Symphony No. 5 ... Utopia Parkway (2003)

Thomas Oboe Lee

About this work:

"Dedicated to Joseph Cornell."

Commissioned by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra.

Premiere performance by the Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston in Jordan Hall, November 21, 2004.

Conceptually it all began a year ago when I came upon a book edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, “A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell.” It is a beautiful book for the mind and the eyes: imaginative short stories and poetry alongside magnificently rendered color-plate reproductions of several Joseph Cornell box constructions.

The book led me to a biography by Deborah Solomon, "Utopia Parkway," and the germ of a symphonic work for Joseph Cornell was born.

Symphony No. 5 … Utopia Parkway is in five movements.

I. Allegro marcato - 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, NY

II. Lento - The Enchanted Wanderer … for Hedy LaMarr, 1941

III. Avian scherzo - Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943

IV. Allegro … à la Can-can - A Pantry Ballet … for Jacques Offenbach, 1942

V. Moderato - Apotheosis: Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Scientist

Joseph Cornell lived most of his life with his mother and brother Robert at 3807 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, NY.

The first movement, Allegro marcato, is a musical rendition of Joseph’s daily commute into Manhattan where he frequently visited dime stores, junk shops, used book stores, the New City Public Library, art galleries, movie houses and restaurants like Bickford’s and Schraft’s.

“The Enchanted Wanderer” is a collage work on paper by Joseph Cornell – a tribute to Hedy Lamarr. Hollywood fascinated Cornell. He made several box constructions as tributes to movie stars like Lauren Bacall, Jennifer Jones, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, etc. Avian scherzo. Many of Cornell’s boxes featured cutout pictures of parakeets, parrots and cockatoos.

“Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery” is an especially evocative box of his aviary series. There are four birds in it, amidst other odds and ends. A number is attached to each one. There is a crack in the glass encasement – as if hit by a bullet. Blood splatters from the head of one of the birds. In between the shooting gallery music, there is a Trio: a requiem for the dead cockatoo. Allegro … à la Can-can. Cornell attended the ballet fervently. He made many box constructions inspired by ballet dancers: Fanny Cerrito, Marie Taglioni, Tamara Toumanova, Zizi Jeanmaire, Allegra Kent, etc.

“A Pantry Ballet for Jacques Offenbach” is a very funny box with five red plastic lobsters in tutus. I provided a polka as background music. This movement is dedicated to Allegra Kent – a friend and confidante of Cornell.

Joseph Cornell was an active member of the Christian Science Church for all of his adult life. He attended services regularly, and taught Sunday-school classes. For a while he even worked as an attendant in a Christian Science Reading Room in Great Neck, NY. In the Christian Science Hymnal I found several hymns written by the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, set to music by a number of different composers. I wrote a new tune to her hymn, “Shepherd, show me how to go.”

The last movement, Apotheosis, is a theme and variations on this tune. It begins like a singing congregation, and it ends with the opening of Heaven’s doors – for Joseph, of course.

Year composed: 2003
Duration: 00:37:00
Ensemble type: Orchestra

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