Palimpsests

George Benjamin (1960)

Palimpsests 2002

4(I-IV=picc, IV=afl).0.4(IV=cl in A, III+IV=bcl).0.cbsn - 3.4(I=ptpt).btpt.tenor-bass trbn.btrbn.1 - perc(3): 2 xyl/5 SD/2 whip/2 vib/2 vibraslap/2 BD/tgl/3 tpl.bl/2 congas/5 bongos/4 c.bells- pno(=cel) - 2 harp - 5 vln.3 vla.8 db
Duration 
21
Genre 
Publisher 

Palimpsest: a manuscript on which two or more texts have been written successively, the original surviving only in fragments. The term can also be applied to natural landscapes, even cityscapes, where the visible form is the result of accretion through the ages. I came across my first palimpsest in a book about medieval music, and was fascinated by the concept of a piece of parchment, or slate, used over and over again for different pieces of music. These were rare materials, and sketches had to be repeatedly overwritten with new invention. When we come to look at these manuscripts now, 600 or more years later, we see an extraordinary confusion of writing. Its apparent complexity resembles organic growth on the surface, but the number of straight lines betrays its man-made provenance. If one deciphers this mysterious agglomeration, you can discern the different layers superimposed over each other, and trace right back to the initial text. It was this idea that inspired my pieces. Palimpsest I starts with a gentle polyphonic song on three clarinets; the harmonic rules that it follows are highly idiosyncratic, but it’s very simple and transparent. Within a minute this song becomes virtually imperceptible, but it’s always there, below the surface of the music. Above it runs a sequence of widely diverging moods and textures; however, all the material is related to the original song. It’s almost like a chaotic variation structure. I wanted the music to sound absolutely crisp and clear: every material has its own shape, form and timbre. This is emphasised by the unusual orchestration, for eight solo high strings (no cellos) and a massive eight double basses, surrounding a big brass section. The wind section compromises four flutes, four clarinets and a contrabassoon, and there is a little percussion, harps and a piano. My aim was to achieve something akin to dusk or dawn in the desert, or at high altitude in winter, when the sun is very low and the light almost horizontal, and crystal clear. Palimpsest I was written as a 75th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez, who conducted the world premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra in February 2000. A short break follows its quiet conclusion; then Palimpsest II commences. Despite its slower tempo, greater length and darker tone-colour, this new piece shares much with its predecessor. The most important structural signposts in Palimpsest I are provided by the varied return of the opening clarinet song, expanded in harmony and inflated in scale at each appearance. A different, split texture plays a similar role in Palimpsest II: abrupt brassy chords (doubled by ‘conga’ drums plotted against cool, suspended polyphony in piccolos or high strings. Each time, between appearances of this texture, the music evolves in strongly divergent directions, eventually reaching a fierce and plangent tutti entirely in the bass register. Out of this, feature of Palimpsest I – some of which have been present subliminally throughout – being to break to the surface. As the music propels itself towards a surprise conclusion, elements from both Palimpsests collide and combine.

George Benjamin

Performances 
2.2.00 Barbican Hall, London: London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (Palimpsest I)
5.10.05 Barbican Hall, London: London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (Complete work)
23.7.04 BBC Proms, London: Ensemble Modern/George Benjamin
13/14/15.01.05 Berlin, Germany: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/David Robertson
6.5.05 Berlin, Germany: Deutsche Sinfonie Orchester Berlin/George Benjamin
23.9.05 Musica Fesival Strasbourg, France: SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/George Benjamin
2/3/4.12.05 Madrid, Spain: Orquesta Nacionales de Espana/George Benjamin
13.1.06 Radio France, Paris, France: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/George Benjamin
4/5/6.05.06 St Louis, USA: St Louis Symphony/David Robertson
26/27.10.06 Concertgebouw, Amsterdam: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/George Benjamin
19.12.06 Festival d'Automne, Paris, France: Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris/George Benjamin
4.4.7 Montreal, Canada: Montreal Symphony Orchestra/George Benjamin
10/11.01.08 Los Angeles, USA: Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/David Robertson
25.1.08 Julliard School of Music, New York, USA: Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
2.9.08 Lucerne, Switzerland: Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
21-27.9.08 European tour: Junge Deutsche Philharmonie/George Benjamin
7.2.10 Southbank Centre, London: London Sinfonietta, RAM Manson Ensemble/George Benjamin
19.6.10 Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh Festival: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott
18.3.11 Archipel Festival, Geneva, Switzerland: Contrechamps/Alejo Pérez
14.1.12 Miami, USA: New World Symphony Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado
27.4.12 Hamburg, Germany: NDR Sinfonieorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado
4.5.12 Munich, Germany: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/George Benjamin
13.5.12 Southbank Centre, London: Philharmonia Orchestra/George Benjamin
15/16.9.13 Milan, Italy: Orchestra del RAI Torino/George Benjamin
4
Flute
all doubling piccolo, 4th also doubling alto flute
4
Clarinet
4th doubling clarinet in A, 3rd and 4th doubling bass clarinet
1
Bassoon
contrabassoon
3
Horn
5
Trumpet
1st doubling piccolo trumpet, 5th bass trumpet
2
Trombone
tenor bass trombone and bass trombone
1
Tuba
3
Percussion
2 xylophones, 5 side drums, 2 whips, 2 vibralaps, 2 bass drums, triangle, 3 temple blocks, 2 congas, 5 bongos, 4 cow bells
5
Violin
3
Viola
8
Double bass
2
Harp
1
Piano
doubling celesta
(Esc)