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A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?

NPR Music

In 2007, I was interviewed by a journalist over lunch a day before the premiere of my Violin Concerto. One of his first questions was, "So why do you write in these old forms, the symphony, the concerto ... ?" I told him that these were simply titles which imply nothing about the form, which was another thing entirely. But it led me to ask myself: What is a symphony these days? If it no longer comprises a four-movement structure with an energetic first movement, a slow movement, a scherzo, and some kind of quick rondo, then what exactly characterizes it? And why write one?


Every composition student is told never to write a long piece for orchestra because it will never be played. This is good advice. However, since writing my first symphony, I have written three others, as well as several other long pieces including Falling Dream for the American Composers Orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante for the Minnesota Orchestra, and a number of concertos for various instruments, all around 25 minutes long. They are rarely played. In fact, I can count the number of performances of each of these, with the possible exception of my Symphony No. 2, on one hand. It's true: The short and snappy concert openers get played far more often.

Strangely, this doesn't bother me the way it probably should. I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I had to write the pieces and the symphonic genre has led me to some wonderful places. Dale Johnson, artistic director of Minnesota Opera, tells me he knew immediately I was the guy to write the opera Silent Night when he listened to one of my symphonies on the car ride home from work. He says it was the control of the big picture, the long arc, which impressed him, and though I was as green as they come, he felt I would be well suited for opera.

An opera can be a symphony with singing, and with a real story rather than an imaginary one. With opera, I use the same tools I use to write a symphony. I don't know how to write a series of "numbers" and then connect them all somehow, though other composers do this beautifully. I do best when I think of the broad picture, the complete journey. I am always looking down the road to see where the materials can go, how they are going to develop.

In the end, maybe what that journalist implied was right. Maybe it isn't too cool to write a symphony anymore. But how cool anyway are we who love the inexorable rising scales at the opening of Beethoven's Seventh, those wicked, angular piano chords in the first movement of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, the counterpoint in the last movement of Mozart's Jupiter symphony, the epic ending of the Sibelius Fifth?