Libby Larsen for Strings

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

On today’s date in 1998, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra, led by Eiji Oue, premiered a new symphony by the American composer Libby Larsen. This was her Symphony No. 4, a work scored for strings alone.

Larsen explained her decision to do without winds, brass, and percussion as follows: “This Symphony is both homage to strings and an essay about them. Strings, the core of the symphony orchestra, are supremely lyrical and supremely emotional. Yet, throughout the 20th century, perhaps marked by the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, orchestral compositions have tended to become more and more rhythmic and percussive and less lyrical.”

Larsen goes on to make this interesting observation: “In each century since the 1600s, the orchestra has added a new choir of sound to its ensemble: the Baroque orchestra consisted chiefly of strings; woodwinds were added during the 1700s; brass during the 1800s. The 20th century has added the percussion section.”

By removing those instrumental choirs from the score of her Fourth Symphony, however, Larsen was not trying to return to the sound world of the 17th century. Larsen said her new symphony was an attempt to capture something of the melody and inflections of 20th century American English, as it is spoken and sung, through orchestral strings alone.