Fantasy on an Ostinato (1985)

In 1985 the seventh Van Cliburn International Piano competition commissioned me to write their competition piece to be played by 12 semi-finalists. 

In mulling over the project I immediately rejected the idea of a technical showpiece as redundant. What could I write that would test something the standard repertoire could not? 

I decided that I could investigate the performers’ imagination and musicality. A young performer’s life is dominated by guidance: from living teachers to the encyclopaedic recorded repertoire of the world’s important pianists playing the standard repertoire, they are trained from childhood to re-create, rather than to create. But this piece would be brand-new: no example waited to guide (or limit) him. And the piece would be deliberately constructed to make the players’ teachers of little to no help. They were to be on their own. 

And so I constructed the beginning and end of Fantasia on an Ostinato precisely-- the work was a giant arch built upon these foundations-- but I made the large central section a series of interlocking repeated patterns: the performer decided the number and, to a certain extent, the character of these repetitions. In other words, the shape was his/hers to build. Interestingly, the duration of this piece varied from 7 minutes to over 20 in the Cliburn performances! 

These repeated patterns comprise my only experiment in “minimalist” technique. While mulling this piece I remembered minimalism’s forebears--Pachelbel's Canon, Ravel's brilliantly scored Bolero, and the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.7, in which a relentless ostinato, or accompaniment figure, continues unvaried (except for a long crescendo and added secondary voices) for nearly five minutes: unusual in Beethoven, who constantly varied his materials. 

The first half of my Fantasia On An Ostinato develops the obsessive rhythm of the Beethoven and the simple harmonies implicit in the first half of his melody. Its second part launches those interlocking repetitions and reworks the strange major-minor descending chords of the latter part of the Beethoven into a chain of harmonies over which the performer-repeated patterns grow continually more ornate. This climaxes in a return of the original rhythm and, finally, the reappearance of the theme itself. 

— John Corigliano

Etude Fantasy (1976) 

My Etude Fantasy is actually a set of five studies combined into the episodic form and character of a fantasy. The material in the studies is related most obviously by the interval of a second (and its inversion and expansion to sevenths and ninths) which is used both melodically and in the building of the work’s harmonic structure. 

The first etude is for the left hand alone — a bold, often ferocious statement which introduces both an opening six-note row (the first notes of the work) and a melodic germ (marked "icy" in the score) which follows the initial outburst. This etude reaches a climax in which both the row and the thematic germ are heard together, and ends as the right hand enters playing a slow chromatic descent which introduces the next etude — a study of legato playing. 

In the short second etude both hands slowly float downward as a constant crossing of contrapuntal lines provides melodic interest. The sustaining of sound as well as the clarity of the crossing voices is important here. 

The third etude, a study on a two-note figure, follows — a fleet development on the simple pattern of a fifth (fingers one and five) contracting to a third (fingers two and four). In this section there is much crossing of hands; during the process a melody emerges in the top voices. A buildup leads to a highly chromatic middle section (marked "slithery"), with sudden virtuosic outbursts, after which the melody returns to end the etude as it began. 

The fourth etude is a study of ornaments. Trills, grace notes, tremolos, glissandos and roulades ornament the opening material (Etude I) and then develop the first four notes of the third etude into a frenetically charged scherzando where the four fingers of the left hand softly play a low cluster of notes (like a distant drum) as the thumb alternates with the right hand in rapid barbaric thrusts. This leads to a restatement of the opening 6-note row of the fantasy in a highly ornamented fashion. 

After a sonorous climax comes the final etude, a study of melody. In it, the player is required to isolate the melodic line, projecting it through the filigree which surrounds it; here the atmosphere is desolate and non-climactic, and the material is based entirely on the melodic implications on the left hand etude, with slight references to the second (legato) study. The work ends quietly with the opening motto heard in retrograde accompanying a mournful two-note ostinato.

— John Corigliano