Music Monday: Brouwer: Remembrances

By now, even if you've only read half of these posts, you're probably familiar with the trope of the composer who starts writing music at a very early age and never looks back. It's true that many composers do follow this trajectory, but by no means is it the one and only life path, and today we feature a work by Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940), a composer who took a rather more roundabout route to the composing life.

Roundabout, but not entirely out of left field. Instead of diving into life with the intent to write music, Brouwer initially set out to be a professional violinist. (In an interview over at New Music Box, she says that one reason she was slow to come to composition was that she simply didn't know women could be composers, given the overwhelming maleness of the average concert program.) She majored in violin performance at the Oberlin Conservatory, and ultimately wound up living and working down in Dallas. She had quite a successful career, too, working as a freelancer for numerous recording gigs and also landing positions with both the Fort Worth Opera and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. For many musicians, this is the dream life, and she was living it.

Over the years, tho, she had started writing music, at first for children at summer camps or for her friends to play, and she gradually began to ramp up her compositional activities. There was no big epiphany moment, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to switch over to writing instead of playing primarily. Since she was supporting two children as a single mother, she didn't want to strike out as a freelancing composer (a proposition even more financially risky than being a freelance performer), and went to Indiana University to earn a DMA in composition instead. As soon as she graduated, she managed to land a job teaching composition, and would go on to serve as the chair of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music (where she is currently a professor emerita) from 1996 to 2008. Despite having little to show for her nascent compositional efforts prior to 1980, she's had a dazzlingly successful career, with commissions coming from major orchestras all around the country and a plethora of prestigious awards, up to and including the Guggenheim Award in 2004.

Unlike many composers who came of age in mid-century America, Brouwer resists being pigeonholed into one specific compositional style. She's quite happy to deploy the techniques of Minimalism and Serialism in the same work, despite the radically opposed foundations of these schools. (Indeed, in many ways Minimalism was founded in direct and strident opposition to Serialism.) This freewheeling stylistic eclecticism is more often a characteristic of the current generation of up-and-coming composers, but Margaret Brouwer beat us to the punch. (She is, of course, not entirely alone in this — there have always been elements of stylistic blending in American composition — but she does it exceptionally well.) As such, her pieces live in a wide variety of sound worlds, to the point that if you didn't know better, you might think they weren't all written by the same person.

With that in mind, today we're featuring a rather Neo-Romantic work, but it would be a mistake to flag Brouwer exclusively as a Neo-Romantic composer. Remembrances (1996) was written for the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in memory of Robert Stewart, a close friend of Brouwer's. It begins with a dull pounding in the timpani followed by searching, aimless strings, conveying the ache and emptiness of loss. The brass and woodwind instruments enter gradually, building to a climax that launches a faster, murmuring section, seeming to conjure up fleeting memories of happier times. (Stewart was a sailor, among other things, and this music certainly seems to capture the rush of ploughing thru the waves.) After a stirring, expansive climax, the music ebbs to a darker, stiller place, echoing the opening sorrow.

Echoes of the faster music ensue, now scored more delicately, as tho only glimpsed faintly, from afar. This sets the stage for several intimate, lyrical woodwind solos, seeming to emerge like personal speakers at a wake, haloed gently with warm and resonant strings. These individualized memories dissolve into another collective tutti, one that, perhaps unintentionally, hints at "America the Beautiful". This memory sours, collapsing back into the rushing music from before, which builds to a reprise of the earlier climax, this time not ebbing away so much as disintegrating under the strain of the emotional intensity. An extensive coda ensues, projecting a final mood of hard-won acceptance, and maybe even hope.