Chinese whispers

for solo organ, 2 trumpets, timpani, string orchestra

Commissioned by the St Albans International Organ Festival Society for the St Albans Festival, where it was first performed on 16th July 1996 by Kevin Bowyer and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

Programme notes

Chinese whispers is a concerto for organ with an orchestra of strings, two trumpets and timpani. It is in two contrasted movements, and lasts about twenty-two minutes. The title, which derives from the party game, refers to the fact the music develops by a process of gradual transformation. Each movement uses a basic mode (or whisper) of six notes. This is squared, giving six transpositions. They are also lightly shuffled, so that each version of the whisper is slightly different. The resulting harmony is a blend of opposites: it is tonal without obeying tonal conventions, and serial without being too dense or rigid. Each of the six whispers has a contrasting mode, or mirror. These are squared and shuffled in the same way, and the resulting thematic material is used for contrast and variety. I have tried to display the organ’s brilliance, especially its ability to play three independent contrapuntal lines. The trumpets and timpani play a big part in the piece, and I also use a solo string quartet, contrasting with the ripieno strings in the concerto grosso manner.

The first movement, Tantrum, sets a curmudgeonly organ in opposition to the orchestra, and culminates in a monstrously rude outburst from the soloist, who loses all sense of decorum and eventually runs violently amok with a mad cadenza. Pulling himself together (with difficulty), he restores himself to sanity by playing a passage from Handel’s B flat organ concerto – but cunningly transformed into Chinese whispermode. Having got this off his chest, he feels able to reassert his authority, and ends the cadenza in heroic style. The orchestra, suitably chastened, brings the movement to a close with a neat but flashy little coda.

The second movement, Threnody, uses the soloist and orchestra in alternation rather than opposition. It is a set of six variations on a theme which owes a great deal to the F sharp minor slow movement of Mozart’s A major piano concerto (K. 488). Each transformation is proportionally quicker; this is achieved by contrasting episodes placed between the variations. These episodes use jagged, prime-number rhythms which propel the music forward into the new tempo. After the fifth variation, which is more than twice as fast as the opening, the sixth episode takes us into a recapitulation of the theme at the original slow tempo, but presented backwards and with its components rearranged. This may sound complicated, but it’s child’s play compared to the tricks old JSB got up to.

2008 Giles Swayne