Journeys through light and dark
(from the cover notes of the Etcetera CD)
Dr Linda Kouvaras
The concept of duality is a time-honoured constant in much of Western philosophy. In its Manichaean inception, good battles evil, forming a significant basis to the core of Christian doctrine. For Plato, the spirit is separated off from the body, the divine from the human: the human soul is in direct conflict with the base instincts of biology, and is threatened by the seduction of the promise of carnal pleasure and the material world. Duality also underpins Western classical sonata form: the opening “exposition” section presents the (usually) two main thematic groups, which contrast strongly with one another and are cast in oppositionally positioned tonic and dominant key areas respectively. Sonata form was the primary structural determinant for symphonies, sonatas, and concertos from the classical and romantic eras. Romantic symphonic works, epitomised in the output of Beethoven (Symphonies 3, 5 and 9), Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, and Mahler, enveloped a whole human experience in the outlines of a symphony, unified by the identity of the artist. In his own symphonies, Brenton Broadstock has found a way to honour this tradition, while using an original and contemporary musical language. Rather than relying on the traditional means of pitting contrasting themes against one another in dominant and tonic areas, Broadstock’s symphonies are monothematic: he achieves the dualistic struggle of opposites with contrasting areas of energies in the music.
In all his symphonic works to date, the listener is taken on a metaphorical journey of transformation, from light to dark, or vice versa. His great, over-riding interest in indeed all of his output is in exploring the fact of duality, acknowledging the existence of “good” and “evil” in the world, in our lives, and within his own personality. Before Broadstock feels he can commit one note of music to manuscript, he must have an extra-musical catalyst, where duality can be examined within the framework of a more specific, subsidiary idea. The play of light against dark, for example, is a constant within his output. His titles and statements reveal an exploration of and preoccupation with ur facets of existence, pointedly human, often autobiographical, and sometimes generalised to encompass the broader range of human existence.
CD 1 contains the first three symphonies. The First Symphony, Toward the Shining Light (1988), is dedicated to his son, Matthew, and, like the Second Symphony, commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with the generous assistance of the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1989 as part of Broadstock’s composer-in-residency with the orchestra in 1988-1989. This work has an intensely personal pre-compositional impetus.
In the composer’s words, “The title is taken from the book, The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan, but the relationship to the book ends there. What fascinated me about the book was its metaphorical association -- the achievement of goals, the realisation of dreams, the pursuit of happiness, security, wealth, power or anything that gives some meaning and purpose to our existence. This is a very personal work. It is almost autobiographical and biographical. It relates, almost programmatically, the birth of my first-born son Matthew, the gradual realisation that he was severely handicapped and the acceptance, not understanding, of his condition. For me, it is this acceptance that is the ‘shining light’ of the title. It is my greatest hope that he, and others like him, will one day achieve their ‘shining light’ so cruelly denied them in this life.”
Thus Broadstock’s First Symphony embraces the idea that positivity is potentially inherent in adversity. It opens with a slow horn solo, exposed, vulnerable and “trusting”, forming the main theme of the work. This theme is subjected to all the Classical/Romantic traits of thematic transformation, as it traces the composer’s realisation and growing acceptance of Matthew’s condition. The work is cast in one continuous movement with contrasting sub-sections: an opening slow section (Track 1); a fast, disturbing scherzo-like section (Track 2) which leads, after a brief, shuddering fermata, to a quieter pulsing section that returns to the pensive opening idea (Track 3). The shock of the scherzo returns (Track 4) before breaking up, and a brooding final section begins (Track 5), accelerating to a furious climax that leads to the final resolution of the solo horn theme that began the work, finishing on an optimistic B major chord.
A less positive outcome occurs in Stars in a Dark Night, Broadstock’s Second Symphony (1989), dedicated to fellow Australia composer Barry Conyngham. During his work in the 1970s as a music therapist, Broadstock worked with many schizophrenics; but it was twelve years later, while browsing through a second-hand bookshop in Carlton, that he was struck by the title of an obscure book: Stars in a Dark Night. The book is a collection of letters by English poet and composer/songwriter Ivor Gurney, a poet and musician who suffered from schizophrenia; the “stars” represented both the precious letters he received while in the “dark night” of the trenches during World War 1, and also the ever-decreasing periods of sanity in the “dark night” of his mental deterioration.
