At the age of 15, Glasgow-born Knussen made history by conducting the premiere of his First Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968. He soon developed a distinctive voice, with its echoes of both British and American music, especially that of Benjamin Britten and Elliott Carter. The 1970s began with his Second Symphony for soprano and orchestra. Many of the subsequent works of the 1970s are for variously constructed chamber ensembles, though most are effectively satellites in orbit around his Third Symphony. That work was originally to have been a three-movement piece of a half hour’s duration that portrayed the doomed heroine of Hamlet. The second movement was to have been a depiction of Ophelia’s suicidal madness.
Knussen was a notoriously painstaking composer, and for various reasons the symphony did not, in the end, conform to the original plan. But in 1975 he explored the idea of Ophelia’s madness in Ophelia Dances, for four winds, percussion and three strings. (There is, incidentally, no ‘Book 2’, but Knussen did subsequently compose Ophelia’s Last Dance.)
In his own program note, Knussen asked:
Why is Ophelia dancing? Partly as an instrumental response to Shakespeare’s description of her chanting ‘snatches of old tunes/ As one incapable of her own distress’, and partly because I wanted to write a piece whose light-headed and giddy qualities would suggest a crossing of the line that divides laughter from tears. The ‘old tunes’ in this piece are Schumann’s Carnaval, whose mottos provided much of its melodic and harmonic material, and two late works of Debussy, La boîte à joujoux and Gigues. There is an introduction, four dances (which become more and more compressed) and a long slow coda, all played continuously. Ophelia Dances was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation and first performed in New York in May 1975 by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
The intricate layering of sound moving at different speeds owes something to Elliott Carter, Schumann’s Carnaval, Op.9 is derived four notes, A, E flat, C, B natural, which spells ASCH – home town of Schumann’s first love – in German nomenclature. Between the eight and ninth movements of Carnaval Schumann inserted three bars of music with no key signature, speed or rhythm which he called ‘Sphinxes’. They play with the four pitches, rearranging them to form SCHA – a cipher for the composer himself. In Ophelia Dances, Knussen treats the sphinxes as short note rows, much as Stravinsky did in his late serial masterpieces.
Program notes supplied by Gordon Kerry © 2020