Augusta Read Thomas’s new orchestral work is designed specifically to precede a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Her respect for her compositional predecessor is obvious from her explanation of the title:
The title, AUREOLE, refers to an encircling ring of light; radiance surrounding the head or the whole figure in the representation of a sacred personage or saint; a halo of concentric circles of light seen around a luminous body, especially around the sun or moon.
AUREOLE alludes tangentially to certain fundamental tonal centers of Beethoven Symphony Number 9 in D minor Op. 125.
Surely the sacred personage in this situation is Beethoven himself. Thomas’ use both of tonal centers and intervals crucial to the Ninth Symphony is a musical aureole around the earlier composer’s work.
The work opens with a single pitch, the note D, Beethoven’s symphony’s tonal center. Fanfare-like repeated notes in the trumpets and violins, marked “blazing,” add an A shortly thereafter, creating the interval of a fifth – the open-sounding sonority with which Beethoven’s symphony also begins. The fanfares continue in ever-changing rhythms, moving around the orchestra and creating the composer’s desired “shimmering” effect. The winds and brass land on a chord centered around the pitch B-flat (the single other most important pitch in Beethoven’s symphony) to close the introduction.
The strings immediately jump in, turning the introduction’s repeated notes into a driving rhythmic ostinato centered on the very same B-flat; the marking is “animated and sparkling.” The melodic line explodes, hurling fast-moving sixteenth notes up and down the orchestral register and all around the ensemble. The tempo slows down a bit for a section marked “energized,” and sustained notes make a reappearance, with murmuring triplets underneath. The driving sixteenth notes return quickly, though, just as vigorously as before and are only stopped with a reminiscence of the introduction’s fifths. “Lively and playful” flute and clarinet solos give way to an “incandescent” section made up of sustained harmonies whose ever-changing orchestrations give it a dynamic, fluid character. A rhapsodic trombone solo leads to a return of the shimmering repeated notes and the re-emergence of the introduction’s fanfares. The frenzied melodic activity of the earlier fast section is recalled but interrupted by the final return of the stark, bright fifths. Harmonies built out of this interval comprise a short but luminous coda. The final chord of the work is, again, fifths: D, A, and E – the very first and the very last notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. An “encircling ring of light” indeed.