GRAHAM WHETTAM (1927 -)
Maestoso intrepido - inciso assai
Maestoso molto - con fuoco tremendo
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The creative volition that brought about this symphony had a twofold origin. On the one hand the forces of destruction, witnessed by Whettam in Europe as the result of the second world war; on the other hand the irresistible drive of the human spirit to rise up, to rebuild, to re-assert order out of chaos. Reconstruction grows from devastation, resurrection from death. The physical and psychological destruction of many great European cities was abundantly visible in the early 1950s, when Whettam first visited Rotterdam; likewise in 1971 when he first saw Dresden and Warsaw. Moreover the artistic loss caused thereby was somehow epitomised for the composer when he stood before Gottfried Semper's opera house in Dresden, empty and boarded up, its life suspended. He could not foresee that, when this theatre was re-opened in February 1984, on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing, his own Sinfonia Intrepida would be broadcast by the BBC, in a Netherlands Radio recording, to mark the occasion.
Against such a desolate and total obliteration of the good, human creativity and the assertion of the human spirit stand immovable, indestructible. This symphony is a strongly positive statement, a celebration of the Phoenix arising from the fire.
The musical means whereby Whettam treats a theme of such universal and heroic importance are correspondingly on a large scale. The symphony is in three interconnected movements. The first symbolises the destruction of the old; the second the stillness of desolation; the third the rebuilding of the new. Whettam's symphonic style is individual. He uses a large orchestra, with quadruple wind, two harps and plentiful percussion; yet he deploys his forces simply, economically, and with the clearest delineation between the families of instruments, each with its characteristic material. Unisons abound, both within the same family, and between different families. His idiom is that of extended tonality, and the symphony has C as its tonal centre, but it is based not so much on a scale as on the expressive use of intervals.
The symphony opens with an assertive tremolando G in octaves from the violins, reinforced by six horns. Above this is heard a motif for unison flutes and oboes, with a marked triplet figure. This triplet is almost omnipresent, and characterises the whole symphony. The main theme is announced by the lower strings, then repeated between upper and lower strings, with the six unison horns between them playing an augmented version of the triplet motif. Antiphonal counterpoint leads to the first unison ff for full orchestra (wind, brass, timpani, strings) at bar 25. This overwhelming assertion of the theme derives its symphonic strength from two sources; partly from its meticulous preparation, in two-part texture, by means of a recurring rhythm in triple metre; partly from the characteristic melodic writing, using instruments in unison without harmonic support. Whettam's first extended use of unaccompanied melody is to be found in his Solo Violin Sonata No.1(1957). In the symphony he realises its full orchestral potential.
The opening and closing seven notes of the main theme of the first movement contain the four notes of Wagner's Tristan chord, based on G sharp. This chord is integrated into the symphony and, centred as it is upon the tritone, its harmonic implications are ambivalent, poised midway between the fourth and fifth degree of the diatonic scale, with the features of neither The tritone pervades the work, either in full, accented chords (Allegro con forza, bar 141), or hammered out as a rhythm for the timpani (Allegro assai, bar 157). This contrasts with the lyrical and expressive theme given to the violins (Andante appassionatamente, bar 39), where a whole-tone influence is prominent. The underlying trombone chords will be transformed into a chorale theme in the finale.
Whettam uses climactic chords for full orchestra as much for the sake of dramatic and orchestral brilliance as for their structural importance. The Allegro con forza chords already mentioned (bar 141) presage the climax of the movement, marking both the culmination of the development section and also a much transformed recapitulation of the main theme, for trumpets and trombones in octave unison, over the timpani tritones (Allegro assai, bar 157), and a rhythmically repeated G for two tubas and six horns. The climax gradually subsides, and when the lyrical theme returns it is very quiet, with muted violins (Adagio, bar 200). The movement ends (bar 227/9) with a varied re-statement of the first orchestral outburst (bar 25).
1-52 Lento molto
After the destruction, the stillness of desolation. The pulse of the music is very slow indeed, almost motionless. The expression lies in the sustained quietness of the gradually ascending solo melodic line, first given out by the cellos, later by the violins. The only movement is that of the gradually changing intervals; then each slow melodic ascent is answered by a static chord in fourths. As the melismatic motifs become more insistent, so correspondingly do the answering chords, as well as more rhythmically defined.
