- Of Rage and Remembrance, Music and Memory:The Work of Mourning in John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and Choral Chaconne
On March 24, 1990, concert pianist and Chicago resident Sheldon Shkolnik died of “a long illness,” code for the ravages of HIV disease. He was fifty-two. At his side was his friend of some thirty years, John Corigliano, then nearing the end of his tenure as the first composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.1 Corigliano had accepted the position in 1987 partly to be closer to Shkolnik. Shkolnik survived just long enough to hear the world premiere of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (1989), which the composer dedicated to him. Because conductor Georg Solti declined to learn the score, it was first performed under the baton of associate conductor Daniel Barenboim, some three months later than planned, on March 15, 16, and 17, 1990. Although too weak even to speak, Shkolnik attended all three performances.2
The symphony was written with the foreknowledge of Shkolnik’s death, in the memory of his future passing—a chronology that complicates the notion of music composed in memoriam. But Corigliano had others, already gone, whom he wished also to mourn. At first intending to compose a concerto for orchestra during his residency and having previously sworn never to write a symphony, Corigliano changed his mind when Shkolnik was diagnosed in his presence.3 [End Page 340]
After leaving the hospital, the composer recalled:
I just had a radical change of thought, and I thought “Why am I writing a concerto grosso, which I do not care about, when everyone I know is dying, which I do care about. And now my best friend is going to die.” So I went to Henry Fogel, [executive director] at the Chicago Symphony, and said, “Look, this is what I want to write: a piece about that.”
That was the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, which by the late 1980s had stricken so many of Corigliano’s friends and colleagues that the composer “stopped counting after a hundred.” Yet he left their names in his address book—the record of a life having become a catalog of the dead, a graveyard in ink on paper. So many were gone that he adopted the then-current metaphor of HIV disease as “a Holocaust.”4
A dozen friends are remembered in the symphony. The entire work is dedicated in memory of Shkolnik, and the first movement, “Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance,” relates directly to him through an evocative musical quotation.5 As Corigliano himself explains in an extensive program note, his anguish in the face of his friend’s impending death is expressed in the initial sonority: a searing, unison A held by the strings first on the open string, then shifting string by string (from A to D to G) and stand by stand with the single note growing ever louder, the vibrato madly wider, and the bowing more frenetic. The image Corigliano had in mind was “a fist pushing a concrete wall until it shatters through,” an aural explosion intended to express “the primal anger of injustice.” Shards of musical ideas form the first section of the ternary (ABA) movement, including an aleatoric freefall in the piccolo, chaotic and violent fanfares in the brass, and dissonant triplets vividly characterized by Corigliano as “nasty.” All are meant, according to the composer, to exemplify rage. In contrast, the second theme (marked desolato) features a lyrical “remembrance” idea in counterpoint with a quotation of pre-existing music for solo piano: a tango by Albéniz that Shkolnik himself had played.
The second movement is in memory of Jack Romann, amateur pianist and former director of the concert and artist department of the Baldwin Piano Company, who died in May 1987. It is an orchestration of the fourth movement from Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances (1972), originally written for piano four hands and dedicated to Romann and in his friend, photographer and pianist Christian Steiner. As Corigliano writes his program note, “The association of madness [in the title, “Tarantella”] and my piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend, whose...