Symphony No. 1 in f, "War"
III: fear, and IV: lamentation
I write this symphony towards two ends. First, it is a tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich, that great composer who did more than perhaps any other composer in recent memory to preserve and advance the symphony as a valid and meaningful musical form in a confused and troubled world. While it has long been known that many if not most of Shostakovich’s symphonies carry a political program, some scholars have lately come to the conclusion that many of his symphonies secretly protested the brutal excesses of the Soviet regime.
Second, in my naive youth I believed that against all hope I had lived to see a day when our world would no longer be greatly troubled by the mindless god war, but once again we witness the flower of our youth consumed by his insatiable appetite. Shostakovich was unable to openly decry the policies that allowed war into his world. I would now do for him what he could not. This symphony is both a tribute to him, and a lament to all those who have suffered that hideous fate of death in war’s senseless clutches, particularly those who laid down their life that others might live. I pray that one day we might conquer war itself, and I give my meager thanks to all that have fought to that end, both on the field of combat, and off it.
The program of this piece unfolds roughly as follows:
In the first movement, "threat," you hear first the theme I call the mourning theme. This is an inversion of that Baroque idea called the "lament bass." The mourning theme is interrupted several times by insistent brass calls, rather like the raucous voices of a brash youth. The interruptions become louder, and the mourning takes a troubled, frightened edge. After this introduction the brass and strings begin to unfold a theme meant to represent the people of our great nation going about their daily activities, and it is here that the narrative begins.
The pastoral of popular theme is taken up by the winds, and grows into the first conventionally melodic part of the work, one inspired by New England hymnody, but this melody too is interrupted by the militaristic brass fanfare, but where the fanfare was loud and insistent in the opening bars, it is now distant and muted. The winds continue with their melody, only to be interrupted again. After a third interruption the strings reenter with a new idea; a winding theme that is hesitant and concerned that I call the anxious theme. This theme unfolds as a quick fugato for a number of bars and begins to pick up elements of the introductory lament. It becomes a fast and compelling theme before it too is interrupted ominously, now by two great crashes on the bass drum.
The crash is followed by a moments silence before the brass enter quietly with a very soft rendition of the fanfare. The winds and strings begin to play the pastoral and anxious themes together and against one another, while below this an ominous drumbeat in the timpani begins to drown out all else. The brass and winds enter after the timpani reach a climax with a version of the fanfare now made bright and unified with the pastoral theme. For a time this theme contends with the drumbeat, as does the anxious them for a time, but eventually the fanfare, now united with the pastoral theme, carries the day. The atmosphere is now celebratory and enthusiastic. Only on the heels of this does the anxious theme return once more, sounding all the darker for the juxtaposition, and in the end it is drowned out beneath the drumbeat of war and the fanfare of popular zeal.
The second movement is a mournful contemplation on the pastoral theme. In the trio, the militaristic theme is seen as a buoyant melodic idea, rather like an Independence Day parade. All of this is supported by a martial tattoo in the percussion. After the color of the brass, the strings and winds return the score to a pensive mood, and it is in this dark remembrance that the slow movement finds its end.
The scherzo explores the ideas of the anxious them, but now distorted, and horribly frightened. The material is more broken and much faster, and the strings perform much of it in a scattered antiphonal pizzicato. The finale flows out of the scherzo without interruption, the intervening measures bridged by a rumbling drumroll in the timpani. In the finale all of the preceding ideas contend with one another, only to be submerged under the dark timpani drumbeat from the first movement. Out of this morass the opening lament rises slowly and almost imperceptibly. Now the lament is uninterrupted. Where it was quiet at first, it is now brazen, almost wailing. It shouts of the folly of war, and it comes to its end for the first and indeed only time, and with this insistent cadence in f the piece closes.
May we one day know an end to the terrible hatred and horrors of war. May war itself one day meet its end. May the terrible god be killed and purged from our psyche. And may we live at peace.