Broadheath Music

Contemporary Classical Music by Frank Wilhoit

Symphony No. 1 in A, Op. 8 (1979)


This Symphony is an experiment in obliterating the distinction between major and minor. The major third degree is often approached from the augmented second degree, and the minor third from the diminished fourth; and a cadential idiom that is prominent in all four movements combines both of these flavors of appoggiaturas simultaneously.

It is also an experiment in the utmost concision of form, which experiment may have been carried to counterproductive extremes. The forms are not merely condensed, but their various sections are also elided to a degree that sometimes obscures their essential responsibilities, rather than clarifying them. At the premiere, the audience was misled by the radically compressed timescale, and mistook the end of the whole work for the end of the (rather wayward!) "first movement" of a much larger composition--a catastrophic failure of signposting.

The first movement, in A, is in sonata form in a very moderate 12/8 time: twelve real beats in a bar, not four (or three) triplets. The exposition is regular, with three themes (bar 1 (clarinets)/bar 3 (oboe), bar 11 (oboe), bar 16 (violins)). The recapitulation (bar 28) omits the first theme, which returns in the coda (bar 41).

The second movement, in D, is the one movement whose form is fully developed. It is a Scherzo whose outer sections are in 7/8 time, with harmony based largely on tritones belatedly resolving to fifths. The Trio, based on a chant-like theme on trombone, expands from 7/4 through 7/2 to a central bar of 7/1.

The third movement, in F, is a ternary form whose outer sections (based on a horn melody with pizzicato bass) have too little shape of their own. The middle section is much richer texturally, and swiftly builds up a huge climax based on the major-minor clash.

The Finale, in A, is in sonatina form. The first theme material is transformed from the corresponding material in the first movement; it is pervasively syncopated. The second theme (bar 19) is motivically similar to the first but texturally different. A brief codetta (bar 27) that is not heard again leads to the recapitulation (bar 33), which sounds confusingly like a development--a hypothesis that is not deprecated by the return (bar 46) of the second theme. When the first theme comes back again after a noisy cadence in C at bar 57, it is the coda that has begun, not (as it might easily seem) a development picking up a false start.

Copyright © 2015 Frank Wilhoit