A Long Time Man for orchestra with piano (1979)

A Long Time Man, for orchestra with piano, was written in the fall of 1979 as a commission for the New Hampshire Symphony, and was first performed by that orchestra in the spring of the following year under the direction of James Bolle, with the composer as soloist. The piece is a series of twenty-four variations on a work song from Texas prisons, with a "cadenza for orchestra" inserted between variations 15 and 16. The cadenza, which is subtitled "Chain Gang", can also function as an independent piece for any number of players.

The theme is stated by the solo trombone, the song of the "long time man" (a prisoner serving a life term). The first nine variations, written in a kind of poly- or trans-tonal style similar to that of the North American Ballads for solo piano, develop the theme in a dialog between piano and orchestra, a fast-changing collage of bits and snatches of the tune which appear and disappear, in different keys and at different speeds. In Variation 10 a new, slow time suddenly sets in, lasting through Variation 15. In this section time seems almost to stop. The sudden "whump" of heavy objects dropped on the floor by several musicians at once, starts the "Chain Gang" sequence, a cadenza in which the orchestra improvises on a series of two-note rhythmic patterns, while the soloist improvises freely. The "whump," which continues throughout the cadenza, simulates the sound of several axes, or sledgehammers, coming down together in the cadence typical of work gangs. At the end of the cadenza the orchestra comes together on a single figure repeated several times, then passes immediately to Variation 16, which takes up the thematic material again in a manner similar to the beginning: a beginning that now seems to have happened a long time ago. Variation 17 evokes the slow time of Variations 10 to 15. Variation 18 is a written-out cadenza for solo piano. In Variations 19 through 24 time slows down again and comes to a stop. Accompanied by the sound of chains on the skins of the kettledrums, the theme is played softly in many different keys at once, fades away. The oboe plays the first two notes of the tune, and the music is over.

Why did I write this piece? I've always had ambivalent feelings toward the symphony orchestra, with its rows of string-infantry, woodwind cavalry, and brass artillery. Beethoven's symphonies seem to me like musical descriptions of Napoleonic campaigns, best understood by reading Clausewitz. I like Chopin and Schumann because they dealt awkwardly with the form. I don't like the orchestra's social organization, the oppressive work conditions, and the subservience of many individual gifted artists to a commanding, often non-musical authority. At the same time the thing is there, it exists, and for the purpose of creating beautiful music, which is something it certainly can do. This piece is an attempt, perhaps only half-successful, to express the life of the orchestra in its contradictoriness.

(September, 1987)

2011-02-13, Christian Mondrup, Werner Icking Music Archive