'It is incredible that a composer of this strength has been so overlooked. On the evidence of this recording alone he should be treated as a national treasure' (The Scotsman)
'Three superb romantic scores. The symphony is a major discovery' (The Yorkshire Post)
'Another Hyperion winner' (Gramophone)
Prelude to The Eumenides [10'27]
Spinning Song [3'54]
The Death of Mélisande [5'58]
It seems that no one has performed Wallace's Creation Symphony for nearly a hundred years and yet, in the history of the symphony in Britain, it is unprecedented in its scope and daring. The work guides us through the first few verses of the Book of Genesis, but not in the literalistic manner of, say, Haydn's Creation; rather Wallace conjures up intense emotions as a response to the contemplation of such poetic symbolism. (Many fascinating aspects of this symbolism are detailed by John Purser in the accompanying booklet, including strands interweaving Wallace's own life with the business of Creation.)
Wallace's Pelléas and Mélisande Suite predates the compositions by Debussy and Sibelius on the same theme by several years. It is a work of extravagantly heart-on-sleeve passion, and yet both this Suite and the equally rewarding Prelude to The Eumenides remain virtually unknown.
Other recommended albums
Notwithstanding the great success of Hyperion’s earlier disc of Wallace’s symphonic poems (), recording Wallace’s Creation Symphony was an inspired leap in the dark. It seems that nobody had performed the work in nearly a hundred years and yet, in the history of the symphony in Britain at the time of its composition, it is unprecedented in scope and daring. The Prelude to The Eumenides and the three movements from the Pelléas and Mélisande Suite are also virtually unknown; this is their first recording.
William Wallace was born in 1860 and, like Hamish MacCunn (see), was a son of Greenock. He was a pupil at Fettes College, Edinburgh, and went on to study medicine, graduating with the MB and MCh from Glasgow University in 1885. After a further period studying ophthamology in Vienna, Paris and Moorfields, he returned to graduate with the MD from Glasgow in 1888. But it had not always been a happy time. His father James was a distinguished surgeon and ambitious for him; when William went his own way there were bitter divisions. His mother wrote to him shortly after he had left home in the spring of 1882:
My Dear Willie, It wrung my heart to see you go last night in such a state and with such cruel words ringing in your ears and mine – the only thing I can say is, try to forget them … Ever my dear son, your truly grieved mother.
The struggle with his father was still continuing in 1885 and, soon after gaining his doctorate in 1888, he took up the study of music at the Royal Academy of Music in London; the ear had proved stronger than the eye. However, two terms at the RAM were enough for him (not surprising at twenty-eight years of age), and thereafter he was self-taught. He was one of the six rebels who included his younger contemporary Bantock (also the son of a Scottish-based surgeon) who challenged the conservatism of the music schools of the time. With Bantock Wallace published The New Quarterly Musical Review, frequently editing it with Anderton when Bantock was away. In a letter of 1904 Wallace asks that the Royal College of Music jury give a chance to ‘even the most bizarre and so-called eccentric compositions that are sent in’, and with respect to controversies at the Leeds Festival cites his intention to ‘march in the direction of the guns’!
The Wallace household must have been a fascinating one, for he married the distinguished sculptress Ottilie Helen MacLaren, daughter of Lord MacLaren. Wallace dedicated his A Suite in the Olden Style for piano to her. She studied with Rodin and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts (though when in 1928 she was unable to enter William promptly produced a painting, Waterloo Drum, of a corner of their own house in London and submitted it to ensure the family was represented; it was accepted and duly hung on the line). Theirs was a relationship of the deepest and most enduring love, enshrined in their moving correspondence now held in the National Library of Scotland.
The 1914–1918 War saw Wallace working more or less continuously in the Royal Army Medical Corps, from which he retired in 1919 with the rank of Captain. By the end of it he was fifty-eight years of age, had taken only three weeks of leave and had reported on nineteen thousand cases, many of which he had personally attended to. He must have been completely drained, yet he went on to be a Professor of Harmony and Composition and Professorial Chief of the library at the Royal Academy of Music in his later years.
Wallace’s major works are now well represented on this and Hyperion’s preceding Wallace disc. There remain unrecorded only two of his six symphonic poems (one of which is currently lost); two orchestral suites and an orchestral rhapsody; a bitingly satirical choral ballad, The Massacre of the MacPhersons, which makes a ridiculous combination of snippets from Wagner’s ‘Ring’ and traditional Scottish themes; and a choral symphony, Koheleth, which awaits rediscovery and may be unfinished. Wallace also published several books on music theory and history. These include wide-ranging and challenging works analysing the nature and development of the musical faculty in humankind, and studies of great insight into Wagner and Liszt, whose influence on his own music is clear. Wallace died in 1940.
