Harbison, John: “November 19, 1828” for Piano and String Trio

One of the hallmarks of JOHN HARBISON’s compositions is an intense, even obsessive, historical consciousness. Whether a piece of his is historically programmatic (like ‘November 19, 1828) or not (like ‘Twilight Music’), its sources and methods will almost always reflect, and respect, the influence of past compositions. Regardless of its lineage (which is as likely to include Schütz as to include Monk) the effect of this influence tends to run deep; unlike a simple reference, it is reflected thoroughly in themes, thought, and compositional material.

In ‘November 19, 1828,’ for example, reflection upon (and reflection of) the music of the past in music of the present is not only a rhetorical position, but an important compositional device. For example: not only do Rondo and Fugue have thematic reflection (i.e., some sort of transformational copying) in their very nature, but the composer (Harbison), writing fugues, is himself a reflection of Schubert studying fugues. (The manifestations of mirroring are too many to be catalogued here – perhaps too many to catalogue at all.) These historical and mnemonic reflections are not exact copies or ‘quotes’ of old material (just as Harbison is not Schubert); instead they are transformations, giving new life, or half-life, to things thematic, compositional, and corporeal.

The composer’s notes are below:

I. Introduction: Schubert crosses into the next world. The trumpets of death are heard three times. Schubert begins his journey haunted by sounds which are not his music, but pertain to his music in disturbing ways.
II. Suite: Schubert finds himself in a hall of mirrors (1. Theme РEcco̤aise РMoment Musical РImpromptu РValse). In the hall of mirrors music sounds in a manner previously unknown to Schubert; everything is played back immediately upside down.
III. Rondo: Schubert recalls a rondo fragment from 1816. Emblematic of a storehouse of still to be explored ideas, needing centuries more, the short fragment which begins this Rondo is the only one in this piece composed by Schubert in his first life.
IV. Fugue: Schubert continues the fugue subject (S-C-H-U-B-E-R-T) which Sechter assigned him. Shortly before his death, Schubert went to the theorist Sechter to work on a very specific problem pertaining to the tonal answer of the fugue subject, important to Schubert in the composition of his masses. Sechter, well aware that he was teaching the most extraordinary student who ever came for a lesson, concluded by assigning Schubert a fugue subject on his own name. Schubert was unable to undertake the task; he died about a week later, on November 19, 1828.

The “medium” for this tombeau for Schubert is grateful for the generosity of Jim and Marina Harrison at whose home near Genoa the piece was realized: their library contained a book by Alfred Mann, Theory and Practice, in which an account of Schubert’s lesson with Sechter, and the lesson itself, appear. The piece asserts Schubert’s relevance to our present, rather than any nostalgia for the past.

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