This piece is a grand spectacle of sound, and this is reflected in its appropriately-named title: Circus Maximus. John Corigliano's third symphony is a musical depiction of the ever-extravagant Circus Maximus in Rome. The Romans had an insatiable need for grander and wilder amusement to distract the masses from a declining empire and built a large 300,000-spectator arena to accommodate this need. Corigliano draws parallels between the ancient Roman arena and our modern thirst for entertainment. His program notes state:
The parallels between the high decadence of Rome and our present time are obvious. Entertainment dominates our reality, and ever-more-extreme 'reality' shows dominate our entertainment. Many of us have become bemused by the violence and humiliation the flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as the mobs of Imperial Rome, who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show.
The duality of ancient and modern influences on the piece are also present in the piece's architecture. It is structured in eight movements--a departure from the typical four-movement form long used by symphonists--with titles invoking a variety of atmospheres:
- "Introitus" (a fanfare indicating the competitors entering the arena)
- "Screen/Siren" (the seductive call of entertainment echoing around the hall)
- "Channel Surfing" (the need for constant change)
- "Night Music I" (the sounds of ancient nature)
- "Night Music II" (the jazzy influence of city life at night)
- "Circus Maximus" ("a carnival of sonoric activity")
- "Prayer" (a plea for survival)
- "Coda: Veritas" (the "truth" of our fate is revealed)
All these elements combine to create a historical lesson on the nature of humanity coupled with a prophesy for the future of mankind.
All the ancient and modern imagery weaved into the piece adds countless layers of experience and sophistication, but my favorite aspect of Circus Maximus is the sound. Am I stating that the sound of a composition is an important aspect of the piece to me? Yes, I am. I know many highly technical and masterful composers who would argue that the construction of the piece is the most important quality; but, please don't confuse this with some strange notion of musical accessibility defined by the blue-haired donors. That is an entirely different conversation.
The sound aspect I love the most about this piece is that is doesn't sound like a band piece. There is an extremely large and ever-growing body of concert band literature flooding the market and many of these pieces sound similar to each other. Having grown up in the band world--and now employed in the band world--I could list a plethora of stock band pieces that sound extremely similar and collections of other similar-sounding band pieces modeled on those original stock pieces. The band community is inundated with days of music that sound like one large single-piece concert experience. Corigliano's composition breaks the band sound mold. This is organic and visceral music that just happens to be placed on music stands for a band concert. This is music without strings--OK, there is one string bass player. This is music that transcends medium. It contains no typical band chord progressions, orchestrations (bandstrations?), styles, or structures. This music doesn't play nice. Its soundscape offers an opportunity to think about the message instead of allowing the listener to sit back and relax.
If it weren't for that 2008 afternoon in Justin Stolarik's office (the educator I mentioned earlier), I might not have been introduced to Circus Maximus and the rest of Corigliano's body of music. I encourage everybody to listen to this piece and discover the magic that enthralled me back then and continues to captivate me today.
If you enjoy Circus Maximus, take some time to check out Corigliano's other works at his website.