Commissioned by University College, Cardiff

  • ob/
  • 13 min

Programme Note

Vivo - Lento - Fantastico - Lento - Agitato - Lento

This work was commissioned for the Cardiff University College chamber concerts, and is dedicated to my old friends and colleagues at the College. It is basically in one movement, but the essential feature of the piece is that its form is primarily self-enclosed. By this I mean that the various sections through which the music passes are not separate in themselves, nor do they necessarily have complete forms of their own - they are, rather, parts of a single overall unit.

Thus, for example, the final Agitato is not intended to have its own explicit shape but is simply an intensification and, ultimately, a resolution of the tensions implicit in the preceding parts. This formal aspect of the music may possibly be misleading unless the listener approaches it as a sort of self-contained unit, the variations of speed, texture and mood and so on being, as it were, different ways of representing the gradual progress of the structure of the whole. In the same way, the different areas of a painting, though they may have their own clear identity, build up to the complete work.

Despite all this talk of form and structure, however, the textures are basically light, and the scoring is seldom very full. It begins with two motifs announced by, respectively, strings and oboe - these two motifs are of great importance in the development of the music, especially a cluster of semitones and the interval of a tritone, both of which affect the general lightness of colouring with a certain sharpness and edge.

The vigorous opening, a sort of "announcement" of thematic intent, dies away quickly, giving place to a Lento (in effect a pair of variations) in which sustained chords form a backcloth to, first, a dialogue between oboe and pizzicato cello and, second, a freely rhapsodic oboe tune in which the player is allowed a certain degree of rhythmic freedom of interpretation. The music becomes quick in a Scherzo-like section (marked
Fantastico as an indication of atmosphere) dominated by a stuttering oboe theme that emerges fully only after a while. The music is predominantly quiet and shadowy, with occasional forceful outbursts, and is full of cross-rhythms.

This episode comes to a flickering close, and is followed by a brief Lento in which the strings, for the first time, assume the leadership of the ensemble - this slow passage is more overtly expressive than hitherto, but it soon dies away, leaving its tensions to be resolved in the Agitato mentioned above. The quiet scurryings (marked misterioso) with which this begins soon burst out into a violent climax, which again gradually dies down, the work ending with echoes of the first Lento (sustained chords and pizzicato cello phrases).

© 1991 by John McCabe