This symphonic poem seeks to represent in music the eternal conflict of the two contesting forces in man: on the one hand that of the flesh and the reckless pursuit of pleasure; on the other, that of the spirit, with its call for detachment and self-denial. The composer has tried to reproduce the passions which this struggle expresses, framing them in the beautiful vision of almost palpable clarity evoked by the following passage in the book Les Grands Initiés by Edouard Schuré:
“Plato spent a fortune on this feast. The tables were prepared in the garden. Youths holding torches illuminated the guests. The three most beautiful courtesans of Athens were present.
“The feast continued all night. Smiling, Plato stood up and said: “This feast is the last one I offer you. From today I renounce life's pleasures to dedicate myself to wisdom and to follow the teachings of Socrates.” A single cry of surprise and protest arose. The courtesans stood up and left in their litters, glancing spitefully at the master of the house.
“The cream of Athenean’s society and the sophists left with ironic jibes – “Farewell Plato! Be happy! You will return to us! Goodbye! Goodbye!”
“Two pensive youths stayed behind, close to him. Plato led these faithful friends by the hand into the inner courtyard of the house, leaving behind an amphora of wine half empty, and cups still full. Heaped on small altar was a pyramid of papyrus rolls: all of Plato’s poetry. Taking a torch and laughing, Plato set them alight. When the flames had finally died down, the friends, with tears in their eyes, silently took leave of their future teacher. But Plato, left alone, did not weep.
“A peace, a wondrous serenity filled his soul. His thoughts were of Socrates whom he was about to see. The approaching dawn touched the balconies of the house, the colonnades, the pediments of the temples and suddenly the first rays of the sun made the golden helmet of Arthemis shine on the slope of the Acropolis.”
The work follows the writer’s vision, opening with the songs and dances of the feast, in which primitive and exotic modes emphasise the oriental character of the orgy. Gradually this dies down, giving place to an evocation of Plato’s words: his gentle and serene demeanour is contrasted with the sarcastic cries of his guests as they abandon him in the coming dawn.
This imaginative score (it was at night that Plato contemplated his Symposium) opens with a zephyr of high woodwind and string tone that soon settles, against which a long, lyrical theme unfurls. The tone-colour of this first statement of the theme is unique: oboe, muted trumpet and half the viola section in unison; this main theme – the ‘Plato’ theme – is repeated on violins against fuller (but no less gentle) accompaniment, before the flutes have an animated dance-like theme, in the same key (A flat). The zephyr returns, interrupted by a crude gesture on the lower brass which invokes a longer stretch of music – faster and soon dominated by an insistent timpani figure – in which the Platonic theme engages in strong disputation. This fades momentarily but returns with greater power and the ‘dispute’ is more fully engaged. At length, a momentary, dream-like waltz interrupts but this is soon discarded, before the ‘Plato’ theme returns, passionately excited. This triumphantly dominates proceedings and seems to ‘take on’ the destructive forces until a new stretch of contemplative music emerges with a broader theme of rising fourths. Once again the Plato theme is alluded to, ushering in a genuinely humorous passage; after a momentary hesitation, this ‘scherzo’-like music now returns with greater energy. As it dies away, in the ebbing zephyr, a new theme, in a new tonality, G major, emerges from the strings in octaves, and the final great part of the work unfolds. As a majestic sense of calm descends, the Platonic theme is alluded to in conjunction with others before the music is brought to an end.
The search for G major here is a fascinating one; de Sabata’s harmonic subtlety can be judged in the frequent avoidance of the tonic – the ending, it seems, is complete, but not quite final.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2001