Symphonic Visions for Orchestra
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Symphonic Visions for Orchestra (1949) is an elaborately scored semi-programmatic tone poem inspired by individual biblical images, passages, and sentiments. Berlinski’s original conception was a three-movement work, into which he eventually interpolated a fourth movement (which became the third movement in the published score). But even after the premiere in that form, some thirty years after its completion, he revealed in an interview that the piece worked equally well when confined to its originally planned three movements—and that is how it has been recorded here.
The opening movement—or sinfonia, as Berlinski also referred to each movement as an independent unit—carries an accompanying quotation in the score from Psalm 94:5–7. “They crush Your people, O Lord, and afflict Your heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless. And they say, ‘The Lord will not see me.’” Pounding raw energy and angst is interrupted briefly by a delicate woodwind and strings passage, followed by resumption of the orchestral fury.
The corresponding epigraph of the second sinfonia is taken from Jeremiah (4:23): “I beheld the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and the heavens and they had no light.” The thin, stark orchestration, opening with double reeds over pulsating strings, provides an appropriate feeling of mystery and wonderment. The solo English horn passages and the extended oboe cadenzas, which all but force one to recall the famous English horn solo in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, add to the sense of foreboding. The final movement is a mood depiction of a verse from Song of Songs (2:11): “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come...” The optimism and delicate euphoria—whether metaphoric in terms of Israel vis-á-vis God, as proposed by some commentators, or literal (in terms of human romantic love)—is introduced by a statement of resolute but gentle pathos in muted strings. This soon progresses to pastoral imagery in flute passages that turn almost into a tender love song. Imaginative instrumental colorations and combinations are explored throughout the movement as it builds to broad, thick textures that become layered sheets of sonic emotional intensity. The piece concludes with a return to its earlier tender strains.
The biblical quotations are intended as mood indicators, and the movements are scored to evoke both the emotions of those quotations and their applicable historical or narrative contexts. Critics have observed the influence of Mahler in the work’s orchestral power and harmonic richness, at the same time intuiting an admittedly amorphous “Hebraic character.” In that connection, comparisons have also been drawn to Ernest Bloch’s biblical evocations. There is, however, no reliance on specific traditionally Jewish musical material, perceived or actual; the melodic constructions are entirely original.
Berlinski has reflected upon this work and its biblical derivations:
The Bible has again become an island of safety, which, while it often remains deserted and unused, offers a constant source of shelter. Despair is supplanted by hope and a vision of peace. The Bible gives us more than answers: it gives us visions. And the acceptance of those visions is an act of faith, beyond logical explanation.
To recreate such visions and transmit them through the medium of sound is the goal of many artists. Very few achieve it. But setting the goal is in itself an act of faith. Without this, the composer of Symphonic Visions would find no good purpose in his creative efforts.