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Finding Rothko (2006)

for chamber orchestra
2222 – 2200 – piano/celesta – 2 perc. – strings
duration: 16 minutes
Commissioned by the IRIS Orchestra
Premiered by the IRIS Orchestra, Michael Stern conducting (January 13, 2007)


Finding Rothko was Schoenberg’s first real professional commission, arranged by Michael Stern for the IRIS Chamber Orchestra, and was written in 2006 while the composer was just beginning doctoral studies at Juilliard.

After experiencing a “visceral reaction” to a group of paintings at MOMA by the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko, Schoenberg decided to make Rothko’s art the “muse” for this piece. Although played without a break, it is in four distinct movements, each devoted to a specific Rothko painting and named after the principal color used in the painting. (Coincidentally, the order of the four movements turned out to be exactly the same as the order in which Rothko completed the paintings.) These four movements are delineated and linked by a gentle three-chord motif the composer has labeled “Rothko’s theme.”

Finding Rothko doesn’t try to portray Rothko’s use of color and shape, or attempt to “set” the paintings to music. The artworks are simply a pretext, an inspiration. Yet the choice of paintings and the color connections between them formed a narrative in the composer’s imagination that is expressed clearly in the music. “Orange” opens with “Rothko’s theme” and is somewhat atmospheric—a Copland-esque dawn, perhaps. The composer describes it as “a reflective moment yet to be fully realized.” “Yellow,” on the other hand, “is the realization of that moment,” and is the most upbeat of the four movements, beginning with a rocking minimalist accompaniment that gradually expands into a broad, bright landscape.

The painting on which “Yellow” was based included a streak of red, providing an immediate narrative connection to the third movement. “Red” is intense, drawing on the saturated colors of the painting—the composer interprets that intensity in the movement’s jagged, irregular rhythms and mercurial personality. The final movement, “Wine,” is based on the last of the four paintings Schoenberg saw in person. It was the most difficult to locate and gain access to, and the journey to find it inspired the spirit of the piece and is the source of its title. “Wine,” repeats “Rothko’s theme” and develops it gradually through slow, haunting phrases toward a shining final apotheosis.


Credit: Luke Howard, Ph.D