I first heard The Mannheim Rocket in a music history course in my freshman year at college. The term was used to describe a musical technique perfected by the Mannheim Orchestra in the 18th century in which a rising figure (a scale or arpeggio) speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher (hence the term “rocket”).
As a young music student, however my imagination construed a very different image – that of a giant 18th century wedding-cake-rocket, commandeered by the great Baron Von Munchausen, and its marvelous journey to the heavens and back.
It was this image that excited me when I was asked to write a work for the Mannheim Orchestra: I knew I had to recreate the rocket of my young imagination and travel with it through its adventure.
And so this ten minute work begins with the scratch of a match and serpentine 12-tone fuse that sparkles with light and fire. The ignition leads to a slow heaving as the giant engine builds up steam. The “motor” of the rocket is a very low, very slow “Alberti bass”, the accompaniment pattern that has served as the motor of so many classical pieces.
To get started, I included a quote from one of the originators of the “Mannheim Rocket”, Johann Anton Wenzel Stamitz (1717-57). The stately opening of his Sinfonia in Eb (La Melodia Germanica No. 3) uses a scalar “rocket” to lift our heavy structure and starts it on its way.
This is the first in a series of quotes as the rocket rises and moves faster and faster, climbing through more than two hundred years of German music, finally breaking though a glass ceiling to float serenely in heaven.
There the rocket and crew are serenaded by tranquil “Music of the Sphere”. But what comes up must come down, and with a return of the opening fuse-music, the descent begins.
The rocket accelerates as flashes of the ascent- backwards – mark the fall. Just before the inevitable crash, Wagner tries to halt things, but the rocket is uncontrollable: even he cannot stop it. After a crunching meeting with terra firma the slow heaving and Alberti-bass-motor die away as we hear a fleeting memory of heaven, and, finally, a coda composed of a Mannheim Rocket.