The two orchestral works included here, Symphony No. 1: Triptych for Orchestra, written between 1998 and 2004, and Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm, completed in 2006, served to initiate my recent compositional exploration of the narrative, story-telling power of music. It was a strong interest in opera that led my purely instrumental music in this direction. The music of the great operatic literature, it seems, reaches well beyond the function of simply enhancing a drama on stage. Our perception is that this music somehow “becomes” the story that it tells, effectively taking it over, and expressing the drama in its own terms with a heightened sense of dramatic sweep and a good deal of emotional specificity. It is the music that essentially controls our experience as we are drawn into the dramatic world of a fine opera.
While it may be a bit problematic to speak of abstract orchestral music in such terms, music that exists apart from any explicit program or extra-musical reference does, I believe, have the capacity to carry on an independent narrative of its own sort, expressed using its own particular kind of syntax. In this spirit, the two pieces recorded here strive to create what might be called virtual, rather than concrete, narratives. We might even refer to them, after Mendelssohn, as “opera scenes without words” whose personae appear as musical ideas. As in other forms of drama, interest comes as a result of the way these characters relate to one another in the context of an overall plot, the way they may be transformed by the sometimes intense nature of their interaction, and the larger intensity curve that emerges as part of the process.
The ballade and the individual movements of the symphony are each concerned with two or three principle thematic ideas or “characters.” The outer movements of the symphony begin with fanfares cut from the same thematic cloth. The fanfare at the opening of “Ceremonies” recalls a baroque French overture. An initial culmination turns the music toward something lighter, but the opening material regains control and the movement finishes in pensive uncertainty. Though its thematic material is fashioned from the same fanfares heard in the other movements, “Capriccio” presents a strong contrast. More American in flavor, it establishes a virtuosic atmosphere of bustling, and sometimes dancing, good-humor, not without a good deal of suspense along the way. Composer Paul Moravec characterized the movement as “good cartoon music.” “Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” after a Norwegian tale, commences with a pair of fanfares, the first in the woodwinds and the second in the brass that set the scene. There is a sense that the drama proper begins with the next idea, an expansive melody in the strings that eventually heralds the piece’s first climax. A plaintive, fragmented idea, initially stated by the oboe moves the drama in a more mysterious direction. After an even larger climax, the piece closes with the now familiar fanfare material, which is finally allowed tonal and emotional resolution, achieving a tranquility that had stubbornly eluded it. The movements that make up this Triptych were conceived as a single journey, and are strongly interdependent in terms of musical material but, to date, have been programmed most frequently as individual pieces.
Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm, a longer limbed, single movement fairy-tale piece of a different sort, explores a wider emotional range in its three ideas and their story. The first idea, a lyrical and straightforward melody, is the heart of the piece. The second presents a rhythm that eventually becomes the piece’s obsession. However, it is the third idea, initially the simplest and least assuming, which appears in the greatest variety of guises and which, at last, allows the piece to end in triumph.
The symphony was originally written as part of a recording project with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz. Subsequently, its second movement, “Capriccio,” was awarded first prize in the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s Fresh Ink competition for Florida composers. The award for the competition was a commission for a new piece, Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm, which was premiered by the orchestra under conductor Fabio Mechetti as part of its Masterworks Series in 2006.
What tales are told in these musical stories? In the spirit of their literary models, it seems less entertaining to know for sure than it is to imagine. The imagination was where the magic of fairy tales sprang up for us when we first knew them, and it is there that, given a little nostalgia and inspiration, we may rekindle their fancy.
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