Analysis : Third movement

Graham Saxby

Third movement - Graham Saxby

Introduction . Movements 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 and Conclusion

The third movement is the so-called "Battle" scherzo. However, in spite of its literary origins, the movement seems to suggest a wild whirling dance rather than a battle. It requires four groups of four horns each, playing concertante, and in addition two pianos and organ (mainly pedals). This powerful moto perpetuo in 6/8 time is the very apotheosis of the ostinato.

Basically the plan of the movement is simple. The horn groups play in antiphony, each group having its own spatial position, motivic material and timbre at the outset. The interplay between the groups becomes more complex, and more and more ostinati are added to the accompaniment. The music works up to a final climax, then draws to a close.

The movement begins quietly with repetitive figures on harps, which are joined by muted violas and violins playing the first of the ostinato figures. Next the two pianos enter, playing bare chords of ambiguous tonality in parallel movement in trochaic rhythm; then come the three timpanists. The first group of horns, in the distance, announce their long repetitive theme which is in a tetratonic scale that could belong to C major or C minor — or perhaps to neither?
In contrast, the timpani ostinato seems to be in D minor — but again we cannot be sure, for there are notes missing. The first horn theme is answered by a snarling echo from the second group, stopped, with a "theme" restricted to two notes. The third group enters, closer, with its theme an ostinato figure; and the fourth group also has an ostinato figure which, however, moves up a semitone at each repetition. The first-group theme is treated in canon, and new ostinati are added. The antiphonal horn parts become steadily more virtuosic, and further ostinati enter in new tonalities and rhythms, until the accompaniment is both heterophonic and heterorhythmic, a veritable hell’s kitchen in music.

The frenzied dance mounts in tension until it reaches a veritable climax: four massive chords from the full brass and organ are answered by four hammer-blows from pianos, woodwind and pizzicato strings. The music subsides as if exhausted at last. A solo horn bids farewell to first-group theme , and on a strange, plangent chord from the woodwind the movement ends.

This is highly original music. Unique it certainly is (though there is a clear precedent in the "scherzo" of The Gothic) in respect that no other extant symphonic movement contains so obsessive a use of ostinato. Thematic interest is minimal: the interest lies in the polytonal and heterorhythmic effects of the concertante groups set against simultaneous ostinati of different types. The rhythmic tension can be seen in almost any bar from the score, for example in bar 608, where there are six different simultaneous rhythms [in woodwind, horns I, trumpets + horns II, low strings + piano 1, organ + piano 2, violins]. Brian achieves all his effects within the 6/8 tempo: there are no 2-against-3 or similar polyrhythms.
The tension in this movement is not only rhythmic. It is largely generated by the pull between different tonalities, both successive and simultaneous. At the very beginning we have an ambiguous C major in the horn theme against an ambiguous D minor in the accompaniment (though, as we shall see, it is wise to be cautious about accepting anything in this music at its face value). As further ostinati enter, each with its own tonal centre, the music becomes more firmly bitonal, then polytonal: at the height of the movement there are so many independent ostinati that the music becomes truly heterophonic, and we can choose to listen to any of the ostinato lines (or rhythms) and hear it independently of the others. Listening thus becomes a matter of active choice: one can deliberately hear the work differently on different occasions.

If the scales used by the horns are oddly restricted, those used in the orchestral ostinati are odd in a different way. They are, it is true, diatonic scales (almost everything in the scherzo is diatonic): the climactic ostinato which enters at bar 587 is simply the scales of F and Ab juxtaposed. To the ear, though, it sounds like some strange new scale. The figure is set against the first-group’s C minor/major theme played in canon at the unison by the first two groups of horns; and while these remain stubbornly in the same tonality the ostinato motifs swing wildly from one tonality to another. And just as Brian can achieve what seem to be complex polyrhythmic effects without leaving the strict 6/8 framework, so he produces what appear to be equally complex polytonal effects wholly within the limits of the diatonic, and indeed often pentatonic, scale.

At the climax of the movement the four shattering chords, marked ‘ff cresc’, consist simply of Db major on the trumpets and F minor on the trombones and tubas, both reinforced by the organ. This bitonal chord is contradicted four times by a D major chord on woodwind, pianos and pizzicato strings, marked "fff". As the music subsides it moves to a kind of pentatonic C tonality, and at last seems to agree with the solo horn as it sounds the "C minor/major" theme, far away, for the last time. But Brian still has a trick up his sleeve: the last note of the horn solo is not C but D. At last we perceive what the tonality of this theme really is; it is the Dorian mode on D. So we see that at the beginning there was no clash of keys between horns and timpani: the D minor Dorian and the C major scale use the same notes. If we now think of the "C minor/major" as a Dorian D-centred tonality, the rationale of the opening bars becomes clear.
Brian had made use of modes in the Gothic Symphony, and was to do so many times more, but his use of modes is neither that of Bartok and the European composers in the folk idiom, nor the bucolic pentatonicism of the early symphonies of Vaughan Williams. It harks back to early English music, to Tallis and before, when modes as well as hexatonic and pentatonic scales were part of the standard musical language, and when melodic lines for the different voices were written "horizontally", without regard for the "vertical" sound: and the listener received no sense of discord because the voice lines were heard as separate (though simultaneous) entities. Only with the coming of the Baroque era did the "vertical" element become important, so that such things as consecutive 5ths became musical solecisms. It is to the older tradition that Brian looks in his approach to tonality and counterpoint.

There is one last surprise to come. The final chord is spelt out from the top downwards by oboes, cors anglais, clarinets and bassoons; and a strange chord it is: not a bitonal chord, and not a note-cluster, this chord is indescribable in formal terms; and its sound is strange indeed, almost mocking. A bare 5th flicker from the violins; and as the strange sound fades, the final movement begins.

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