Gurney’s book inspired Broadstock’s Second Symphony (1989) which borrows the same title; the dynamics of the schizophrenic condition -- lucidity and rationality degenerating quickly and unpredictably into irrationality and mental distress - constitute the structural processes of the music. In this work, Broadstock reflects on the fact that there is no cure for schizophrenia; and the fluctuations between the representations in the music of ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity’ mirror the fine line between control and the lack of it that exists - Broadstock believes - for indeed all of us, not only for those diagnosed as schizophrenic.
In this work, unlike the First Symphony, the final ‘message’ is one of negativity, as evidenced in the music itself, where: “In this work there are two musics, essentially two different pieces, struggling with each other, but both are derived from the same musical idea - musical ‘split personality’! One music is slow, lyrical and gentle, often tinged with an underlying bitterness; the other is fast, angry, strident and all-consuming! The transition from one to the other is sometimes violently juxtaposed.”
The work is formed as an unequal arch of sixteen smaller sections of contrasting fast and slow material, divided again into five larger sections. The opening (Track 6) is propelled forward by violent, frenetic string figures to a contemplative horn theme that halts the proceedings, underneath which (Track 7) the percussion and brass rush forward again to the abyss of the deranged mind. Outbreaks of violence fragment repeatedly into quieter and more frankly terrifying despair (Track 8) as if the lulls in violence - like smoke and ruin over the trenches of Europe - are etching deeper scars into the mind of the young soldier. A beautiful, swaying melody (Track 9) seems to disintegrate into the upper reaches of the violins as the mind becomes unhinged and launches (Track 10) into catastrophe (representing transformation / loss of sanity). The fast, “angry” music gets shorter in duration and more angry at each appearance, culminating in this high climax. Broadstock “wanted to create the atmosphere of a ‘war-zone’ in this work, to reflect both the external war that Gurney was physically placed in, and an internal war that was raging within his mind and body.” So, once again, Broadstock explores the dualistic idea of positivity (light) and negativity (darkness) which may unpredictably dominate our psyche at any given period in our lives.
Eternal clouds of man’s desire Blackened heart Bloodied hands Voices from the fire
Voices from the Fire, Symphony No. 3 (1992) is dedicated to his parents “who have given their lives in ther service of others - two of the most humane people I know”, and commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with the generous assistance of the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council, to mark the ABC’s 60th anniversary in 1992. In the composer’s programme notes, the work “comments upon, and compares, the destruction of two minorities — the Jews in the Second World War and the Tasmanian aborigines. The work is divided into two movements. The first, of 13 minutes (Tracks 11-12), is structured upon a series of savage orchestral ‘gunshots’. It was inspired by footage I had seen of naked Jews, lined up in front of a pit, and being shot one by one. These shots become a structural determinant in the movement punctuating music of passion, fear, anger and horror.
The second movement (Tracks 13-14) is an elegy, filled with pathos and bitterness, for the last Tasmanian aboriginal Truganinnie and for all victims of human kind’s inhumanity — a threnody for the destruction of a race.” The first movement begins with the 'gunshot' gesture (Track 11); then under more frantic woodwind figures, the brass and strings shudder and violently disassemble melodic fragments before returning to this savage gesture (Track 12). The violence continues, almost unabated, reaching a climax of orchestral noise — a “choir of the destroyed” — which melts into the static threnody of the dead; an orchestral vocal choir – the bass drum solemnly marking time (Track 13). The elegy layers mournful solo voices above a gradual orchestral crescendo to a horn-led apotheosis of an ethereal other-worldly atmosphere — the voices of the souls — “the victims of the fire of inhumanity”. This subsides (Track 14), with brief jerks of protest, into several unsettled solos for tuba, bass trombone and finally, a poignant lone alto flute is heard above the vocal choir of the dead.
