Pacific Symphony logo

American Composers Festival 2014: From Screen to Score

Symphony in G-sharp Minor

World Premiere

Notes by the composer, Elliot Goldenthal


A Vietnam OratorioThis is my second occasion to compose a work for the Pacific Symphony orchestra and its conductor Carl St.Clair. The first time was in 1995 with my oratorio Fire Water Paper. Maestro St.Clair imagined a work commemorating the end of military conflict in Vietnam. It was an expansive three-movement work, over an hour long, with a full SATB chorus and soloists, plus a cello obbligato. That work was a full evening of music.

This time, according to the design of tonight’s program, I was asked to write a symphony no more than 22 minutes in length. This was more of a challenge for me as I tend to be expansive in my writing when I get rolling. To offset this challenge, I needed to compose a first movement, "Moderato con Moto," with the intent to "feel" more expansive than its 13 or 14 minute duration. I did this by opening up the vistas by featuring the sections of the orchestra rather than presenting the orchestra as a block - with its composites melding as one.

As to the key signature G-sharp Minor: A-Flat was always a key I was attracted to, even as a 10-year-old. The note G-sharp on my family spinet had a particular timbre that has stayed with me since then. On a theoretical note, G-sharp Minor only represents the place where the Symphony sits; it is not obliged to follow chromatic harmonic tradition. This key also creates tension for the string ensemble, with no opened strings and it demands great concentration on intonation. The collective strings must listen to the other players to arrive at that goal of strong intonation; that goal itself is then intensified in the middle of the movement where the string section is played divisi (divided) from its normal state of four parts into nine. In one of the most exposed and expressive entrances in the first movement, the five-note ascending motive, with its “reaching" aspirations, tries to climb to the height of the violin section. The motive is also sliced into nine, to state the motive with tension and pull against the dissonant invading other strings.  

In general, the four-note and five-note motives show up as augmentation and diminution. This kind of motivic stinginess presents itself in the two movements of this work: the bassoon states the first motive in the first movement in a four-note descending passage followed by a five-note motive in the oboe section. This all happens against a rocking gentle percolation on the harp and violas. The four-note motive is boldly stated at the end of the first movement and in the second movement in diminution form: playing faster in duration from the original. This four-note and five-note "Codex" appears throughout both movements. 

The second movement possesses more density in its construction. It features the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra. This shear force and harmonic density provide a true contrast to the ‘expansive vistas’ of the first movement. The percussion, without giving away too much,  has a moment in which the percussionists have a ‘conversation’ that attempts to bridge the gap of human long distance communication.... the first ‘wireless’ conversation that existed millennia  ago, with hands and drum, warnings, war songs and love songs across tree tops, mountains and time...

-- Elliot Goldenthal

National Endowment of the Arts