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"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed on the world . . ."
from The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats
When asked to compose a work on the meaning and symbolism of the new millennium, I decided to use William Butler Yeats' famous poem The Second Coming as a starting point. Written in 1921, when the old order in Europe was breaking down, it suggests a revolution or rotation in history (the gyre) will bring about a 'second coming' of an important historical figure, and the dawn of a new millennium. Yeats' vision of the new world order to come is not, however, optimistic. He sees the coming of a 'rough beast' with a 'lion body and the head of a man', a cold and heartless creature that might be equated with certain infamous and autocratic leaders in the 20th century.
The 'gyre' or revolution is represented in the symphony by a rolling, sliding timpani sound, accompanied by bass drum and tam tam at the start of the work. This idea becomes an important motif and appears at the very start. Following the 'gyre', we hear a 'life and death' theme that begins like a cradle song (the birth of Christ), rises, and then twists downwards in a chromatic line. This theme provides most of the material for what follows. The slow introduction climaxes with hammer blows, a reference to the death of Christ. From this a trumpet call emerges, becoming a significant motif later in the movement. In the allegro that follows, the 'life and death' theme is transformed into a fast and restless melody, beginning as pizzicato on the strings. Complimenting this is a macabre and folky theme on muted trumpet and clarinets, evoking a sort of frenzied, gyrating dance. The music quietens and a lyrical theme appears on flute, accompanied by timpani and harp and developed by the strings. As the music climaxes again, the trumpet call reappears, shared around other brass instruments. The significance of this trumpet call can be seen with reference to another poem, this time by New Zealander Peggy Dunstan:
Stratagem of Trumpets
"Then the trumpets sounded
Not in a flare of pomp and pageantry
But with a golden lilting laughter
That seemed to open up the sky
So that the music dropped like rain
Upon the upturned faces
And the enchanted ears were closed
To everything except those throbbing notes. . . "
The trumpets distract the listeners, and make them unaware of the advancing enemy. Dunstan's poem goes on to describe a massacre of Serbs in 1389 at the time of the battle of Kosovo between Serbs and Turks. At the time of composing my symphony Kosovo was once again in the grip of war and atrocity, only this time the Serbs were the aggressors and Albanians were the victims.
It seems to me that Kosovo sums up a situation common in our past millennium: an endless cycle of struggle for land and power, costing many innocent lives. In the music, the log drum heralds a sort of 'musical battle-field' in which the 'life and death' theme becomes an aggressive, jagged idea, used fugally in an increasingly dissonant texture. Following the 'battle', solo strings, piccolo and harp provide a brief lament for the dead and the music returns to the music of the Introduction. This time it is mixed fragments of the flute theme, and the movement ends quietly with the 'gyre' motif.
If the first movement represents the past, then the second movement is a comment on the present. The title Mi-1st refers to the heavy emphasis on the note E (or Mi in the sol-fa system) as a central pitch, but can also be interpreted as 'me-first'. Essentially this music is about the natural human tendency to be self-centred, which I believe has become much more prevalent in our own society. It is perhaps one aspect of Yeats' 'rough beast' that hinders our progress. There are three main ideas in this presto movement. The first is a savage chromatic theme that encircles the note E, played initially on strings. It is immediately followed by a vigorous, syncopated theme on strings and winds. As a contrast, the harp accompanies a quieter, smoother theme on the violins, which also includes the twisting, chromatic motif from the first movement. In the middle, the music becomes increasingly chaotic until a climax on C is reached, with hope for resolution to the discords. However, the music slips into the key of B, and the strings play a restless, anxious version of the contrast theme. The frenetic energy of the first part gradually dissipats, and the movement collapses into a web of solo violins. The 'gyre' motif has the final say.
There are a number of themes in the third movement, but all evolve in some way or other from the constantly twisting, turning melodic line that appears at the start. Used in close canon, this melody represents the intertwining DNA molecule, and hence the title of the movement, Double Helix. Discovered recently in our history, genetics are sure to have a highly significant role in the future. This music looks forward with the hope that genetics will be used in a positive way. It also acknowledges that we carry with us the characteristics of previous generations (covering a whole millennium and more!), and that the future will be significantly shaped by these characteristics. At the same time we need to learn from the hard lessons of previous generations in order to make progress.
Consequently, the symphony has an optimistic and celebratory end, which is tempered by a sense of warning. In the coda, the threads of Double Helix motifs are combined with a return of the main theme from the first movement, played on full brass.
Commissioned by the Auckland Philharmonia for premiere at the New Zealand Festival 2000.
Dedicated to Sandy
I. Stratagem of Trumpets
III. Double Helix
12 Mar 2000: Performed by Auckland Philharmonia conducted by James Sedares at the Town Hall, Wellington as part of the New Zealand Festival 2000. This is the premiere.
14 May 2006: Performed by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei at the Town Hall, Christchurch in 2006