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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Steven Stucky

BORN: November 7, 1949, in Hutchinson, KS

DIED: February 14, 2016, in Ithaca, NY

COMPOSED: 1992. Dedicated to “for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic”

WORLD PREMIERE: February 6, 1992, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, with Esa- Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these performances

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, glockenspiel, tam-tam, tubular bells, vibraphone, harp, and piano

DURATION: About 10 mins
 
THE BACKSTORY Here we encounter the confluence of two composers, both departed: Henry Purcell, who died 325 years ago, and Steven Stucky, who has been gone only four. The point of departure is the music Purcell composed for the obsequies of Mary II, Queen of England, which took place on March 5, 1695. Born in 1662, the eldest daughter of James II of England (James VI of Scotland) by his first wife, Anna Hyde, she was married against her will at the age of fifteen to her cousin William of Orange. He was twelve years older and she found him generally repugnant. Nonetheless, it was a politically expedient union; at stake was nothing less than the religious fate of England. The English Parliament hoped that William, a fervent proselytizer for Protestantism on the European Continent, would quell the Catholicism that James was promoting in England. William did exactly that, and James fled into exile in France, ensuring a Protestant future for England. Parliament first thought to thank William by naming his wife Queen and him Prince Consort, but Mary was committed to the idea that a wife should be subservient to her husband. In the end, the couple were named co-monarchs of England, Scotland, and Ireland—officially William III and Mary II, but remembered in history as just William and Mary. Mary was widely admired by her subjects, her status apparently boosted by the lack of regret she showed for her exiled father, who had not been a popular ruler.

She died at the age of thirty-two, a victim of smallpox. Her funeral service included music by Henry Purcell (1695–95), the most prominent English composer of his day. He had spent his entire career in the service of the English Court, first as a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal, then successively as composer for the Court’s violin band, organist of Westminster Abbey, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, curator of the King’s wind and keyboard instruments, and Composer in Ordinary for Charles II, James II, and William and Mary. He composed a series of Birthday Odes for Queen Mary, the last being the much-loved Come ye sons of Art.

Among other pieces he supplied for the service, Purcell reworked some vocal settings of “funeral sentences” he had composed perhaps two decades earlier and provided a march and canzona for a quartet of “flatte trumpets”—chromatic slide trumpets whose slides moved in and out behind the player’s shoulder, the reverse of what we are accustomed to in trombones. A participating chorister wrote that the March—noble in its simplicity, expressive in its harmonies—was “sounded before her Chariot,” i.e., as the coffin was moved up the aisle or perhaps after it was in place at the front of the Abbey. One of the funeral sentences is set to the text “In the midst of life we are in death”; in this anthem, Purcell’s imaginative harmonic and contrapuntal vagaries underscore the ideas of unpredictability and impermanence. (In fact, the composer himself died only eight and a half months after this state funeral.) The Canzona, the chorister relates, “was sounded in the Abbey after the Anthem.” It is developed from the same musical material that fueled the March, although here the four parts proceed more in note-against-note counterpoint than in sustained chords.

The score for the work played here identifies it as Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary “transcribed and elaborated by Steven Stucky.” When Stucky succumbed to brain cancer four years ago, composers and musicians responded with an outpouring that reflected his national prominence in musical and academic spheres. On the West Coast, he enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was appointed composer-in-residence in 1988 and served as Consulting Composer for New Music. In 2003, he served as Ernest Bloch Distinguished Professor in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley.

On the East Coast he was affiliated with the New York Philharmonic, where from 2005 to 2009 he hosted its “Hear and Now” modern-music series. He joined the composition faculty of the Juilliard School in 2014 and taught there until his death. He had earned his doctorate at Cornell University, where he taught for thirty-four years. Near the end of his life he also joined the artist faculty and served as composer-in-residence at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Stucky was thrust to national prominence through the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Music, awarded for his Second Concerto for Orchestra. (His First Concerto for Orchestra had been a Pulitzer finalist in 1989.) It is not coincidental that he should compose two works thus titled; the most famous of all “concertos for orchestra” is that of Bartók, whose music wielded influence over Stucky’s early compositions. (He also cited Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Ligeti as ongoing sources of inspiration.) Another composer of such pieces was the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, whose music was a particular passion of Stucky’s and about whom he authored an acclaimed book, published in 1981. Among his many honors was the Lutosławski Medal, awarded to him in 2005. He was composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 2006 and became a trustee of that organization the following year. He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.

He was productive but not profligate as a composer, writing some ninety works—symphonic, choral, chamber, and instrumental and vocal solos. “I find composition difficult,” Stucky said in an interview with David Ng of the Los Angeles Times. “I never thought of myself as someone who can crank it out. I can’t crank it out—I have to dig it out the hard way. In some sense, you become more confident in your technical apparatus, but it becomes harder to do something you haven’t done already.”

He wrote his gloss on Purcell’s Funeral Music at the suggestion of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Stucky set three of Purcell’s movements, returning to the March at the end, in a single sweep without breaks, employing the resources of a full symphony orchestra with a very notable omission—no strings apart from a harp. “In working on the project,” he reported, “I did not try to achieve a pure, musicological reconstruction but, on the contrary, to regard Purcell’s music, which I love deeply, through the lens of 300 intervening years. Thus, although most of this version is straightforward orchestration of the Purcell originals (three sections for trumpets, trombones, and drums; one for chorus), there are moments when Purcell drifts out of focus.”

This, then, is less a transcription in the ordinary sense than a postmodern glance back through the mists of time. Indeed, much in Stucky’s transcription is misty, ghostly, hardly more than glimpsed. On the other hand, he is not averse to sometimes letting loose with the full power of his ensemble; near the end of the Canzona, for example, Stucky piles up a mountain of overlay that threatens to overwhelm Purcell’s original entirely. Overall, the atmosphere is not so much that which defined the solemn pomp of mourning in Purcell’s England, but more that of a dreamscape of a modern visionary gazing at the past as if “through a glass darkly.”—James M. Keller