When Institute Professor John Harbison's "Requiem" receives its world premiere performance tomorrow night by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it will be the culmination of a creative process that began 17 years ago.
It will also signify the end of a period marked by private and public losses for the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. "If this piece registers thoughts about death and reconciliation, it is about experiences I have had firsthand," said Harbison.
He began composing the piece in 1985, at the same time (in fact, on the opposite side of the sheet of paper) as his opera, "The Great Gatsby." Both pieces were independent projects at the time with no prospects for performance.
Ten years later, Harbison was one of 13 composers invited to write a movement for the collective "Requiem of Reconciliation" honoring the victims of World War II. In that work, he drew on the core musical ideas of the requiem's beginnings, which fueled his interest in completing the requiem.
In 2001, a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) enabled Harbison to complete the Requiem. "The Great Gatsby" was completed on commission by the Metropolitan Opera in 1998 and premiered in 2000.
A requiem is, by definition, a musical composition in honor of the dead, set to a traditional liturgical text in Latin. As Harbison worked on the piece over the years, he inscribed in his sketch the names of loved ones who died during that time. This was done, he writes in the program notes, "not to tell the listener about my reaction, but to remind myself that only living alertly in our own immediate lives gives us any comprehension of war, disaster, destruction on a wider scale."
The tragic events of Sept. 11 occurred one week after Harbison signed his contract with the BSO. "The events of that fall made my purposes clearer," he writes. "I wanted my piece to have a sense of the inexorability of the passage of time, for good and ill, of the commonality of love and loss."
The 17-year period of creation is "unusual" for him as a composer, Harbison said. Also unusual for him, he writes, was how "persistent" his original view of the piece was--"how closely my idea of the large design, even down to the harmonic outlines, was being pursued." Even in pieces written quickly, he said, this "persistence" is atypical of his creative process.
One of the problems with a piece that evolves over a long period "is that people assume you haven't done anything else in those 17 years," he added wryly. In fact, he said, "those years were very fluent periods of composition for me."
Harbison said he has always been attracted to texts that have been set and endured through many years--one reason that he was drawn to the requiem form. Some interviewers can't understand why he would want to add another requiem to the repertoire and ask him if he thinks his piece can "effectively compete in the requiem market, against ones that already exist," he said.
"It just goes to show how a lot of arts initiatives are viewed as products these days," Harbison said. "If I thought like that every time I wrote a string quartet, I probably wouldn't do it. It's strange that there's so much riding on something earning its keep. If you're a concert music composer, you know you're not earning your keep."
For Harbison, the premiere of his "Requiem" feels more like a beginning than an end. "It now feels like a good opportunity to start in new directions," he said.
Bernard Haitink will conduct the BSO in the world premiere performance of Harbison's "Requiem" on March 6-8 at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall. The program also includes Beethoven's "Symphony #4." All concerts will be preceded by a 7 p.m. talk by John Daviero from Boston University. Tickets are priced from $25 to $90. The March 6 concert has been added to the free concerts available to BSO College Card holders. Cards are available by showing a valid MIT student ID at the BSO box office at Symphony Hall. For more information, see http://web.mit.edu/arts/general/BSO.html.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 5, 2003.