CD 2 opens with Born from Good Angel’s Tears, Broadstock’s Symphony No. 4 (1995), commissioned by the Faculty of Music for its Centenary Celebrations with the generous assistance of the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council, and is dedicated to the Ormond Professor Warren Bebbington. Like the other symphonies, this work is monothematic and undergoes processes of thematic transformation. It is the most consistently gentle, transcendental and reflective work on the disk, yet the exultant climaxes do not lack in intensity despite the relatively slow pace of the work.
The title comes from the charming fairy story (written in 1976) by the Finnish Art/Drama Therapist Dr Sirkku Hiltunen: “The Good Angel looked down from Heaven and saw all the trouble on earth. She saw many wars…people were destroying each other…nature had turned against them…She saw floods and earthquakes…She saw intense heat. Severe drought caused thirst and starvation. There was death, incurable diseases, and unlimited misery everywhere. Good Angel felt pity for the people on the earth because of their great suffering… Then Good Angel looked into the depths of human depths, for she believed that all suffering had opened the eyes and hearts of people. But Good Angel was overcome by heavy grief when she saw that the hearts had become cold. Not even the sight of death could touch their hearts…People did not care about the consequences of their deeds…Everywhere people were waging wars against each other with their thoughts, words, and deeds. When Good Angel saw all of this, she understood why it was necessary to have so much suffering on the earth. She became overwhelmed by even heavier sorrow and deeper pain. She turned her head away from the earth, covered her face with her hands, and wept. Good Angel wept and wept, and her tears began rolling further and further down. Suddenly when her tears touched the surface of the earth, they became small human beings. These little boys and girls stayed children all their lives. Because they were born of the tears of Good Angel they kept their connection to Heaven all their lives. When we look into the eyes of these children…we will see mirrored not our outer beauty but our inner selves…”
The inexorable slowness and beauty of the opening intervals (Track 1) - a theme in embryo - builds to the first real radiant statement of the theme: horns, seemingly optimistic yet tinged with sadness. There is no “great reckoning”; the music falls downwards into an almost impossibly slow section (Track 2) of reflection. The return of the horn theme transforms itself almost surprisingly, and with re-found vigour, into the final section (Track 3). The same slow melodic intervals are wound ever-tighter, over more rhythmic accompaniment of ever-increasing tempo, to a final triumphant statement of the same theme, before finishing in an optimistic blaze. The conclusion seems to assert that from suffering can come joyousness; our “inner selves” are reflected in the tears of the Good Angel, tinged with pain but, finally, beautiful.
The quote which accompanies Broadstock’s Symphony No. 5, Dark Side (1999), is from Mark Twain: “everyone is a moon, and has a dark side that he never shows anyone.” The work was commissioned by Andrew Wheeler and the Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra, with the assistance of grants from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Dark Side is perhaps the most directly autobiographical work on the disk, and refers to earlier orchestral and chamber works of the composer and early influences, such as pop music. The work is set in a vast, neatly balanced, biographical structure of two movements. It begins enigmatically (Track 4), building to a first choral statement from the horns and trumpets (Track 5) that is still self-doubting and wistful. This theme is transformed, becoming at one point a beautiful and reflective trombone solo, before an introspective string section (Track 6) builds the emotional momentum again to an even more glorious statement of the first climax, which in turn is lulled into a beautiful extended section of acceptance (Track 7). Even here there are brief moments of quiet brass unease, but the movement finishes calmly: an elusive and ultimately affirming quote from the First Symphony’s major theme dissolves into a final shimmering page of orchestral light.
The second movement begins (Track 8) with a quiet, pulsing rhythmic vigour. It builds to a brief and abruptly halted climax before shifting gear (Track 9) and rushing headlong into the first moment of repose (Track 10). There follow sections of fast and overtly aggressive music juxtaposed with the now elaborated calmer music, before the gauntlet is cast down, rushing powerfully to a loud and abandoned climax. This is exhilarating music. It seems to acknowledge a youthful delight and wilfulness, an optimism, that Broadstock has only rarely allowed himself: a musical representation, in fact, of the composer’s duality. Dark Side “does not refer to anything sinister, only that we all have our unknown or little-known side — our island of existence, our individuality, our inner self — that no one else can ever truly know.”
©2001 Linda Kouvaras
Dr Linda Kouvaras is a composer, pianist and musicologist who lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her website.
© 2019 Brenton Broadstock Contact Me