Background and the relationship between Bach, Stravinsky, Varèse, Gill
In composing Chamber Symphony, I was acutely conscious of the environment in which it would be premiered: the rest of the program consisted of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, Stavinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and Varèse’s Octandre.
Of particular interest to me was the three-movement structure that all three works utilize in uniquely evolutionary ways. Bach’s concerto features a typical baroque fast-slow-fast sequence in which the middle movement serves only as a connector between the two outer, much longer movements. In fact, this “slow movement” is not a composed movement at all; rather, it is an open-ended harmonic progression meant to serve as a modest framework for an improvised solo that should clear the air from the first movement and prepare the listener for the third.
Stravinsky’s work uses a similar device: the last eight measures of the first movement function as a transition, modulating from the E-flat tonality of the first movement to the B-flat of the second. Unlike Bach’s, though, Stravinsky’s transition is fully composed, and its content becomes a new musical element in the larger work—it recurs as a transition between sections within the second movement and at its end, serving again as a transition (tonally) to the third movement.
Varèse’s three-movement structure is more complicated. While there is no “musical” transition between the first and second movements, he directs the conductor to pause at the end of the first, and then “without interruption, begin the second movement.” Between the second and third movements, the contrabass holds a single pitch (B, with which the third movement begins); here Varèse specifies Enchaînez or attacca, signifying that the third movement is to begin hard on the heels of the second. Varèse controls the spaces between the movements such that they are essential parts of the overall structure of the work.
Varèse’s musical ideas (like Stravinsky’s) exist in multiple movements. A signature motive from Octandre is the fall of a whole-step followed by the fall of a half-step (this motive is heard in all three movements, increasing in intensity with each). Certain expressive marks, including tempi, are also shared among the movements: the indication Très vif et nerveux occurs in both the second and third movements.
These three works represent an evolution of the three-movement structure, from quite clear to more integrated; the form of my work continues on to the next logical step: it is a work whose three movements are played without pause or obvious transition and between them much musical material is shared. Taking my cue from Varèse, I also use a constellation of (three) tempi that move from one to the other throughout the entire work.
The first movement of my work is a modified palindromic form, exploring the three tempi of the entire work and introducing most of the musical material. It begins and ends with a long, sustained C-sharp and a symmetrical (vertically) chord sequence in the winds. The second movement begins and reaches its climax in the fastest of my three tempi. There is a brief interlude in the middle of the second movement in the slowest tempo, as well as a brief remembrance of the opening material of the first movement after the climax. The third movement is entirely in the slowest tempo and features the chant tune Alma Redemptoris Mater.
From Bach, Stravinsky and Varèse come other ideas, as well. In the first movement of the third Brandenburg, Bach includes a fanfare (do-mi-sol-sol-mi-sol-do) in the first, then the second, then the third violin when the opening music returns. It is a wonderful moment of gratuitous counterpoint that I emulate in my own work. Stravinsky’s use of rhythmic layers and often complex hemiolia is also present. And from Varèse I have practically stolen (unconsciously!) a motive from the last page of Octandre.
Finally, with regard to instrumentation, my work is an amalgam of these three: my triple trio of strings (three violins, three violas, three ‘cellos) come from Bach, my double horns and double contrabasses from Stravinsky, and my full wind and brass complement (including the same doublings) from Varèse.
The “program” of the work
I often am inspired by literary ideas when composing, and this piece is no exception. Two tales are at the heart of this piece.
The first is related by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly by way of Italo Calvino, and tells the story of Charlemagne’s marriage to a German girl, substantially his junior. Charlemagne’s court is disturbed by this marriage and his continuing preoccupation with her. They are relieved when she unexpectedly dies. But Charlemagne will not be parted from her corpse, and shuts himself up in his bedchamber with her remains. A priest is called to investigate this strange infatuation, and discovers, hidden under the girl’s tongue, a ring. When this ring is in the priest’s possession, Charlemagne falls in love with the priest. The priest, in order to avoid an untenable situation, throws the ring into Lake Constance. Immediately Charlemagne falls in love with the lake, and remains at its edge until the end of his days.
The second is from the Canterbury Tales, and tells the story of a young boy, much in love with the virgin Mary, who is murdered while singing the Alma Redemptoris Mater in her honor. Despite having his throat cut, he continues to sing en route to the abbey where his funeral is to take place. The officiating abbot finds that a pearl has been placed on the boy’s tongue by an angel. When the pearl is removed, the boy dies.
In light of the obvious connection between these tales, I decided to “set” them both, but, pitying him, I set the boy’s in reverse. In the version of the tale I “set”, the boy is dead, then murdered, then wholly restored to life, singing once again the Alma Redemptoris Mater. Charlemagne’s tale remains as is, and when the tales are set simultaneously, his contemplation of the lake coincides with the boy’s singing.
A note on the title
Chamber Symphony was premiered under the title Numina, suggested to me by Peggy Gyulai (visual artist and collaborator on this project—her video was projected during the live performance of my work). A numen is a divinity or spirit that inhabits a place, object, or natural phenomena. Its relevance to the above stories is obvious—both the ring and the pearl are clear magical objects. Upon completing the piece, however, I came to the realization that the true magical object of Chaucer’s tale is not the pearl but the chant tune Alma Redemptoris Mater. The ring and the chant tune, then, are the images (ideas) most charged with meaning—one an object inhabited by a numen, the other a divine (sound) object, or a path to the divine—and they are both represented by leitmotivs in my piece. The ring is represented by a symmetrical chord progression heard in the winds and brass near the beginning of the piece. The chant is “represented” by itself, heard in its entirety at the end of the piece.