Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

by 5:4

i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

Both halves of the Prometheus Symphony begin with the most fascinating music. The first half emerges from a microtonally-tuned minor triad hanging uncannily in space. Conventionally-tuned triads are laid over this, causing gentle beats and judderings; small-scale turbulence arises from this, and loud metallic strikes perhaps indicate the (literal) forging of progress as a consequence of Prometheus’ actions. For a full five minutes, MacRae establishes a powerful sense of potential and portent; it’s music that’s engrossing and immersive in its own right, yet always points on to something large-scale that is very obviously coming soon. It’s a wonderfully effective way to get the symphony up and running.

The deliverance of Prometheus’ punishment that ensues is almost akin to a spell being cast. Slow, solemn and declamatory, even somewhat lofty in tone, the soloists moving back and forth between singing together or in alternation, in both cases reinforcing each other’s words. But their spell unavoidably involves judgement, which when it’s delivered has all the crushing flatness of a judge pronouncing sentence. MacRae emphasises the regular metric pulse underpinning all of this, suggesting not merely order but a kind of fixed foundation holding everything in place. There’a s nice moment partway through when, following mention of how Prometheus “gave to mortals brilliance of fire…” the strings briefly dance triplets within this otherwise unyielding metric grid.

Following the gods’ dismissive conclusion that “There is none free except Zeus”, the music sags back into irregularity and drift, with held pitches offering the prospect of a melody but this doesn’t manage to cohere. Instead, the baritone begins to articulate Prometheus’ pain, the orchestra closely mirroring his words with turbulent aggression, small flourishes and deep growls. There’s something pitiful about his brief transfixion on the word ‘Mother’, an insight into the vulnerability and humanity (for want of a better word) of an otherwise Titanic figure. The soprano’s take on the situation is more incensed and fiery, causing the orchestra to scurry around her in flurries of splashy descents. But she, too, pulls back when reflecting on the pain, the words “Are any of those that have tasted pain / Alas! As wretched as I?” causing the music to become less intense and more song-like. It’s a tone of lamentation that persists for a while, broken only by the recollection of an adjuration from the Oceanids that Prometheus should “Despise not Zeus!” that leads to some of the most indignantly angry music in the whole symphony. It brings about a decisive sequence that, in contrast to the brief aside caused by ‘Mother’, finds only a kind of self-loathing despair in the wake of a reference to ‘Father’.

In the same way as before, the symphony’s second half opens with a lengthy instrumental introduction. So lengthy, in fact – nearly seven minutes – that it’s impressive that such an extended sequence of atmospheric reflection doesn’t cause the work to lose its impetus or stall. If anything it has the opposite effect: there’s the impression of a kind of evolution, mixing rude blurts with careful, almost lyrical phrases, where wildness leads to more considered brooding, and where austere coolness is countered by a triadic source of warmth. In the best sense, MacRae’s music becomes almost filmic later on, its quiet intensity halting and leading – via trumpet, then winds, then strings – into a place of pure melancholy. As at the start of the first half, it’s mesmerising on its own, but everything about it points onward, and downward.

The 12-minute closing soliloquy that follows, sung by the baritone, continues this emotional and musical mixing of hot and cold. Rage often instantly transitions into mourning. “I know nought poorer / Under the sun, than ye gods! / Ye nourish painfully…” is a potent example of this: initially brisk and punchy, accompanied by metallic thwacks and forceful string tremolandi, its potentially climactic intensifying vanishes leaving only a wan chord floating in a void, the baritone practically choking back tears as he continues. There are instances of sarcasm and shrill rebuke in what follows – “Hast thou e’er lightened the sorrows / Of the heavy laden?” onwards is a riposte to the stern judgement pronounced in the first half – yet the tone is increasingly one of high romanticism, at times becoming borderline operatic. The orchestra rises up to meet Prometheus in a powerful final outburst, their robust chords sounding like a drawn-out chord progression, flecked with piano dissonance, after which a hanging minor chord improbably turns major.

The symphony’s conclusion is coloured by this major-minor confusion, the two harmonies superimposed like competing emotional states, which only makes the increasingly prevalent tone of resignation all the more palpable, the baritone’s voice practically descending below profondo limits into a kind of blank croaking. There are still traces of passion left in Prometheus’ words (“And thee to scorn”) but by now the remaining warmth of the music sounds less like a comfort than the kind of throbbing heat that surrounds a deep bruise as the body begins to try to heal itself. Facing the prospect of everlasting, unjust, agonising torment, the symphony ends exhausted.

The world première of Stuart MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony was given on 19 September as part of the Lammermuir Festival, performed by Jennifer France (soprano) and Paul Carey Jones (baritone) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthew Halls.

Programme Note

I’ve been working on ideas to do with the Prometheus myth for several years, and always knew I’d be writing a piece for voices – though I didn’t know exactly which texts, or voices, until I’d started writing the piece. My Prometheus Symphony sets excerpts from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (she completed two separate translations), some passages of text I have written myself based on various translations, and a complete setting of Goethe’s poem Prometheus.