Stylistically, Wallace is much more radical than either Mackenzie or MacCunn, particularly in his freer development of structure. Bantock was more splendidly blatant: and immediate symphonic predecessors were, like Bruckner, more determinedly massive or, like Liszt and Mahler (Wallace’s exact contemporary), more emotionally ostentatious. Wallace, instead, achieves his own magnificence by uniting passion and philosophy. His style is that of high German romanticism, with only occasional references to Scottish traditional music. His chromatic harmonies are unsympathetic to folk idioms; his melodies are driven by the harmonies rather than the other way about; and his thematic development is thoroughly organic. In all but the last of these respects he is quite different from his younger contemporary Carl Nielsen, yet Wallace’s meaning, notably in passages of the Creation Symphony, looks towards the work of Nielsen (born in the same Protestant latitudes) rather than towards the great Austrian and German symphonists. His conviction is not only intellectual and emotional: it has a moral force which is never didactic and, though triumphant, there is no triumphalism in its beauty and splendour.
Prelude to the Eumenides of Aeschylus
The Prelude opens with the leitmotif of Fate, driving and relentless. The reply to this comes in the form of an oboe solo, reasoned but full of feeling, which, as it increases in fervour, leads us back to the less rational aspects of the Furies. As the musical argument swings to and fro, so it becomes clear that the two themes are related to each other, the first becoming subsumed in the more rational character of that for Athene. It is in her honour that the concluding hymn in the brass is heard, accompanied by a variant of her own theme.
August Manns conducted the first performance in the Crystal Palace, London, on 21 October 1893.
Pelléas and Mélisande Suite
The story is simple enough. Pelléas falls in love with his older brother’s young wife, Mélisande. The brother, Golaud, heir to King Arkel’s throne, becomes aware of this and kills him; and Mélisande, having presented her husband with a child, dies of grief. But this simplicity cloaks a profound symbolism in which the nature of innocence is questioned and in which its abuse inevitably leads to tragedy.
‘The Love of Pelléas for Mélisande’: innocent or no, this is a passionate love, given rich expression on bass clarinet followed by the strings in rising sequences of desire. The hushed delicacy of the medieval setting is also present, but the conclusion of the movement matches the reality in the play, in which Pelléas and Mélisande have been prepared to give themselves wholly to each other, knowing that her husband is watching them.
‘Spinning Song’: this is a little character-piece, showing a delicate and lighter side to Wallace’s character as a composer, especially when compared to the dark undercurrents of Sibelius’s interpretation of the same scene. Wallace chooses to realize the unaffected innocence of Mélisande in simplistic form and melody. She is scarcely beyond childhood, and the music reflects her dangerous naivety which has so captivated the two brothers. In such a world of natural melodic charm it seems that cruelty would be an utter impossibility.
‘The Death of Mélisande’: coming after the innocence of the ‘Spinning Song’, the extravagance of the grief of this movement is all the more telling. This is a vast grief, not only because it occurs in the palace of a king and is for the wife of a king’s son who has died in the wake of her lover, but also because this grief is not innocent. Golaud, having murdered his own brother, is left racked with doubt, not knowing whether Pelléas and Mélisande were, after all, merely children, not able to help what they did.
The contrast with the later, muted treatment of this by Debussy and Sibelius is startling. Dramatic funeral drums and gong punctuate the passionate descending phrase derived from a theme originally associated with Pelléas’s declaration of love. The central section recalls that love, but the final lento e dolente, heralded by funereal trumpets and the return of the drums, fragments into hushed misery.
Creation Symphony in C sharp minor
I have begun a Symphony on The Creation—first movement Chaos—not the noisy idea but deep very mysterious and weird—sullen—then on this comes ‘the spirit of God on the waters’, the evolution of Kosmos out of Chaos, then the divine idea of man, just hinted at and not fully complete till it appears in the sixth day movement; ending with ‘Let there be light’—bright trumpets very high up. This movement is sketched, and I am off my head with joy!
