To be Airborne The Wartime Symphonies of Barber and Blitzstein

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Ross S. Griffey

Abstract

This article examines the context, composition, and reception of two works commissioned by the United States Army Air Forces during World War II: Samuel Barber’s Second Symphony and Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony. The first part of the article situates the two works within their time, surveying the uses of art music by the military during the war and explaining the high cultural status of the symphony as a genre during the 1940s. The second part demonstrates that both symphonies musically depict concepts then associated with flight, such as modernity, solitude, and adventure—sometimes in strikingly similar ways. Finally, the article considers the two works’ reception histories, which have been negatively colored by their provenance in the war. The author suggests that, whatever the symphonies’ flaws, they are due for reassessment: they evoke an era in which art music was valued across many layers of society, both for its prestige and its perceived communicative power—and that era deserves to be remembered.

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Author Biography

Ross S. Griffey, Juilliard School

American composer Ross S. Griffey is the recipient of several national and regional awards, including an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, first prize in the Voices of Change/ Dallas Symphony Orchestra Texas Young Composers Project, and winner of the New York Composers Circle Competition. Recent and notable performances of his work include the premiere of Essay, for orchestra, by the Juilliard Orchestra and Jeffrey Milarsky; a staged version of Three Whitman Songs, for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, by the Secret
Opera; and a performance of A Catalogue of Agonies as part of an installation piece by the California-based artist and musician Julie Zhu. As a composer, Mr. Griffey has participated in festivals including June in Buffalo, in New York, and the Conservatoire Américain, in Fontainebleau, France. As a writer he attended the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in San Francisco in 2016.
A native of Houston, Texas, Mr. Griffey studied first at Rice University, with composers Pierre Jalbert and Shih-Hui Chen, and later at the Juilliard School, with composers Samuel Adler and Robert Beaser. Mr. Griffey recently earned his doctorate from Juilliard, authoring an award-winning dissertation on support for composers by the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Griffey is currently an Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow in Music at the Bodleian Libraries, where he is researching nineteenth-century arctic exploration in order to write a new song cycle for the Oxford Lieder Festival; and his other active projects include a new work for chamber orchestra that will be premiered in New York by Joel Sachs and the New Juilliard Ensemble in April 2019.