Commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the Manchester Mahler Cycle 2010, first performed in concert with Mahler Symphony No 6

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  • 20 min

Programme Note

Taking Mahler on is no easy task! Indeed, the very idea of writing a symphonic work to sit alongside the Sixth Symphony is a slightly terrifying one, for in many ways the Sixth is his most perfect symphony, both in terms of form and content. When I first heard Mahler’s music (I was a teenager at the time) the sheer power of the orchestration, as well as the drama of the musical ideas themselves, overwhelmed me. Even now, and having experienced life a little more, I still find his musical world to be a highly compelling one. The fact is that he speaks with a universal voice which probably has even more impact in today’s world than it did in his own.

My approach in tackling this commission has been to ‘invade’ Mahler’s world of musical ideas; indeed, the title of my work, Dream Song, is intended to portray a half-remembered landscape of some of the themes and motives from his Sixth Symphony, fragmented (or deconstructed) as if in a dream, with the all-pervading presence of the opening phrase (more often than not, only the first four notes) of the so-called ‘Alma’ theme from the first movement, used as a kind of leitmotif, and giving the work a thematic coherence of sorts. Of course, in a mere 20 minutes it is impossible to re-create the large-scale contrasting emotional turmoil of this particular symphony, but I have tried to create a parallel musical world, albeit in contracted form, encompassing it within an arch-shaped one movement structure – slow, fast, slow, beginning loudly and ending quietly, as if preparing for the onslaught of the opening pounding bass A’s of the Mahler in the second half.

My starting point for Dream Song was the opening of the final movement of the symphony, both in its harmonic uncertainty and vivid orchestration. The opening gesture consists of a ten-note chord of alternating major and minor triads, presented rather violently by wind, brass, and percussion, then held on pianissimo strings. The device, or building block, of using triadic harmony, derives of course from the Mahler. One of the ideas I refer to frequently is his ‘fate motif’ - a major triad ‘resolving’ on to a minor one. Somewhat significantly, however, I have ‘transposed’ this into a more optimistic minor to major.

In terms of thematicism, besides the ‘Alma’ theme referred to above, I have also used various fragmented quotations from other parts of the symphony; for example, the first few notes of the upwardly soaring violin passage from the beginning of the symphony’s final movement. Then, in Dream Song’s middle section, where I mirror Mahler’s Scherzo and Trio formal construction, I use two short motives from his Scherzo: the rising arpeggio figure associated with the woodwind, and the falling minor thirds dance-like motive. These are not used as acts of ‘homage’ but rather as reference points. Similarly, when Mahler marks his Trio with the description alväterisch (in an olden style), I employ a similar gesture in that my music is deliberately diatonic and ‘pastoral’ in style, but this music is regularly interrupted by more disruptive elements. Additionally, instead of the distant cowbells Mahler uses in other parts of the symphony to summon up his idyllic memories of walking in the Austrian Alps, I employ more ‘urban’ steel pans – thus Art mirrors contemporary Life!

After Dream Song’s opening section there is a mood of further uncertainty, underpinned by undulating arabesques on harp, celesta, and woodwind, where the music seems to be searching for a melody, first on cellos, then violas and violins; but this comes to nothing and subsides into a ‘dreamlike’ passage (string harmonics, melodic percussion and celesta), where we hear a fragment of the tuba theme from Mahler’s final movement. The music becomes yet more restless, summoning in pounding bass and timpani repeated B flats of a Scherzo that is perhaps even more menacing than Mahler’s, with its clusters of dissonances and rather ‘violent’ orchestration. Only the Trio relieves this tension, with its ‘open’ harmony and solos for woodwinds and strings, before plunging yet again into the Scherzo’s relentless rhythmic propulsion, this time leading to the work’s main (loud!) climax via a quasi-Bach fugal exposition to an exultant C major triadic harmonic explosion, only to be interrupted and taken over by repeated note fanfare-like figures on brass and percussion.

The music subsides into the earlier ‘dreamlike’ episode, before progressing to what is really the emotional core of the work: a Liebeslied, or Love Song - a resolution to the extreme tensions of the music up until this point. Here the work ‘achieves’ the late-Romantic Mahlerian musical world which has been implied through its earlier manifestations, both melodically and harmonically, with the ‘song’ of the title revealing itself as a ‘variation’ of the Alma theme, and the melody for which the work has been searching throughout its rather brief journey. The setting here is for solo strings with supporting ‘harmonic’ tutti strings, presented rather in the manner of a quasi Palm Court Orchestra in a fin-de-siècle Viennese coffee house! The observant listener might also spot the cor anglais melody, taken from another even more famous Mahler symphonic slow movement, and here set as a ‘hidden’ counterpoint to the violin solo. Alma’s comment that the Sixth was Mahler’s most ‘personal’ work is probably true, and she undoubtedly lies at the heart of it. The ending of Dream Song is bitter-sweet, with an underlying E major harmony ‘distorted’ by the final utterances of the four-note ‘Alma’ motive on muted violins, rising to a high B flat (a tritone from E) with which the work ends ambiguously, but not I hope pessimistically.

In terms of orchestration, I have broadly adopted Mahler’s huge orchestra of the Sixth Symphony, but with slightly smaller wind and brass sections. However, the percussion section is equally large, with the use of some instruments that Mahler could not have known (but if he had he probably would have used them!). There are important solo roles for many instruments, particularly the violin. To this end, one of the real joys for me in undertaking this commission has been to have the opportunity once again of writing a work especially for the BBC Philharmonic, an orchestra whose players and conductor I so admire.

The work is dedicated to Susie (meine Almschi), thus mirroring Mahler’s affectionate portrayals of his own wife, Alma, in both this symphony and its forerunner, the Fifth.

© Edward Gregson - February 2010