Symphony No 9, op.39
1picc., 2Fl., 2Ob., 2Cl., 1B.Cl., 2Fg., 1Cbsn., 4Hns, 3Tpts., 3Trbs., 1Tu. Timp., Perc. (4 players), 1Hp, 1Hpsd., Stgs.
The Death of Dido (1775-81) by Joshua Reynolds
The symphony is perhaps unusual in that having no title itself, its individual movements have names. No programme is intended, the names serving only to suggest the mood of each movement. Unity is achieved by making the ground from the aria Dido's Lament in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas - with one note chromatically altered - appear in various guises throughout the four movements of the symphony.
The first movement (Light Failing) owes nothing to traditional forms. Instead, it proceeds by way of a series of passages suggestive of light and others evoking darkness, the "light" passages getting progressively shorter and the "dark" passages longer according to a simple grid. In addition to this process, the note values get gradually shorter, giving one the impression that the music is accelerating, though the prevailing andante tempo never changes. Such thematic material as there is is neither developed nor repeated, serving only to give substance to the light and dark music. The Purcell ground appears discreetly as a sort of tailpiece to each of the dark passages.
The second movement (Black Widow) is in ternary form, with the central section featuring an important solo for double bassoon. The Purcell ground intervenes on trombones towards the end of the outer sections and ultimately takes over the music completely in a violent coda, which is ripped aside to briefly reveal the dark workings of the central section one last time.
In the third movement (Forgotten Memory), scored for strings and harp, the music seems to be trying to remember a forgotten melody, but rarely gets beyond its first two notes. A central section features a solo viola whose thematic material derives from the Purcell ground, disguised by octave displacements.
The final movement (Rage) is a passacaglia based on Purcell's ground, the rhythm being altered to make it fit the prevailing common-time signature. The five-bar phrase is repeated three times, starting on G, and is then hiked up a semitone by way of a dominant ninth resolving onto the next higher note as a tonic. This process is repeated until the music reaches G once more, after which the final ritornello from the aria is played on an offstage (or pre-recorded) string quartet, exactly as Purcell wrote it, as the fons et origo of the whole symphony.
1. Light Failing
3. Forgotten Memory
2. Black Widow
© Copyright Steve Elcock 2022