Co-Commissioned by the New England Conservatory of Music, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its founding, for its orchestra, Hugh Wolff, director; the Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, Music Director; and the Bellingham Festival of Music, Michael Palmer, Artistic Director, with the support of Anacrusis Productions Ltd.

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  • 26 min

Programme Note

I. Out of Silence
II. Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (After Handel)
III. Fanfare Chomelodia

Composer note:
Writing symphonies can seem anachronistic in 2018, but to me (as Mahler says) they can contain the entire world. It is the totality of musical worlds of Mahler, Sibelius, and Haydn (plus Messiaen) that speak most urgently to me. In each of my four symphonies (so far) I've pushed past boundaries of what I've explored in my work up to that point. I will leave explaining the trajectory of these works for another time, but I must mention how deeply grateful I am that Hugh Wolff has played a major part in the launch of three of them. As for this newest, fourth symphony:

Chromelodeon seems like a nonsensical word. The only instances of its use that I've found come as the name of a microtonal instrument (36 tones per octave) invented by the great American eccentric composer/hobo Harry Partch, and of a cult progressive rock band in the late 60s. But for me it has a particular meaning: Chroma-, relating to the chromatic scale of notes, or intensity of/or produced with color; Melodi-, melody, a succession of tones that produce a distinct phrase or idea; and -eon, one who performs. In other words, chromatic, colorful, melodic music performed by an orchestra. This new symphony is created out of musical elements, not images or stories, though I would not be surprised if the influence of living in the chaos of the world today — at a "molecular" emotive level — didn't play a part in its creation.

The first movement, Out of Silence, is the most continuously chromatic, characterized by shifting 6-9 note chords first heard in bells, and later, strings, followed by a pensive tune first heard in the viola. It unfolds from an uneasy yet frequently contemplative sound world that grows in drama and intensity, and through many variations in texture. Before beginning the movement I read in Thich Nhat Hanh's Silence and thought again (after many years) about John Cage's essential book of essays also of that name. I've only begun on a journey suggested by those readings, and very possibly the experience of writing this symphony is part of that.

Chromaticism and consonance coexist side by side (or even simultaneously) more clearly in the other movements. After a dense, hectoring chorale opening, the second, Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel) exposes a melody vaguely influenced by Handel with an antique-sounding string quartet which is soon opposed by shifting, chromatic chord clouds, and leads onward to ten or so mostly short variations. The longest and most languid variation is for strings alone, and leads to a varied return of the opening chorale and final variation of the tune which is destroyed by wave-like outbursts. Finally, to close the movement, part of the original Handel tune appears, distorted and broken. (The title of this movement comes from the central words in the text of two versions of the famous and deeply touching aria "Laschia ch'io pianga” from the operas Armida and Rinaldo.)

   1707 (Armida)
   Leave the thorn, take the rose;
   you go searching for your pain.

   1705 (Rinaldo)
   Let me weep over my cruel fate,
   And that I long for freedom!

The final, and shortest movement, Fanfare Chromelodia, makes the coexistence of opposing forces even clearer, placing ringing brass exhortations, repetitive little "musical machines," and wide-ranging disjunct melodies appear side by side, with a final slow chorale placed below fast runs and nearly ecstatic melodic figures.

— Aaron Jay Kernis