An HIV/AIDS Classical Music Sampler
by Don Hulbert
Artery's inclusion of a section devoted to AIDS-music will, I hope,
generate healthy controversy. Why controversy? Whether classical music can
convey specific emotions, images, stories and/or philosophies has been a source
of contention for nearly as long as humans have been making music.
The tendency in the twentieth-century has been to regard Western music as
completely abstract or non-referential, unless that music comes with a
text--as in the songs of Brecht/Weill or a musical like "West Side Story."
But within and outside the West, there have been (and continue to be) many
attempts at conveying meaning through music, some of which date back three
thousand years. In India, for instance, ragas are believed to have precise
emotional effects. The Japanese shakuhatchi (bamboo flute) is thought to
be able to communicate with the souls of the dead. The shofar blast (on a
ram's horn) on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) announces the
initiation of divine judgment, and is thought to move listeners to repent.
The Western concept of music as a "high" art was influenced by these ideas,
and by contradictory concepts as well. By the twentieth century, a
tradition of "pictorial" composition had long held sway. Consider
Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony" (subtitled "Pastorale"), which was to be an
evocation of a day in the country. Or Hector Berlioz' "Symphonie
Fantastique," which boasted an elaborate plot, and even assigned a
musical theme to the story's main character. Or, most famously, "Also
Sprach Zarathustra," by Richard Strauss, heard in the movie "2001: A Space
The tradition continued into the twentieth century, with composers such as
Debussy (especially in his "Preludes for Piano") and Messiaen writing large
and small works that were inspired by images. The work of composers of the
eighteenth century provide one of the best arguments against music's
ability to convey the specific. Many arias and choruses from Handel's and
J.S. Bach's greatest choral works, for instance, had previously been set to
other texts for entirely different purposes. From this it can be argued
that no concrete meaning can be attached to music without that intention
being explicitly conveyed to an audience via the spoken, written or sung
It is this very ambiguity that makes music so compelling. I doubt
that these issues will ever be resolved, since they depend on subjective
judgments and interpretations. However, musicians, like so many others,
have sought to assimilate the devastating losses inflicted by HIV/AIDS and
to create art that evokes and comments on this tragedy. These efforts,
however limited and imperfect as literal documents, convey many things that
cannot be made concrete. Music is a "language" that conveys a great deal
without (perhaps) being "about" anything at all.
The list that follows is intended only as a beginning, a work-in-progress.
Artery welcome additions, corrections and new submissions, and hopes that a
vital online resource will be developed from this modest beginning. Please
correspond with me via email and
contribute your thoughts to what I hope will become an ongoing dialogue.
John Corigliano is one of the best-known
classical music composers of our era, and has produced works in all major
genres, from the most intimate of chamber works to his opera "The Ghosts of
Versailles." Among many honors and awards, his score for The Red Violin won him an Oscar.
"Symphony 1" was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, as recounted by
the composer: "A few years ago, I was extremely moved when I first saw 'The
Quilt,' an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each
a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and
constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in
music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing. I decided to
relate the first three movements of the symphony to three lifelong
musician-friends. In the third movement, still other friends are recalled in
a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies." With this composition,
Corigliano both pays tribute to his own friends who have succumbed to AIDS,
The AIDS Quilt itself, and those who continue to live with HIV/AIDS. It is
available in two different recordings: the premiere recording with Daniel
Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony (WEA/ATLANTIC/ERATO 45601) or Leonard
Slatkin with the National Symphony (BMG/RCA VICTOR 68450). John
Corigliano's music is published by G. Schirmer, Inc. and he is represented by
Fine Arts management.
Chris DeBlasio (1959- 1993) studied at New York University and the Manhattan
School of Music; one of his principal teachers was John Corigliano.
DeBlasio's works include song cycles as well as other chamber and solo
"All the Way Through Evening - Five Nocturnes for Baritone and Piano"
(Poetry by Perry Brass) In writing about his collaboration with Chris
DeBlasio, the poet and writer Perry Brass quotes him as saying "it's now or never. I'm not going to have
years ahead of me," and that "he would not have that much to leave behind."
Brass describes the piece as "held together by feelings and love and
understanding." Two of the songs from this cycle also appear in the AIDS
Quilt Songbook. Perhaps the most affecting song of the cycle, Walt Whitman
in 1989, draws a parallel between the carnage of the Civil War and those lost
to HIV/AIDS. A recording of
this cycle performed by the late Michael Dash with the composer at the piano
is available on CRI CD 729, distributed by Koch International, and can be
ordered through CDNOW.
