Composed in 1999. Commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and performed by them at St David's Hall Cardiff conducted by Christopher Adey.
The starting point for this work is Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name which deals, on the surface, with Marco Polo’s descriptions to Kubla Khan of the fantastical cities which he has seen on his many travels. Although he describes many cities he is, in fact, describing many facets of the same city, Venice.
The sub-plot of the novel deals with people’s varying perceptions of the same scene and also with perceptions of time and its continuity. This problem of a single scene causing different reactions and emotions in different people lends itself, musically, to a continuous process of symphonic variations where the same material is woven together to form diverse images.
I was further influenced by a visit to the “Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes” exhibition at the National Gallery. Canaletto’s paintings with their intense detail depict the glory of Venice but it is a Venice that never existed as he painted it. Many of his views are painted from impossible viewpoints with obstructing buildings removed or with the perspective altered so as to show more of the scene than is actually visible. These paintings are a tangible example of what Calvino is describing, the view as Canaletto perceived it not as it actually was. I was particularly impressed by both “The Stonemason’s Yard” and, more importantly, “A Regatta on the Grand Canal” and had these in mind during various stages of the composition.
I was also conscious of the musical history of Venice and the many composers who have been associated with it. It is possible to discern the ghostly shadows of some of these composers moving through these invisible cities should one wish to look for them.
The work is continuous and is cast in four sections, Moderato; Allegro malevolente; Lento tranquillo; and Allegro giocoso.
The musical material is derived from a specially derived set of note-rows which have been manipulated to provide the threads with which the fabric is constructed. These note-rows are used contrapuntally and have no bearing on the harmonic (vertical) structure of the work but are linked to the tonal scheme of the sections. The form is derived from Venice’s golden period with much use of canzona, fugue, ostinato and ritornelli.
I have chosen the following descriptions from Calvino’s text as my images whilst composing this work. They are not necessarily presented here in the same order as the music as the listener should feel free to conjure their own images according to their perception of the music.
“...three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind.”
“...there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle.”
“...most of the corpses are seated around laden tables, or placed in dancing positions, or made to play little trumpets...”
“...the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on, and in the limpid air, the pink of the settlement can be discerned spread out in the distance below: where the windows are more concentrated, where it collects the shadows of gardens, where it raises towers with signal fires; and if the evening is misty, a hazy glow swells like a milky sponge...”
“At times the wind brings a music of bass drums and trumpets, the bang of firecrackers in the light-display of a festival; at times the rattle of guns...”
“Recurrent invasions racked the city...in the centuries of its history; no sooner was one enemy routed than another gained strength and threatened the survival of the inhabitants."