Voyants (1989)

By Peter M. Wolrich

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Commissioned by Radio France, this work evolved from an image of the piano as a voyant (‘seer’) predicting, imagining or calling forth dire events. The piece comprises four sections which follow one another without pause. The first section begins with the piano alone. Above a repeated kinetic figure, consisting of broken, atonal chords, the piano brings out a rising chromatic melodic line which will be seen to anticipate the climactic third section. Woodwinds enter with figures emerging out of, and sympathetic to, the texture of the piano. A gradual crescendo ensues as the counterpoint becomes more dense. Before a climax is reached the music stops abruptly, leading into the second section.

The second section is more reflective than the first. Fragmentary ideas in strings and percussion, instruments that appear here for the first time, ruminate in isolation and without apparent direction. The material in the orchestra is polytonal, against which the piano and piccolo pit dissonant rhythmic spurts which are unsympathetic to the strings and, again, serve to anticipate the rhythmic climax of the third section.

It is as though the orchestra, which does not acknowledge the piano’s “vision” in the first section, has turned in upon itself. Simultaneously, the piano, consumed by its foreshadowing of future events, resists the orchestra and seeks to spur it on. In the third section, the cataclysmic vision of the piano is fully realized. The orchestra builds to a terrifying climax. The piano, in frenetic agitation that employs elements from the first section, sets up the harmonic material for this climax. The entire orchestra, at maximum density, presents a slow but inexorable crescendo of greater and greater agitation. The piano leads the orchestra to the brink of the ultimate climax and then suddenly disappears, not to be heard from again in this section. Thus the climax occurs in the orchestra alone, fortissimo. There is a marked increase in tempo. Lower strings ascend and woodwinds descend as the apocalyptic vision of the piano is realized. In the course of a decrescendo, various instruments are eliminated and the harmonic density is progressively reduced to a single tritone-which, in turn, disappears. Chimes toll the section to an end. We find the piano listening silently as its dire predictions have come to pass, made real by the orchestra.

Like the first, the final section opens with a piano solo that, rather than anticipating or predicting, reflects on what has happened. The texture is now homophonic rather than contrapuntal. Interpolations recall the broken, atonal chords of the first section and the harmony of the climactic third section. Calmness has replaced intense agitation. The upper strings enter with an ascending harmonic progression that is accompanied by descending harmonies in the lower strings. The piano interpolates dissonant to denote how notes are connected-whether legato or staccato, tenuto or pizzicato, glottal or smooth. Each musical instrument has its individual style of articulation. In a work for full orchestra, the many contrasts in attack reminiscences of the second section. Accompanied by tolling chimes, the woodwinds and strings intone the chord which opened the second section. A final sounding of the chimes stops the woodwinds, and the chord from the second section lingers in the strings and then dies away.