Publisher: Novello & Co
Ad Ora Incerta - Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi (1994)
commissioned by the BBC
Winner of the 1997 Grawemeyer Prize for music composition
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
mezzo soprano, bassoon
My love for Primo Levi's writing began after reading his deeply moving account of survival in "If this is a man" - a chronicle of his life in the Buna concentration camp.
Some years later on a trip to New York, an American composer friend suggested I read the collection of poems dating from 1943 and concluding with those written near the time of his death in the mid 1980s. I was drawn to the terrifying imagery in his poem Buna particularly the opening lines:
Torn feet and cursed earth
The long line in the grey morning.
This brought back my own bleak memories of visiting Auschwitz on a cold grey day some years ago. I decided to compose the setting for Buna first and it turned out to be a large sixteen minute slow movement.
In selecting the other three texts that make up the cycle, my concern was in creating an overall form for the four movements, whereby the duration and proportion of each song make up a coherent overall shape.
Here is a brief resumé of the cycle, which is written for mezzo soprano, solo bassoon and orchestra:
1) Il canto del corvo 8 minutes
2) Il tramonto di Fossoli 4 minutes
3) Lunedì 4 minutes
4) Buna 16 minutes
The first and last movements are lengthy symphonic developments and require full tutti resources from the orchestra. The two inner movements, in contrast, develop the relationship between mezzo-soprano and solo bassoon.
In Il tramonto di Fossoli they are matched in continuous two part note-for-note counterpoint against a distant cantus. In Lunedì the voice intones the text as a background to a florid melodic counterpoint from the solo bassoon.
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Nash Ensemble
Susan Bickley, mezzo soprano; Kim Walker, bassoon