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ClassicsOnline Home » LEES: Symphony No. 4, 'Memorial Candles'
Benjamin Lees' musical output has followed a consistent path over four decades, since his earliest orchestra scores of the 1950s. Classical musical structures form the basis of his works, expertly crafted and honed into his own language, always tonal, but exploring the full range of tonality through development of subject matter. Inversions, stretti, canons, fugues, melodic and harmonic exploitation of intervals; all of these are ordnance in the Lees armory but Lees the technician is always the master, not the servant of his art. And it is as his art has grown that he has, as it were, "slipped the surly bonds of earth," each new work representing a graceful display of compositional flight in all its aspects. Lees' chosen instrument has been the orchestra, with five symphonies and numerous concertante works making up the core of his output. The Fourth Symphony, "Memorial Candles" (1985), in homage to the victims of the Holocaust, with a soprano setting of poems by one of the survivors, is a "cri du coeur" of visceral and dramatic intensity. The stark realism of these poems is graphically illustrated by the orchestra which captures terror in all its aspects. Fear, revulsion, anger, and finally sad resignation find voice through such devices as fluttered brass fanfares, shrieking strings, chiming celestas, and a solo violin, representing the beleaguered soul. This hour-long work opened up new frontiers for Lees, who, always a disciplined artist has kept faith with his values and beliefs. For him, music can and should be approached and appreciated on its own terms. Programmatic backgrounds, ethnic considerations and "Americana" are not germane to his musical credo. His lifetime of exploration has been dedicated to the search for his own ideal of artistic truth. The "Lees style" is instantly recognizable and every work is possessed of lofty grandeur.
According to Lees: "A casual conversation with Leonard Stone, Executive Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in 1983, following the world première of the Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra led to the idea of my writing the Symphony No.4, sub-titled "Memorial Candles." I had long felt the poetry of Nelly Sachs should be set within a large orchestral frame and knew that one day I would attempt it. Leonard Stone suggested that perhaps the fortieth anniversary of the Holocaust might be the perfect moment for such a work to be premièred. And so the project was set in motion. The actual composing was finished in May 1985 and only on July 15th was the orchestration completed.
Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 for her "works of forgiveness, deliverance and peace" according to the citation. She has been described as "the foremost poetic expression of the Nazi Holocaust" and "the only poetic testimony which can hold its own next to the speechless horror of documentary reports." Lees found her writing powerful, searing, mystical, with the uncanny ability to conjure images that touched one's very soul. For the new symphony he chose three texts, "Someone Blew the Shofar", "Footsteps", and "But Who Emptied Your Shoes of sand?"
Lees continues. “During the writing of this work I realized that while the texts were important in creating the imagery, and the orchestra acting as the source of power, another element was needed. Since the violin was traditionally the 'soul' instrument of Central and Eastern Europe, I decided to give it a distinctive role in this symphony, one combining short solos and obbligátos.
"The Symphony No.4 is in three large movements, the first movement is almost a symphony unto itself. [It consists of a short introduction wherein the motif in conjunction with the fragment primary subject follows directly.] The character of the first subject is akin to a cry in the night. The second subject, in triplets, is somber and convoluted. There is no formal development section. Rather, developments occur constantly almost from the opening of the movement. The first of the violin solos appears with the orchestral accompaniment. The emergence of the second subject, then the first subject, and finally a variant of the opening introduction follow this. The movement ends quietly with a sense of unease as a portion of the second subject is heard for the last time.
"The second movement opens with an extended, unaccompanied solo for the cello. It contains a fragment, albeit disguised of an old Jewish folk song. At the conclusion, massive strokes from the orchestra introduce "Someone Blew the Shofar". What follows could be described as a peroration for massed violins in arcs of sound, rising and falling. The principal subject appears and is extended, giving the feeling of chanting. Several episodes following lead to a short brass chorale. The principal subject is heard again, this time with punctuations from winds and brass. The tension is high, then subsides and leads to an accompanied violin solo. This prepares us for the second text, "Footsteps" The musical figure beneath the poem continues on its own as the song ends and brings us again to a quiet, uneasy conclusion.
"The final movement opens with an introduction by celesta, flute, horn and double basses. All is quiet and unhurried. The principal subject is hurled out quite suddenly and developed. A very extended episode containing an important motif for trumpets unfolds. Snare drums and cymbals create an aura of a nightmarish march. A development of the principal subject takes over and leads to a second subject evoking memories of something from the past. This brings us to an accompanied violin solo section, rhythmic, bright, recalling perhaps a happier time. The solo subject is transformed into something dark and the violin joins the mezzo-soprano in the last poem "But Who Emptied Your Shoes of sand?". The poem ends and a dirge-like subject makes its appearance, softly at first, but with growing power, leading inexorably to a final episode. Trumpets and timpani erupt violently, then fade as the violin makes a brief, final statement and holds as the work comes to its conclusion.”
[I] Someone blew the Shofar
Someone Blew the Shofar-
Threw back his head
As the deer do, as the stags
Before they drink at the spring
Death departs in the sigh
The seed descends-
The air tells of a light!
The earth circles and the constellations circle
In the Shofar
Which someone blows-
And round the Shofar the temple bums
And someone blows-
And round the Shofar the temple falls
And round the Shofar the ashes rest
In which of Echo's grottoes
Are you preserved,
You who once prophesied aloud
The coming of death?
Neither bird-flight, inspection of entrails,
Nor Mars sweating blood
Confirmed the oracle's message of death
Age-old game of hangman and victim,
Persecutor and persecuted,
Hunter and hunted-
Which turn time ravenous
emblazoning the hour with wolves
Extinguishing the flight in the fugitive's
Measuring time with screams, groans,
The seeping of blood until it congeals,
Heaping up hours of sweaty death-
[III] But who emptied your shoes of sand
But who emptied your shoes of sand
When you had to get up, to die?
The sand which Israel gathered,
Its nomad sand?
Burning Sinai sand,
Mingled with throats of nightingales,
Mingled with wings of butterflies,
Mingled with the hungry dust of serpents:
Mingled with all that fell from the wisdom
Mingled with what is bitter in the mystery
O you fingers
That emptied the deathly shoes of sand,
Tomorrow you will be dust
In the shoes of those to come.
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LEES: Symphony No. 4, 'Memorial Candles'