Wallace thought of God’s Creation as a work of art. Ottilie was studying with Rodin in Paris at the time; and Wallace, having shaken off the repressive influence of his father and changed from medicine to music, was exulting in his own freedom as a creative artist. He and Ottilie felt a profound intimacy with the whole idea of Creation, and Wallace even embedded the numerological values of his own and Ottilie’s names into the structure of the work (see below and the ‘Note on Wallace’s Use of Numerology’). He makes the connections clear, writing to Ottilie on 31 January 1896:
You won’t perhaps realize the musical idea, but translate it into your own work, and it will be clear as day. When I think of it I seem to see your patient fingers making Kosmos out of the Chaos clay—and the mystery of your art will lead to appreciation and understanding of all. I don’t believe in the ultimate happiness of the man who says one art is enough for a lifetime, for even a lifetime is too little to know one art thoroughly, But everyone can translate into his own tongue the work of others, absorb it till pictures appear as symphonies, and symphonies as sculpture.
This excitement and intimacy with the act of creation evoked from Wallace a corresponding awe at the vastness of God’s conception, and natural modesty in relation to his own place in the history of music:
And some of these days all my work will be forgotten in that of the king who is coming. But still a tiny bit of me will live in his work, just as in my own weak way I have soaked in the others who have gone before, and feeling that if it had not been for them where would I be!
Wallace was a deeply thoughtful Christian: his verse-play on the subject of the Passion, The Divine Surrender, was published the year before he started work on the Creation Symphony. Originally intended for a music-drama, Wallace had recast it in spoken form. It achieves a fine intellectual balance between the Jewish, Roman and Christian points of view and, like his music, is the product of a passionate and balanced mind.
As a composer Wallace’s modesty is disarming, for this is a work like no other. H Orsmond Anderton (one of the group of rebels referred to above), described the Creation Symphony thus:
… a big work in every sense. It is scored for large festival orchestra and shows the ‘passion for the universal’ in the scope and range of its ideas as well as in their treatment. The method is a reflection of the evolutionary process of nature, one subject growing out of another, and all springing from the initial germinal idea. There are four movements, leading up to ‘Man’ in the last, which contains passages of an occult nature referring to the ultimate dissolution of the flesh and man’s attainment of a purely spiritual state. It is to be hoped that an opportunity will soon occur of hearing this deeply significant work. (Musical Opinion, May 1920)
It is pleasing to be able to endorse Anderton’s opinion and also to explain some of the more arcane significances in the work, for it is unified not only by its thematic material, but also by a structure which taps into ancient mystical values attached to number, expressed in simple coded forms of the Hebrew and English alphabets in particular (see ‘Note’). This, then, is not a naturalistic work. In fact Wallace, in his own programme note for the first performance (which he conducted), distanced himself from the inspired naturalism of Haydn’s Creation, and the pictorialism of Richard Strauss:
Regarded in its poetic significance as a Liturgical Hymn, and not as a record of events, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis presents a theme suggestive of symphonic treatment. Since the aeons into which the Work of Creation was divided cannot be interpreted in a strictly literal sense, the music aims at depicting the emotion which the contemplation of the theme in its poetic and symbolical meaning is able to awaken.
(Adagio — Allegro): ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’ It is these opening words of the Bible which inspire the opening bars of the symphony: a passage of profound mystery and great orchestral daring—double basses divided and solo tuba representing ‘“emptiness and space”, the correct and literal meaning of the Greek word “chaos”’, as Wallace himself describes it. The choice of C sharp minor as the main key is designed to produce a dark, veiled colouring that contains within itself the potential of brilliance in its relative E major—especially when, in Wallace’s days, horns and trumpets could be pitched in E.
The challenging dotted rhythms which introduced the main Allegro, and a process of gradual transformation of the thematic material, might be taken as the latent energy of light: indeed the theme for light, which emerges in the closing moderato, is derived from that of the void. The movement anticipates the triumph of the whole symphony, reaching a climax of cosmic power, before it ends with an ecstatic but calm hymn representing ‘light’, in Wallace’s own words, ‘exemplified by very soft strains, as an influence that comes from above’. It is reminiscent of his first tone poem, The Passing of Beatrice, in which a vision of heavenly love is realized.
(Andantino): ‘And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: He made the stars also.’ The Andantino starts with an extraordinary evocation of the poised mystery of starlight, using a simultaneous double augmentation of the opening phrase with exquisite orchestral colouring and minimalist purity, nearly a century before its time. The largo introduces the first true melody of the movement, tracing the beautiful and stately progress of the moon. But the symbolic purity of the moon is far from passionless. Again we are reminded of The Passing of Beatrice and the anticipation of spiritual consummation which leads logically to the striding theme of the sun. This is heard against the re-worked texture of the opening section of the movement, and is followed by all three themes in combination. This trinity of light is also symbolic of the Trinity of the Godhead from which it emanates, reaching towards a triumphant fanfare as the sun rises to a radiant zenith to bring the movement to a close.
