The title of the piece is intended to be ironic: the term “old certainties” is most often heard in the negative, as in “the old certainties are gone” or “we can no longer rely on the old certainties”…perhaps appropriate sentiments for the times most of us will have been experiencing recently!
This uncertainty is present in the piece in several ways. The main sections of the piece follow a continuous melodic line, which shifts from one group of instruments to another, and progressively has chords added to it which become a kind of ‘shadow’, always feeling like it’s leading somewhere but never revealing exactly where. This line is interrupted three times throughout the course of the piece: the first two times, by a sequence of chords beginning at high and low extremes and closing in on the ‘centre’ (like a closing fan) followed by a brief duet for pairs of trumpets (or horns in the second instance). Superimposed on the melody are short chords and runs of faster notes, often disconnected but sometimes coalescing into little phrases and agglomerations.
Eventually, when the chord-melody is passed to the brass, it becomes more ominous in nature and leads to the final and most significant interruption. A quiet, still chordal passage echoes the very beginning of the piece, before the climactic arrival of a string E-minor chord, quickly corrupted by sliding trombones: in fact this section is a super-slow-motion quotation from the first movement of Brahms’s 4th Symphony (the “Old Certainty” of the title), which is gradually complicated and altered to reveal it as the source of the previous ‘closing fan’ sections. The question posed here: can this big, solid chunk of E-minor really be considered consonant in the context of what has come before in the piece? In other words, can we really depend on “Old Certainties”?Old Certainties
is dedicated to Anthony Weeden and the Wolsey Orchestra.
© Stuart MacRae 2009Commissioned by Wolsey Orchestra, Ipswich, with generous funding from the Performing Rights Society Foundation New Works Award. First performance: Wolsey Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Weeden, Ipswich Corn Exchange, 10th October 2009.