Symphony No. 6

Elie Siegmeister

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Publisher: Carl Fischer Music
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Quick Overview


The premiere of a new symphony should be and is a mighty day in the life of any composer, especially one who many years ago as a fledgling music maker of seventeen never dreamed he would write one, let alone six symphonies. That number, of course, seems very small when compared with Haydn's incredible one hundred and four or Mozart's splendid forty-one; it is only two-thirds the nine made normative by Beethoven, whose magic number was unsurpassed by Mahler and Bruckner. Shostakovich, of course, reached fifteen - a total equalled by very few the composers in our time.

Yet what's in a number? It's what you have to say that counts. Tschaikovsky's six and Brahms' four are heard more often than all of Haydn's one hundred plus; and to have written the distinctive "Classical" and the magnificent Fifth warrants Prokofiev a lasting place among the most loved of the world's symphonic composers.

But what, you ask, does all this have to do with the newly minted Siegmeister Sixth? Not much, really, for regardless of the hundreds, or thousands, of works in a certain genre, a new example must make its own mark, assert its own personality at the moment of first hearing as though no one had ever written a symphony before. A challenge? Of course. Without challenges, why would any composer set pen to paper?

At this point the listener may be eager to know: what is the new work all about? How did it come to be written? What was in the composer's mind when he was hard at work on it?

Here is where I may appear for the moment ungracious: these questions can be answered not by verbal analyses or autobiographical revelations but perhaps only the music itself. And this not out of any modesty or reluctance to reveal trade secrets: the simple fact is, if I could have said it in words, I would not have put it into music. Once before (in connection with the premiere of my Fourth) I wrote "tradittore traduttore" - to translate is to betray. To try to tell the listener in simple declarative or even complex interrogative sentences "what the music is all about" is to pose a verbal barrier to his fresh perception of the sounds soon to issue from the orchestra onstage.

Obviously, this may sound slightly evasive to the reader eager for some enlightenment on a new work that calls itself a symphony. "Come on, let your hair down a bit," I can hear some of you saying, and to appear not totally uncommunicative, let me list some facts, figures, and subjective opinions about the new composition.

It was started on April 21, 1977 (I see by a notation on the first page of the sketch). That was just two weeks before the world premiere of my Fifth Symphony by the Baltimore Symphony under Sergiu Comissiona at the Kennedy Center, six years after that work had been finished. Was I saying to myself, "Elie, it's six years since you completed the last one, how about getting started on another?" or what? Frankly I don't remember, and it's not important.

Be that as it may, the Sixth did not make rapid progress. I was simultaneously involved in another major work, my Violin Concerto, and soon to start on my sixth opera, "The Marquesa of 0." Both these large compositions and quite a few smaller ones occupied my mind for about five years. I took up the Sixth Symphony again on February 2, 1982 and this time worked consistently on it. With the usual interruptions to fill commissions for some smaller pieces, work proceeded until the entire score was finished on May 13, 1983.

What kind of music is it? Well, it has three movements instead of the usual four, it is by a composer who is neither conservative nor avant garde (whatever these words mean). There is no question that it draws both on the present and the past: structurally reflecting a life-long concern with musical architecture - themes, motives, sections, developments, organically (it is hoped) interwoven in no mysterious ways. The musical ideas themselves, demand perhaps more of the listener: that he or she know some of my earlier music, especially that of the last twenty years. Like some other composers, I have my "C Sharp Minor Preludes" - works which are performed so often as to be almost symbolic of my name: Ozark Set and Western Suite are two. I love those pieces, but they were written forty years ago, and the Sixth Symphony has appeared after a lifetime of what I hope is some growth.

It would be digressing too far to discuss that so-called growth (maybe it was no growth at all?). Briefly, however, like certain other composers who have lived a long time, some commentators might say that I have gone through three periods, what else but "early," "middle," and "late" (but hopefully not too late!). In the first period, ca. 1930-1940, I was a quite ferocious modernist: the music was often dissonant, driving, aiming for power rather than charm. In the second phase, roughly 1940-1960, realizing that the great American audience might find my music hard listening, I turned (like some of my younger colleagues forty years later) to writing in a more communicative and "accessible" style, of which melody and a specifically American expressivity were primary features. Then, starting about 1960, in the third phase, there followed works which might be seen as a synthesis of both earlier phases: expressivity and melody now combined with dramatic and structural values, an interweaving of "easy" and "difficult" techniques - long-line melody often combined with adventurous, many-layered harmony, with overall architecture a major consideration.

Now, after saying I wouldn't, I've gone and done it - tried to put in words what I had done in notes. But, of course, only in the most general way, and with the warning that you should not take it seriously. A little more particularly about the new symphony, and I'll have done.
The opening movement starts with one of my favorite devices: a long, flowing melody sung by one instrument, in this case the trumpet. the movement is dynamic, the textures closely interwoven. A traditional so-called "sonata form": two themes (the second in the strings) a rhythmic "closing theme" in the whole orchestra, then a four-note "motto" in the low trombones and tuba. Development, leading to a big climax. The return of the opening trumpet theme, now in three trumpets and other brass. Recapitulation, decisive ending.
The second movement, a "scherzo with trio." Opening section full of lights and flashes, a kaleidoscope of pithy and fluttering short ideas, carried along by constant rhythmic changes. All fun and joie-de-vivre. Now the middle part, marked "giocoso" (joyously). Over an insistent, almost dance-like beat, a light, airy song repeated several times with teasing interruptions. The tune should lift you up (no, I'm not foolish enough to think you could go out whistling it). Again, as with other composers from "Papa" Haydn on up, the opening section returns the fluttering short ideas with the kaleidoscope now turned in other directions and moving more rapidly. What sounds as though it is going to be a big climax fools you - instead, it calms down, stretches out and comes to rest on a gentle, dreamlike final chord.
Third movement. In a number of my other works, a single instrument enters to get things started, then the whole group takes over. In this symphony, when I came to the third movement, it suddenly occurred to me that, like the first movement which starts with the brash, assertive trumpet, this last movement wanted to start with a single instrument singing a long sustained melody, but not brashly or assertively. It is the oboe that starts here, with something reflective, or meditative, as if to ask, "What was the sound and fury all about?" After the thirteen-bar lyrical oboe line (plus two bars in the soft horn) a violent interruption. The drama is not yet over: a series of dissonant chords in the trumpets and other brass says "Nay" to what was going to be a gentle, peaceful music.
But the savage phrase, too, is soon over, followed by a deeply reflective second theme in the muted brass, very softly singing. Once again, Messrs. Beethoven, Brahms, and all the others have their innings: the "exposition" as it is called is followed by a "development." The earlier themes evolve, stretch out, interweave at first peacefully and then more and more with heightened tension. At the peak, the earlier dissonant chords emerge as ferociously as before, struggling with the lyrical

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Scores & Parts

Symphony No.6 - Full Score - Study

Additional Information

Composition Date 1983
Duration 00:17:30
Orchestration 3(dbl. Picc.) 3(E.H.) 2 (Eb Cl., B.Cl.) 3(Cbsn.) - 4 3 3 1; Timp. Perc. Pno. Hp. Str.
Premiere November 3, 1984. Sacramento, CA. Sacramento Community Center Theatre