A Colour Symphony - Symphony No 3

A Colour Symphony was commissioned by the "sinfonischen blasorchester wehdel", Thomas Ratzek, conductor, with funds provided by Stiftung Niedersächsischer Volksbanken und Raiffeisenbanken and Volksbank eG Bremerhaven-Cuxland. They gave the premiere on 22nd November 2014 in the Stadttheater Bremerhaven, in the presence of the composer.

Thomas Ratzek has been the orchestra’s chief conductor since 2006 and has transformed the fortunes, ambitions and abilities of the ensemble. In common with composer Philip Sparke, he sees the large symphonic wind ensemble as the artistic zenith of the genre and, in commissioning this symphony, was specific in his request that it should exploit as full and varied an instrumentation as possible, requesting the inclusion of low woodwinds, harp, piano and celli. To fully exploit this, Sparke had the idea of writing a symphony of ‘colours’, to take advantage of the rich palette of instrumental sounds available to him. There is a medical condition called chromesthesia, which is a neurological phenomenon whereby certain musical sounds and pitches can lead the listener to see certain colours. This is not exactly how Sparke perceives pitches, rather he sees, as do many people, equivalencies between instrumental ‘colour’ (and certain harmonies) and colours of the spectrum. It is these colours that he has utilised in his 3rd Symphony.

1. WHITE

Open harmonies and pure instrumental colours characterize the first movement. A horn intones a long solo against clean textures which resolves into C major (the ‘white’ keys of the piano) and reaches a tutti climax. A pastoral interlude leads to a calming of the mood which brings a quiet close.

2. YELLOW

The second movement focuses on the higher-pitched instruments of the band, creating a feeling of brightness and sunshine, both in colour and mood. Melodic motives are short and constantly push the musical argument forward, frequently changing key centres and registers. A longer tune in minor mode emerges briefly but the sunshine soon returns to close the movement.

3. BLUE

The third movement features only woodwind, percussion and strings, and, although by no means a ‘blues’, has an unremitting feeling of stillness and desolation, which the word ‘blue’ can sometimes conjure up. A long clarinet chorale is echoed by sparse scoring for strings, harp and piano.

4. RED

In contrast, the fourth movement is for brass and percussion and sees red as the colour of positivity and optimism which characterises most brass writing. The various brass families are featured individually and collectively in energetic fugato passages and blatant fanfares.

5. GREEN

The finale is takes the term green from nature, meaning ‘lush, fertile and vibrant’. It mixes the many instrumental colours of the wind band in myriad combinations and, unlike the other movements, is built around rich, rather than primary, colours. Full of drive and energy, the movement is dance-like in character and closes triumphally with brass fanfares under woodwind flourishes.