Lee Gannon (1960 - 1996) received commissions from the Nashville Symphony,
the ASCAP Commissioning Program and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, among
others. He studied composition with Samuel Adler, Claude Baker, Robert
Morris, Joseph Schwantner and Dan Welcher.
"Derelict" (flute alone)
"The Time Was Gold" (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, 2 percussionists,
The late Lee Gannon took his struggle with HIV/AIDS very literally into
his works. The solo flute piece "Derelict" is intended to depict his own
struggle with and victory over the HIV virus. The musical material is a
seven-note set of pitches to represent HIV; a strongly contrasting second
section (in Lee's words, "very serene, even delicate") to represent Lee
himself; and a third section in which the musical materials engage in a
"battle" that ends with the virus' defeat. In "The Time Was Gold," a
clarinet now represents HIV, and its musical material is beaten down in the
end by slashing chords from the rest of the ensemble. Lee Gannon's music is
available via the American Composer's Alliance.
Martin Hennessy is the recipient of awards
from ASCAP and Meet the Composer; his musical "EDGAR," inspired by Edgar Allan
Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," was developed at Live Arts Theater in
Charlottesville, VA, where it received its first run in the spring of 1998.
A compact disc featuring seven of his songs paired with Ned Rorem's cycle,
"Women's Voices," was released on Newport Classic in 1998 (Women's Voices,
"Le virus s'amuse" (literally, The Virus has Fun), for solo flute is a
character piece that deftly evokes the ferocious, mutable nature of the
virus without injecting a specious morality. HIV is another life form that is
part of our global ecology going about its business of survival, and even having
"fun" in the process. For a score and further information about his music,
email the composer.
Laura Kaminsky is an active composer, producer of cultural events, and
innovative educator. Her music has been performed throughout the United
States and abroad, from West Africa to Eastern Europe, and throughout South
America. She is the founder and director of the acclaimed new music
ensemble Musicians Accord, in residence at City College of New York since 1984,
and collaborating with composer David Del Tredici and his students.
Currently, she is Chair of the Music Department at the Cornish College of
the Arts in Seattle, Washington.
"And Trouble Came: An African AIDS Diary" for narrator, viola, cello and
piano was inspired and informed by Ms. Kaminsky's experiences in Ghana,
where she met many PWAs. The text combines writings by several notable authors
(Claude McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Pablo Neruda) with passages from
the Bible, and the composer's own writings. A recording is available on CRI
CD 729, Distributed by Koch International, and can be ordered through
CDNOW. For copies of the score and further information, email
Laura Kaminsky or go to the Musician's Accord website.
C. Bryan Rulon has received numerous awards
including Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and commissions from Chamber Music
America, the Fromm Foundation and NYSCA as well as many world-class
ensembles and performers. He holds a PhD from Princeton University, and has taught
there as well as The New School in NYC and Indiana University. He is a
member of the avant-garde music ensemble, First Avenue.
"Self Requiem" (scored for flute, oboe, trumpet, piano, percussion, cello,
bass) was conceived as a memorial to a friend of Mr. Rulon's who died of
AIDS. It portrays in music the experience of living in the face of
mortality, and specifically intends to evoke the "...emotional states that
reflect a definite progression as described in Kübler-Ross's book 'On Death
and Dying'" leading ultimately to "the final, serene state of acceptance."
A recording is available on CRI CD 729, Distributed by Koch International, and
can be ordered through CDNOW. For copies of the score, and further
information email the composer, or go to
"The AIDS Quilt Song Book" was conceived by the late, accomplished baritone
William Parker as a continuously updated collection of art songs exploring
the social impact of HIV/AIDS. Composers including John Harbison, Janika
Vandervelde, Libby Larsen, William Bolcom, Aaron Jay Kernis, Carolyn
Jennings and Chris DeBlasio contributed works, and the original group has continued
to grow. William Parker recorded the initial set of songs on a disc from
Harmonia Mundi that is no longer available; a recording of songs added to
the book is available on Innova.
William Parker's performance of John Musto's "Heartbeats," recorded live at Mr. Parker's last
public concert on December 1, 1992, is included on the disc.
Don Hulbert is an active
free-lance flutist in the New York area, and has performed with such groups
as Friends & Enemies of New Music and BachWorks in varied venues including
Merkin Concert Hall and Performance Space 122 in New York's East Village.
He is a member of Positive Music, a musical ensemble dedicated to promoting
AIDS/HIV awareness and education, has performed as a guest with Mimi Stern
Wolfe's Downtown Chamber Players, and has appeared annually as part of
Dancer's Responding to AIDS Remember Project. He may be reached at
Photo credit: Lawrence Grecco