Program Notes: “Unexpected Affinities”

Listen to Janine Miller’s interview of Graham and Warren Cohen
KBAQ-FM “Heart of the Arts” – January 7, 2015

Notes by the Composer:

“Unexpected Affinities” was written in response to a request from Hannah Selznick in coordination with the Paradise Winds. Hannah was looking to commission a work that honored her parents and the Paradise Winds were looking to develop new music for Reed Quintet, and in particular, to create the first American work ever composed for Reed Quintet and Orchestra. The ensemble of Reed Quintet is somewhat unusual and it created its own challenges in terms of composing. There is a somewhat limited range of pitches and emotions that are effective with that combination. There is a reason that wind concertos are usually not intensely emotional pieces. The sound of oboe, clarinet saxophone and bassoon in combination suggests a lighter, more delicate palate of sounds. To complement the natural direction of the instruments, I decided to use an orchestra consisting of strings, harp and celesta. This allowed the solo instruments to stand out (because I was not doubling them with other winds or brass). At the same time the instruments in the orchestra provided a strong contrast to the tone colors of the solo groups. Thus, the subtitle, “Unexpected Affinities” referred in part to the surprising fact that such a disparate combination was the most natural way to feature the Reed Quintet.

It also offered me a way to fulfill Hannah’s request to write a work that in some way reflected her parents’ story. Hannah’s parents were Holocaust survivors who created a new life in America. The musical style of the piece echoes in its sound world, although not in its melodic or harmonic structure, the world of the music that was most severely restricted and hated by the Nazis. The use of a shimmering veil of sound created by the harp and celesta with strings and color added by reed instruments was the sound world of composers like Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who were the prominent Austrian composers most subject to disapproval by the Nazis. They regarded the sensuality, and the mysterious, impressionistic (and expressionistic) sound world so created as “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art).

A last point is that the title “Unexpected Affinities” is an oblique reference to a famous German novel of the 19th Century, Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” (1809), which, at least in part, is about marriage. As this work was written to honor a marriage, it seemed appropriate to use a subtitle that reflected that as well. – Graham Cohen

 Post Script by the Conductor

One interesting additional note, after reading Graham’s description; this “sensuous sound world” of Schreker and Korngold was identified as “Jewish” by the Nazis, and listening to this music was considered potentially debilitating to the health (physical, mental and emotional) of those of Aryan stock. The Nazi position was part of a general move to a more “objective” style of composition, a style that was maintained in so-called serious music for several decades after the fall of the Nazis. The post-war serialists (including Arnold Schoenberg the “founder” of serialism, Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern), the Darmstadt school (including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Karel Goeyvaerts, and Henri Pousseur), academic music in the United States-all reflected this trend, and composers who wrote in a way that echoed the sensuality of Central European Music of the 20s were marginalized as not serious composers. The revival of the sound world of Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s only began in the 1990s. – Warren Cohen

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