Symphony No.2


by Oliver Knussen

high soprano and small orchestra
Plath S (Author), Trakl G (Author)
Solo Voice, Solo Voices with Orchestra
Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath
2222 - 2000 - perc:(4 ant.cyms ad lib) - strings (min
English, German
Commissioned for the Second Windsor Festival
First Performance
(preliminary version) 3.10.70, Waterloo Chamber, Windsor Castle: Poppy Holden/Menuhin Festival Orchestra/Menuhin. First performance (complete) 18.8.71, Tanglewood: Poppy Holden/Berkshire Music Center

Score 0-571-50747-6 on sale, parts for hire

Programme Notes

Commissioned for the modest forces of the Windsor Festival, the Second Symphony was Knussen’s first work in which he drew aside from the brasher of his orchestral enthusiasms – Ives, Shostakovich or Bernstein – to absorb the luminous intricacies of the then-latest Ligeti and Lutoslawski in that mode of surreal fantasy that has recurred in his output up to the opera, Where the Wild Things Are. The work takes the form of a 17-minute song cycle to texts of Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath, evoking the night passage of a dreaming sleeper to a dawn awakening – with the first three movements freely derived from a twelve-tone series which gives way to an A major triad (still faintly shocking to avant-garde diehards back in 1971) to mark the arrival of the aubade finale. The opening movement is Knussen at his most cinematic, with fragments of his texts cross-cut by flickering, iridescent blocks of contrasting, many layered textures. The second movement, a setting of Trakl’s ‘Die Ratten’, is a scherzo of crepuscular scurryings with a briefly eruptive trio, and the Lentissimo third, a blanched, sublunary setting of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Edge’. The finale opens with a more defined, almost lullaby-like, lilt, but soon the wind instruments start to drift out of the texture in pairs at their own tempi, winding to eventual silence. 

© Dorothy Dorow

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