I recently thought when I was browsing through the internet trying to find (and being unable to find) discussion/opinion on various pieces not deeply entrenched in the public’s ears, “Hey, there may be other people like me, so maybe I can write something for them.”
Maslanka’s 2nd Symphony was his first for band, and the first one written in the style that we know him by, i.e. more rooted in meditation. As his first symphony (written as a college dissertation) has never been performed, it might as well be his first. It starts with a low growl which proceeds promptly to the first theme. Throughout the movement, and the symphony for that matter, the time is kept mainly by straight quarter notes on the beat. I, for whatever reason, think of this is like walking. Step, step, step, step. Not marching but walking. Maslanka also conjures up every sound the band can offer, including the less the usual. The second theme has the trumpet and clarinet in their absolute highest register, which recalls something a trumpeter said when player Mahler 7: “What’s beautiful about a muted high C-sharp” or something like that. The whole exposition seems to me to be like a powerful statement, almost heroic, and very dramatic. But then the development hits. Maslanka said that the music is about loss, resignation, and acceptance. If I had to say, when the development starts, a great loss occurs. Everything that has been holding the music together seems to fall apart, and after a while it can go no more. The rest of the movement is resigned, having been defeated by the greater forces. The themes are presented simply: just a melody, and those walking quarters. The movement seems to stop, and end on a major chord, but a few more tragic notes are sounded, leaving the movement seeming unfinished.
Maslanka, like a lot of other great band composers (Colgrass, Mackey, Grainger, and Tichelli) has a thing for the saxophones (which is great for me), and especially the soprano sax, which features prominently in several of his symphonies. The second movement, titled “Deep River” starts with the saxophone family. Unlike the first movement, which started out somewhat uncertain, there are no questions here. The soprano sax shouts out the melody to the folk song “Deep River.” Maslanka has said that he had the body of the movement done when he came across this melody when working on another project, so he ended up opening the movement with it. This is the only “borrowed” melody in the symphony. In several of Maslanka’s later works (5th, 6th, and 9th, symphonies) there are “borrowed” melodies all over the place, mostly Bach chorale melodies, but just this one folk song found it’s way into this work. After the “Deep River” section has finished, it seems we have turned our back from the river, and are now looking into a dense jungle, dark and mysterious. Bird call like figures come from all over the band, and music seems to grow bigger and bigger out of it’s own power, eventually reaching a huge climax, with staccato trumpet fanfares, and a falling line that has been building up to this point. As the climax dies down, that falling figure keeps trying to make it’s way to a resting point, but it never finds it, either falling short, or over shooting it. The soprano sax keeps repeating a figure, seeming to want to get something done, but it can’t, until it finally falls defeated. The movement ends with crotales, dipped in water to create a incredibly unusual sound. I had no idea what it was until I saw the score.
The last movement, marked “Very Fast,” starts with a galloping figure in the high winds and woodblock. This is the most lighthearted the symphony has ever gotten, but of course, it gets swept away to a recurring rhythmic patter that will come back throughout the movement: 1-and. and 2-and. and. There is another theme that sounds like it should be a folk song, but isn’t, played by the euphonium, and low winds, again backed by the walking quarters. This movement is the most varied, and longest, so adequate discussion of it presents some problems. The most violent passage in the symphony occurs at the end of the development section, where the previously mentioned rhythmic patter comes back in full force, played with rage by the lowest part of the band, with huge suspended cymbal hits. It builds, gaining in dissonance, but all of a sudden, the horns do a big downward gliss, and we’re back to the opening, now colored by a sinfully difficult piccolo part. The ending of the movement is one of my favorites in all music,mostly because it is so different. After tension has been built up to a breaking point, the whole band just stops, and all we are left with is the horns holding out a high note, backed by a suspended cymbal role. After a few seemingly timeless bars, the horns break into half-step dissonance, and then the lows come in with four falling quarters, thus ending the work, on a dissonant and unresolved note. It really makes me think “Why?” but of course, I don’t need an answer, because great music needs no justification.
One way to tell a really great band piece is if you can’t tell it is for band, and that can only be accomplished by the best. This isn’t “band music” but music written for band, and Maslanka is a master of all the instruments of the band. I highly recommend this work: it is one of my absolute favorite works of all time. Maslanka is one of the few distinctly American composers, as opposed to composers born in American, alive today. His music is brilliant. If your a person who mostly listens to orchestral music, Maslanka is a great way to start broadening your horizons into the concert band world.