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Corigliano’s “AIDS Symphony,” 25 Years Later


Hear the Corigliano Symphony No.1 on the next Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast, Wednesday at 8:00 pm

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissioned John Corigliano’s First Symphony, organizers knew he was a gifted composer; what they received, however, was more than a musical composition; it was a national symbol; an expression of grief and a prayer for compassion. The Symphony was titled “Of Rage and Remembrance,” but came to be known as “the AIDS Symphony.”

A few years ago I was extremely moved when I first saw “The Quilt,” an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing. I decided to relate the first three movements of the symphony to three lifelong musician-friends. In the third movement, still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.

—John Corigliano

By the time John Corigliano presented his First Symphony in 1990, America had witnessed years of hate speech directed at those most vulnerable to AIDS. AIDS patients lived in fear of persecution. Their right to privacy was pitted against a perceived threat to public safety, while research and public education were only just beginning to make inroads against the disease.


On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published findings describing a rare lung infection in five otherwise healthy young men. All five were gay. Two were already dead. The Associated Press picked up the story on the same day. Subsequently, the CDC was flooded with reports from doctors across the United States who had treated similar cases. Other doctors reported seeing an aggressive cancer in gay men. The common thread was characterised as severe immune deficiency. That year, nearly half of all patients suffering from the deficiency died. It wasn’t until 1985 that doctors identified the virus that was causing the syndrome. By the year 2000, there were 774,467 AIDS cases in the United States; 448,060 of those had died.

The arts were particularly hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. Dance companies were shuttered. Officials began to track infections from the use of dirty needles and HIV-infected blood transfusions. Among those who succumbed were Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Anthony Perkins, Rudolf Nureyev, Arthur Ashe, Isaac Asimov, Robert Mapplethorpe, Liberace, Perry Ellis, and Alvin Ailey.

Gay PrideThe Symphony

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded John Corigliano’s tribute to fallen friends under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. That CD won Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance and Best New Composition. When the Symphony No.1 was recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony picked up another Grammy for Best Classical Album (1996).

Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra appointed John Corigliano as the orchestra’s first composer-in-residence in 1987. John Corigliano has since composed two more symphonies, the Second of which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Hear the Corigliano Symphony No.1, “Of Rage and Remembrance,” popularly known as “the AIDS Symphony,” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel on the next Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast, Wednesday at 8:00 pm

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