Written by Ronald Comber
Sun Exhaling Light
Harry Stafylakis (1982 – )
On June 12, 2016, a man shot and killed 49 people and wounded 58 others in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Richard Blanco’s “One Pulse – One Poem”, a stirring reaction to this atrocity, depicts the poet–observer trying to come to terms with the reality of the event. Inviting the reader to join him in calm commiseration, he counsels us to first take stock in our surroundings – inthe quiet beauty of our natural and built environment – before joining him in attempting to find the words to express the horror that such an act of violence elicits.
Sun Exhaling Light takes this premise as its starting point. Solar wind is a stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun. It buffets our planet constantly, Earth’s magnetosphere our only protection against the intense radiation that would inflict severe damage on all life. One can imagine these competing forces as a metaphor for the conflict between the drive to aggression and the protective shield that is human civilization. The piece envisions scenarios in which our culturally constructed defenses are eroded, bursts of violence tearing through, leaving us stunned and deeply mournful.
The title Sun Exhaling Light is taken from the poem “One Pulse – One Poem” by Richard Blanco, used with permission of the author; (c) 2016, Richard Blanco.
Violin Concerto, Op. 15
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
After nearly eighty years of comparative neglect, Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto is finally getting the attention and appreciation that it deserves. He began to conceive the work in the autumn of 1938. An ardent pacifist, Britten wanted to compose an elegiac work that would honour those fallen in the Spanish Civil War, but also to reflect his sombre reflections on the immediate future.
In January of 1939, as England braced itself for the coming conflict, Britten’s friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood immigrated to America and strongly encouraged Britten to do the same. Sketches in hand, Britten travelled to Toronto in May, before continuing on to New York. Making good progress, Britten had the work completed in September and sent the score off to Jascha Heifetz, who promptly sent it back, pronouncing it “unplayable”. Undeterred, for he was at least a competent violist in his own right and knew what worked and what didn’t, he contacted an old friend, the Spanish concert violinist Antonio Brosa, and somehow arranged to have the premiere with the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. The premiere on March 28th, 1940 was a success, though critical opinion was sharply divided.
For many years the work resided on the periphery of the concert violinist’s repertoire, but only lately has it begun to make regular appearances in the concert halls of the world. It is possible that we are the first generations to fully hear Britten’s message.
The work is in three movements, though unlike the usual concerto, it goes slow-fast-slow rather than fast-slow-fast. The first movement opens with a tympani motto which goes on to inform the whole of the movement in one way or another. The violin enters in an air of mournful nobility. The orchestra repeats the main theme, and then the violin introduces the second subject. After an extensive Development section, the Recapitulation reveals the soloist and orchestra with their roles reversed; the strings playing the principal theme and the violin assuming the more percussive role of the second subject. The second movement is a somewhat baleful Scherzo, built around a more introverted central section. A spectacular cadenza, taking much of its impetus from the initial tympani motto, leads to the Sombre Passacaglia Finale. A set of nine Variations based on a short melody, the Passacaglia is the emotional climax of the work, reflecting Britten’s sorrow over the suffering caused by the Spanish Civil War and his fears for the future.
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor , Op. 98
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In the light of all that has happened musically in the last hundred years, it is very easy to look on Brahms’ symphonies as being four masterful strokes from the same pen … works that are at once evolutionary and yet closely interrelated as facets of a mature mind. But upon careful examination the Fourth Symphony can be seen to travel in quite unexpected directions. Where the first three symphonies take their basic drive and deepest inspiration from the works of Beethoven, the Fourth marks a return to the sturdy values of Bach. In this symphony, Brahms was trying out some bold old ideas. That Brahms felt qualms about his experiment is well documented. From the very start of his work on the Fourth in the summer of 1884, he was uneasy about the use of Baroque forms in a (then) modern symphony. A full year later, as the symphony neared completion, he still seemed doubtful, writing in his elliptical manner: “Cherries never ripen enough for eating in these parts”. His friends were not encouraging either. Hanslick, the critic, described the first movement as “…two enormously clever people…cudgelling one another…” and Elizabet von Herzogenberg complained of “…all that tangled undergrowth of ingeniously interwoven detail.”
At first it seemed that Brahms’ doubts were justified. The premiere at Meiningen on October 25, 1885 left its audience cold. In fact, it was only the growth of interest in the music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries that in the end allowed the Fourth Symphony its proper place in the orchestral literature.
The first movement, marked Allegro non troppo, starts with a canonic first subject, and then moves along into a wind fanfare, which heralds the arrival of the flowing second subject on horn and cellos. The end of the exposition is very cunningly led back into the opening theme, but turns into a tense Development rather than the conventional repeat. The tension gradually dissipates, and an air of mystery ensues, leading to the Recapitulation and the Coda.
The second movement, marked Andante moderato, starts with a stroke of genius. The horns open with an almost ferocious declamation of the theme, in C Major, which comes as a shock, for the movement is in E. The key is soon corrected, however, with a gentle G Sharp in the clarinet, which then develops a whole new interpretation of the theme. The second subject lends an air of eloquence, and the movement in sonata form, moves inevitably towards a wonderful gratifying Coda.
The third movement, marked Allegro giocoso, is not a Scherzo. In a strong duple time, it again follows the sonata form through waves of rollicking good humour. One interesting point about the movement lies in its principal theme, which Brahms uses to great effect, both in its natural form, and inverted…sometimes simultaneously. The force of this movement is irresistible. It builds and builds, than finally culminates in an overwhelming dominant pedal.
Brahms received his inspiration for the last movement, marked Allegro energico e passionato, many years before, in a study of Bach’s Cantata No.150. The idea of a Chaconne…that is, a slow theme with very strict variations…pleased him. And so, in the Finale of the Fourth Symphony, he wrote a monumentally large Chaconne of perfect strictness. The theme is made up of just eight long notes, harmonized almost brutally by the winds. Then the fun begins. Brahms goes into a series of thirty-eight bar variations, each different as to mood, colour and harmony. The effect is remarkably architectural, and the addition of a dramatically austere Coda ensures that the structure continues to stand until the very end.