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Une lueur dans l'age sombre

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Guillaume Connesson
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Stéphane Denève, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano Nov. 3 - 5, 2005
© Richard Freed
Une Lueur dans l'age sombre (“A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness”), completed last July, was commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in celebration of its first season under its new music director, Stéphane Denève, who conducted the premiere in Dundee on September 28 and repeated the performance in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow over the following three days. Mr. Denève presided over the U.S. premiere less than a week ago, in the Houston Symphony Orchestra's concerts of October 28-30.

The score, dedicated to Stéphane Denève, calls for 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, crotales (played with a double bass bow), marimbaphone, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel tubular bells, 3 suspended cymbals, crash cymbals, triangle, 2 tam tams, 2 large gongs, bass drum, piano, celesta, harp and strings. Duration, 20 minutes.

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When Stéphane Denève first appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra, four years ago this month, the first music he conducted was Guillaume Connesson's Supernova . Connesson and his music were as new to Mr. Denève himself at that time as to the NSO audience, and he was clearly excited by that explosive, original, altogether fascinating work; he remarked on its "amazing orchestration . . . the quality of writing for large orchestra on the level of a Ravel or Stravinsky!" The NSO musicians and their audience were largely in agreement (and some suggested adding the name Edgard Varèse to the two cited by Mr. Denève).

More recently, when Mr. Denève was appointed music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and that organization suggested commissioning a new work to celebrate the beginning of his tenure, he did not have to think twice in choosing the composer for that assignment. As noted above, he introduced his first season with the RSNO with this work, and conducted its U.S. premiere in Houston last week; he is to perform it with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra three weeks from now, with the Atlanta Symphony the week after that, and with the Cincinnati Symphony at the end of March.

For those who heard Supernova in Mr. Denève's concerts in this hall four years ago, it may be of particular interest that the new work presented in this week's concerts was actually created as a companion piece to that earlier work, and at one point cites its opening theme. Guillaume Connesson cited Kandinsky's painting Quelques Cercles and Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time as the twin inspirations for his Supernova, and that work's imagery reflects his own fascination with the natural phenomena of the cosmos. While no specific literary or artistic source is cited in the background of the new work, its "programmatic" context is an extension of the subject limned in the earlier work, as the composer explains in a note of his own (translated by Carl Cunningham for last week's Houston Symphony program booklet and kindly made available by him).

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For four hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, the universe is nothing more than frozen darkness; one calls this period "the Age of Darkness." Within this cosmic void, the cold gases slowly gather in formless masses which, in collapsing upon themselves, proceed to illuminate the first stars. It is the start of a renaissance, and the universe will begin to shine with a thousand galactic fires.

I have tried to depict this birth of the light, these initial glimmerings within the dark, obscure immensity. The piece was conceived to precede another of my orchestral works, Supernova (1997), which portrayed the explosion and death of a star. For a long time, these cosmic scenarios have been sources of feeling and color for my musical imagination.

A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness unfolds as a vast, contemplative slow movement [its original working title was simply Adagio ], framed by an introduction and coda. The introduction is based on a harmonic spectrum laid out upon a complete cycle of fifths in the bass line. A glistening, infinitely sweet music is progressively deployed, giving birth to the first theme enunciated in a very soft brass chorale. Little by little, the sound disappears in the cosmic silence. In this space the second theme arises in the violas, based upon an Indian raga ( Todi , one of the great morning ragas). This long, sinuous melodic line develops slowly and the orchestra embraces it in a grand crescendo of light.

The central part of the work is a calm sea, a serene development of the two themes in which a duet for oboe and cello alternates with the full strings in their upper range. Following a horn solo, a new wave of light reappears with the raga theme and achieves the work's climax superimposing the two themes in a blinding light. Then, in the coda that follows, the wave of light extends itself and disappears little by little into space. One hears the theme that begins my Supernova , and it is on the initial fifth chord that the pice concludes.



A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness is dedicated to Stéphane Denève.

Guillaume Connesson

Translated by Carl Cunningham