Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985)
For piano
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see also: version for orchestra

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Commissioned by the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, 1986

First performed May 24, 1985, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, by Barry Douglas, piano; Texas Christian University, Fort Worth

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Duration  determined by the performer (ca. 10-14")

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Recordings
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Andrew Russo, piano Black Box BBM1106 (2006)
Juan Jose Chuquisengo, piano Sony SK93829 (2003)
Helene Grimaud, piano Deutsche Grammophon 471 769-2 (2003)
Emmanuel Ax, piano Sony SK60747 (2000)
David Allen Wehr, piano Chandos SK93829 (1989) — search the internet

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Program note

In 1985 the seventh Van Cliburn International Piano competition commissioned me to write their competition piece to be played by 12 semi-finalists.

In mulling over the project I immediately rejected the idea of a technical showpiece as redundant. What could I write that would test something the standard repertoire could not?

I decided that I could investigate the performers’ imagination and musicality. A young performer’s life is dominated by guidance: from living teachers to the encyclopaedic recorded repertoire of the world’s important pianists playing the standard repertoire, they are trained from childhood to re-create, rather than to create. But this piece would be brand-new: no example waited to guide (or limit) him. And the piece would be deliberately constructed to make the players’ teachers of little to no help. They were to be on their own.

And so I constructed the beginning and end of Fantasia on an Ostinato precisely-- the work was a giant arch built upon these foundations-- but I made the large central section a series of interlocking repeated patterns: the performer decided the number and, to a certain extent, the character of these repetitions. In other words, the shape was his/hers to build. Interestingly, the duration of this piece varied from 7 minutes to over 20 in the Cliburn performances!

These repeated patterns comprise my only experiment in “minimalist” technique. While mulling this piece I remembered minimalism’s forebears--Pachelbel's Canon, Ravel's brilliantly scored Bolero, and the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.7, in which a relentless ostinato, or accompaniment figure, continues unvaried (except for a long crescendo and added secondary voices) for nearly five minutes: unusual in Beethoven, who constantly varied his materials.

The first half of my Fantasia On An Ostinato develops the obsessive rhythm of the Beethoven and the simple harmonies implicit in the first half of his melody. Its second part launches those interlocking repetitions and reworks the strange major-minor descending chords of the latter part of the Beethoven into a chain of harmonies over which the performer-repeated patterns grow continually more ornate. This climaxes in a return of the original rhythm and, finally, the reappearance of the theme itself.

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                     — John Corigliano

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