June 23, 2017

David Schiff on the Origin of Infernal

The seed for Infernal was planted in the summer of 1959, just before I turned 14, when I heard Stravinsky's Firebird Suite for the first time, performed outdoors at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

When I heard the string glissandi harmonics near the opening, I jumped out of my seat, and I jumped even higher when I heard the trombone glissandi in the Infernal Dance.

Skip ahead to 2006. Maestro Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony, invited me (along with Aaron Jay Kernis, John Harbison, Bright Sheng, David Stock and Samuel Jones) to participate in an unusual project, the first classical album conceived to be sold by Starbucks. All the works on the CD would be new, but they would all be based on older music and the album would, therefore, be titled "Echoes". At first, I thought of orchestrating the fugue and toccata from the original Tombeau de Couperin, which Ravel had not orchestrated, but I learned that David Diamond had already performed this task. Then I came up with something equally challenging but more creative, a re-imagining of the Infernal Dance from Firebird. In my music, I often like to bring together styles of music that seem inimical and incompatible. Thinking back to my first hearing of Firebird, I decided to re-write the Infernal Dance in the style of another composer I was listening to around 1959: Henry Mancini. I loved the sophisticated jazz scoring that Mancini brought to his television and movie scores. His music was cool and sexy—as was Stravinsky's but in a different way. Since Stravinsky himself often wrote music based on other people's music, from Gesualdo to Tchaikovsky, my shotgun Stravinsky/Mancini wedding seemed appropriate.

After a few years, Starbucks decided to stick to coffee, but, fortunately, the wonderful recording of Infernal by the Seattle Symphony was re-released on Naxos. I was delighted when Carlos Kalmar conducted Infernal with the Oregon Symphony to mark my 70th birthday in its 2015-16 season.

— David Schiff

Don't miss the Grant Park Orchestra's performance of Schiff's Infernal at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Friday, June 23 and Saturday, June 24. Reserve a seat close to the stage in our membership section with a One Night Pass today.