This work was commissioned for Victoria Soames-Samek and was first performed by her at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1994. with the City of London Symphony Orchestra and the composer conducting..
As she started work on this concerto, the composer found herself haunted by the poetry of Georg Trakl, the Austrian poet who died just after the onset of World War I. She had set one of his poems in Wild Winter, the work written immediately before this one. Accordingly she returned to his poems and chose several short fragments to preface the major sections of this autumnal dream landscape. The five movements and coda are played without any break and last about 20 minutes.
As the piece opens, (I: Oscuro e misterioso)a dreamer approaches a dark menacing forest, where "crows scatter" at the sound of "black footsteps", where (II: Svegliato) mysterious dark forces are awakening and bells toll the alarm. The echoing sound of deadly weapons now erupts (III. Alla marcia, con furore), and culminates in a pounding march, the major climax of the work. Eventually the march subsides and the "dark flutes of Autumn" greet the ghosts of heroes (IV: Lamentoso). Here the ancient chant, Dies Irae, is embodied in the musical texture in much the same way as it was in the setting of the Trakl poem in Wild Winter.
A reprise of the opening section follows, (V: Oscuro e misterioso). The "black footsteps" now become the "Steps of madness in black rooms, Shadows of old men under open doors" and an offstage bass clarinet shadows the music of the soloist. The crows once again scatter, but now "their flight is like a sonata, full of fading chords and manly despair" (VI: Adagio sostenuto): this is the Coda, where both the music and the descriptive words culminate in a quotation from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and we hear the three musical elements that open this famous sonata (the dotted rhythm of the melody, the accompanying triplet figure and the low resonant bass), which have all been individually hinted at throughout the Concerto. The accompanying soft chordal clusters in the muted brass veils this quotation so that it is like a memory, a dream. At the final cadence violas, cellos and basses retune, and play a series of natural harmonics on the resulting open C sharp string - the key of the Beethoven Sonata - and the music softly dissolves "in a golden cloud".
Autumn Sonata is thus a sequel to Wild Winter, a work written to commemorate the seige of Lichfield. Neither work is intended as a direct description of war, but rather a memory, alternating between dream and nightmare.
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