Corigliano – Fantasia on an Ostinato (1986)

The idea that music history is not an incessant march forward but a stylistic smorgasbord of genres and techniques that can be combined as necessary has taken hold in the late twentieth century.  In part a reaction against an earlier generation’s quest for austere modernity, it was spearheaded by a group of composers calling themselves “new Romantics,” among which is New York’s John Corigliano.  These composers were dissatisfied by modernist music’s inability to convey human emotion and chose to embrace, rather than reject, history by using older tonal styles and even outright quotation of earlier works.  Corigliano has achieved great success with this more accessible style, earning numerous accolades including multiple Grammys, the Grawemeyer Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Fantasia on An Ostinato was originally composed as a solo piano work in 1985, commissioned by the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition.  The ostinato mentioned in the title comes from the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  The movement’s relentless harmonic progression, modified only through changes in instrumentation and inner voices, reminded Corigliano of the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.  While he found that music to be emotionally sterile, he does call Fantasia his “first experiment in so-called minimalist techniques.”

The solo piano version of the piece allowed for great flexibility on the performer’s part, most of which has been removed for the orchestral rendition.  Corigliano does, however, employ some unorthodox techniques to achieve similar effects, including instructing the strings to play random notes between two pitches and commanding performers to ignore the conductor.  Despite these modern trappings, the work climaxes in a statement of the Beethoven theme in its entirely before an extended decrescendo into silence.

Performed by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra 4/29/09

Edited by Marian Wilson Kimber

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