Music: Libby Larsen — The Natural Sound of Music

As I was saying before we were interrupted by the Christmas holidays, the symphony is not dead, did not die, and is alive and well, even here in America. I submit as evidence the works of Libby Larsen (b. 1950), as engaging a young composer as we have today.

Hailing from Minnesota, Larsen seems to have been somehow immunized by the Midwest from the didactic, ideological struggles that enervated the works of so many “coastal” composers. She feels that many modern symphonies are “vacuous,” which attests to her critical faculties, yet she remains “loyal” to the form. That loyalty is displayed on three Koch International Classics CDs, containing three of her five symphonies. Larsen is not tied strictly to the form, as several of these works could pass for suites or concertos for orchestra. However, the point remains that here is an artist working within traditional forms with traditional means in a fresh manner.

Larsen is one of those extraordinary souls who simply writes music without having felt the obligation to “interiorize” the crisis of 20th-century music that nearly drove it to its grave. Not having suffered from serialism, she has not had to work her way therapeutically through the moronic form of minimalism as a recovery from it. That means there is something “natural” about her music, but it does not mean that her work is not challenging. It is, but because of the fecundity of her imagination and the vibrancy of her expression. When Larsen says, “I believe we still have things to say in the symphony,” she should be understood within her perspective that the composer’s task is “to communicate something about being alive through music.” Her works are as bracing an affirmation of life as I have heard in contemporary music.

For instance, I was completely taken in by my first exposure to her work, Water Music (1984), which shows her deep affinity for nature. “I know that nature speaks to me all the time as I compose,” Larsen has said in an interview. Water Music was written as a salute to Handel’s work of the same name on the 300th anniversary of its composition. If this is Handel in the United States, he arrived here via Debussy and Ravel and has been thoroughly Americanized.

This is an exhilarating piece of music that seems to tumble out of itself. It contains a welter of orchestral color and rhythmic snap, with swirling melodic fragments floating upon its flowing surface. Water Music is alive, pulsing, demanding to be heard in its sense of urgency. It has a wildly impressionistic air, as if the music is being made up as it is being played. It does not seem to have formal characteristics on first hearing. You get the sense you are in for the ride of your life, and you had better hang on and see what will happen next.

In other words, this is not meditative music. It is music re-creating an experience that you can later meditate on. I wrote these words before reading Larsen’s statement that “I want to give the listener not the sound of the bird so much as the feeling of flying, not the footsteps on the mountain so much as the sense of climbing.” In Water Music, as in so many of her other works, she succeeds, in this case with the movements marked “Fresh Breeze,” “Hot, Still,” “Wafting,” and “Gale.”

Though not a symphony, Larsen’s tone poem, Deep Summer Music, found on her most recent Koch CD, reinforces the merits found in Water Music. As her subtitles to Water Music indicate, Larsen does not shy away from explicitly describing the pictorial aspects of her work. In fact, she says, “I visualize as I compose.” Remarking on the “sweep of the horizon and depth of color” of the Midwestern plains, she states that “the glory of this phenomena is particularly evident at harvest time, in the deep summer, when acres of ripened wheat, sunflower, corn, rye and oats blaze with color. In the deep summer, winds create wave after wave of harvest ripeness which, when beheld by the human eye, creates a kind of emotional peace, and awe.” Not only does she convey this marvel of nature’s abundance, but she specifically places the human observer of it as the solo trumpet, personified as “the presence of the individual amidst the vastness of the landscape.” This gorgeous piece also exhibits more of Larsen’s lyrical gift in beautiful long-lined melodies.

Melody also sustains Larsen’s superbly crafted Symphony No. 4, String Symphony (1998), in which she forgoes the richer palette of full orchestra—something in which she usually revels with bells, chimes, and marimbas. Larsen believes that highly charged rhythms and percussion instruments are the singular contributions of 20th-century music. This understanding is emphasized in a good deal of her work. Here, however, she seems to take respite in modal harmonies, an almost English kind of pastoralism, and gentle, almost dreamy melodies. Perhaps the String Symphony is a reaction to the percussiveness of some of her other music. Here she shows that, for all the motivic fragmentation she favors in her more impressionistic efforts, she too can write the long melodic lines required of truly symphonic works.

Interestingly, the second movement, “Beauty Alone,” sounds as if it is based on a variation of a Dies Irae motif. The last movement plays with this same theme but more within Larsen’s typical rhythmic preoccupations. In fact, it is called “Ferocious Rhythm,” though there is nothing particularly ferocious about it. Just as Benjamin Britten’s salutary influence can be heard in the music of Larsen’s teacher, Dominick Argento (listen to his stunning Te Deum to see what I mean), so too does the String Symphony show traces of Britten’s brilliant string writing. This marvelous piece can stand next to the string works of Britten, Tippett, Rorem, and Diamond as a sterling example of its genre.

Larsen’s Lyric Symphony seems to be ironically titled because it is far less lyrical than the String Symphony and does not really bear resemblance to Alexander Zemlinsky’s similarly titled work, a gorgeously overripe representation of music before it was eviscerated by Arnold Schoenberg. However, what it does share from the era of the early 20th century are highly chromatic harmonies that bear out Larsen’s statement that her “style is not recognized in the consistent use of a harmonic language.” In the liner notes to the CD, composer Russell Platt writes that “harmonically the whole thing sounds like Gershwin queerly tainted by Berg.” This is a darker-hued work with the sense of disorientation and anxiety that heavily chromatic harmonies can convey. I do love how Larsen, partway into the first movement, temporarily dispels the anxiety with a huge up-swelling in the deep brass that sounds like something out of Lester Trimble’s great Symphony No. 3.

Parts of this work, especially the second movement, invite the question of how far Larsen can go on her harmonic and rhythmic strengths alone. In the “Quiet” movement, the answer is pretty far. She achieves an intriguing impression of stasis. Yet one is always waiting to see when, or if, she is going to resolve things in a full-blown melody. She usually does, and the expectation she sets up is part of the dramatic suspense that keeps one riveted. However, this does not always work. In the last part of the Lyric Symphony, Larsen seems to rely too much on punchy, percussive rhythms that become fatiguing. Nevertheless, if Larsen’s rambunctiousness occasionally gets the better of her, I say, Oh, felix culpa! Look at what her sense of adventure has accomplished.

I have only briefly mentioned Larsen’s educational pedigree, principally that she studied with one of the relatively unsung heroes of American music, Dominick Argento. Another decisive impact seems to have been Sister Colette, one of the St. Joseph nuns at Christ the King School in Minneapolis. Larsen writes that “Sister Colette was extraordinary in the kinds of repertoire she gave me. I played a very unusual repertoire—Mozart, Bartok, Stravinsky, Japanese music and boogie right away. That variety was very important in introducing so many different musical sounds and colors to me.” (Larsen’s easy mastery of musical idioms reminds me of Peter Schickele.) Equally important, in the pre-Vatican II era in which Larsen’s grade-school studies took place, the students of Christ the King learned to read and sing Gregorian chant, starting in the first grade. Thus, says Larsen, “I became fascinated with rhythm through a natural grounding in Chant.” She laments the loss of this resource, and so should we. Maybe that is where the “natural” sound of Larsen’s music comes from.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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