Cindy McTee ‘Adagio for String Orchestra’: An Engaging Experience

Evening readers! Welcome to Day 12 of my Female Fortnight Challenge, apologies for this blog being posted so late – it has been a hectic day indeed! Today’s blog is on modern-day composer Cindy McTee’s Adagio for String Orchestra. McTee is an absolutely fantastic composer and I hope you enjoy her works!

Cindy McTee was born in 1953 in Washington, where her mother and father were both musical. Her father played the trumpet and her mother played the clarinet, so from an early age, McTee was involved with music. By age six she was receiving piano lessons, and her teacher at the time encouraged her improvisation techniques, which later helped her composition career. When she was slightly older, she began taking saxophone lessons with her mother. She first studied music at Pacific Lutheran University (graduating in 1975). She went on to complete a master’s degree at the Yale School of Music (1978) and then she completed her PhD at the University of Iowa. Whilst studying at Pacific Lutheran University, she met Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, who struck a deal with her that if she taught English to his children, he would offer composition lessons. She also spent a whole year living with the Penderecki family in Poland. She learnt about orchestration, counterpoint and other useful twentieth-century composition techniques.

McTee then began to teach at her undergraduate alma mater in Washington. In 1984 she joined the arts faculty at the University of North Texas. McTee has won awards for her music including the ‘Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award’ (the Detroit Symphony’s most prestigious award). She has also received fellowships from Guggenheim, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Composers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Due to her successful career thus far, McTee has been commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Wind Ensemble Consortia and the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra. Critics have described her music as a “charging, churning celebration of the musical and cultural energy of modern-day America.”

For this blog I am looking into her work entitled, Adagio for String Orchestra, which is a wonderfully atmospheric work that is quite minimalist, but also very expressive at points. The work was composed in 2002 and is about 11 and a half minutes in duration. Below are the official program notes for the work:

“Adapted from my Agnus Dei for organ in the wake of events following the horror of September 11, 2001, the Adagio became the second movement of my Symphony No.1: Ballet for Orchestra. It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra – music director, Leonard Slatkin – and made possible by the John and June Hechinger Fund for New Orchestra Works.

The Adagio gradually exposes a hauntingly beautiful melody from Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polish Requiem (Ab, G, F, C, Db, Eb, Db, C). A falling half-step and subsequent whole-step empahsize the intervial of the minor third. With occasional references to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the work’s harmonic language reflects my interest in using both atonal and tonal materials within the same piece of music.

All night have the roses heard

The flute, violin, bassoon;

All night has the casement jessamine stirr’d

To the dancers dancing in tune;

Till a silence fell with the waking bird,

And a hush with the setting moon.

—- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Maud and Other Poems”

The work begins very quietly with quite a static feel. The cellos play a moving motif, which is then answered by the violins. The harmonics heard in this introduction are very haunting and this creates an amazing kind of atmosphere. The emphasis on the minor third interval is very prominent in this section. There is a lot of dissonances heard, with a lot of harmonics crossing paths. The timed silences are incredibly effective and they make the more climactic sections very bold and spine-tingling. You can hear the odd passage in homage to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, however McTee brings the familiar motif into a new light, and she takes it somewhere brand new. There is a very dark and eerie feel to the work and the fluctuation between atonality and tonality is very pertinent. Again, McTee’s very clever silences are placed so that she builds your emotions up with the music, but then she breaks them down to create a much more dramatic effect.

The strings, at moments, play in unison, which gives a very strong atmosphere. However, a lot of the time they are working in polyphony, so the texture is very rich. Also, she writes the cellos in quite a high octave, which brings a lovely warm and woody timbre to the mix of beautiful string sounds. The sound world that McTee is painting with this work is incredible, and the way she develops the main, very simple motif is exceptionally ingenious. This work is incredibly emotive throughout the whole piece, which in turn makes it a very intense piece of music to listen to. The piece is very reliant on the minor third interval which brings a certain sadness, but also musical colour to the work. The use of suspensions is also very effective as it allows McTee to create a chain-like reaction to the music. With one section starting a developed motif, and then other sections then following suit. If you close your eyes, this piece will take you away and you will be able to immerse yourself in this fantastic work. The work ends with a very atonal motif, which is accompanied by the lower strings playing a very static pedal note. The upper strings repeat this motif, whilst gradually getting quieter, before dying away into silence.

Cindy McTee is an absolutely fantastic composer who writes so beautifully and cleverly for a wealth of different instruments, especially strings. I would love to hear this work live at some point as I believe it would be such a magical experience. It is very fitting to write about this piece, seeing as yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11. Nearly all of McTee’s compositions have been recorded and put on her website, so if you like the Adagio, then you should definitely check more of her music out! Tomorrow is the penultimate day of my Female Fortnight Challenge – who’s turn is it next?

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

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