John Corigliano: A Closer Look at a Legendary Composer

April 26, 2023

story by Kyle MacMillan
photo by J. Henry Fair

No American composer is more respected than John Corigliano, though Philip Glass or John Adams might enjoy broader name recognition. At age 85, he has become an important bridge to such composers of earlier generations as Samuel Barber, who was a close friend, and a mentor to younger talents like Mason Bates, Nico Muhly, and Eric Whitacre. 

Along with Aaron Copland, an earlier giant of 20th-century American music, Corigliano is one of only two composers to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score and the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He received the two prestigious honors, respectively, for his score for the 1998 film The Red Violin and for his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra, which debuted in 2000.

Corigliano is serving as composer-in-residence for the 2023 Colorado Music Festival, and he will be in attendance July 13, 2023 when Music Director Peter Oundjian and the Festival Orchestra present three of his works starting with Gazebo Dances (1972) and One Sweet Morning for Voice and Orchestra (2010). Rounding out the line-up is Triathlon (2020), a saxophone concerto composed for Timothy McAllister, an internationally known musician who returns after serving as soloist for Adams’ City Noir as part of last summer’s festival.    

When the lifelong New Yorker was studying composition in the 1950s at Columbia University, gnarly serialism and 12-tone music exerted a hold on the field, and anyone who dared to write in more tonal styles were often chided or relegated to the sidelines. While some composers buckled under the pressure, Corigliano said he was “very spunky” as an upstart and felt what he was doing was right, so he followed his own path. “It was not something I was going to bow down to in terms of style,” he said in a recent interview for the Festival. 

At the same time, Corigliano did not succumb to the lure of minimalism, with its iterative motives and gradual harmonic progressions, which provided a way for composers like Glass and Terry Riley to escape the repression of atonalism. Corigliano sees minimalism as the opposite extreme of serialism, and he was no more interested in subscribing to that movement than he was to the earlier one. Instead, much as he has done with other styles going as far back as the Renaissance, he borrowed certain minimalist techniques and used them, for example, in Fantasia on an Ostinato, which he wrote in 1985 for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. “So, I took what I liked from minimalism and discarded what I didn’t like and absorbed it into my technique,” he said.

Unlike some composers, he doesn’t conjure musical themes and then jot them down for use later. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that way,” he said. “I have to have limits, because I use so many things that are stylistically different. I can’t just think of melodies, because that may not be what I’m going to be writing.” Corigliano has always developed the architecture of his works first, creating charts that map out tempos, dynamics, etc., and he then comes back and fills in the musical ideas later. 

Corigliano has written two operas, starting with the best known, The Ghosts of Versailles, which is derived from that last of Pierre Beaumarchais’ three famed 18th-century Figaro plays, which all contain the characters of Figaro, an ever-savvy and resourceful barber, and Count Almaviva. The adaptations of the first two plays in the series, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, rank among the famous operas ever written. Ghosts premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1991 and was revived there in 1994-95. In the summer of 2021, the Santa Fe Opera debuted Corigliano’s The Lord of Cries, which was billed as a mix of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Bacchae by Euripides.

The composer brings the sense of theatricality so important to opera to some of his instrumental works as well. Sometimes, this theatrical touch can be as simple as offstage players in dialogue with an onstage orchestra as in To Music (1994), what the composer calls a concert opener. Or it can be seen to much grander effect in the Pied Piper Fantasy, a concerto debuted by famed flutist James Galway and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982. In the seventh and final movement, the soloist switches to a tin whistle, leading three groups of children performers from the audience onto the stage and then out of the hall in keeping with the Pied Piper legend.    

Another example is Circus Maximus, his Symphony No. 3 for Large Wind Ensemble. In this ambitious work, the musicians encircle the audience and the sound at times travels in circular fashion much like the chariots would have in the giant stadium with that name from Roman times. While Circus Maximus is devoted to the winds, the composer’s Symphony No. 1 (1988-89), written as a response to the AIDS epidemic, is for full orchestra, and the Symphony No. 2 calls for a string orchestra. 

As these three contrasting works make clear, Corigliano does not like to repeat himself. Indeed, the symphonies are outliers, because he typically creates just one work in each form, such as his lone string quartet. “I find it so hard to compose,” he said. “The difficulty is so great when I write something, I just write one. I wrote a piano concerto. That’s it.” But as different as his works can be, an identifiable Corigliano voice can be heard in all of them. 

What will be Corigliano’s legacy? He is not sure. “As long as I’m alive, things will get done occasionally,” he said. “But when I’m not there, I don’t know.” His humility aside, there is a strong likelihood that his music will be performed far into the future. After all, several of his pieces are already accepted as part of the standard repertoire. His Clarinet Concerto (1977), for example, is regularly performed alongside other works in form by Aaron Copland, Carl Maria von Weber, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Carl Nielsen. And that’s not bad company.

Read our story “Composer John Corigliano: 3 Works to Explore an Epic Career” >