Flaying of Marsyas, The


concertino for oboe and string quartet
Mixed Chamber Ensemble

Commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra

First Performance
6.5.87, Purcell Room, London, UK: Neil Black/Spohr Quartet

A4 facsimile score 0-571-55584-5 (fp) and parts 0-571-55585-3 (fp) on sale

Programme Notes

In October 1986, when I was in Czechoslovakia, I visited the town of Kromeriz to see again Titian’s great painting The Flaying of Marsyas, which I had seen in London exhibition in 1983. It is a horrifying painting, but it is also full of compassion. In particular, the figure of Apollo playing the lira da bracchio (an early violin) has a miraculously calming effect on the torture being enacted in his presence. Looking at the painting, I imagined I could hear the music Apollo was playing, and realised it offered me a fortuitous starting point for the piece for oboe and string quartet I was about to write. For Marsyas, who challenged Apollo to a musical contest and whose punishment for being defeated was to be flayed, played the aulos, which is usually translated as flute but was in fact a reed instrument, a kind of oboe. If the oboe could represent Marsyas and the 1st violin Apollo, I had both a formal idea for my piece, which could have as its centre a competition between oboe and violin, and a solution to the chief problem about oboe quintets which is one of balance (there are too many treble instruments). So the piece became a little concerto for oboe, violin and string trio, and I followed the story of the contest quite closely in the music. The piece begins with a prelude for string trio, deliberately primitive music suggesting the state of the world before Apollo brought enlightenment. Apollo’s music, when he enters, is therefore in complete contrast. The oboe then makes its entry with a solo cadenza: Marsyas learns to play the aulos and, at first, each note is a discovery. When he has mastered the instrument, the others join him in a dance of triumph. Marsyas, now full of pride, challenges Apollo. In the ensuing contest oboe and violin play alternately, each trying to outdo the other. The contest is indecisive until Marsyas attempts a double harmonic, which does not work as well on the oboe as on the violin. Apollo leaps in and is immediately proclaimed victor. A short section depicting the flaying follows. Marsyas dies, and the music returns to the darkness of the beginning of the piece. But oboe and violin join together in a postlude which offers reconciliation, and the end of the piece suggests one interpretation of the myth: Marsyas’ blood becomes a river, on the banks of which grow reeds, from which men make oboes; so his music continues. The Flaying of Masyas was commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra.

© David Matthews

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News & Reviews

'Flaying of Marsyas' review

'To the challenge of an oboe quintet, one high-pitched instrument added to an ensemble that already has two. Matthews’s solution is brilliantly dramatic. The Flaying of Marsyas is a concerto, and a virtuoso one… the long central section a contest between the two soloists, the ‘apotheosis’ at the end an ingenious and formally satisfying device whereby Marsyas “learns” from his defeat and absorbs Apollo’s aristocratic lyrical idiom into his own instinctive one' Tempo (Michael Oliver), July 1995 Read more

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