Phaeton’s Journey: Son of the Sun, a concertante for trumpet and orchestra, tells an ancient tale of overweening pride and its inevitable fall, as recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Phaeton, son of the Sun-God Apollo, seeks his father's acknowledgement and love and comes to his palace begging a favour. Apollo does love his boy and will grant him what he asks: to ride your chariot across the Heavens for just one day: anything but that! Phaeton presses; Apollo, having promised, must keep to his vow: the chariot is harnessed and the foolish youth sets out on his dangerous course to its disastrous end.
The story is told in direct illustrative narrative: the solo trumpet represents both Son and Sun and there's a running commentary in the score hence in the music which I'll give complete:
The scene opens on the empty Empyrean, we hear Phaeton's melody, a re-introduction of the opening material and Apollo's melody. The Seasons, who cluster about the Sun-God's throne are presented in order: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Apollo's first appeal to his son seems to cry ‘don't ask this!’ The twelve Zodiac figures, also subject to the Sun-God's control, are given a brief character cameo. Stern realities intrude: Apollo's second appeal is more desperate – ‘don't do it!’ But he has sworn his oath. The golden chariot awaits (represented on the celeste), followed by one last plea, already lamenting for what he knows will happen.
The Journey begins: the bumpy ride scatters the twelve Zodiacs, Phaeton reacts to each in turn. The theme of ‘stern reality’ is heard again, establishing order, but the journey resumes, this time more precariously. The chariot dips too near the ocean, boiling up the waters. Outraged Neptune (trombones) denounces the crime. The journey restarts but this time the chariot swings too close to the earth. Mother Earth (saxophone) laments the devastation of her lands. Up aloft again, Phaeton's erratic course scatters the Seasons – they appear in reverse order, helplessly spinning round in a cycle of futility. The journey resumes, yet more dangerously, nearly singeing the high Heavens. Jupiter (all 4 horns), appalled at the challenge, fires a thunderbolt that sends the chariot, its horses of the Sun, its hapless driver, plummeting to destruction. The cadenza ends with a wistful glimpse, on the celeste, of the smashed vehicle. Thus follows the lament after catastrophe – ‘farewell, my true Son’. His mortal mother also grieves: his sisters join in the mourning and Apollo takes a last look at the mangled corpse. The scene clears: empty Empyrean.
Programme note © Robin Holloway 2018
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.
"...everything sounds clear and right, and the single-movement structure has gripping momentum… Phaeton’s incompetence with the chariot – ‘the bumpy ride’ – leads to such aggravations as the boiling up of the oceans, the devastation of the planet, the scattering of the Zodiac and the disruption of the seasons… Altogether, Phaeton’s arrogance is bad news for climate change. But Hardenberger’s unbelievable dexterity with his relentlessly challenging part spoke only of deep musical devotion.”
“Anyone’s who’s been asked ‘Dad, can I borrow the car keys?’ will know how Apollo felt, and of course his forebodings were justified… There’s a rightness about associating the sound of the trumpet with the golden sun, both in respect of its god and his over-ambitious offspring… Phaeton is presented as asking for his privilege again and again, and tension is raised by taking the trumpet part higher and higher in its tessitura.”
The Arts Desk