Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Berkeley (1948)

Concerto for Orchestra 2005

3333-4331-timp, 5 perc (glock, xylo, vib, cortales, tbells, SD, 3 TD, BD, sus cym, 2 Chinese cym, tam, roto-tom, mark tree, flex), pn (+cel), hp, org (opt) str

This is the second piece I wrote as associate composer to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and is dedicated to the orchestra's principal conductor, Richard Hickox. The first, Tristessa, featured the viola and cor anglais but this new work requires a degree of virtuosity from the whole orchestra. The Concerto is in three movements with the outer two having a fast-slow-fast design which indeed mirrors the overall structure of the piece.

In thinking about the music I was conscious that the finding of ideas is seldom the problem; it is how they are developed that matters. So, I deliberately began with a very simple motif: falling tones (think Three Blind Mice!) and soon decided that the first two movements would be based on a downward progression while the third should invert the whole process and move constantly upwards.

If you extend three falling whole tones to a fourth you end up with the more angular sounding interval of an augmented (or sharpened fourth) – say C to F sharp. This led me to the second principal subject of the first movement, indeed the whole piece, and a slightly oriental pattern that was a prominent melodic figure in my first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep. Each of the outer movements begins with a gaudy, scherzo-like atmosphere but becomes increasingly serious, even desperate, as the music progresses. The first is marked Energico (energetic) and has a slow section in which quiet, held strings form a background to the falling tones on the piano with gently lapping and overlapping woodwind (alto flute, clarinet in A and cor anglais). The somewhat driven conclusion to this opening movement sets up the still, beating heart of the piece, Threnody For A Sad Trumpet.

The principal trumpet of the orchestra, Phillippe Schartz and I had previously had some interesting discussions about things like mutes when he had often suggested a piece featuring his instrument. This slow movement seemed the perfect opportunity and it unfolded so naturally that I did away with anything that would corrupt the natural open bore beauty of a quiet trumpet played with great control.

The falling scale is here put to a melancholy purpose and as I was working on the music on Boxing Day 2004 so word of the Tsunami filtered through. We all deal with these world tragedies at a certain layer of consciousness but they hit deeper when we can put a face and a personality to the victims. When I heard that Jane Attenborough (who I had met through her work at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) had perished, along with her daughter and mother-in-law, I was profoundly shocked. It seemed natural that this music which is both grief stricken and yet strangely tranquil should be an In Memoriam to some one who had worked so passionately to bring the arts to a wider cross section of society.

Rudely breaking the mood, the final movement, Con Fuoco (with fire), begins with splashy and metallic Chinese Cymbals that trigger waves of upward rushing sound in the orchestra at a point where, in the first movement the equivalent passage was racing downwards. This last third of the work is essentially a synthesis of what has passed and in the slow section the cor anglais and trumpet sadly remind us of where we have been. The music builds to a climax that pivots on the harmonic axis at the heart of the music and the upward striving scale. At its apex there is a moment of silence, an intake of breath, before a brief reflection on the Threnody is brutally curtailed by a final reordering of the opening; but now the thirds on the brass have inexorably and enharmonically (same notes, different context) moved from a bright and vaguely A major to the far more disquieting world of C sharp minor.

Michael Berkeley

19.7.05 BBC Proms, London: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Richard Hickox
1st & 2nd doubling piccolo, 3rd doubling alto flute
3rd doubling cor anglais
3rd doubling bass clarinet
3rd doubling contrabassoon
glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, crotales, tubular bells, side drum, 3 tenor drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, 2 Chinese cymbals, tam-tam, roto-tom, mark tree, flexatone
doubling celesta