Wallace: Creation Symphony & other orchestral works
CDH55465 Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…: Adagio – Allegro
Movement 2. And God made two great lights…: Andantino
Movement 3. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…: Allegro
Movement 4. So God created man in his own image…: Allegro maestoso
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.
from notes by John Purser © 1997