Short, scurrying phrases, based on chromatic fragments, with instruments in pairs. The absence of movement in the outer sections is juxtaposed to extreme velocity in the middle section, which ends with two abrupt fff interjections of the Tristan chord by the whole orchestra (bar 121, 133).
136-172 Lento molto
With the resumption of the slow music, the ascending melodies are given to the woodwind, alto flute and clarinet, the static chords to the strings. The pp coda is tonally indeterminate, and fades as we hold our breath for the finale.
It comes as a brilliant orchestral tour de force. Not only is it the longest of the three movements; it is the culmination, the centre of gravity, of the symphony. The extremely slow tempo of the second movement is balanced by the headlong velocity of the finale, whose structures are clearly defined. After an introduction by the brass instruments (maestoso eroico), a declamatory recitative by the six horns announces something big and dramatic.
53-103 Con fuoco tremendo
After a sudden cymbal clash, the music consists of contrapuntal variations of earlier material, in a display of orchestral virtuosity. Antiphonal motifs, the chord in fourths in a reversed dactylic rhythm, in counterpoint with the arching theme for the six horns, culminating in turn with the Tristan chord, articulated for full orchestra
Chorale theme for brass, with the trombones set against interjections by wind and strings, in two phrases (110- 125, 134-152).
Reduction of intensity
The first movement's main theme returns in two contrapuntal parts (lower brass against woodwind)~ followed by declamatory brass chords, and descending tuba octaves, leading into the climax.
In this climactic denouement the declamatory horn theme is set against interjections from the first movement, with the full weight of the orchestra in unison counterpoint, and the whole sonority resting on the pedal tritone (B flat / E) hammered Out by two timpani in one long, sustained phrase.
282-334 Sostenuto molto
Arising out of an inversion of the Tristan chord, sustained softly by low wind, basses and timpani, the transformed opening motif in the strings serves to reduce the intensity until the former six-horn declamatory recitative is heard softly, as woodwind solos, in preparation for the final denouement.
334-end Con molta affermazione al fine
The apotheosis of the symphony, "in honour of the Phoenix I have seen in Europe", consists of a grand, final statement of the Chorale by the strings tremolando, pp gradually increasing to fff, against the opening motif in the cellos and basses. It is the justification for that optimism which is the theme of Whettam's symphony. The Chorale ends at bar 361, and the final eight bars terminate in a massive chord of C major for the whole orchestra, underpinned by seven timpani, and ultimately spreading the timpani chord over two octaves.
Sinfonia Intrepida is the second of Whettam's four mature symphonies so far, and is in every way the composer's largest and most ambitious symphonic work. The huge scale (almost 50 minutes), the broad concept, the largeness of the themes, the integrated scheme of tonality, and particularly the blazing optimism of the concluding pages, are all features which distinguish Whettam from other contemporary British composers, and place his work more in line with Stravinsky, Mahler and Shostakovich. Indeed the characteristic woodwind solos in the finale, and the concluding triumphal outburst of C major, are strongly suggestive of Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony.
Whettam's symphony was written over a period of many years, beginning in the early 1960s. The first movement, containing as it does the ground-plarifor the entire work, and the scheme for the whole symphony, was not fully complete until 1973. It was when he saw this finished movement a year or so later that the conductor, Sir Charles Groves, who knew Whettam well, asked whether the symphony might be completed in time for him to give the first performance in his final season as chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (1976/7). With such a prospect in view, the climactic third movement, which is the longest of the three, was finished in the short space of five weeks in November! December 1976. The score is dated 13 December 1976.
The premiere took place in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 18 January 1977, with the RLPO conducted by Sir Charles Groves, it was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society, and the performance was a spectacular success. The orchestra responded to the challenge of the virtuoso scoring, with the very wide tonal range, extending from little wisps of sound at the close of the slow movement, to the thunderous, all-embracing climax of the finale. The audience responded to the aesthetic originality of the work and the commitment of those taking part.
The dedication of the symphony is whole-hearted and sincere:
To the memory of those who were slaughtered, and in honour of the Phoenix I have seen in Europe
Am Anfang war die Tat (In the beginning was the deed)
Paul Conway, Francis Routh
The works of Graham Whettam are published by Meriden Music
© 2000 Redcliffe Recordings
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