While this piece strays from the Classical four-movement symphonic form, it certainly adheres to the spirit of a symphony with its epic sense of scale. The long time-spans involved in a symphony make the structural basis very important. In this case, the five movements are shaped in an arch: the first and fifth movements mirror each other with strong melodic content, while the second and fourth are concerned with more abstract sonorities and textures. Standing alone is the third movement with a quiet, unfettered atmosphere and almost poignant sentiment.
The percussion section begins the symphony, erupting with loud outbursts punctuated by silence. The bass instruments of the orchestra combine in a stacked cluster-chord, fashioned around a three-note motif (a tone plus a semitone). This motif forms the main pitch material for the entire symphony. The horns and strings then develop a rhythmic melody based on an extension of the motif, and this thematic material returns in many guises throughout the symphony. Later in the movement, the harp and piano—a favourite combination of mine—pick up this idea and transform it into a simple repeating motif, which returns again in the fifth movement.
The violins open the second movement, intoning a sombre chord above which the solo clarinet floats, painting thin brushstrokes on the aural canvas. Sounds fuse, textures shimmer, and strange harmonies form a surreal, almost dream-like atmosphere. Underpinning these sonorities is the main motif from the first movement, but without its strong rhythmic emphasis, there is a sense of time slowing down.
A feeling of quiet nostalgia pervades the third movement. After an initial chromatic antiphon from cellos and basses, the strings weave a chorale based in the old ecclesiastical “modes”. Underlying this chorale is a four-note theme, heard clearly once in the first violins, then subsumed by the other string instruments, eventually changing mode into something quieter and sadder. Towards the end of this movement everything dissolves into a free sonic evocation of wind and birdsong. It is as if, here at the very centre of the symphony, the underlying essence of the symphony’s soundworld is revealed.
The fourth movement resonates with bells. Crotales, vibraphone and tubular bells, in conjunction with harp and piano, intone rich harmonies, sustained by muted strings. These chords are gradually developed into more detailed textural writing, but always featuring the cluster motif of the first movement.
With a flourish of brass and percussion, the final movement of the symphony begins. Melodic material from the opening movement is recapitulated, but distorted with wild leaps, sardonic dissonances and rhythmic complexities. Ending as it began, the cluster-chords from the opening of the symphony return like immense blocks of granite, demarcating the perimeter of the work’s universe.
The symphony’s subtitle, “the mountains ponder a silence as profound as stars”, is a paraphrase from the Hone Tuwhare poem “The sea, to the mountains, to the river”. Though there is no programme, as such, behind the symphony, the listener should be able to detect moments in which images from the subtitle are being evoked.