John Harbison – Twilight Music (1984)

If the rise of the postwar avant-garde doused a nascent school of American symphonic and chamber music, probably no composer has labored more than John Harbison to revive the flame. It is perhaps telling that his most important accolades started to pile up in the mid-1980’s, when Harbison was nearly fifty. This was the decade when the musical establishment began seriously to doubt the wisdom of doubling down exclusively on the extreme atonalism of composers such as Pierre Boulez and turned instead to music that communicated more directly with its lay audiences.

Harbison was a pioneer of a compositional approach that is quite common now, especially in the United States. His recipe mixes non-traditional triadic progressions, lyric chromaticism, and rhythmic patterns taken from pop music. All of the above drench his trio for horn, violin, and piano, “Twilight Music.”

Judging by the number of performances on YouTube, “Twilight Music” is well-established in the repertoire. There are doubtless many contributing factors. The sections are distinctive enough that listeners can distinguish them even on first hearing. Harbison allows each player turns in the spotlight while resting the others, which has the added benefit of keeping the timbres fresh to the ear. Finally, the piece offers players a meaty challenge without requiring extreme endurance: the kind of challenge players relish rather than dread.

The horn part covers a fairly wide range, from written B2 to C#6. (The high C# occurs only once at the top of a rip.) Harbison avoids a common trap of contemporary composers by not overusing the high register. When the high notes do come they have impact. Several of the high passages are muted or stopped, which also helps mitigate both player- and listener-fatigue from strident high notes. Many passages feature lyric playing in the mid-low register. The second section of the piece contains scurrying arpeggiation of dominant 7 chords played against piano punches. Players might find it easier to play them “hand-horn style” by using an appropriate valve-combination and lipping through the arpeggios.

Ultimately, a key reason the piece is often performed could be that the horn part is so grateful to the instrument. One suspects that performances of any horn trio, including Brahms’s archetype, are most often instigated by the horn player. If a trio-piece cannot attract horn players to champion it and organize performances, it may well be doomed.

The linked recording is a live performance by top San Francisco players. Bob Ward is the horn player. The sheet music is readily available at reasonable prices from the normal retail outlets.

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