Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky looks forward to a number of important premieres this month. His orchestral tone poem Silent Spring (2011) receives its world premiere on February 17, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s eponymous book, which helped launch the environmental movement. Conducted by Manfred Honeck, this premiere performance comes courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where Stucky currently serves as Composer of the Year; after three performances at the ensemble’s Pittsburgh home, the same forces undertake the new work in its New York premiere on February 25 and at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on February 26. This follows the New York premiere of Stucky’s Aus der Jugendzeit (2010-11), with baritone Randall Scarlata and the Dolce Suono Ensemble, at Symphony Space on February 6.
A Pittsburgh Symphony commission, Silent Spring pays musical tribute to celebrated marine biologist and Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson (1907-64). As Stucky comments in his illuminating program note, it was with Silent Spring (1962) that Carson “galvanized public opinion and earned a permanent place in 20th-century American history.” The composer goes on to explain how her seminal work inspired his own process:
"I gathered together four of Carson’s own titles: The Sea Around Us; ‘The Lost Wood’ and ‘Rivers of Death’ (from the book Silent Spring); and Silent Spring itself. With these phrases as cues, I could fashion a one-movement orchestral tone poem in four sections that tries to create its own dramatic and emotional journey from beginning to end, without referring specifically to any scientific details.
"The result is music at once ‘abstract’ and ‘programmatic’ (admittedly fuzzy terms). ‘The Sea Around Us’ is murky water music: it rises from the depths of the orchestra until it reaches a grand but melancholy chorale evoking the vast expanses of the sea. ‘The Lost Wood’ calls forth a desolate chaconne (i.e., a set of variations over a cyclic chord progression). The somber atmosphere grows more and more intense until it leads to a short, scathing scherzo, ‘Rivers of Death.’ This diabolical ‘death scherzo,’ too, escalates until it cannot go any further, instead bursting into the ecstatic mass singing that begins the final section, ‘Silent Spring.’ But – like the insects and birds that Rachel Carson wrote about – one by one those ecstatic orchestral voices fall quiet. We are left with near-silence."
No stranger to orchestral writing, it was with his Second Concerto for Orchestra that the composer won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. As American Record Guide observes, “Stucky, with his feeling for big gestures and love of timbral variety, is at his best – or at least at his most free – when writing for full orchestra.” An interview with the composer, about his career and his appointment as the Pittsburgh Symphony’s 2011-12 Composer of the Year, is available on video here.