Composed the same year as A Welcome March
, Stanford’s Overture in the style of a tragedy
, Op 90, was completed on 7 December 1903. For what purpose he wrote the work is unknown and there is no evidence of a performance given during his lifetime. The overture was first performed by the Ulster Orchestra under the direction of Kenneth Montgomery on 24 August 2010 at the Ulster Hall and broadcast the following year by the BBC. A substantial essay in C minor, it belongs to the same dark, brooding genus of overtures as Brahms’s Tragic Overture
and Parry’s fine Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy
(inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello
). Full of rhythmic dynamism, the work begins violently with an expansive melody in the depths of the orchestra but soon erupts with an explosive agitation for the whole. A more lyrical second subject, containing some of Stanford’s most advanced chromatic harmony, provides an emotional foil and a glimpse of optimism. These two ideas vie for position in the development but it is the gloomy, disconsolate demeanour that prevails, and though the lyrical material, in C major, emerges for orchestra with splendid equanimity, it is the persistent, indeed sinister rhythms of the drama that carry the movement to its shadowy, oppressed conclusion. Last but not least, the valedictory fragments from the clarinets in the final bars, reminiscent of the music from the composer’s incidental music to Oedipus Rex
, suggest that, perhaps, Sophoclean tragedy was in the mind of the composer.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2019