Composer Note:Symphony No. 2
is a five-movement work. The text is from Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer,” a poem in two parts, each part consisting of six sections. The poems in the first half of the work were written and are printed in diamond shapes; each poem of the second part appears on the page in the form of an hourglass. I have used all the sections of the first part and the last section of the second part. The last poem serves as an epilogue to Thomas’s entire work and is used in a similar way in the last movement of this symphony – as a final point of arrival and reflection.
In the first half of his cycle, Thomas uses imaes of the life of Christ in birth (movements one and two), in suffering (movement three), and in death and resurrection (movement four). Thomas’s work is, however, not simply a poetic narrative of the life of Jesus as much as it documents a journey of the soul – the soul of the poet-mystic who undergoes his own transformation as he experiences an often fantastic and sometimes frightening vision.
In the last movement (“I turn the corner of prayer…”), an ultimate reaction and resolution occurs in the heart of the poet. Here he returns to the center of his soul to discover that the power of his vision has indeed transformed him. In short, Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer” is a journey from darkness to light, from unanswered questions to illumination. It was with this spiritual passage in mind that I conceived my Second Symphony, both dramatically and structurally.
In the first movement, the tenor rises out of a darkly orchestrated introduction to ask, “Who / Are You / Who is born / In the next room…” Images of darkness and solitude are evoked with the words “And the heart print of man / Bows no baptism / But dark alone….” The second movement is the shortest of the five. In this movement, the witness experiences an epiphany of sorts, which culminates with the words “And the winges wall is torn / by his torrid crown / And the dark thrown / From his loin / To bright / Light.” Here, as in all five movements, a substantial amount of purely orchestral music follows the final words sung by the voice, and provides an opportunity for reflection and development of the textual and musical ideas.
The appearance of the soprano in the third movement reflects a pivotal turn in the progress of the drama and also provides a coloristic contrast, highlighting the structural centerpiece of the symphony. This central movement is musically the most complex of all and it could be compared to the development section of a sonata movement. It also contains the most violent music in the work, as it expresses an inner confrontation on the part of the poet, who, in his awareness of Christ’s suffering, discovers his own pain (“For I was lost who am / Crying at the man drenched throne….”) A quote from the second movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde
is used here.
I have used two voices in this symphony as a projection of two sides of the same personality. The soprano voice symbolizes the physical and the temporal. She is a harbinger and symbol of death. Indeed, the last words given to the soprano in the fourth movement are “And the whole pain / Flows open / And I / Die.” The tenor, on the other hand, represents the soul and the will of the poet, and in the fourth movement he sings in an impassioned quasi recitative style that is clearly influenced by the violence and fury of the music in the third movement. What follows this furious chant-like introduction is a series of events that lead ultimately to the dramatic climax of the work: the joining of the soprano and the tenor voices, unaccompanied. But before this happens, music that harks back to the ideas and emotional environment of the first movement is heard. “Silent Night” is quoted in the oboe and solo horn, emerging as a by-product of the musical material. What follows is an evocation of the tenor’s opening lines in the first movement (“Who / Are you / Who is born / In the next room…”), rendered now by muted strings.
The last movement is the most orchestral (and least song-like) of the five and serves not only as a denouement to the fourth movement, but also as an epilogue to the entire symphony. Much of the musical material of the first three movements is brought back and transformed to achieve a sense of dramatic closure. The climax of the movement occurs at the words “I / Am found.” These are the only words in the entire text that I have repeated. They are reiterated to mirror both the personal sense of revelation as well as the subsequent need to share the new-found awareness. The coda of the last movement, quiet and intimate in character, uses both solo violin and cello as shadows of the voices in the drama.