John Corigliano

The American John Corigliano, Jr. has carved himself a unique niche in the world of contemporary composers, and is one of the few to have enjoyed long-lasting crossover appeal. He is especially known for ushering traditional formats such as the concerto and symphony into the modern era, as well as for several famous film scores, most notably The Red Violin. Corigliano’s works have been performed by many of the most notable orchestras and soloists in the world.

Corigliano is the son of New York Philharmonic concertmaster John Corigliano, Sr., and was thus exposed to music of the highest calibre at a very young age. As a veteran of the music industry his father initially discouraged Corigliano’s interest in composition, but he was not to be dissuaded and eventually enrolled at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied composition with Otto Luening, Vittorio Giannini and Paul Creston. After graduating he first did odd jobs as a music programmer for radio stations before working with Leonard Bernstein on his Young People’s Concerts, which would prove to be a valuable lifetime association.

In 1964 Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963) won the first place at the prestigious Festival of Two Worlds in Italy, which marked the beginning of his ascension to the international stage. The next decade would see the continued evolution of what is described as his first period, which is heavily influenced by American composers such as Copland and Barber, and relied exclusively on conventional notation. Although his music was heavily tonal, and can even be considered conservative in the context of other composers from the later 20th century, over time he would push musical boundaries in many other ways, including through his use of extended techniques and microtones.


I always conceive a piece as a different set of challenges.

The late 70s witnessed a dramatic change in style, starting with Corigliano’s Oboe Concerto (1975) and becoming more pronounced in his Clarinet Concerto (1977), which was premiered by clarinettist Stanley Drucker and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with  Leonard Bernstein conducting. Although Corigliano had always had a strong element of drama and storytelling in his music, it would become even more extreme during this period, as he began to compose scores using an “architectural” method, which often included text or images, and made increasing use of different serial, tonal, and aleatoric techniques. During this period he wrote his First Symphony (1989), a memorial to the victims of AIDS, which has been performed by nearly 150 orchestras worldwide since its 1990 premier. The symphony, along with many later works, experiments with the physical placement of musicians, including having several offstage soloists, and was later awarded the $150,000 Grawemeyer Award.

Corigliano has consistently shown that he is most at home writing for orchestra, a rare occurrence in the modern era, and many of his most memorable pieces are in that format. In addition to his three highly acclaimed symphonies, he has written seven concertos (for violin, flute, clarinet, oboe, guitar, percussion, piano and voice with live electronics) and many shorter works for symphony and chamber orchestra. Corigliano even wrote one opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), which features an orchestra onstage in addition to in the pit and employs many disparate compositional techniques such as 18th century tonal writing, serial and timbral counterpoint. The International Classical Music Awards named it Composition of the Year in 1992, and it enjoyed immense popularity, including productions in Chicago, Houston, and Hanover in Germany among other places, with a revival in 2009 by the Saint Louis Opera Theatre.

I think it is the job of the composer to reach out to his audience with every means at his disposal.... Communication of his most important ideas should be the primary goal.

One of Corigliano’s best-known works is undoubtedly The Red Violin, which appeared in its first incarnation as the score to François Girard's 1999 film of the same name. His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2005), adapted the Oscar-winning soundtrack for the concert hall, and was written for and debuted by Joshua Bell as the soloist, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. The Red Violin was not Corigliano’s only venture into film scoring: he also received an Academy Award nomination in 1981 for his score to the film Altered States.  

The late 90s proved to be another transitional period for Corigliano, as he became even more diverse and experimental in his work. In 2000 he wrote Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, which consists of a song cycle written for soprano and piano and shows his interest in writing for classical voice outside of its traditional context. Corigliano later expanded this piece to include full orchestra plus amplified soprano, demonstrating one of his favorite habits of continuously reworking and updating old material. During this period Corigliano also demonstrated a renewed interest in writing chamber music, including his piece Chiaroscuro (1997) for two pianos and his String Quartet (1995), for which he won a Grammy Award.

During his decades-long career Corigliano has also been affiliated with many of the finest institutions and prizes in music. In addition to teaching composition at the Manhattan School of Music (1971 – 1986), the City University of New York (1973 – present) and the Juilliard School (1992 – present), he also served as the first composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Along with the Grawemeyer Award he has been the recipient of four Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and the Pulitzer Prize, for his Symphony no.2 (2000). Corigliano continues to tour the world for performances of his works, which by now number over a hundred.

I just love drama. I love the idea of exploring relationships, whatever they may be. That's fun for me.

Samuel Barber

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