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Symphony No. 8 (grade 5)

The genesis for my Symphony No. 8 came through a commission for a work for band and choir from the Metropolitan Chorale and their conductor, my friend Amy Kotsonis. Since the premiere of the piece was to be in November, I initially searched for texts that related to Thanksgiving. However, this yielded little that excited either me or Amy, so the idea came to instead honor Veterans Day in some way, which immediately appealed to me much more. My brother-in-law, Jeff Rapp, served as a marine in Iraq and our family is obviously proud of his service to our country, so I was excited to write a piece that would reflect that.


I was quickly drawn to the writing of Wilfred Owen for possible texts. Owen was a British infantry soldier in World War I who wrote some incredibly powerful and striking poetry from the trenches before being killed near the end of the war. His work demonstrates a vastness of expression and a clear progression in his changing thoughts about the war, moving from strong, angry statements such as 1914 to bitter, brutal passages such as Anthem for a Doomed Youth. However, throughout his writing there remains a humanness and a love for his brothers that is clearly presented in poems like Futility. Symphony No. 8 uses all three of these poems in order to create a larger story arc for the piece.


It was at this point in the process that it occurred to me that I could use the melodic material from each of these three sections and expand on each individually to create a full choral symphony. Luckily, I had three wonderful commissioning parties that allowed me to pursue this possibility. The first movement, Winter of the World, was commissioned by the Santa Clara County Band Directors Association for the Santa Clara County Honors Band. Inspired by the text of 1914, my concept for this movement came from the idea of the beginnings of war and, in fact, in my head I even subtitled this movement, The Drums of War. The piece begins quietly, with aleatoric passages that provide eerie hints of the turmoil that is to come. The drums of war are heard in the distance, providing an underpinning that grows throughout the rest of the movement as the inevitability of war becomes apparent. I meant for this movement to represent the anger and intensity of Owen’s poem, so most of the melodic material is drawn from music associated with the words “War broke.” Eventually the movement builds to something near total chaos before a final ringing statement from the drums brings it to a dramatic close.


The second movement, Whispering of fields unsown, was commissioned by a consortium of schools representing the Western and Northwestern divisions of CBDNA. This movement is inspired by the text of Futility. The title of Owen’s poem suggests the progression of his feelings about war, but there is something in this poem that remains gentle and kind and beautiful. In spite of the horrors of his experiences, his love for his brothers is apparent in his words and I chose to focus this movement on that.


The third movement, Mockeries, was commissioned by the Southeast Iowa Bandmasters Association for the High School Honor Band 2016. This movement focuses on the bitter, caustic nature of much of Owen’s writing as he experienced more and more of the awful nature of war. It uses melodic material associated with Anthem for a Doomed Youth and is structured as a scherzo.


The final movement, To Break Earth’s Sleep, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Chorale (Amy Kotsonis, director) for premiere by that ensemble along with the UNI Singers (Amy Kotsonis, director) and University of Northern Iowa Symphonic Band (Danny Galyen, director). The text used in the work follows below. 




War broke: and now the Winter of the world

With perishing great darkness closes in.

The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,

Is over all the width of Europe whirled,

Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled

Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin

Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin.

The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.


For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,

And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,

An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,

A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.

But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need

Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.


Anthem for a Doomed Youth


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 

Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle 

Can patter out their hasty orisons. 

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, 

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 

And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 

What candles may be held to speed them all? 

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes 

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. 

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; 

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.




Move him into the sun--

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it awoke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.


Think how it wakes the seeds--

Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth's sleep at all?

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