When the New York Philharmonic commissioned Stephen Hartke to create his Symphony No. 3, he was inspired by a passage from a millennium-old Anglo-Saxon text titled The Ruin: "Roofs are ruined, towers toppled . . . / Bright were these city-dwellings . . . till Fate the mighty overturned it all." The text's evocation of events of our own time seemed to him to be an appropriate way to commemorate September 11, 2001. "It's my translation from the Anglo Saxon," says the composer, who studied the ancient language in college. "I sent it to Lorin Maazel and he thought it struck the right tone."
This prize-winning "secular requiem," according to Hartke, differs significantly from last season's Pulitzer Prize-winning Philharmonic memorial commission, John Adams's On The Transmigration of Souls, which employed texts drawn from 9/11 cell-phone calls, notes, and posters. "It's more of a reflection. I like the way Adams focused on those texts that were of the moment, but I wanted to look back."
Reflective music requires a less direct approach, or as Hartke describes it, "dealing with the evanescent qualities of life through evanescent sound." So the sound-world for the 25-minute symphony includes The Hilliard Ensemble, an early music male quartet, and "copper cowbells made in India, played quietly and under water. I provide instruments; I was told by the Philharmonic, 'Don't bother; we have them.' But the ones I have are exactly right."
Hartke's meld of experimentation and tradition has blossomed since relocating to the West Coast, "away from the schisms and ideologies of music in the East." But he hasn't forgotten his New York roots, and his earliest musical experiences as a boy chorister, which included appearances with the Philharmonic: "I sang in the world premiere of Poulenc's last piece for full orchestra [Sept répons des ténèbres, in 1963] under Thomas Schippers, for the first season at Lincoln Center."
Forty years later, Hartke's back . . . with his own world premiere for voices and orchestra.
Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the editor of NewMusicBox, the American Music Center's Web magazine.