax (as Boulanger had also noted in his piano sonata), but his abrupt ending of the third movement, on a triple-forte E major chord, closely parallels the abrupt ending of the first movement and neatly unifies the whole.

The symphony was premiered by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on 2 April 1938, and subsequently broadcast over radio, with the composer conducting.

Poem and Dance

A terse, tight but notable entry in Porter's canon — his first orchestral endeavor after his return from France — Poem and Dance was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra while he was finishing up his teaching commitment at the Cleveland Institute and preparing to move on to Vassar. It is one of four pieces from the 1930s in which he invokes dance, the others being Dance in Three-Time from 1937 and the two 1938 miniatures he wrote for CBS Radio, Dance in Four-Time and Dance in Five-Time.

Poem and Dance had a seemingly lightning-fast genesis. The opening movement of the score was begun on the first of June 1932, the second movement was completed on the 14th, and the poor copyists must have burned the midnight oil preparing the parts for the musicians because the premiere took place at the Cleveland Orchestra's newly opened summer venue, Severance Hall, on the 24th. Porter, considered at that point a nationally respected “Cleveland composer,” conducted.

But as with the still-to-come First Symphony and the much-later Concerto Concertante (originally called Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra), Porter was apparently unsure how best to label the music. The piece premiered not as Poem and Dance but as Two Moods, the first movement titled “Brooding,” the second “Exuberance.” It debuted as Poem and Dance in a two-piano version performed at Vassar that November.

Whatever the labels, the dark first movement assuredly conveys poetic brooding, deepened by the striking of a gong and the harp in its low register; and the second movement definitely dances along exuberantly. Each has a three-part shape that is the inverse of the other's: the poem starts slowly, speeds up and slows down again; the dance starts brisk and brassy, slows down, then speeds back up. The colors Porter achieves, especially in the dance, with the muted trumpet calls, the throaty clarinets, the flyswatter on the snare drum and cymbal (in the days before brushes were common), are amazingly effective. It may be a touch too “square” to be called real jazz, but for a staid New Englander, this is an unusually lusty little charmer.

Symphony No. 2

Porter completed the scoring of Symphony No. 2 on 11 October 1962, just a few days before the Cuban Missile Crisis; the work's premiere took place on 14 January 1964, just a few weeks after John Kennedy's assassination. Yet he gives us no inkling that people at the time actually felt doomsday lurking just around the corner — not in the music (the dissonance in the closing chord is more for color than commentary), not in his program notes:

Symphony No. 2 is in four movements, which do not, in any conscious way, relate themselves to one another thematically. The first, Lento, is contemplative, but comes to one main climax near the middle of the movement. The second movement, marked Scherzando, may give the impression of a somewhat suppressed type of humor… for the most part light and delicate in texture. The third movement, Adagio, molto espressivo, has a melancholy aspect, but the last movement, Allegro, is gayer, more dance-like and less introspective than the other three movements.

From the haunting little duet for horn and oboe at the outset, to the snideness of the scherzo (in whose insistent woodblock we hear an echo of the First Symphony, only now with sarcastic rather than pastoral connotations), from the liquid lines of chagrin defining the adagio to the finale's giddy-to-glum-and-back-again mood swings, we are seduced by the work's serene self-confidence. Even some less-than-lofty percussion licks — the rattling of maraca-like gourds in the first movement, the emphatic snare drum and xylophone that cut through the closing sections — are carried off breezily.

In his First Symphony, Porter had aimed for absolute music, detached from external influences. Here, in his Second, thirty years later, with Cold War angst rampant and a possible apocalypse waiting in the wings, he succeeded impressively. Commissioned by Broadcast Music, Inc., and dedicated to BMI president Carl Haverlin, the work received its first performance in Louisville, Kentucky, by the Louisville Orchestra under the direction of Robert Whitney.

Ian Hobson

A native of Wolverhampton, England, world-renowned keyboard artist and conductor Ian Hobson began studying piano at the age of five. In little more than a decade he had taken up viola and organ as well, won an open scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, and become the youngest recipient of the recital diploma in the history of London's Royal Academy of Music.

With a baccalaureate from Cambridge University and two master's degrees and a doctorate from Yale, Mr. Hobson took first prize in the 1981 Leeds International Piano Competition, a triumph that set him on an international career as piano soloist. Among the major orchestras with whom he has appeared in concert are the London Philharmonic, the ORD-Vienna, the Scottish National Symphony and the New Zealand Symphony, as well as such American orchestras as those of Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis and Baltimore. In New York City he has performed at Carnegie Hall, in the Mostly Mozart Festival and on the Great Performers at Lincoln Center series.

As a conductor, Mr. Hobson has guested with the Cleveland Orchestra, Sinfonia Varsovia at Carnegie Hall, including Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 from the keyboard, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra in Seattle, the Pomeranian Symphony and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, among other ensembles. Doubling as guest conductor as well as soloist, from the keyboard he has conducted such groups as the English Chamber Orchestra, the Illinois Opera Theater and the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra of Israel.

The founder of the Sinfonia da Camera chamber ensemble and Zephyr Productions, Inc., parent company of Zephyr Records, Ian Hobson is currently professor of music and professor in the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Sinfonia Varsovia

Krzysztof Penderecki, music director

This dynamic ensemble originated in 1972 as the Polish Chamber Orchestra, the instrumental component of Warsaw's Chamber Opera House, led by the young conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk. Soon branching out on its own to tackle the broader concert-hall repertoire, it rose to prominence in 1984 when the late Yehudi Menuhin appeared as violin soloist and conductor in a series of highly praised, highly publicized concerts. So successful was this collaboration that Menuhin signed on as principal guest conductor, a position he would keep for 15 years, and the group, consolidating itself with a core of two dozen strings and a double set of winds, adopted the name Sinfonia Varsovia.

Commanding an extensive repertoire that ranges from baroque masterworks to modern multi-textured complexities, the ensemble has drawn numerous internationally acclaimed conductors and soloists and performed throughout Europe, East Asia and North and South America and in numerous music festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Sinfonia Varsovia has also received several prestig-ious recording awards, including the Diapason d'Or and the Grand Prix du Disque; its music has appeared on such labels as Pathé Marconi-EMI, Virgin Classics, Decca, Denon Nippon, Sony, Columbia, Aperto, Polskie Nagrania and CD Accord.

—Liner notes by Ray Bono

Acknowledgments: Donald Currier, Professor Emeritus, Yale University; Barbara Haws and Rich Wandel, New York Philharmonic Archives; Carol S. Jacobs, Cleveland Orchestra Archives; Suzanne Eggleston Lovejoy, Yale Music Library

Recording Engineers; Lech Dudzik and Gabriela Blicharz

Editing: Jon Schoenoff

Recorded November 3 & 4, 2002, Witold Lutoslawski Studio, Polish Radio