Friday, October 28, 2011

In Memory of James Yannatos: Symphony No. 5, "Son et Lumière"

Last week, we got the sad news that James Yannatos — an accomplished composer and the longtime conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra — died at the age of 82.

During my first few years as a graduate student in Harvard's Music Department, and until he retired in 2009, Dr. Y was a ubiquitous presence around the music building. I only got to interact directly with him through a few brief conversations and a quick e-mail exchange about Nadia Boulanger (who was one of his teachers and is a subject of my own research). But his students raved about him — they were lucky to have had such a thoughtful, generous, and musically inspiring mentor. (See the Harvard Crimson obit for a sense of the impact his whopping 45-year tenure had on them.)

Although the Harvard community mainly knew Dr. Y as a conductor, he also left behind an impressive body of work as a composer — including several symphonies that we're fortunate enough to have on recordings with the man himself conducting the HRO in Harvard's Sanders Theatre. Today we'll focus on his Symphony No. 5, "Sons et Lumière" (1991), whose name, as he said, comes from the sound and light shows he would have witnessed in France — one of his many stops as a student before landing at Harvard.

These nighttime extravaganzas feature stimulating light displays on the fronts of buildings, with accompanying sounds, as a way of drawing attention to structures' histories. (Here's a neat example of Notre Dame getting the son et lumière treatment.) If Yannatos' "Son et Lumière" is a symphonic manifestation of a sound and light show, then the edifice it's meant to memorialize is nothing less than the globe itself, with its three movements entitled "Europe," "Asia Minor-Asia," and "Africa." As Yannatos himself wrote (according to these program notes), "The title alludes to past as well as to present events in which the political face of Europe and Africa is changing."

Of course, the early '90s were a heady time for the Western world, one in which many celebrated the end of the Cold War as well as a new image — however premature and, ultimately, naive — of a more unified global community. In other words, a perfect subject for a sound and light show.

Let's say that the "light" part of Yannatos' sound and light show comes from the orchestration — a musical parameter long understood and discussed in terms of visual perception. The orchestration in the opening has even been called a "collage of bright instrumental textures." A few things make it "bright": the emphasis on higher ranges, especially the soaring violins and solo trumpet ; creative percussion touches, like bells; and the overall clarity of the different parts and sections. Here's a segment from the opening:

If Yannatos' creative combinations of glistening timbres reflects the "light" part of the sound and light show, the "sound" part comes, perhaps, from the melding of snippets of national anthems and folk tunes (see here for a more detailed description). They're easy to miss because they're not all well known and because Yannatos masks them well — the regular shifts in instrumental combinations sometimes draw attention away from the pitches themselves. But appreciating the celebratory flavor of the work doesn't depend on recognizing the melodies. Here, in the first movement, some of you will recognize this sweeping, even plaintive reformulation of the Polish national anthem (listen here if you need a refresher).

Since we're talking about a sound and light show, it makes sense that Yannatos ends where he began, with the same harp glissandi and tense, quick alternation of notes in the strings we started with. That's because despite all the spinning of lights and swirling sounds, we're still recognizing one stationary object — here, the earth. (Yes, Sheldon Cooper, we know that the earth actually moves.) The movements' geopolitical titles suggest a journey, but the world is still the world, just as Notre Dame is still Notre Dame.

Yannatos also offered an alternative, more general interpretation — that his title "refers to vibrations and waves that move through real time and space in the form of sound and interplay between the various levels of musical sound and meaning, referring to our physical world as we live it, our sensory world as we see, hear and feel it, and our spiritual world as we attempt to comprehend it." Indeed, there's something visceral and physical about the way in which energy seems to ebb, flow, now suddenly build, and now quickly dissipate in the work. And this is hard for a building to express, no matter how much sound and light you add to it. Take the last minute of the first movement, where a triumphant chorale gives way to a calmer passage that picks up steam only to fade out into the distance:

The examples here have come only from the first movement, so you'll have to explore Asia and Africa on your own — or, as we at Unsung Symphonies hope, courtesy of some local orchestra finding a way to recognize Dr. Y's contribution to the Harvard Community, the Boston area, and the musical world at large (a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in his memory of this or another work, perhaps?).

And it'll be interesting to see what kinds of tributes his students come up with. Here's one idea, hard to execute and maybe a little over-the-top: a son et lumière outside Harvard's Memorial Hall (home of Sanders Theatre), with Dr. Y's Symphony No. 5 as the soundtrack.
— Matthew Mugmon


  1. This post is itself a kind of "son et lumiere" performance, a celebratory illumination of the remarkable edifice that was Dr. Yannatos. Nicely done.

  2. Thanks, Louis! As an aficionado French spectacle, any thoughts on the son et lumiere?

  3. Thanks, Matt, for your insightful comments on Dr. Y's 5th Symphony. He was a wise and generous man, and we will miss him.

  4. Thanks, Anne! I wish I'd spoken with him more often.

  5. I haven't heard any of his material but i will have to listen. He seems like he was a great composer.