Commissioned by St Albans International Organ Festival Society

  • 2tpt/timp/str
  • Organ
  • 22 min

Programme Note

Chinese Whispers is a concerto for organ with an orchestra consisting of strings, two trumpets and timpani. It is in two contrasted movements, and lasts about 22 minutes. The title, which derives from the party game, refers to the fact the music develops by a process of gradual transformation. Each movement uses a basic mode (or whisper) of six notes. The whisper is squared, giving six transpositions. They are also lightly shuffled, so that each version of the whisper is slightly different. The resulting harmony is a blend of opposites: it is tonal without obeying tonal conventions, and serial without being too dense or rigid. Each of the six whispers has a contrasting mode which I call its mirror. These are squared and shuffled in the same way, and this material is used to provide contrast and variety.

I have tried to display the organ's brilliance, especially its ability to play three independent contrapuntal lines. The trumpets and timpani play a big part in the piece, and I also use a string quartet, contrasting with the ripieno strings in the concerto grosso manner.

The first movement, Tantrum, sets a curmudgeonly organ in opposition to the orchestra, and culminates in an outburst of monstrous proportions from the soloist, who loses all restraint and sense of decorum, and at one point runs violently amok. Pulling himself together with difficulty, he restores himself (and possibly the audience) to sanity with a passage from Handel's B flat organ concerto - but cunningly transformed into Chinese whisper mode. Having got this off his chest, he feels able to reassert authority, and ends the cadenza in heroic style. The orchestra, by now suitably chastened, brings the movement to a close with a neat but flashy little coda.

The second movement, Threnody, uses the soloist and orchestra in alternation rather than opposition. It is a set of six whisper-variations on a theme which owes much to the slow movement of Mozart's A major piano concerto (K. 488). Each transformation is proportionally quicker; this is achieved by contrasting episodes placed between the variations. These use jagged, prime-number rhythms, which propel the music forward into the new tempo. After the fifth variation, which is more than twice as fast as the opening, the sixth episode takes us into a recapitulation of the theme at the original slow tempo, but presented backwards and with its components rearranged. This sounds very complicated and clever, but it's nothing compared to the tricks Bach got up to.

© Giles Swayne


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