WINTER SOLSTICE: CONCERTO FOR FRENCH HORN AND STRING ORCHESTRA. Commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for Jamie Sommerville and the CBC Radio Orchestra. 30 minutes. 2004. Titles of Individual movements: I. The Darkest Hour. II. Simulacrum. III Prophet of Light. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


Commissioned by the CBC Radio Orchestra for French horn virtuoso Jamie Sommerville, Winter Solstice was created for a premiere in the Canadian Arctic around the time of the winter solstice in December 2004. Jamie had initially approached me with the idea of a horn concerto commission when he participated in the premiere of my woodwind quintet Burial Ground in 1992. Soon after that, Jamie moved away from Toronto to assume the principal horn position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra but we both kept on looking for an opportunity to make this collaboration possible and the opportunity finally came twelve years later when the CBC Radio Orchestra in Vancouver asked me for a work for horn and strings.

In my work, the title refers to the spiritual meaning of the “longest night”; it is a meditation on our own times and the proposed visions for the future of our species. In my mind, the twentieth century has been one of the darkest moments of human history, despite its accomplishments in the realms of science, technology and conveniences for human life. In The Darkest Hour, the first movement of the concerto, this darkness is explored through juxtaposed and disjointed sound bites of twentieth century music. The darkness is expressed not only by the nature of the sound bites themselves (it is one of the few instances in my work that I have experimented extensively with twelve-tone music) but by the way that they are structured. There is frustration and fragmentation in the background structure while the foreground structure often follows the serial pitch organization principle to its absurd conclusion—individual (melodic) strategies developing independently and with little regard for the social (harmonic) interconnection between these strategies—giving suddenly way to static pop-music riffs which are entirely foreign to these strategies—resuming the serial strategies again in a rather incomprehensible manner that adds to the overall tension of the music. The music starts in low tones with a D minor motif, a small island of sadness in a large sea of despair, to which we return periodically throughout the movement.

Simulacrum, the second movement, was originally designed to be the finale of the concerto, but I realized during the course of its composition that what the music proposes or promises is not real or at least conclusive enough for a finale. The title refers to a fictional, fabricated ‘reality’ that is served to us in generous portions by the media and by every other worldly concern in our lives that manages to disguise itself as ‘information’. In many respects, this deceptively ‘luminous’ music is more sinister than the music of the first movement. The darkness here is not depicted directly: it must be inferred to by the listener. The pervasive, ‘beautiful’-sounding melody near the beginning of this movement is eventually revealed in the solo horn cadenza as a variation of the twelve-tone row which was predominant in the first movement, disguised here appropriately to reflect the underlying mindset of the simulacrum. Further development of this melody finally reveals and exposes it as the shallow ‘elevator music’ of the closing measures. There is a subtext in the music of this movement that many listeners may not discern, but it is there non-the-less. Everything in it, from the ‘American’ opening to its ‘Pacific’ closing reminds one of a synthetic, fabricated deception of global proportions that is involved with information, commodities, and other trappings of ‘civilization’, with no evidence of Spirit. Somewhere in the middle of this movement the deception is temporarily shattered and there is a musical rebellion against this simulacrum somewhat reminiscent of the music of the first movement. But, with the exception of this brief moment, everything else in the middle movement represents the false promises for our future, a Technicolor utopia based on carnal pleasure and spiritual numbness, with Big Brother perpetually watching.

The first theme in G minor of Prophet of Light, the third movement, was already hinted at by the opening music of the first movement (the “island” I spoke of earlier). In fact the third movement picks up with a misleading D minor exactly where the first movement left off, thus refusing to acknowledge the Simulacrum in the middle as anything of substance or anything at all. The third movement is written predominately in the nineteenth century romantic style. The nineteenth century was an interesting era in the history of western music. It represented the culmination of the spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—it was, I believe, the thread of these two philosophical revolutions that lead us into the darkest moments of the twentieth century—but it also embodied a much deeper spiritual vision of the world, whose fruition is yet to come. For this reason I felt that musical romanticism was an appropriate musical language for delineating my own spiritual vision of the future in Winter Solstice. Richard Wagner’s music may have become the musical banner of the Nazis and of what they represented, but there is beauty in Wagner’s music that is still pointing towards future possibilities that have nothing to do with the atrocities of the past. It was this latter vision that has inspired the closing theme in the Prophet of Light. In this vision I tried to divorce the music from any hint of urgency or militancy and invest it instead with a timeless quality. The French horn as the voice of the Prophet of Light speaks slowly and meekly, undisturbed by the occasional impatience of the accompanying instruments, like the solo violin in one instance or the hyperactive orchestra towards the end, but it displays instead clarity of vision, steadfastness and the longer view of things. It seems to say that we, the human race, who in our passage through time have committed unspeakable atrocities but also wonderful acts of kindness and inspiration, have a birthright to a future that is much brighter than the darkness of our past or the simulacra of our present. The horn’s long, arching lines and simple melodies deliver this message in a simple manner, bringing the music to a realm where sound and spirit meet and sing together. Towards the end, the music embraces a musical aesthetic that externally is not that much different from the concluding (“elevator”) music of the second movement. However, here the music is written from the heart and, to my mind at least, is a summation of quite different substance than the earlier parody. It seems to say that, in some ways, the New Age, God’s Kingdom on Earth, may already have come and that it is our own spiritual blindness that is responsible for our inability to see it. After this last glimpse of utopia, the music returns to D minor of the very beginning and solemnly descends into the extreme low register of the double basses. At the same time, the soloist reiterates the opening material of the first movement while slowly walking offstage. The last horn calls are heard from a distance disappearing inside the double bass drone. The prophecy of light is ended; the cycle is complete.

Premiere performance: December 15, 2004. Jamie Sommerville, French horn; The CBC Radio Orchestra, Mario Bernardi, conductor. Northern Arts and Culture Centre; Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

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