The broad spectrum of emotions—ranging from tragedy to high comedy—that inhabits the pages of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors
clearly appealed to Coles when he chose to portray something of its intricate matrix of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, reversals of fortune, and dramatic recognitions in his one and only concert overture. The opening of the work reminds us of Coles’s enthusiasm for Wagner. The ‘spear’ motif, so prominent as a symbol of Wotan’s will in Das Rheingold
, was surely the inspiration behind the sinister opening brass fanfare, an idea which vividly represents the impending death sentence that awaits Aegeon, merchant of Syracuse, unless he can pay a substantial fine. As a powerful foil to Aegeon’s introductory music (which is strikingly redolent of Mahler), the opening viola theme of the Allegro is bustling and jocular. Depicted here are surely the farcical antics of the two twins (both named Antipholus) and their slaves (Dromio) which become more intense in the developmental phase of the work. A more feminine second subject, winsomely lyrical and expansively Straussian in its generous contours and lush, chromatically-shifting progressions, is ushered in by a passionate transition for violin solo. This surely projects an endearing image of Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus who suffers so much confusion with the unexpected appearance of her husband’s look-alike brother, Antipholus of Syracuse. A further feminine thematic episode (in the submediant) occurs towards the end of the lively and discursive development, which, by its location and dignity, probably represents the entrance of Aemilia, Lady Abbess of Ephesus (Aegeon’s long lost wife) and her chastisement of Adriana, who, believing her husband to be mad, has committed him to prison.
The tonal turbulence that follows summarizes the sense of torment and confusion experienced by all the main protagonists, but, signalled by the horns’ ominous restatement of the fanfare, we are reminded of Aegeon’s impending punishment. This point marks the beginning of a much-transformed recapitulation. The bustling theme, heard concurrently in diminished and augmented form (in a manner not dissimilar to the corresponding section of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger) is reworked into a polyphonic accompaniment as support for a solemn chorale in the brass and wind. This is the solemn march of the Duke of Ephesus and his party who return to resolve Aegeon’s fate. Their presence triggers a spate of anagnorisis in the animated restatement of the second subject and exhilarating coda; here all the characters are reconciled, Aegeon is freely pardoned (in a last statement of the fanfare), and his family is restored to him in a final gesture of elation and joy.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2002