Nightwatchers

(Symphony No. 2)

Dan Welcher

Rental
Performing Ensemble: Orchestra
Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

"Night Watchers", because of its traditionally framed four-movement structure and interconnected themes, scales, and harmonies, is a symphony in the truest nineteenth century sense. But it can also be seen as four distinctly different movements, each with its extra musical tale to tell. I made the piece a four-part look at ways Man observes the stars. My ?program? is really an outline to feature four distinct ages of cosmic study. Further, I built each of the four movements around a verbal quotation from the period, and in some fashion chose a musical form that also fit that part of human history.

The first movement, ?Putting Up the Stars,? was inspired by a Hopi legend as expressed in the painting by Navajo artist Clifford Brycelea. The painting shows four kachinas with bowls full of stars, throwing them up in the night sky while a fifth kachina kneels and records their positions on paper. The music shows Early Man?s fear of the night, but also his trust in the gods to keep things in their proper place. The musical form is Fantasia, as befits a pre-scientific era. The movement begins with the strangest music of the entire symphony: a representation of the ?Big Bang,? and the creation of all matter. The first sounds are roiling chaos: undefined, bubbling skeins of sound which seem to be gaining momentum in an inexorable way. The whole is gradually pulled to the center, and an explosion releases all force in a vast spread of sustained energy. Little by little, this matter finds definition, and the rest of the movement is concerned with the establishment of order. The music becomes tonal, in a primeval sense: the overtones rising from the fundamental bass notes follow the laws of nature in the form of the ?overtone series.? Suggestions of Native American chant loop over themselves in the solo horn, oboe, and bassoon, and a solemn, stately melody derived from these chants emerges, as the kachinas continue to throw their stars into the heavens.

The second movement, ?Music of the Spheres,? calls to mind the planetary visions of the early Greek and Egyptian stargazers. Ptolemy, a second century librarian in Alexandria, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that the Sun, Moon, and the known planets revolved around us. Since the notion of ?orbits? and gravity were unknown, it was held that all heavenly bodies were affixed to invisible crystalline spheres that enveloped the Earth like nesting dolls. These spheres were sevenfold (the stars, being on the seventh sphere form Earth, were thus in ?seventh heaven?). Musically, this movement represents two ideas: Ptolemy?s spheres and the mathematical deductions of a much later astronomer, Johannes Kepler, who believed that planets were governed by geometric laws and thus ?hummed? distinct musical notes. Earth, Kepler thought, was forever humming the notes ?Fa-Mi? (F and E), which he took to be prophetic?the Latin word for famine is directly derived from these syllables. Taking liberty with these two schools of thought, I have placed Earth in the center (Fa-Mi is always present, in some instrument) with the other planets taking the other ten pitches of chromatic scale in concentric ?orbits.? The musical form is Romanza. The result is a recurrent twelve note theme, which appears three times in three different orchestrations, separated by faster interludes (small, spinning moons around these planets, perhaps?). Between the second and third ?spheres? is a passage of static stillness, in which chordal versions of the theme appear in winds, brass, and strings?as though one can actually see a lonely, small, blue planet, sadly singing its two-note mantra over and over into the vastness of space.

The Scherzo movement, ?The Delight of God,? is a total negation of the icy remoteness of the second movement. The quote is a fragment of Kepler, but this movement describes his successor Isaac Newton the first modern astronomer. (The full quote is ?with this Symphony of Voices, Man can play through the eternity of time in less than an hour, and can taste in small measure the delight of God, the supreme Artist?). I see Newton, the boy wonder, staring out into the night with undisguised joy and exuberance, dancing deliriously at his discovery of Universal Gravitation. The music is a Beethovenian scherzo, with two main themes (a 6/8 romp for winds and strings, and a 2/4 quick march for bass and percussion) and a central, calmer section called a Trio. (In this piece, the Trio is a string quartet?in deference to the Age of Enlightenment).

We finally reach the twentieth century in the last movements. Percival Lowell, the Harvard-educated gentleman/scholar whose observatory discovered the planet Pluto in 1930, represents a kind of philosopher-dreamer-scientist we no longer encounter. The title of this movement, ?Twilight of the Dawn,? is a quote from Lowell?s contemporary, H.G. Wells: ?It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of the beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.?

This movement is in two large parts. The first part begins with a pair of cadenza-like melodies in the strings, spanning more than four octaves, as if trying to break the bonds that keep them Earthbound. These strivings give way to a melancholy slow theme, which in turn gathers momentum until it breaks free into the second part. This is perpetual motion music of ever increasing speed and volume, a musical depiction of pure willpower. At its height, the music incorporates the earlier slow theme atop the ongoing propulsive music. It cannot hold?the motion finally gives way to a kind of cosmic expansion. The tempo bursts, a sense of grounding and gravity returns, and what is left is the Hopi star-throwers, reminding us that the ?beginning of a beginning? that is contemporary science does not decrease our wonder at the cosmos.

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Additional Information

Composition Date 1994
Duration 29:00
Orchestration 3(Picc.) 3(E.H.) 3(EbCl./B.Cl.) 3(Cbsn.) - 4 3 3 1; Timp. 4Perc. Pno.(Cel.) Hp. Str.
Premiere 9th November, 1994. Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Harold Weller.

Details

I - Putting Up the Stars
II - Music of the Spheres
III - The Delight of God (Scherzo)
IV - Twilight of the Dawn