Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer John Corigliano

May 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: With a fistful of Grammies, an Oscar, and now this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Second Symphony, John Corigliano is one of the most celebrated composers of the day. (Music in Background) The child of a pianist mother and a violinist father, the 63-year-old has been around music all his life and a working composer since the late 1950’s. He spoke with us recently in his New York apartment, where he lives and works.

JOHN CORIGLIANO, Pulitzer Prize, Music: My whole life I’ve been writing concerts, and so the Pulitzer is the award that a composer looks at and says, gosh, I wish I had one of those.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have said that when you’re thinking about taking on a piece of music, or when you’re just beginning with it, that you like to ask really basic questions. What is a concerto? What is a clarinet?

JOHN CORIGLIANO: Right, right. Well, you see, today, the interesting thing about this time is that all music from every age, from every country and every place in the world is instantly available to us. We can go to Tower Records and buy East Indian music, Balinese music, African drumming, medieval chant, 20th century music from all over the world, so we’re at a very different time than Beethoven say or Mozart. Now, if we hear all of this world of music, then we have a tremendous amount of choices open to us. We can say I can write anything, what do I want to write next?

JEFFREY BROWN: Corigliano’s choices have led him in many directions and to many musical forms. His style has been called eclectic, taking things from the past and present, making something new. His first symphony was written in 1988 as a response to the AIDS crisis. It is by terms “angry, lyrical, and mournful.” (Music in Background) It’s become perhaps the most performed American symphony written in the last half of the 20th century.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: When my friends all started to die of AIDS, I felt I had to say something in music, and the only piece that’s epic enough for this kind of tragedy is the symphony, which is our novel, our form.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Corigliano, there must be an emotional and intellectual quality to all his work. He likens himself to an architect filling a space with sound, and he begins to write only after he’s thought through the entire structure of the piece.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: The first question is not what melody am I going to use, what rhythm am I going to use. The first question is: I have this 30-minute block of time; I had a symphony orchestra. What do I want to do there? And, in fact, one of the big criticisms that I’ve heard made of modern music is it doesn’t go anywhere because the composers are manipulating three or four notes and then seven or eight notes and then ten or twelve notes and altogether it makes ten minutes of music, but there was never this – this idea of those ten minutes having a shape that can be accomplished by the human perception.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when you begin, you know where you want to get to?

JOHN CORIGLIANO: Oh, absolutely; absolutely. If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you go there convincingly? It’s like writing a detective story or a murder mystery not knowing who killed the person at the end and writing it to the end and saying, whom, I wonder who the murderer was in the last three pages – no, you’ve got to know that at the beginning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes the beginning is this: Corigliano will sketch with colored pencils, trying to draw what he wants to express. These lines eventually grew into music for his opera, “The Ghost of Versailles,” a major hit when presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1991. (Music in Background)

JEFFREY BROWN: Your parents were musicians.


JEFFREY BROWN: And yet they tried to keep you from being a composer.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: As best they could, which is why I became a composer, of course. You know, that’s how it works. My father was the concert master for the New York Philharmonic for 26 years; he was a wonderful violinist, but my father saw composers being booed; he saw orchestras hating to play their music; he saw the fact that they don’t make any money and they’re not going to live, and he said, become a doctor or a lawyer, or do something where you can really earn a living and have some security and not go into the composing business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Corigliano is secure — while the classical music world is anything but. The litany has become common, smaller and aging audiences, less recording and rare programming of new music. As this recent New York Times article put it, classical music is in trouble, and unless some basic things change, the troubles will continue in the 21st century. Corigliano says the composers who alienate audiences haven’t helped.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say – “it’s been fashionable of late for the artist to be misunderstood; I wish to be understood.”


JEFFREY BROWN: What did you mean?

JOHN CORIGLIANO: Let’s put it this way: If there are 3,000 people in a concert hall, it should in some way be talking to those people. Let’s look at a man like Beethoven. Beethoven talked to you from the very first moment of a piece; he grabs you by the shoulders; he emotionally shakes you; his directions are clear, because he sketched them out, he really worked on that. Now, that doesn’t mean that’s it for Beethoven. You listen to it once and you’ve found out Beethoven. The good part is that he also had layers underneath of many, many relationships that are quite complex and intellectually and emotionally stimulating that we get to if we listen to him enough. So when I say we should be understood, I don’t mean that a listener comes in and hears a piece of mine and says oh, I got it all. I mean I got something; I got something there that made me want to hear that again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Corigliano has tried to pull in audiences from the start. He worked on the renowned young people’s concerts with Leonard Bernstein. Later, he composed music for the big screen. His score for the 1981 film “Altered States” gained an Academy Award nomination. His music for the “Red Violin” want an Oscar last year.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: What is modern music? It’s music being written now, and unfortunately the term “modern music” has all of the onus or fear attached to it. I have to say I think that the right of the audiences has been taken away. For example, when they don’t like a piece of music, they feel ashamed, embarrassed, and inadequate. And when they like a piece of music, they feel guilty that this music might not really be that good because they like it. We have to –

JEFFREY BROWN: They feel they can’t like it?

JOHN CORIGLIANO: Yes, because it should be above them. And I say this because I think that we have to give them back their right to like or dislike something – the same way with a novel, or they go to a play or any other aspect of the living world around us; their opinion counts.

JEFFREY BROWN: This year’s Pulitzer was awarded for Corigliano’s Second Symphony. It was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the centennial of its famous concert hall. With Sagi Ozawa conducting, the symphony received glowing reviewed when performed last year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is composing hard?

JOHN CORIGLIANO: It is the hardest thing I know of. It’s facing your inadequacies and trying to surmount them. It is looking at a blank page and having no ideas for a long period of time and not being able to move so that even though you spend a week – spending morning to night – sitting in that room, you get nothing done, and yet, at the end, you know, when the piece is written, there’s also nothing more fulfilling than saying, you know, out of nothing, really nothing, just dots on a page, something happens. One can only hope that in our classic music field that the people running this field should use the composer in a positive way and composers write in a positive way, knowing that three thousand people want to hear you write for them without sacrificing anything of your integrity or talent. It can be done and it’s the goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Corigliano, thank you, and congratulations again.

JOHN CORIGLIANO: Thank you very much.