John Corigliano's Radical Pursuit of the New and Immediate

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John Corigliano's opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, imagines a meeting between the ghosts of playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, Marie Antoinette and the characters from Beaumarchais's "Figaro" trilogy. Sympathetic to the French queen, scathing in its condemnation of the Revolution, Ghosts is, philosophically at least, a conservative piece. Corigliano's notes make the subtext explicit, that "[m]id-century modernists at their most fundamentalist demanded that we destroy, not merely rethink, the past to forge a new future: a demand of which the guillotine makes a terrible and perfect symbol."

But Corigliano's means could hardly be called "conservative," exploiting an array of vast forces and eclectic musical styles. While never fully breaking from the expressive language developed by Mahler and his 20th-Century heirs, Corigliano develops it to often harrowing extremes.

His Grawemeyer Prize–winning First Symphony, the response of an openly gay man (his partner Mark Adamo is a celebrated opera composer in his own right) to the raging AIDS epidemic, is a cry from the depths. His Third, for wind ensemble, is if anything even more intense, featuring a blistering brass fanfare, a miniature marching band straight out of Mahler and a literal battery of percussion: the piece ends with the blast of a shotgun.

He has enjoyed success writing for more modest forces: to name just two pieces, his early Violin Sonata has a solid place in the repertoire, and his String Quartet, later revised as Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra) is a formidable piece of work. But his best-known works are for the symphony, including a string of concertos and Joshua Bell's astonishing score for "The Red Violin."

Corigliano does have a culturally conservative streak. That Third Symphony ("Circus Maximus") is intended as a protest against the trashy politics and pop culture and politics of an America in decline, and he claims that he had never heard the songs of Bob Dylan before composing the songs in Mr. Tambourine Man, a cycle setting Dylan texts to original music.

But it would be a mistake to think that Corigliano is somehow a regressive composer. He's kept his ear open to new techniques—that String Quartet features a fugue in four simultaneous tempos; Fantasia on an Ostinato for piano, his "minimalist" work, was intended to salvage techniques and textures he admired from a rising musical movement he distrusted but could not ignore.

In seeking continuity with the musical past, he was looking not backward, but forward. Take a close look at his oft-quoted maxim: "The pose of the misunderstood artist has been fashionable for quite a while, and it is tiresome and old-fashioned. I want to be understood…"

His complaint against musical modernism was not its "newness," but his sense that the pursuit of the "new" at the expense of ready comprehensibility had itself become passé. As it happens, history has borne him out—today's concert halls belong to a generation of young composers, his own students among them, who have taken his words to heart. They, too, want to be understood.