Corigliano: The Mannheim Rocket

Born into a musical family—his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years, and his mother was a gifted pianist—John Corigliano is one of the best-known composers of our time. After studies with Otto Luening and Vittorio Giannini, he worked in radio and as a producer for CBS-TV and Columbia Masterworks before delving into film scoring. His Altered States score earned an Oscar nomination. His score for The Red Violin ultimately won the Academy Award, and he repurposed this music as a successful Violin Concerto for its original soloist, Joshua Bell.

Corigliano has taken up commissions from major musical institutions throughout his career, and has won the Pulitzer Prize, a Grawemeyer Award, and five Grammy Awards. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), composed on commission for the Metropolitan Opera, became one of the most widely discussed American theater works. His orchestral music includes three symphonies, numerous concertos and chamber works, and choral music. His recent works include the orchestral song cycle One Sweet Morning and Stomp, which exists in versions for solo violin and for orchestra. He is member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard School and holds a distinguished professorship at Lehman College, City University of New York.

The Mannheim Rocket is a brief showpiece commissioned by the Mannheim Orchestra and given its premiere in 2001. It features a wide array of special effects, including an amplified musical saw, glassy sul-ponticello effects in the strings, aleatoric passages for the winds, and atonal clusters alternating with explosions of classical-sounding symphonic passages. It culminates in a “rocket-like” finale, which the composer elucidates in his note on the piece:

I first heard of the “Mannheim rocket” in a music history course in my freshman year at college. The term was used to describe a musical technique perfected by the Mannheim Orchestra in the 18th century in which a rising figure (a scale or arpeggio) speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher (hence the term “rocket.”) 

As a young music student, however, my imagination construed a very different image—that of a giant 18th-century wedding-cake-rocket, commandeered by the great Baron von Munchausen, and its marvelous journey to the heavens and back.  It was this image that excited me when I was asked to write a work for today’s Mannheim Orchestra … And so this ten-minute work begins with the scratch of a match and a serpentine twelve-tone fuse that sparkles with light and fire. The ignition leads to a slow heaving as the giant engine builds up steam. The “motor” of the rocket is a very low, very slow “Alberti bass,” the accompaniment pattern that has served as the motor of so many classical pieces. 

To get it started, I included a quote from one of the originators of the “Mannheim Rocket,” Johann Anton Wenzel Stamitz (1717–57). … This is the first in a series of quotes as the rocket rises and moves faster and faster, climbing through more than 200 years of German music, finally breaking through a glass ceiling to float serenely in heaven. 

There the rocket and crew are serenaded by tranquil “Music of the Spheres.” But what comes up must come down, and with a return of the opening fuse-music, the descent begins. The rocket accelerates as flashes of the ascent—backwards—mark the fall. Just before the inevitable crash, Wagner tries to halt things, but the rocket is uncontrollable: even he can’t stop it. After a crunching meeting with terra firma the slow heaving and Alberti-bass-motor die away as we hear a fleeting memory of heaven, and, finally, a coda composed of a “Mannheim rocket.”