Symphony No. 5

Dan Welcher

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

Quick Overview

Why write a ?symphony? in the twenty-first century? Isn?t that large-scale form, with several movements that are somehow related, a bit tired at this point? Audiences seem to want stories, pictures, and all kinds of extra attachments to their music now. The common wisdom is that people have lost the ability to follow long forms with multiple themes, complex developments, and purely musical ideas. With most new works for orchestra bearing programmatic titles, or at least subtitles, what is the audience for a work called simply Symphony No. 5?

I hope it?s the same audience that loves Beethoven?s work of that title, or Mahler?s, or Sibelius?, or Shostakovich?s, or Prokofiev?s. None of these composers gave titles to their fifth symphonies?yet in each case, it?s the fifth that most people think of as the definitive symphonic utterance of that composer. These are big works: over a half hour in length (in the case of the Mahler, 80 minutes in length!), full of emotion, excitement, drama, and color. And yet, when you ask a music-lover ?what?s the Beethoven Fifth about??, no one knows what to say. We?ve all heard the music appreciation lectures in which someone talks of ?fate knocking at the door? with those opening four notes, but that?s an after-the-fact description, and not by Beethoven. There does seem to be a sense of triumph at the end (as there is in the Sibelius, the Mahler, and the Shostakovich as well)?but there really is no pictorial or narrative ?description? going on in any of these pieces. They are all about musical energy, pure and simple.

And so, with my Fifth Symphony, I cast my fear of obscurity to the winds. It?s not ?about? anything, though I do confess that the scherzo was inspired by watching the bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. (But formally, the scherzo is in pure scherzo form: A-B-Trio-A1-B1). There are four movements, each complete in itself, but each also a part of the whole?with musical connective tissue between them. The first movement begins with a musical four-note motto on the pitches G-G-A-F, which slowly unfolds with nine other pitches to gradually reveal (yes!) a twelve-note theme. This is the fabric from which three of the four movements are woven, with some additional thematic and harmonic material coming from other places. The opening movement (which can be read as Introduction-AB-C (slow) - BA-Coda) begins with a slow, sectional introduction containing a small woodwind chorale, as well as a melancholy trumpet motive. This leads to a fast section, characterized by a spinning triplet figure, which underscores the first big theme, initially presented as an oboe solo. A second section, in duple meter, introduces a second theme, first heard in the alto saxophone. This music becomes increasingly syncopated?almost jazzy. The fast music reaches a climax in which the oboe?s melody is heard full force in the brass, over a charging pattern of eighth notes. A whirling ascending line reveals a thick sustained chord, which gradually dissipates into a single note: the high E of the violins. A slow, tragic theme begins in the high strings, one section at a time, until the harmony is fully presented. The woodwinds? chorale from the introduction returns, and the central slow music reaches an epiphany. The faster music returns, and the swirling triplets pile upon each other until there is nowhere left to go but to stop: with two abrupt bell-chords.

The second movement is the aforementioned ?Bat Flight? scherzo. This music is entirely derived from the musical notes in the name PETER BAY, which spells a rather bluesy chord when vertically arranged, and an eight-note bluesy scale when played in sequence. The individual fluttering lines fly out, playing the exact same music a few beats apart, until a whole cloud of woodwind ?bats? is hovering overhead. A second section, more percussive and jazzy, follows?with sudden gusts of woodwinds between the phrases. At length, the opening material returns and rebuilds itself?only to disappear into the tall canyons of a brass chorale in the slow central section. This chorale, derived of the same bluesy harmonies that the ?Bay Chord? contained, has three very long phrases?and between the phrases, the fluttering creatures can be seen playfully swooping about. The fast music returns, and the music reverses itself, ending with an upward flying line: a single creature returning home.

The third movement is a large-scale A-B-A movement. It begins as an elegiac chorale for the entire wind section, divided by long, soulful soliloquies for solo cello and solo violin. The chorale melody is a long descent, with harmony that combines the austerity of the first movement with the blues sonorities of the scherzo. The music moves into a recognizable meter (5/4) and a rather serious, evolving melody ensues over a repeating short-notes bass line. An ethereal little machine appears, chugging and whirring along, and then disappears as suddenly as it came. The mournful melody closes, and the opening chorale returns fortissimo, including the brass this time. The 5/4 ostinato begins to increase in tempo, until it breaks free, revealed now as a 5/8 dance. We have crossed over into the last movement.

The finale is a rondo of sorts, in dance rhythms: starting with a jumpy, unpredictable rhythm that alternates 5/8 with 3/4 at regular intervals. The music seems somehow familiar, though the setting, the tempo, and the rhythms are new. In fact, the material is all derived from the first movement?s melodic ideas, recast and refreshed. There are two main sections, one in the mixed meters listed above, the other a rather burlesque 2/4. Midway through all the dancing, and driving rhythms, the huge chorale from the third movement returns, bigger than ever?and brings the music back down. Reprises of tunes from the slow movement lead to a re-thinking of the chorale, until it turns itself on its head. The downward-moving theme becomes a striving-upward theme, and the chorale itself is re-harmonized in brighter light. This leads us back to the 5/8-3/4 music, this time with more inner life, and the burlesque music is likewise presented again, doubled in sound. All this energy has to go somewhere, and it flowers into a huge re-statement of the trumpet motto from the first movement, presented three times. The upward-striving chorale and 5/8 music return in a vigorous coda, and the symphony ends with the same four notes with which it began.

Symphony No.5 was commissioned by a consortium of music lovers in Austin, Texas, and spearheaded by KMFA-FM radio. It is presented as a gift to the Austin Symphony, and is dedicated to its Music Director Peter Bay, in honor of his tenth season.

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Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by a consortium of music lovers in Austin, Texas, and spearheaded by KMFA-FM radio.
Composition Date 2009
Duration 38:00
Orchestration 3(Picc.) 3(E.H.) 3(E-flat Cl./B.Cl.-1plyr.) 3(Cbsn.), A.Sax. – 4 3 3 1; Timp. 4Perc. Pno.(dbl. Cel.) Hp. Str.
Premiere May 1-2, 2009Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin TexasAustin Symphony OrchestraPeter Bay, conductor

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