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Poul Ruders

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Concerto in Pieces (1995)
Work Notes
Purcell Variations
Edition Wilhelm Hansen Copenhagen
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
17 Minutes
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Programme Note
Poul Ruders Concerto in Pieces (1995)
Concerto in Pieces was commissioned by the BBC as a celebration of two major events in British history of music: the 1995 tercentenary of the death of Henry Purcell and the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Britten's Young Persons' Guide to the Orchestra in 1996.

Being non-British my first reaction to the commission was a mixture of feeling very honoured and - as a foreigner - being quite scared of 'messing around' with two such holy cows of a national musical tradition not my own.

On the other hand, the subjects stipulation the commission weren't that far away from my own upbringing: having been a member of Copenhagen Boys' Choir I'd come across both composers more than once, in fact, on the home front (so to speak) my father owned quite a collection of old 78s with Purcell's music, which I heard all the time and loved very much. Later on in life, composers of Britten's mould - the highly professional orchestral dramatist - became a role model for my own artistic endeavours, so - having personally obtained that status or not - the urge to and challenge of trying to do a 'show-piece' with an education angle based on Purcell presented too much compositional temptation for me to resist.

One thing was clear, though, from the beginning: if I wanted to come out of this venture alive, I'd have to choose a Purcell theme as far away in shape and nature as possible from the marvellous one Britten selected for ”Young Persons' Guide…” (a dance tune from Abdelazar, or the Moor's revenge). For me to choose the same tune, well, I'd just as well jump out of the window...

So, I decided to use the fast, swinging 'Ho-Ho-Ho witches' chorus from the beginning of Act II of 'Dido and Aeneas'. The original part chorus appears intact, seamlessly merging into Variations both sections composed for full orchestra. Then, the first of several spoken commentaries appears, commentaries summing up as well as introducing what's going on in terms of orchestral activities. As opposed to Britten I focus more on the various combinations of instruments - the many faces of the symphony orchestra - rather than merely presenting the individual instruments. However, Concerto in Pieces (the title hardly calls for further elaboration) may be performed without the commentaries, as an uninterrupted set of variations.

Variation II – again a movement growing organically of the previous one – focuses on the orchestral phenomenon of “relay-running: various instruments taking over from each other, mainly to ease the problem of breathing and generally to give everybody “a break” in technically and physically demanding passages.

Variation III occurs more “head-on” than variation I and II. This time the technique of “hoqueting” is being explored: a melodic line or group of musical statements moving around intact between the various instruments or group of instruments. In this case the (unlikely) similarity between piano and trombone (in a certain register) and the more obvious kinship between horns and trumpets set off the variation and gradually the entire orchestra is being engaged in a huge collective dialogue.

Variation IV is a “blues-like” recitative for solo saxophone (alto) and hushed divided strings, peppered with synthesizer, “bending” flutes – and horns and tubular bells and gongs being lowered into water pails! The original theme – one could say – is already now well under water; the whole set of variations is like a walk through a mirror-gallery: we start out with the recognizable “portrait”, but the further we get into the hall of mirrors, the more disfigured and contorted the picture becomes. But it’s still the same original walking by!

Anyway, after this, the first variation featuring a solo-instrument, Variation V pops up like a film edit, this time the tuba being the centre of attention: an Air for tuba (this wonderful mellow instrument) in an accompaniment of “yapping” horns, trumpets and trombones (various mutes like wa wa), imitating human voices. Mr. Purcell himself appears fractionally in total recognizability here and there, paving the way for Variation VI in which the original “portrait” is being completely and utterly atomized: a percussion (piano) and double bass variation paying homage to the mood of the original “Ho-Ho-Ho”: that of mockery and ferocity.

In Variation VII the harp takes the solo part in an almost “cubistic” version of the initial theme, surrounded by descending lines in flutes, low trumpets, vibraphone and celesta. He concluding chorus of Dido… “With dropping wings ye Cupids come” hovers lazily on the horizon.

Thus having reached other planets of this particular Purcell “solar system”, Variation VIII is a recitative for harmon muted trumpet and strings playing near the bridge (sul ponticello) and hammering with the wood of the bow (col legne battuto): an “icy” fantasy on the last recitative from Dido, in which he spirit of the Sorceress descends to Aeneas in the likeness of Mercury.

The penultimate movement, Variation IX, is a pizzicato intermezzo (with underlying double bass harmonics) taking us back to near-visibility again: Variation X: Finale Fugato, a huge, pulsating minimalist fugue on a “condensed” version of the original witches’ chorus. It is scored for full orchestra and towards the end horns, horns and trombones play in unison Purcell’s theme, right through the surrounding orchestral whirl. Towards the very end they rise, thus in a standing position leading the rest of “the band” in the “home run”.

