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John Harbison’s Sixth Symphony is a piece shaped by loss

John Harbison’s program note for his Sixth Symphony begins with what seems like a boilerplate dedication: “Symphony No. 6 was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director. It is dedicated to James Levine in friendship and gratitude.’’

Similar words have graced countless other scores, the expected thanks for material and artistic support. Yet Harbison quickly adds, “These two sentences are far from formalities.’’

Indeed, a great deal about Harbison’s new symphony, which will be premiered next week by the BSO, is marked by the composer’s long association with Levine, its now former music director. It is not much of a stretch to say that his absence from the podium - for this premiere and for the foreseeable future - played a crucial role in the shaping of a piece marked, in different ways, by loss and incompleteness.


The premiere of the Sixth is the capstone of a BSO survey of Harbison’s symphonies, a project that began with an outstanding performance of the Third Symphony in October 2010 and has unfolded over two seasons.

Not surprisingly, the project was the brainchild of Levine, a champion of the composer’s music. The two have known each other since the mid-1980s, and Harbison credits the conductor not only with insightful performances of his own music but also with shaping his ideas about coaching and rehearsals.

Harbison spent enough time with Levine last season to see how much physical agony the conductor was in, as fragile health eventually forced Levine’s resignation as the BSO’s music director.

“We give athletes a lot of credit for going out when they’re not completely fit or when it takes a big effort to perform,’’ Harbison says from his Cambridge home during a lengthy phone interview. “We don’t think too much about artists, musicians functioning in that situation. But I got a more direct picture of what that was like for him than the audience. And those were really heroic events. If he were a quarterback or something, there would be long sets of encomiums for his grit.’’


Harbison was in the midst of writing the Sixth Symphony when Levine stepped down from the BSO. The composer’s approach to the new work began to evolve.

“From that point I really started thinking about him, more in kind of a portrait-like way than as a dedicatee,’’ he says. The piece is not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Levine. Rather, Harbison explains, “it was a piece that began initially as something he was going to conduct, and then it kind of transformed itself into something in which I felt like I was tracking something about his situation, or something about how difficult it was for him to be separated from what he has to do.’’

Conducting the first performances of the Sixth next week will be David Zinman, who is not only a veteran conductor and frequent BSO guest but also another strong supporter of Harbison’s music, having led performances of almost all the symphonies and many other works. “I think it’s a very unusual piece for him,’’ says Zinman by phone from his New Jersey home. “It has a new kind of grammar to it and a way of saying things that’s a little bit oblique.’’

The symphony has an unusual structure. It begins with a song - a setting for voice and chamber orchestra of “Entering the Temple in Nîmes’’ by the American poet James Wright. This opening sets out the musical materials that will be developed and reworked in the next three movements, which are for full orchestra alone.


“It always struck me as a poem about steadfastness and endurance,’’ says Harbison of the poem. “It has this one nice quality of almost a reverence for what is permanent - and also a great sense of fragility.’’

Zinman’s take is slightly different. “The piece, I think, is essentially about unfulfillment,’’ he says. “The poem is really about someone expressing a kind of feeling that they haven’t completed their lives.’’ He points to a snippet of melody where a mezzo-soprano sings the words “though I arrive too late for the last spring.’’ The melody recurs throughout the piece.

“And so each movement, in a way, is unfulfilled in this symphony,’’ Zinman continues. “It’s an attempt to capture that in music. That’s an interesting point of view. A work of music is about fulfillment - about finding the goal at the end. Here you never find it.’’ He adds that the symphony has no real climax and “ends as if it never began.’’ (Zinman said he was not aware of whether Levine’s travails were the subject of the piece.)

In a way, the symphony was marked by absence from the start. Harbison began with a sketch that contained his basic harmonic and motivic ideas. But early on in the process he misplaced the sketch. Deeply upset at its loss, he went on composing, trying to recall its contents. “I had a pretty good general sense of what was important about it, but it still bothered me not having the actual thing.’’


Weeks later, he found the sketch: It had fallen into his piano.

He had always assumed that what was on that paper would eventually appear in the piece. But he realized that what he had written in the intervening time had made the original ideas superfluous. “It was represented so many ways already by its family relatives that it seemed unnecessary. It didn’t have a spot anymore.’’ (Still he made a few copies of it just in case.)

Harbison usually conveys an air of calm experience. You get the sense that at this stage of his career, not even the public premiere of a major work could make him anxious. Yet this occasion marks the first time that he has written a new piece in the midst of rehearing and reassessing his previous five in the genre. The experience, he says, has been somewhat unnerving.

“Particularly with the earlier [symphonies], and with Jim Levine’s very internalized take on those pieces, it was, let’s just say, a much more thoughtful confrontation with the whole process than I would’ve expected,’’ Harbison admits. “There seemed to be an unusual experience of editing and questioning going on. I pulled apart and reassembled this piece much more than I’m accustomed to.

“It was almost, occasionally, like throwing the whole thing up in the air and seeing where it came down, because a lot of continuities did get quite amazingly reconsidered,’’ he says.


David Weininger can be reached at