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glsp/marimba/SD/BD/tamb/bell tree/susp.cym-harp-pft(=cel)-

Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Michael Collins (clarinet) John Harle (saxophone) / London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen CBE
Composer's Notes

This double-concerto grows directly out of the character of its two solo instruments, their different way of being fluid or strident, husky or chalorous (etc), within the same kind of range and quality of sound. The original image they inspired was of a pair of fighting-cocks, exhibiting their prowess in a conflict that for all its bloodiness was also an affair of skill and elegance – a game of chess, a pattern of dance-movements, a contest of song. The piece’s original title (Cockfight) didn’t last long; but everything in it springs from the simple fact of the two soloists, each with their own "orchestra", laid out antiphonally, whether for enmity or concord.

The first movement begins with an upheaval, from whose dying climax emerge two tentative soloists, interlocked around the same few intervals (the work’s principal material) but unable to utter anything coherent. The course of the movement is made from their separate journeys out of this limbo in search of continuity and sense. The clarinet makes five such forays, the saxophone three. Though their tracks frequently cross, the two never coincide. Instead they encounter different fragments of musical material (usually in the other’s orchestra) towards which they are drawn; these meetings can be seductive, menacing, silly, or blank, but they all dissolve into inconsequence. And beneath its filmy surface the arena for this is as circumscribed as a ghost-train or a monopoly-board. The fruitless quest might go on forever.

Instead, the opening explosion returns, now soft and imploded. The soloists find they can communicate; the second movement yields, rather than a series of near misses, a continuous stream of interlacing two-part lyricism, for whose accompaniment the double orchestra is fused into one. The stream is checked only by the central climax, which arises out of the depths and gathers up the non-sequiturs from the course of the first movement before sweeping the soloists into a fully articulated realisation of the stammering phrases with which they had first entered.

This is the focal point of the whole work. It fades into a double cadenza supported only by unpitched percussion. The orchestra re-joins for an apparently tranquil ending, suddenly interrupted by the return of the opening explosion, here taken far further in destructive violence. As it breaks and topples, the tranquil winding-down continues undisturbed. The soloists’ two-part song, now completely unaccompanied, flowers briefly and coalesces finally into a long-desired unison. The orchestra, tamed, acquiesces; and the work ends a very long way from where it began; and from the cluster of association which had first set it in motion.

The double concerto was sketched in the summer of 1987, composed January - March 1988, and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.

Robin Holloway

Reproduction Rights
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer

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