Symphony No. 9, "Le fosse ardeatine"

William Schuman

Performing Ensemble: Orchestra
Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

In none of my previous symphonies have I used an extrinsic or non-musical program element. Therefore I would like, first, to attempt an explanation of why I have done so in Symphony No. 9. Precisely what is the relationship of the subtitle "Le Fosse Ardeatine" (The Ardeatine Caves) to the music, and why do I so embroider the title of the work.

In the spring of 1967, my wife and I were in Rome and we had planned to visit Le Fosse Ardeatine because we had been advised that the memorial was a stunning architectural achievement. When we mentioned the proposed visit to our friends, the composer Hugo Weisgall and his wife, Nathalie, who were in residence that year at the American Academy, we learned the story of the events memorialized and of Mrs. Weisgall?s special knowledge of the subject.

The subject, for all its horror, can be stated simply. Thirty-two German soldiers were killed by the underground in Rome on March 24, 1944. In reprisal, the Germans murdered 335 Italians, Christians and Jews from all walks of life. These victims were taken to the Ardeatine caves where they were shot. In an effort to conceal the atrocity, the bodies were then bombed. A priest at the nearby Catacombs felt the vibrations of the detonations, and word quickly spread through Rome. When the Germans left the city there was a rush to the caves.

In a world of daily horrors, what is so special about this one, and why does it find itself the subject of a symphony? To answer this I must describe, however briefly and inadequately, the monument itself. After a walk through the caves, a visitor enters a large rectangular area. The roof is a thick concrete slab. On the dirt floor there is row upon row of individual, identical, contiguous coffins. On each coffin, in the Italian custom, is a picture of the victim, some fathers, sons, brothers, and a statement of occupation and age (ranging from the early teens to the sixties). Our visit was at the Easter and Passover season and each grave had fresh flowers. Somehow, confrontation with the ghastly fate of several hundred identifiable individuals was more shattering and understandable than the reports on the deaths of millions which, by comparison, seem abstract statistics.

The mood of my symphony, especially in its opening and closing sections, is directly related to emotions engendered by this visit. But the entire middle section, too, with its various moods of fast music, much of it far from somber, stems from the fantasies I had of the variety, promise and aborted lives of the martyrs. Candidly, however, there is no compelling musical reason for my adding to the title Symphony No. 9. The work does not attempt to depict the event realistically. And its effect on the emotional climate of the work could have remained a private matter. My reason for using the title is not then, musical, but philosophical. One must come to terms with the past in order to build a future. But in this exercise I am a foe of forgetting. Whatever future my symphony may have, whenever it is performed, audiences will remember.

In purely musical terms, as noted above, the work is in three parts, played without pause and developed as a continuum. The Anteludium begins quietly, with a single melodic line separated by two octaves, played by the muted violins and cellos. The first section of this melody, which is 11 bars in length, continues its development over a span of 33 bars. At the 12th bar, however, the same melody appears in the second violins and violas, one-half step higher in pitch, and at the 23rd bar the same melody begins again one-half step higher, still in the strings and the pitch is raised one-half step in each of the succeeding entrances during the first section of the work. Gradually other elements are introduced through a variety of developmental techniques.

The music of the Anteludium leads without pause, but with identifiable transition, to the Offertorium, which section forms the bulk of the work. The moods are varied and range from the playful to the dramatic. This music is fast with the exception of several short contrasting interludes which always return to the fast tempo. The climax of the Offertorium is reached with an even faster tempo and a sonorous climax for full orchestra, with three pairs of struck cymbals employed in rhythmic patterns.

The music of the Postludium at first echoes, in slow tempo, some elements of the climax just heard. Finally the opening theme of the symphony is again stated, but in an even slower tempo than at first. The setting is different and the melody, although again played by the strings, is harmonized in the trombones and tuba. New figurations are introduced and reference is made to the music of the Offertorium. The symphony draws to a close with a long freely-composed quiet ending characterized by an emotional climate which sums up the work and eventually leads to a final concluding outburst.

The work was begun in July of 1967 in Greenwich, Connecticut, and virtually completed during the fall and winter in New York. The final pages were scored in Rome on March 27, 1968, after a second visit to the monument which enhanced, if anything, the impressions of a year earlier.
-November 19, 1968

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Additional Information

Composition Date 1968
Duration 22:30
Orchestration 3 4 4 4 - 4 4 3 1; Timp. 4Perc. Pno. Str.
Premiere January 10th, 1969. The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.


I. Anteludium
II. Offertorium
III. Postludium

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