-Poul Ruders

Score preview

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Andrew Davis
  • Ensemble
    Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
    Thomas Søndergaard
  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Andrew Davis
EN OMREJSENDE REKLAME Med Poul Ruders orkesterstykke, "Concerto in Pieces" havde Radiosymfoniorkestret et flot, nyt, dansk værk på plakaten til den netop overståede Skandinaviensturné med deres chefdirigent, Ulf Schirmer. Torsdag mundede den ud med en koncert i Radiohusets koncertsal. "Concerto in Pieces" er skrevet i 1995 til BBC Symphony Orchestra, som en opfølgning af Brittens "Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra". Stykket fungerer både som et imponerende og levende orkesterstykke og som pædagogisk introduktion til instrumenterne i et moderne symfoniorkester. I bogen "Orkestrets Verden", der på dansk er udgivet på Høst & Sæns forlag og sidste år blev anmeldt i Kristeligt Dagblad, er en cd med poul Ruders orkesterstykke indlagt som en attraktiv introduktion. "Concerto in Pieces" er skrevet som variationer over heksekoret fra Purcells opera "Dido og Æneas". Et veloplagt tema med fuga-tendenser og fart over feltet i de gentagne staccato toner. "Concerto in Pieces" er ikke bare en fanfare, en levende reklame for det orkester, der måtte spille det. Der dvæles også ved det store orkesters forskellige instrumentgrupper med indsmigrende og tænksomme melodiske og klanglige variationer. [...]
Eva Hvidt, Kristeligt Dagblad,01/11/1997
FOR PURCELL AND BRITTEN, A TRIBUTE WITH COMEDY Andrew Davis ended his concert on Thursday with a hearty and humorous account of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. Full of life and history, this was a grand parade of tonal splendor, various enough to bring forward the passing shades of 19th-century masters: Brahms, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Verdi. the orchestra sounded just wonderful. So they did, too, in the gentler passages of Grieg's Piano Concerto though the soloist, Louis Lortie, was most impressive when he could make a big, resplendent sound. A memory lapse at the start of the cadenza seemed to make him redouble his viruosity in fury at himself. The tasty starter was "Concerto in Pieces" by Poul Ruders, the Danish composer who appears capable of anything, in this case a 17-minute set of Purcell variations made to vigal Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra". Mr. Ruders selects a different theme, the "Ho, ho, ho" witches' chorus from "Dido and Aeneas", which makes for comedy not only by its absuridty but also by the ease with which it disintegrates into scales ripping up and down through the orchestra. Near the start, the cellos incautiously suggest the melody Britten chose, but they think better of it, and seem to be whistling innocence in thir ensuing pizzicatos. Later there are slow solos for saxophone, tuba and trumpet, but the general tone remains spirited and crazy, and the piece will surely soon be ho-ho-hoing in cocnert halls all over. Mr. Davis had the orchestra working at glorious full stretch here too.
Paul Griffiths, The New York Times,16/11/1996
FANFARE FOR AN UNCOMMON BAND At first sight this looks like another example of DK's standard high-quality fact-books. There is a long detailed section on how orchestras work (including the conductor) with close-up pictures and complex explanations set out in well organised paragraphs. You learn how to obtain a vibrato , you see different bows and mouthpieces, the underside of a guitar soundboard,k the workings of trumpet valves and mucn more. Lively explanations such as "the bass clarinet sounds the way burnt rubber smells" or "the contrabassoon like a gentle snore" help where space is limited. There is also a history of (essentially) western "classical" music strung out along a sinuous timeline that snakes over eight illustrated double-page spreads. Explanations hre are brief and it probably doesn't edify you that much to have the Ring cycle summarised in 20 words. But even the small pictures are enlightening if closely scrutinised. Palestrina giving a new work to the Pope, the Esterháza Palace where haydn found his patron, Ravel gazing contemplatively from the keyboard, Toru Takemitsu's noble head - these don't tell much about the music itself but they show something of the people and places it came from. it's good to see such recent landmarks as Turnage's "Three Screaming Popes" and Boulez' "... explosante-fixe" being adventurously pointed out. But the book's real distinction is the accompanying CD. This features a new piece by Poul Ruders, "Concerto in Pieces". As its title suggests, this a concerto for orchestra, giving many opportunities for instrumental groups to strut their stuff. It's also a set of 10 variations on an original theme by Purcell. If that reminds you of Britten, you're right. Ruders's work is a 50th anniversary tribute to the "Young Person's Guide" as well as a celebration of Purcell's tercentenary. Ruders, one of the most exciting composers in Europe, is well served byu the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis, who also contributes a lively analytical and descriptive talk. The piece is easily apporachable through the numbered CD tracks, cross-referenced throuhgout the book. The commentary draws our attention to orchestral and structural features, to instrumental colours and to the effects such as brass hocketing in the third variation, the bluesy alto sax wavering against distorted gongs and bells in the fourth or the col legne cellos playing against muted trumpets in the eighth. Like the Britten, the work ends in a tremendous fugue with the Purcell theme emerging triumphantly at the climax. Listen to it for national curriculum Attainment Target 2 if you like, but listen to it anyway.
Tom Deveson, The Times,24/11/1995
Ho, ho ho Poul Ruders skrev i 1995 sin "Concerto in Pieces" til det engelske BBC, som dels hyldest til 300-års fødselaren Henry Purcell, dels en moderne pendant til Benjamin Brittens pædagogiske orkester-guide "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra". I den sidste egenskab har stykket - også herhjemme - været udgivet på CD som tillæg til Neil Ardleys lærebog "Orkestrets Verden", men ikke før på almindelig musik-CD, og Ruders' på samme tid imødekommende og veloplagte variationer over heksenes "Ho, ho, ho" fra Purcells opera "Dido og Æneas" er også ved denne lejlighed den pure fornøjelse. Ruders' faste amerikanske pladeselskab har koblet hans værk med en indspilning af den amerikanske komponist melinda Wagners Pulitzerpris-vindende koncert for fløjte, strygere og slagtøj, en mere traditionelt anlagt koncert hvor fløjtens udtryksfuldhed sættes op imod en masse rytmisk energi. Og så er der som en særlig bonus til sidst interviews med de to komponister, hvor Poul Ruders på udsøgt engelsk og med vanlig tør humor fortæller om sig selv og sit værk.
Berlingske Tidende,01/01/0001
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