Threnody

(1996)

by Colin Matthews

Description
piano, harp and strings
Duration
12
Genres
String Orchestra
Instrumentation
strings (10.10.10.10.8)
Commission

Commissioned by the BBC for performance on the 50th anniversary of the Third Programme

First Performance
29.9.96, Royal Festival Hall, London: BBC Symphony Orchestra/BBC Symphony Chorus/Oliver Knussen
Availability

Score (fp) 0-571-56747-9 on sale, parts for hire.

Programme Notes
Colin Matthews Renewal (1991-6) Intrada Threnody Broken Symmetry Metamorphosis Renewal owes its origins to a remark I made at the pre-concert talk for the first performance, in the spring of 1992, of what has now become its third part. I said then that I had thought of Broken Symmetry as perhaps the scherzo of a ‘mega-work’. After its second performance, at the Proms that same year, Nicholas Kenyon reminded me of what I had said, and asked me when I was going to write the rest of it. Although I hadn’t really thought through the implications of writing something on such a large scale (Broken Symmetry alone lasts a little over twenty minutes) the idea of doing something gradually grew, and the prospect of composing a work to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Third Programme – only a few months younger than myself – made it concrete. For the framework of the second part, a Threnody dedicated to the memory of Toru Takemitsu, who died while I was writing it, I turned to another pre-existing piece, Memorial, composed for the London Symphony Orchestra in 1992. But I only used the opening section of that work, for strings, piano and harp, and the music develops in a different direction from its original. The opening Intrada a 70th birthday present for Hans Werner Henze, is scored for wind, brass, and percussion: its musical material is closely related to Broken Symmetry, although unlike that work it is mostly slow and brooding. The final part, Metamorphoses, for chorus and orchestra, sets a text derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, describing the philosophy of Pythagoras: ‘Nothing in the whole world endures unchanged…everything is renewed’ From this comes the title of the whole work. Intrada is the shortest of the four parts, lasting some 8 minutes only. A sombre introduction is followed by distant trumpet fanfares and a still centre of chorale-like chords. The development of this material is much more energetic, and the return of the trumpets is wild and violent. A further short but forceful development section leads to a coda in which the trumpets are superimposed over the chorale chords. Threnody follows without a break, and although its dense string textures are in complete contrast to the preceding part, its material centres on the note C sharp (one semitone above middle C) which had been prepared in Intrada. (In Broken Symmetry this focus on C sharp will become obsessive). The music is very static and intense, but from after its half-way point (it lasts around 11 minutes) gradually relaxes and dies away in gentle homage to Takemitsu. Broken Symmetry was designed as a scherzo, but its structure is complex. Its first half consists of three scherzo sections and three ‘trios’ (after an introduction the first trio precedes the first scherzo). There is a frenetic centre to the work, and then the first half is recapitulated in reverse. But it is not a mirror image, as the symmetry is broken, and the scherzos and trios contract, collide and distort, becoming virtually unrecognisable in the process. The imagery is perhaps that of a machine going out of control, and when it has reached its fastest and most extreme, it collapses, and the mechanism very quickly runs down. The all-persuasive C sharp of Broken Symmetry drops down a semitone to underpin Metamorphosis with deep pedal C. To follow such a manic scherzo with anything other than a mood of reflection seemed impossible, and though the textures are often complex, the music is hushed throughout, and for the most part tranquil. This culminates in a gentle coda for the chorus (‘cernis et emensas in lucem tendere noctes’), before a postlude which is rooted to the C of the opening: as if an echo of all that has gone before, though hugely simplified. omnia muntantur magna nec ingeniis investigata priorum canam magna feror aequore plenaque ventis vela dedi invat ire per alta astra nil est quod perstet toto in orbe nec perit in toto quicquam mundo cuncta fluunt omnisque vagans formatur imago et nova sunt semper quod fuit ante relictum est fitque quod haut fuerat cum sint huc forsitan illa haec translata illuc summa tamen omnia constant cernis et emensas in lucem tendere noctes omnia muntantur nil interit from : Ovid – Metamorphoses Book XV All things are changed. I will sing of great things, never searched out by the minds of former men. I am borne on the boundless seas and have spread my sails to the winds: it is a joy to travel through the high stars. Nothing in the whole world endures unchanged, nor does anything in the universe perish; all things are in a state of flux, and everything comes into being with a changing form. Everything is renewed – for what was once is no more, and what was not has come to be: through things may perhaps shift from here to there and there to here, yet the sum of everything remains the same. You see how the spent nights speed on towards the dawn…. All things are changed, nothing dies. Colin Matthews

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