Composers You Should Know Part 3


My relationship to today’s composer is much different than the previous two. The previous ones I have been listening to and following for ten years or more. I found this one recently, because I was listening to Sirius XM’s classical channel and heard something magnificent come on. I looked the composer up and found her.

Jennifer Higdon is writing some of the most inventive music I’ve heard. She has the ability to write in a huge variety of styles: bluegrass, beautiful lush orchestrated pieces, avant-garde experimentation, and more … often all rolled into a single piece.

There are several really interesting facts about her life. The first one is that she started late in music. I spent my youth around stressed out high school students who had “only” a few pages of musical accolades who feared they had already missed out on the chance of a profession in music. They were already 15 and hadn’t finished writing their second symphony which put them way behind their idols.

Jennifer Higdon didn’t even pick up an instrument until 15 and hadn’t started composing until 21! Now she is one of the most successful living composers. She currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair at the Curtis Institute of Music and has had numerous commissions from the top orchestras and performers. She has won basically all the top prizes and awards for composition as well.

Her doctorate was under George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania (though I hear almost no Crumb influence in her work and think that extracting it would be an awesome music theory Ph.D. if anyone is interested). The piece I want to talk about is her violin concerto (I’m using the Hilary Hahn recording). The piece won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize (I swear I’ll try to avoid the Pulitzer next time).

The piece opens with the main theme on the violin. The orchestral accompaniment is a collection of disjointed, broken upper register parts with chimes and what possibly sounds like harmonics on the violin. The solo part contrasts with this nicely, but the power of Higdon is first noticeable when the orchestra accompaniment switches to a sustained part. The bottom comes in for the first time, and the effect is chilling.

The positioning and style choices in the juxtaposition of contrasts is what made me fall in love with the first piece and seek out more. I’ve since learned that this is a characteristic in many of her pieces. One moment the soloist is playing rapid, technical passages, the next she has long flowing lines.

The transitions are spot on. You can think about the different sections and wonder how you get from one to the next. But in the moment of listening, the flow works, and you don’t notice the section breaks unless you are intended to notice them. When she intends you to notice, then it is quite an experience. The set up contrasts are often the most moving moments of the piece.

The violin concerto is quite difficult to describe, because its sound is so unique. It sounds vaguely atonal yet always feels fully tonal. It sounds foreign while maintaining the feeling of familiarity. The second movement is fascinating, becuase it opens as the standard “slow movement,” but once the solo comes in it quickly shifts to a much more urgent and pressing feel.

The movement does a wonderful job at maintaining an undercurrent of passive beauty while the motion of the solo picks up intensity over top of it. This tension allows the piece to build to a huge sense of relief when the tension releases. This type of thing isn’t possible with a more traditional approach to the middle movement.

The last movement is more traditional in that it provides an awesome, showy finish. It reminds me a bit of the end to Shostakovich’s first violin concerto. It is technical with interesting moody, modal tonalities coming in and out throughout.

Overall, this is a fantastic piece you should check out. I will definitely continue to follow what Jennifer Higdon does and familiarize myself with more of her work. This is a composer you should definitely know if you are into orchestral works but not so familiar with modern works.

I should have been doing this in the previous posts, but here’s a link to the first movement:

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