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Symphony No. 6 was begun during the first lockdown in New Zealand March-April 2020, and to some extent was informed by the crisis enveloping the country and the world. However, the work is also inspired by personal experiences, beginning in 2019 and book-ended by the composer’s serious illness in 2021. It expresses ideas around love, death, and our relationship to the environment. Although the four movements have sub-titles this is not a specifically programmatic symphony: the listener can use these titles to develop their own thoughts and ideas as the music unfolds.
Musically, the symphony is unified by a recurring love theme on the saxophone that opens the work. The love theme is developed in the first movement and reappears in the second movement on trombone; in the third movement, it is hinted at by bird calls at the start (on flutes and piccolo) before the saxophone returns at the end of the movement. The love theme also recurs in the coda of the fourth movement, on strings and tuned percussion.
This symphony is based around the key of E flat minor, although a key signature does not appear until the final minutes of the symphony. This key acts as a type of unifying device and symbolises death. The specific black-note cluster E flat-G flat-A flat-B flat returns in certain important parts of the structure – at the opening of the fourth movement, for example.
The symphony begins with a plaintive saxophone solo over an expansive chord on strings, which eventually slide up to their highest pitch. This ‘glissando’ becomes a recurring idea in the symphony. Woodwind pick up the theme and develop the slow introduction. The timpani then sets up a pulse, and the main part of the movement develops strong rhythms and motifs, underpinned by the strong pulse. A contrasting second theme on flute features cross-rhythms. There is a sense of turmoil in this movement that is left unresolved at the end, where most of the motifs are brought together during a long climax.
The second movement features a haunting melody on cor anglais, answered by solo strings. There are also prominent solos for oboe and flute during the movement. The music constantly vacillates between contrasting tonal centres (E flat and D), before building to a more lyrical middle section. When the cor anglais theme returns it is against a colourful backdrop of harp glissandi, vibraphone and strings. In the last few bars of the movement the contrasting tonal centres are combined simultaneously, and a glissando disappears into silence.
The third movement, ‘spirits’, is elusive and free in character, with bird calls on flutes and piccolo underpinned by harp, celesta and tuned percussion. This contrasts with a broad, emotional theme on strings that is more human in character. Following a climax at the end the solo saxophone returns with its love theme from the beginning, leading directly into the last movement.
The finale opens with emphatic soundings of the ‘death’ chord, E flat minor. It develops melodic ideas that connect back to earlier themes in the symphony, creating a sense of rounding. The middle section seeks some sort of resolution, which comes at the start of the coda, and the first use of the key signature of E flat minor. This final section is lyrical, underpinned by gently harp ostinatos, and brings the symphony to an end with an emotional ‘farewell’.
Dedicated to Sandy
I – Crisis
II – Meditation
III – Spirits
IV – Grieving
23 Sep 2023: Dunedin Symphony Orchestra | Dvořák’s New World