• Gunther Schuller
  • Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 [Gala Music] (1966)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 3(2pic)2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/4431/timp.6perc/cel(org).2hp.pf/str
  • 25 min

Programme Note

Composer Note:

”Gala Music” was written to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and is respectfully dedicated to the orchestra and its musical director, Jean Martinon. The work is in particular addressed to and inspired by the extraordinary virtuosity of this orchestra, many of whose members are personally known to me as colleagues and fellow musicians.

The piece is in four movements, the first for brass and percussion, the second for strings and harps, the third for woodwinds and piano, while in the fourth movement the orchestra is reunited.

In keeping with the festive nature of the occasion, the opening movement has a stately “fanfare” character. It is cast in a simple ABA form in which B represents a rhythmic development—in splintered pointillistic fashion—of the opening fanfare patterns. The percussion enters half-way through, its six layers of intersecting rhythmic lines forming a multi-layered structure, which not only challenges the priority of the brass fanfares, but reemphasizes the ritualistic nature of the music.

In the second movement long cantilena lines are developed gradually into a four-part polyphony. As the texture thickens, solo strings struggle to be heard above the increasingly more agitated and twisting lines. At the same time the bass section enters imperiously in what evolves into a long recitative, the bulk of which is accompanied by much-divided violins, violas and cellos, now used homophonically (chordally) rather than polyphonically. The movement returns by a process of reduction of texture and intensity to the quiet singing mood of the opening.

The third movement—a sort of scherzo—makes use of the virtuosic aspects of the twelve woodwinds of the orchestra. Moreover, it divides this group into 70 different instrumental, i.e., timbral combinations (selected out of several hundred). Thus there are 17 different duo combinations, 10 different trios, 15 quartets, 2 quintets, 9 sextets, 2 septets, 8 octets, 4 nontets, and, of course, one twelve-tet. The latter is used as a quick refrain, repeated intact or with slight alterations.

Each instrumental combination is used very briefly (in the average lasting about four second), although sometimes several different duos or trios may be used in succession. There is a further distinction made between polyphonic structures and homophonic ones. Thus there are four means of contact used: timbre, register, type of texture, and dynamics.

The fourth movement developed out of two principal ideas. The first was to summarize the festive character of the piece, while the second was to use the idea of commemorating in a specifically musical sense. To commemorate is to remember, and it seemed to me that both principal ideas could be served by using numerous quotations from the three previous movements, i.e., summary plus memory. At the same time the orchestra is reintegrated in a particular way, namely in the elements and functions in which it was previously dissected.

It may interest those who are fascinated by the nature of inspiration to know how these very general basic ideas translated themselves into specific musical ideas. From the outset I had vaguely associated the festive character of the piece with some sort of bells. As fortune would have it, the beginning of composition of the fourth movement coincided with my arrival for a short “working vacation” last December 22nd in the tiny Austrian Alpine village of Ehrwald. When on the first day the village church bells rang for evening vespers, the whole movement fell into place in my mind in a matter of seconds. The entire sonoric backdrop—over which the quotations from the three earlier movements are superposed—is based on the structure and rhythmic relationships of bell patterns as one hears them in a village church.

The point is that bell patterns are unbelievably complex. They are determined in a sort of chance way, by two things: (1) the pull of the rope which causes the bell to ring; (2) the distance the clapper travels to the side of the bell—which is, of course, different on each bell and at each ringing. With but little thought, one can imagine how four bells, for example, will ring in four different patterns, in which the chance of all four striking together is very remote. It is rare even for any two bells to strike exactly together, but frequently they will come very close. Thus one bell in the same span of time may strike fifteen times while another strikes only nine times. At the sixteenth and tenth respective strokes they come together.

Such rhythmic patterns are fascinating to musicians, inasmuch as they are so subject to chance, as well as being enormously complex. I constructed a seven-layered bell pattern which can be summarized in the following relationship: 13:12:11:10:9:8:7. This means that (in my simplified version) every 4 ½ measures all bells strike together, the first having struck thirteen times, the second twelve times, the fifth nine times, etc. The bell patterns are used in three different ways. First, a one-line composite is made. This is heard at the beginning of the movement in two Glockenspiel, harp, piano, celesta, triangle and antique cymbals. In a second stage, a number of dual patterns are isolated, for example, 13:11 or 9:10, etc. These are actually played by bells. Lastly, all seven patterns are sounded simultaneously in seven different pitched bells.

Furthermore, the music proceeds by a series of pedal points from the highest octave down through the four descending octave levels to a long coda, in which the music gradually dies away, like church bells in the distance. The quotations from previous movements are superposed on this complex bell-pattern structure, like a huge sound collage. The original tempo of the quotations is strictly maintained, regardless of their new context, but frequently they appear in an instrumentation other than those of their original appearance.

The work was completed January 2, 1966 in Ehrwald.

—Gunther Schuller