Full Orchestra
4(I-IV=picc, IV=afl).0.4(IV=cl in A, III+IV=bcl).0.cbsn - 3.4(I=ptpt).btpt.1.btrbn.1 - perc(3): 2 xyl/5 SD/2 whip/2 vib/2 vibraslap/2 BD/tgl/3 congas/5 bongos/4 c.bells- pno(=cel) - 2 harp - 5 vln.3 vla.8 db

Palimpsest I was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus Wien, Kölner Philharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles and Bruxelles 2000, Salzburger Festspiele, Musikfestwochen Luzern and Edinburgh International Festival for Boulez 2000.

First Performance
Palimpsest I: 2.2.2000, Barbican Hall, London, UK: London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez. First complete performance: 5.10.2002, Barbican Hall, London, UK: London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez

Score 0-571-52202-X on sale, parts for hire

Programme Notes

Palimpsest: a manuscript on which two or more texts have been written successively, the original surviving only in fragments. The term can also be applied to natural landscapes, even cityscapes, where the visible form is the result of accretion through the ages. I came across my first palimpsest in a book about medieval music, and was fascinated by the concept of a piece of parchment, or slate, used over and over again for different pieces of music. These were rare materials, and sketches had to be repeatedly overwritten with new invention. When we come to look at these manuscripts now, 600 or more years later, we see an extraordinary confusion of writing. Its apparent complexity resembles organic growth on the surface, but the number of straight lines betrays its man-made provenance. If one deciphers this mysterious agglomeration, you can discern the different layers superimposed over each other, and trace right back to the initial text. It was this idea that inspired my pieces. Palimpsest I starts with a gentle polyphonic song on three clarinets; the harmonic rules that it follows are highly idiosyncratic, but it’s very simple and transparent. Within a minute this song becomes virtually imperceptible, but it’s always there, below the surface of the music. Above it runs a sequence of widely diverging moods and textures; however, all the material is related to the original song. It’s almost like a chaotic variation structure. I wanted the music to sound absolutely crisp and clear: every material has its own shape, form and timbre. This is emphasised by the unusual orchestration, for eight solo high strings (no cellos) and a massive eight double basses, surrounding a big brass section. The wind section compromises four flutes, four clarinets and a contrabassoon, and there is a little percussion, harps and a piano. My aim was to achieve something akin to dusk or dawn in the desert, or at high altitude in winter, when the sun is very low and the light almost horizontal, and crystal clear. Palimpsest I was written as a 75th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez, who conducted the world premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra in February 2000. A short break follows its quiet conclusion; then Palimpsest II commences. Despite its slower tempo, greater length and darker tone-colour, this new piece shares much with its predecessor. The most important structural signposts in Palimpsest I are provided by the varied return of the opening clarinet song, expanded in harmony and inflated in scale at each appearance. A different, split texture plays a similar role in Palimpsest II: abrupt brassy chords (doubled by ‘conga’ drums plotted against cool, suspended polyphony in piccolos or high strings. Each time, between appearances of this texture, the music evolves in strongly divergent directions, eventually reaching a fierce and plangent tutti entirely in the bass register. Out of this, feature of Palimpsest I – some of which have been present subliminally throughout – being to break to the surface. As the music propels itself towards a surprise conclusion, elements from both Palimpsests collide and combine.


© George Benjamin

George Benjamin conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in Palimpsests, September 2018:

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