John Corigliano completed his Symphony No. 1 during his tenure as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1987 to 1990). Written in response to the AIDS epidemic, the work is as deeply personal as it is socially urgent: each of the first three movements eulogizes a close friend of the composer that died of AIDS.
The first movement (Apologue: "Of Rage and Remembrance") mourns the passing of a concert pianist. It begins rather ruthlessly, with the strike of the anvil and a shriek from the strings. A passage of stark orchestrational contrasts -- ethereal strings, blaring brass, fitful percussion -- eventually settles down, and from offstage, faintly, is heard a piano. It plays a tango by Isaac Albéniz that, in this context, transmits an ineffable mixture of irony, nostalgia, and melancholy. The ghostly piano fades in and out of the kaleidoscopic texture, which remains continually undecided between consolation and fury.
The second movement also begins with a series of jarring, percussive outbursts. Labeled a Tarantella, it is dedicated to a music executive and amateur pianist (who, incidentally, had also been the dedicatee of the final Tarantella of Corigliano's Gazebo Dances from years before). According to the composer, the second movement attempts to portray musically the alternating moments of dementia and clarity that his dying friend suffered. Fittingly, moments of stasis and calm are juxtaposed and overlapped with frenzied dances and foreboding brass and percussion figures. In one particularly dark moment, a sort of canon begins between the bass drum, contrabassoon, and tuba before the upper choirs join in a chaotic and cathartic dance. The schizophrenic movement ends with a grotesque scene of frantic percussion, brass glissandi, and finally, a vocalized shout from the players.
The third movement, subtitled "Giulio's Song," is much more emotionally lucid: a soft and austere background of strings (perhaps recalling the "silent druids" of Ives' Unanswered Question) set in relief the lush melody of the solo cello. A memorial to a cellist friend, Corigliano took melodies from an old tape recording of himself and his friend improvising, and incorporated them into the extended cello solo. The solo line takes place above a dodecaphonic chaconne, and also incorporates melodies from Corigliano's earlier settings of eulogies written by poet William Hoffman. Even here, however, remembrance finally cedes to rage, as the movement ends with a relentless crescendo of brass and percussion.
The final movement recalls all three friends: the faint tango from the phantom piano of the first movement; the struggle for mental clarity found in the second; and the plaintive cello from the third. The piece ends as the texture gradually thins out, finally leaving the cello on a sustained A that fades imperceptibly into silence.
Perhaps due in part to the social significance of Symphony No. 1, it was performed by nearly 100 symphonies worldwide within a decade. It also received the coveted Grawemeyer Award, and the recording by the Chicago Symphony won two Grammys. Corigliano reused some material from the Symphony No. 1 in creating his later Of Rage and Remembrance.