Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 11 “Philemon und Baucis” (World Première)

by 5:4

i’m bringing this year’s Lent Series to a close with another of Gloria Coates‘ remarkable symphonies. Symphony No. 11 was completed in 1999, being a response to a commission from Baron von Freyberg for the Festspiele Europäische Wochen, with the stipulation that the work should be related to Ovid’s recounting (in the Metamorphoses) of the myth of Philemon and Baucis. Coates tells me she had become familiar with this story as a child, in the retelling by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled The Miraculous Pitcher. She describes her response to the story as being primarily emotional: “The ideas in the text inspired me by the feelings they evoked in me and, to some extent, influenced the structures I used.” The symphony’s three movements bear titles that relate to the story:

  1. Cercando di trovare – “trying to find”, presumably alluding to Zeus and Hermes’ search for a place to sleep);
  2. Miracoli accadono – “miracles happen”, referring to the pitcher of wine that magically remains full; and
  3. Trasformazione al nuovo – “transformation to the new”, a reference both to Baucis and Philemon’s cottage transformed into a temple, and also their own subsequent metamorphosis into a pair of intertwined trees.

The symphony was originally composed for chamber orchestra, and the movement titles for that version were in English and subtly different: ‘The Search’, ‘Miracles’ and ‘Death and Transfiguration’; Coates subsequently revised the work, expanding it for full orchestra, and the Italian movement titles relate to this revised version.

Gloria Coates

When exploring Symphony No. 7, i spoke of the way that line and texture, broadly corresponding to focused order and generalised disorder, coexist in a somewhat turbulent relationship in Coates’ music, and this is also true for Symphony No. 11. Coates draws on two extant melodies: the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ and the opening theme from the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (the “Scottish”).

The first movement, ‘Cercando di trovare’, consists of a line that’s presented as an asynchronous canon, with different instruments moving through the line at different speeds. The strings, as usual in Coates’ symphonies, are the most prominent, articulating the line with slow, heavy weight, as if the progression to each successive note were an effort; the winds, by contrast, are more light and flowing. An iambic rhythm (short-long) pervades this line, over time (again, as is so often the case in her work) lending the music the intensity of a rite due to its long-term focus on a single idea, behaviour or action. It’s as if the entire world of sound consists of just this one possible way forward. Two-thirds through the movement (6:23) everything coalesces into a single statement, everyone now moving together slowly, either suggesting greater effort or greater emphasis. As it recedes, the Mendelssohn theme emerges, its triple metre corresponding to the iambic rhythms from earlier, which the strings now return to. The movement ends with a rather ghostly coda (8:32), the strings frozen in place while a celesta restates the theme.

The iambics continue in the middle movement, ‘Miracoli accadono’ (9:23), where an abyssal contrabassoon and bass clarinet are the unlikely introduction for a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ (initially by a trumpet) while the strings undulate weirdly. The melody is halted and lost almost immediately, continuing as a hard-to-hear undercurrent running throughout the movement. This strange juxtaposition continually begs the question as to what is more important, musically-speaking. On the one hand, the string texture is as strong and dense as ever, an endless melée of tangling strands; on the other hand, the way that the tune keeps resurfacing along the way might also suggest a kind of indefatigable, implicit dominance. Indeed, there are times when the melody’s assertiveness proves catalytic, such as a moment partway through when the density eases (12:26) and the violins present the tune surrounded by wafting vestiges of glissando. The moment it ends (13:18), however, the sliding texture immediately restarts, overwhelming everything such that the tune again becomes faint within. Its constancy wins out, though, producing a huge, rather messy, communal chorus at the end (16:22).

Fittingly, neither of these melodies return in the final movement, Trasformazione al nuovo (17:27). Instead, elements from both of them are reconfigured and transformed into a bizarre wheezing music, like a tired squeezebox or hobbled bagpipes, driven along by a solemn bass drum. Col legno strikes infiltrate the melody (19:27), along with a few rogue glissandi (19:36), and the whole thing starts to take on the air of a fin de siècle processional. Its relative restraint belies the fact that more and more individual ideas – all related to each other – are striking up, culminating in a rowdy spectacle of gaudy, grotesque triumph.

The original chamber version of Symphony No. 11 “Philemon und Baucis” was first performed in July 1999 by the Southeast Bavarian Orchestra conducted by Roger Boggasch. This performance, the world première of the revised, full orchestral version, took place in November 2018, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

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Tom Armstrong

I‘ve really enjoyed the music of Coates that you have been exploring on the blog even though some pieces (I’ve explored since) have ranked amongst the most difficult of listens. Coates’ uncompromising, austere, sometimes almost ritualistic oddness is a very effective antidote to much of the flashy blandness that characterises a lot of contemporary orchestral writing.

[…] 5:4 Lent Series on contemporary symphonies, where i explored three of hers (No. 1, No. 7 and No. 11), all of which had been performed at the 2018 Tectonics festival. It was while i was writing those […]

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