Dream Song for large orchestra was specially commissioned by the BBC for the 2010 ‘Mahler in Manchester’ Festival. The world premiere was given by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 27 March 2010.
My approach in tackling this commission was to ‘invade’ Mahler’s world of musical ideas; indeed, the title of the work, Dream Song, is intended to portray a half-remembered landscape of some of the themes and motives from his Sixth Symphony, fragmented (or deconstructed) as if in a dream, with the all-pervading presence of the opening phrase (more often than not, only the first four notes) of the so-called ‘Alma’ theme from the first movement, used as a kind of leitmotif, and giving the work a thematic coherence of sorts. Of course, in a mere 20 minutes it is impossible to re-create the large-scale contrasting emotional turmoil of this particular symphony, but I have tried to create a parallel musical world, albeit in contracted form, encompassing it within an arch-shaped one movement structure – slow, fast, slow, beginning loudly and ending quietly.
My starting point was the opening of the final movement of the symphony, both in its harmonic uncertainty and vivid orchestration. My opening gesture consists of a ten-note chord of alternating major and minor triads, presented rather violently by wind, brass, and percussion, then echoed on pianissimo strings. The device, or building block, of using triadic harmony, derives of course from the Mahler. One of the ideas I refer to frequently is his ‘fate motif’ – a major triad ‘resolving’ on to a minor one. Somewhat significantly, however, I have ‘transposed’ this into a more optimistic minor to major resolution.
In terms of thematicism, besides the ‘Alma’ theme referred to above, I have also used various fragmented quotations from other parts of the symphony; for example, the first few notes of the upwardly soaring violin passage from the beginning of the symphony’s final movement. Then, in the dramatic and extended middle section, where I mirror Mahler’s Scherzo and Trio formal construction, I use two short motives from his Scherzo: the rising arpeggio figure associated with the woodwind, and the falling minor thirds dance-like motive. These are not used as acts of ‘homage’ but rather as reference points. Similarly, when Mahler marks his Trio with the description alväterisch (in an olden style), I employ a similar gesture in that my music is deliberately diatonic and ‘pastoral’ in style, but this music is regularly interrupted by more disruptive elements. Additionally, instead of the distant cowbellsMahler uses in other parts of the symphony to summon up his idyllic memories of walking in the Austrian Alps, I employ more ‘urban’ steel pans – thus Art mirrors contemporary Life!
After Dream Song’s opening section there is a mood of further uncertainty, underpinned by undulating arabesques on harp, celesta, and woodwind, where the music seems to be searching for a melody, first on cellos, then violas and violins; but this comes to nothing and subsides into a ‘dreamlike’ passage (string harmonics, melodic percussion and celesta), where we hear a fragment of the tuba theme from Mahler’s final movement. The music becomes yet more restless, summoning in pounding bass and timpani repeated B flats of the Scherzo referred to above, one that is perhaps even more menacing than Mahler’s, with dissonant clusters and rather ‘violent’ orchestration. Only the Trio relieves this tension, with its ‘open’ harmony and pastoral solos for woodwinds and strings, before plunging yet again into the Scherzo’s relentless rhythmic propulsion. This time however it leads to the work’s main climax, via a quasi-Bach fugal exposition to an exultant C major triadic harmonic explosion, only to be interrupted and taken over by repeated note dissonant fanfare-like figures on brass and percussion.
The music subsides into the earlier ‘dreamlike’ episode, before progressing to what is really the emotional core of the work: a Liebeslied, or Love Song – a resolution to the extreme tensions of the music up until this point – with the ‘song’ of the title revealing itself as a variation’ of the Alma theme, and the melody for which the work has been searching throughout its rather brief journey. The initial setting is for string quartet, with tutti strings harmonically supporting, and horn and cor anglais providing important interweaving counterpoint. However, when the melody is repeated on flugel horn and brass choir, the surrounding bi-tonal rising scales on strings and woodwind suggest a more ominous tone. Nevertheless, the music now truly invades the late-Romantic Mahlerian world which has been implied through its earlier manifestations, both melodically and harmonically.
Alma’s comment that the Sixth Symphony was Mahler’s most ‘personal’ work is probably true, and she undoubtedly lies at the heart of it. The ending of Dream Song is bitter-sweet, with an underlying E major harmony ‘distorted’ by the final utterances of the four-note ‘Alma’ motive on muted violins, rising to a high B flat (a tritone from E) with which the work ends ambiguously, but not I hope pessimistically.
In terms of orchestration, I have broadly adopted Mahler’s huge orchestra of the Sixth Symphony, but with slightly smaller wind and brass sections. However, the percussion section is equally large, with the use of some instruments that Mahler could not have known (but if he had he probably would have used them!). There are important solo roles for many instruments, particularly the violin, and in writing it I was mindful of the wonderful playing my friend Yuri Torchinsky, the leader of the BBC Philharmonic.
The work is dedicated to Susie (meine Almschi), thus mirroring Mahler’s affectionate portrayals of his own wife, Alma, in both this symphony and its forerunner, the Fifth.
For his 20-minute Dream Song he [Gregson] has elected to bring various themes from Mahler’s Sixth into new conjunctions, with a neo-Mahlerian harmonic language and added instruments that Mahler might conceivably have used had he known of them (such as steel drums). For the restlessness and eruptive energy of the fast writing Gregson has evidently had to dig deep, and the quoted material, though plain to hear, is sufficiently re-contexualised to feel emotionally authentic.
David Fanning, Daily Telegraph, 29 March 2010
It’s a formidable piece of composing, with the orchestra handled with total assurance..
Hilary Finch, The Times, 31 March 2010
I have been enormously impressed by this work, surely genuinely symphonic, admirably proportioned and outstandingly well orchestrated.
Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review, September 2014
… the composer’s web of deft Mahlerian inflection and quotation is played out against a haunted nocturnal landscape, in which flickering thematic and textural figures play with the mind amidst rapidly shifting vistas, moods and beguiling orchestration.
Christopher Thomas, Brass Band World
…Dream Song is another strongly symphonic and tightly argued structure of substance. It packs a wealth of invention and of deeply felt expression into its twenty minute span.
Hubert Culot, Music Web International
Of all the works commissioned for the Mahler in Manchester series, this is possibly the most ambitious. It is scored for the same forces as the Sixth, thought the urban cool of a steel band has replaced Mahler’s alpine cowbells. Gregson also draws much of his thematic material from the Symphony, twisting it into a three-section dreamscape, in which a thudding central scherzo is framed by two reflective slow movements. Gregson’s ability to suggest a world both familiar and strange is impressive …
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, March 2010