- Full Orchestra
- 4(IV=picc).2.ca.4(III=Ebcl).3.cbsn - 4331 - timp -perc(6): 2 timp/cyms/tam-t/anvil/tgl/2 tamb/crot/3 susp.cym/hi-hat/2 BD/2 tpl.bl/whip/mcas/bongos/claves/glsp/xyl/mar/SD/TD/t.bells/2 vibraslap/guiro - cel - harp - gtr(=mandolin ad lib) - strings (min184.108.40.206.6)
- Commissioned by the BBC for the 1979 Promenade Concerts
- First Performance
- (complete) 6.9.79, BBC Prom, Royal Albert Hall, London: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Score 0-571-50639-9 on sale, parts for hire
- Programme Notes
Sometimes the problem about finishing a composition can be not so much what to put in as what to leave out. When Oliver Knussen first projected his Third Symphony in 1973, it was very much as a synthesis of his musical development up to that time. And, despite his tender years, this was already formidable. The orchestral progress from the bony, serial dialectic of the First Symphony (1966-7), by want of the expressionistic and jazzy extravagancies of the Concerto for Orchestra, (now renamed Symphony in One Movement) (1968-70) to the massive textural blendings of Choral (1970-2) for large wind band, had been complemented by the emergence of a delicate lyricism in the moonstruck, song-cycle Second Symphony (1970-1), while the nonet, Processionals (1968), had been the first of several works to explore the constructional possibilities of ‘casting’ the various instruments almost like dramatic characters.
It was, in fact, an overtly dramatic image that Knussen drew upon in organising the original half-hour, three-movement plan of the Symphony: envisaging the first movement as an evocation of the Shakespeare’s Ophelia, burdened to breaking point by conflicting experiences, and the second as a king of accelerating, danced mad scene issuing in the vast clam of the third after her drowning. But when the opportunity of a first performance under the work’s dedicatee, Michael Tilson Thomas, arose in 1974, Knussen was able to complete only the first movement. Over the next few years, a number of other projects intervened, two of them – the Trakl setting, Trumpets, and the Ophelia Dances for ensemble – actually deploying material from the Symphony. But it was only with the reluctant recognition that the substantially-sketched second movement did not really follow musically from the first that Knussen was able to round off the work. As it now stands, the Symphony comprises a drawing together of the original first movement and largely re-composed last in a continuous structure lasting a little over a quarter of an hour and integrated in theme and process to a degree that invites the designation ‘symphony in one movement’.
In most of Knussen’s scores proportional relationships play a determining role and the ratio of 4:5 underlies not only many of the Symphony’s poly-rhythmic textures, but even the relative time-lengths of its contrasting halves. Much of the thematic material also derives form a pair of three-note cells, while the note E natural serves something of a large-scale, quasi-tonal function as a point of departure and return. Nevertheless, the evolution of the music is among the least constrained in Knussen’s output, particularly in the first half which proceeds as a sequence of sharply contrasted ideas, increasingly violent in their interaction.
An Andante introduction, cryptically pre-echoing snatches of material to come over tremolo strings, rises to a strident clarinet fanfare with what the composer calls ‘circus percussion’. Briefly this collapses into a protesting texture for bassoons which is to become an important linking idea later. Then a kind of demented, jigging processional begins to build up, progressively dominated by the trombones in what sounds like a distorted Pérotin motet, and finally bursting into the Allegro con fuoco proper. Four further ideas are now exposed in quick succession: a ‘first subject’ of rearing and plunging melody for intertwining first and second violins; a slab of texture for wheeling clarinets and close-formation horns; a chiming carillon for celesta, guitar, harp and percussion; and a volatile section dominated by a trio of flutes. Irregularly interspersed by the bassoons and trombones, these ideas now recur in reverse order, but varied and cross-cut in a developmental urgency that culminates in the raving return of the introduction fanfares. There is a momentary respite of carillon tinklings and then the music’s accumulated force discharges itself in a huge, 12-note chord – the fulcrum of the whole Symphony – gradually losing velocity and power until, at Molto tranquillo, the second half begins.
This proves, in many ways, the complementary opposite of the first: proceeding not by successive, rapid contrasts, but by a slow piling up of simultaneous layers, and emphasising aspects of the material hitherto treated as subsidiary. The basic idea, a sequence of twelve luminously overlapping chords for double string orchestra, is itself a vastly augmented version of the carolling music from the first part, and comprises the harmonic ground to a passacaglia in seven variations. In the second variation, the chords are already overlaid by a twittering flute and clarinet texture and by a three-part invention for oboes and cor anglais; in the third, the chords shift in position and scoring behind a long solo for clarinets, but return to the strings in a forest of trills for the fourth variation. The textural density reaches its zero in the fifth variation with a double climax of whooping horns. As it dies, the sixth variation emerges as a stately chorale before the music ebbs away in the seventh in thrumming resonances to just a flicker of the Symphony’s opening bar.
If the first half capitalises upon an old paradox of expressionism – that the evocation of internal states seems to demand wildly extrovert means – the formalistic plan of the second half equally paradoxically yields a curiously dream-like, introverted quality in Knussen’s realisation. Such cross-currents of feeling could well prove the clinching quality in what looks, on paper, a daring answer to the perennial symphonic challenge of ‘the large-scale integration of contrasts’.
© Bayan Northcott
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