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Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

Phoenix Rising (1997),
commissioned by BBC Symphony Orchestra
Publisher
Novello & Co Ltd
Category
Orchestra
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
1997
Duration
23 Minutes
Programme Note
Thea Musgrave Phoenix Rising (1997),
My original sketches for this work were based on an idea of an extended single movement progressing from darkness (low and fast music) to light (high, slow and peaceful). This idea only became focused dramatically in my mind some months later, when, by chance, I saw a sign Phoenix Rising hanging outside a Virginian coffee shop. As I like to interpret the ancient fable of the phoenix rising from the ashes as the promise of hope and rebirth, this sign struck me immediately as a visualisation of what my piece was really about.

Hence the centre piece of this new orchestral work is the magical moment when the phoenix rises. It is a short section marked mysterious, which starts with low set chords (played by two harps seated on different sides of the orchestra), and as they gradually rise to reach a luminous chord played by pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel) perhaps we can imagine the fabled bird unfolding his giant wings, poised for new flight.

Prior to this central moment, the orchestra depicts a world of stormy violence which leads to a terrain of emptiness and despair. The second half of the work in contrast builds to a romantic climax and a coda of serenity of peace.

Throughout the work the timpani player represents the forces of darkness, and the solo horn (at first off-stage) the distant voice of hope that eventually grows to lead to rebirth and life. The use of physical spaces in the positioning of the orchestra is meant to underline the drama; on-stage and off-stage soloists, and the four percussion players widely spread around the back of the orchestral.

Phoenix Rising is thus a single movement of about 23 minutes. The specific emotional journey that it takes is indicated by the headings given to each section.

Dramatic, violent: the timpani player and his colleagues, the percussion galvanise the fast stormy music. An important theme led by the cellos is continually interrupted by loud outbursts. Eventually after a violent climax the music dies down.

Desolate: a solo cor anglais emphasises the mood of emptiness and desolation. An offstage solo horn intervenes, at first rudely interrupted by the timpani, but then gathers strength and enters the stage.

Aggressive: the solo horn and timpani incite their colleagues into confrontation which culminates in Wild, chaotic - a dramatic climax. The solo horn prevails - Confident, Appeasing. The timpani finding no response or support makes his exit.

Mysterious is a short section which is the pivot for the whole work and the mood completely changes.

Peaceful - gentle strings envelope the original cello theme now played by the solo horn and lyrical themes unfold gradually in Warm, lyrical to lead to a Passionate climax. Here the cello theme now stated jubilantly by all the horns draws excited response from the whole orchestra.

A short coda, Floating and luminous, is in a mood of serenity, peace and completion. The timpani is a distant (off-stage) memory.

Phoenix Rising was written between January 1996 and August 1997.



Performances
Date
Title
  • 26 MAY 2001
    Sacramento, California
    Camellia Symphony Orchestra
    Eugene Castillo, conductor

Reviews
Thea Musgrave's PHOENIX RISING is a beauty, one of those pieces that walk into your life and become a friend forever. Like most of her music, PHOENIX RISING is highly dramatic. The piece is loosely based on the legend of the miraculous bird, the phoenix. Forces of darkness and death cannot resist the force of light, rebirth, and creation, although light cannot utterly banish darkness; the two seem to need each other. But throughout the piece the music engages the issues of the fable, not its details; Musgrave is a storyteller, but she doesn't write program music, and one of the characteristics of her music is that real things are happening in it that you cannot describe in words, which is why they are unfolding in music. Musgrave has a fabulous ear for sonority and combinations of sonority and for meaningful musical gestures; there is no "fill" in her work, and the piece ends in a miraculous radiance that is not just a triumph of orchestral imagination but of emotional fulfillment. Musgrave knows how to make an orchestral part interesting to play and good-sounding; more important, this is entertaining, vigorous new music that engages on a profound level with timeless concerns.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,11/26/1999
Musgrave’s lyrical gift is prominent, everywhere seductively orchestrated; concentrated and enhanced by her atonalist stretch long ago, when Schoenbergian “twelve-note” composition was in vogue. Now she fixes tonal roots, comforting to the ear, but composes much as she has always done: strong lyrical lines that really sing, often through some favoured first-desker: the score teems with orchestral solos, besides the horn and timpani roles; and plangent harmonies that betoken a special ear and personality. Phoenix Rising is too unabashedly romantic to count as “modernist”, but nothing in it sounds second-hand. The many episodes it traverses, from the opening “Dramatic, violent” to the final “Floating and luminous”, make a cogent sequence: attractive and rewarding to hear, much more than just once.
David Murray, The Financial Times,2/1/1998
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