(Allegro): ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.’ The movement is a kind of scherzo starting with a restless figure based on the unresolved interval of the tritone and suggesting the restlessness of the oceans. As it gathers force, a new theme emerges from the brass—‘in the character of a sea song’, as Wallace puts it—and is succeeded by a pastoral theme identified with the earth. After a return of the opening restlessness, the two themes are combined in a closing section of Wagnerian grandeur.
(Allegro maestoso): ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.’ A magnificent fanfare heralds the culmination of the symphony—the creation of man on the sixth day. ‘To attach a verbal meaning to each individual phrase is as impossible as is the task of analysing the human being’, declared Wallace. But he describes the movement as mainly triumphal, though drawing attention to ‘phrases which may be considered as symbolizing the ultimate dissolution of the flesh that is as grass’. As a doctor and surgeon Wallace was familiar enough with the dissolution of the flesh, but this movement is primarily symbolic of the creative capacity of humankind—‘male and female created He them’—and the triumph is as much the triumph of love and, specifically, his own and Ottilie’s love, placing himself and her as a kind of Adam and Eve in the newly-created Eden of his finale, upon which the second-movement theme of the sun rises in splendour.
Wallace’s skilful development of his thematic material, and the tautness of the weave of its evolution (not to mention the vividness of the orchestral colours, singly and in combination), would merit pages of analysis. But above all, it is itself a creation born of an unfaltering conviction, which makes of this work a seamless cloth of beauty, originality and power.
A Note on Wallace’s Use of Numerology in the Creation Symphony
The second movement is 258 bars long. This represents the triple Godhead for it is 86 times 3, and 86 is the number for ‘Elohim’—one of the sacred names for God. It also represents the three sources of heavenly light—stars, moon and sun—which are the subject of the movement. However, just as Wallace described the clay which his sculptress wife worked as ‘chaos’, so ‘chaos’ is still present within the Creation, and it is only at bar 172 that the final section integrating the three separate sources of light commences. That 172 is twice 86 can be taken as significant in a Christian context—Father and Son, but without the Holy Spirit which is the active principle of Godhead in the act of Creation, whether in the Spirit of God moving upon the waters, or in the dove of the Holy Spirit impregnating Mary, the mother of the Son of God. In such an interpretation 172 is the Godhead without the Spirit and therefore, in a sense, Chaos.
The third and fourth movements can be taken together. The third starts with the name of Elohim in the opening 86 bars of Allegro, but the symbolism in these movements is also personal. Just as the first movement represents a monad (the singleness of the ‘world’), and the second represents the Holy Trinity and a trinity of sources of light, so the last two movements represent the duality of water and earth, and of woman and man, respectively. However, it is not their separateness, but their coming together that is celebrated.
Wallace used the Hebrew letter Shin as his signature at the end of each movement of the score. In 1888 he had published words and music of a Carmen Glasguense in honour of Glasgow Univeristy, the bold cover design of a student with mortar-board, books and symbolic letter Shin being his own. The student, in doctoral gown, is probably a self-portrait, the letter Shin meaning ‘song’ being like a W for William Wallace, and also representing the eye and having symbolic associations with the six-bar phrases of the music and six-line poetic structure. Six is the number of days of the Creation and is particularly associated with the creation of man. However, 6 x 60 is 360, and this is the value of the letter Shin in the Hebrew ‘plenitude’ alphabet. Wallace applied this value directly to his own situation. His wife’s maiden name was MacLaren, which has a value of 67 in the ‘26’ alphabet. But on her approaching marriage she would change her name to Wallace, using it professionally as well as personally. By removing MacLaren (subtracting 67 from 360) the result is 293—the number of bars in each of the last two movements of the symphony.
The symbolism is not merely that of the loss of a name. The name is a maiden name; it symbolizes virginity. The new number represents the two names, the two sexes, each yielding to the other to produce a number symbolizing their union. In the same ‘26’ alphabet, by an extraordinary coincidence which clearly struck Wallace, the names ‘William Wallace’ and ‘Ottilie MacLaren’ themselves add up to the same number—293.
We are not done with coincidence, for in the ‘800’ English alphabet ‘William Wallace’ adds up to 1,189 and ‘Ottilie MacLaren’ to 733. Subtracting the one from the other gives 456, and this number is the sum of Adam (46) and Eve (410) in the same ‘800’ alphabet. There is no question that these are coincidences, but equally there is no doubt that Wallace was aware of and made use of them.
I am deeply indebted to the generous scholarship of David Crookes in preparing this note.
John Purser © 1997
Other albums in this series