Maslanka: Symphony 9



Continuing in the tradition of magnificent 9th symphonies, David Maslanka, only a few years ago wrote his 9th. I don’t know of any composer who has written as many large scale symphonic works for band as Maslanka, and no one does it better, and I feel that his 9th Symphony is one of the most deeply moving and profound works written for any ensemble.

As is typical with Maslanka, most of the work is based on pre-existing melodies, in particular the Bach 371 Chorales. The present work contains no less than four Bach chorale melodies, as well as several other hymns or folk tunes. It’s one thing to just arrange these tunes, but it is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish when it comes to making a large, and I’m not kidding when I say large, symphonic work. Maslanka’s 9th is of Mahlerian size, lasting, in the only available full recording, just about 75 minutes, consisting of four movements, plus a preface, which is a reading of a beautiful, and somehow fitting, poem by W.S. Merwin entitled “Secrets.”

Maslanka says the symphony “is a very large {see, I wasn’t kidding} collection of instrumental songs” with “many influences” including but not limited to: time, water, nature, and grace.

The first movement is titled, like all the movements, not after a tempo indication, but instead the tune that pervades much of the movement: Shall we gather at the river? We start in a state of suspended time. The first minute or so consists of two notes alternating a whole step apart. A huge timpani roll leads into one of the few full band sections in the whole piece. As is typical Maslanka fashion, there is a sort of rippling sound coming from the pitched percussion, and underneath a melody is presented, but it is not “Shall We Gather,” it is actually the main theme of the second movement. The “Shall We Gather” melody is first presented in the piano, which plays a huge role in the work, and it gets handed to a variety of instruments, including one of Maslanka’s favorites, the soprano sax. This leads to a full band presentation of the theme. The movement ends quietly in the same manner in which it started, two notes, a whole step apart.

The second movement begins with piano playing the chorale melody “Now All Lies Under Thee” backed by some sparse sounds from a large variety of percussion, including hi-hat and congas if my ears don’t lie. A great deal of this music is calm and sort of like a meditation. The music isn’t forced on you, it just happens. As with the first movement, the music grows to a climax, and ends quietly.

The third movement, for piano and soprano sax, is called “Fantasia on I Thank You God.” It’s not very often that the soprano gets to shine like this, and the music isn’t nasty or jazzy, but lyrical, and very beautiful. It is the shortest movement, and it acts more like an intermezzo between the first two movements, which seem to me to be sort of related, and the gigantic final movement.

Speaking of the gigantic final movement: the last movement lasts close to 40 minutes long. That is the longest movement I have ever heard of, the only thing coming close is the opener of Mahler 3. Although the movement is titled “Fantasia on O Sacred Head Now Wounded” there are several other primary melodies. This monolith of a movement starts with the full band in some sort of state of grief and despair. The first extended chamber section is based on the tune “Watch the Night With Me.” It seems to be representing the other side of grief and despair, not with loud cries of anguish, but quiet mourning. Another distinctive Maslanka color is the muted trumpet, which gets the melody with the flute. The clarinet gets a gorgeous solo, backed by the seemingly always present piano. After another rhythmic full band section, full of tension, the music quiets down for a moment, before launching itself into a huge presentation of “Shall We Gather.” The piano quietly finishes the melody , and the tam-tam fades into the next long chamber section, based on “Soul, How Have You Become So Unhappy?” There are reminders of “Shall We Gather” and those two notes a whole step apart come back. The music meditates seeming to go nowhere, because sometimes, maybe there is nowhere to go. The music builds up to what seems to be passionate plea, with piano laying down 8th notes, with a lyrical melody with soprano sax, flute. and clarinet. One of my favorite sections of the whole work is a slow simple beautiful alto sax solo, again backed by piano. This  isn’t anything like Maslanka’s other big sax solos, no jagged rhythms, just song. The music stops and then the reader reads a “Whale Story” written by Maslanka himself, in which he says “In fact” a few too many times. The music ends with the title melody “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” All the conflict of the previous 70 minutes or so is resolved with peace. Is it the peace of death as the title may suggest, or something else? The two notes that open the symphony end the work, resolved at long last.

Whether or not you know any wind band music, I deeply recommend any of Maslanka’s Symphonies. The 9th may not be the best starter, simply due to it’s length, but listening to it is a deep profound experience.

About Why must you use all the notes

So much to do, so little reason to do so much of it...
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