According to the myth, Prometheus gave man specialised knowledge in two forms: to offer only the fat and bones to the gods in sacrifice, instead of the meat; and the gift of fire, which in turn gave them the ability to work metal and to manufacture all sorts of tools to improve their station (“all arts came to mortals from Prometheus”). For this last transgression, Zeus chained Prometheus to a mountain-top and sent an eagle to eat his liver, which would every day regenerate so that Prometheus would be made to suffer again.

The first half of the piece, based on fragments from Prometheus Bound, deals with Prometheus’s punishment and with the visits of Io, who also suffers at the whim of the gods, and the Oceanids, who (wordlessly represented by violins) try to persuade Prometheus to repent before Zeus.

The second half begins with the instrumental section “all arts came to mortals from Prometheus.” I imagined humankind’s great leap forward in development, not the slow trudge of evolution or stagnation ordained by the gods, that would allow humans to exercise dominance over the environment and other beings. What would these dull beasts do when suddenly gifted with sophistication, knowledge, and means? Follow slowly and carefully the logical path from chant to organum to polyphony, counterpoint, harmony and beyond, to the emancipation and even the negation of tone; or take these arts and fashion them anew, playing with them as they would toys, breathing new life into their already-formed existence? Much of the material, throughout the whole piece, is based on the most familiar, simple musical elements – major and minor triads – but, taking the second path, re-cast in unfamiliar ways so that they feel new, strange and full of potential, as if with this new knowledge everything could somehow be made anew by the endless re-creation of structures from the same building blocks.

The final section returns to Prometheus, alone on his rock, resilient and ever-defiant of Zeus, told in the words of Goethe.

Prometheus Symphony is dedicated to Hugh MacDonald and James Waters.

—Stuart MacRae


We reach
the utmost limit of the earth.
The Scythian tract.
The desert without man.

With adamantine chains
fasten against this precipice
this guilty god, Prometheus.

Who stole away
thine own bright flower
and gave to mortals
brilliance of fire that makes all arts.

For such a sin
he must give retribution to the gods
and learn obedience to the sovereign Zeus.

There is none free except Zeus.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning / Stuart MacRae)

Airs of heaven,
winds that brush my palms
with rushing wing-tips,
river-springs that fall to endless laughter
in the foaming seas below,
Mother, Earth,
pitiless indifferent sun,
behold my suffering
At the hands of gods!

(Stuart MacRae)

Ah! Ah! Ah me!
The gad-fly stingeth to agony!
What land is this?
What people is here?

Where shall my weary course be done?

Flash the fire down to burn me!
Heave the earth up to cover me!
Plunge me in the deep,
With the salt waves over me,
That the sea-beasts may be fed!
I know not on what shore
I may rest from my despair.

Are any of those that have tasted pain
Alas! As wretched as I?
Now tell me plain, doth aught remain
For my soul to endure beneath the sky?

Cry aloud – cry
To the wandering, woeful maid!

I sob amid my speech
In speaking of the storm-curse sent from Zeus.

Wandering went
The nightly visions which entreated me
With syllabled smooth sweetness.

“Why lengthen out thy maiden hours when
fate permits the noblest spousal in the world?
When Zeus burns with the arrow of thy love
And fain would touch thy beauty? –
Despise not Zeus!”

Such dreams did all night long
Constrain me me till I dared
To tell my father.

My father drove me forth and shut me out.
Instantly my body and soul were changèd and distraught,
And, hornèd as ye see, and spurred along
By the fangèd insect,
I, curse-tormented still,
Am driven from land to land before the scourge
The gods hold over me.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, adapted by Stuart MacRae)

Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus,
With clouds of mist,
And like the boy who lops
The thistles’ heads,
Disport with oaks and mountain-peaks;
Yet thou must leave
My earth still standing;
My cottage, too, which was not raised by thee;
Leave me my hearth,
Whose kindly glow
By thee is envied.

I know nought poorer
Under the sun, than ye gods!
Ye nourish painfully,
With sacrifices
And votive prayers,
Your majesty;
Ye would e’en starve,
If children and beggars
Were not trusting fools.

While yet a child,
And ignorant of life,
I turned my wandering gaze
Up toward the sun, as if with him
There were an ear to hear my wailings,
A heart, like mine,
To feel compassion for distress.

Who helped me
Against the Titans’ insolence?
Who rescued me from certain death,
From slavery?
Didst thou not do all this thyself,
My sacred glowing heart?
And glowedst, young and good,
Deceived with grateful thanks
To yonder slumbering one?

I honour thee, and why?
Hast thou e’er lightened the sorrows
Of the heavy laden?
Hast thou e’er dried up the tears
Of the anguish-stricken?
Was I not fashioned to be a man
By omnipotent Time,
And by eternal Fate,
Masters of me and thee?

Didst thou e’er fancy
That life I should learn to hate,
And fly to deserts,
Because not all
My blossoming dreams grew ripe?

Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
As I!


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simon jarvis

i was really impressed by this work. Particularly the Goethe setting. Just listen to the mocking sarcasm of the words “Your majesty” (at 28 mins). Such a beautiful and moving moment as the chord changes from “To suffer” to “to weep”.

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