Helen Grime: Virga (2007) for orchestra
This note was written for the BBC Proms performance on 7 August 2009 (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen), where Virga was programmed alongside Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, Alfredo Casella’s orchestration of Balakirev’s Islamey, and Knussen’s own Horn Concerto.
In programme music’s Romantic heyday, one of the attractions of extra-musical subjects and titles – those that pushed music in the direction of images and stories – was the opportunity they offered composers to invent new forms, or to give new meaning to old ones. In our own time, when pre-established formal shapes are no more than one option among many and musical meaning is correspondingly less likely to arise from their transgression, composers need no such pretext. But they may still need images and stories, and the search for a title may be the search for an extra-musical correspondence to what is already expressed musically in the piece.
So it is here. Virga is precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before reaching the ground, and Helen Grime’s piece, as the composer’s own programme note tells us, is full of rain-like sounds: the falling cascades of woodwind droplets that often dominate its textures, or the stabs and dots of harmony that surround its melodic lines. But it is also an exploration of the orchestra – and in particular of the orchestra’s registral extremes, which are first opened out at the very beginning of the piece, with celesta and two piccolos exchanging arabesques over a long held note in the double basses. And it is an exploration, too, of different types of musical motion, as when that held bass note unfolds into a slow-moving line rising through the brass, or when this slow build-up releases into a more lightly-scored section in which the orchestra’s stabs of harmony accompany little scurrying figures in two clarinets.
At the centre of the piece comes something unexpected – a remarkable, entirely unaccompanied melody for the first violins. Structurally, this is the opposite of all that has gone before, with the orchestra’s high and low extremities emptied out to bring the middle register into startlingly close focus. Metaphorically, too, everything is different here, the kaleidoscope of droplets replaced by a solid shelf of melody (perhaps, imaginatively, we might hear this as representing the altitude at which a change in air pressure causes precipitation to evaporate and disappear from sight). Yet from this point of greatest contrast the piece will return to revisit all of its earlier materials and show them as parts of its diverse unity – of its weather system, as it were. The violins are joined by celesta, harp and piccolos in a moment of magical, expectant stillness. The bass line gradually re-forms, at first from isolated notes, and above these low rumblings the melody descends. The brass re-enter. Over a more continuous bass line, the melody is taken up by all of the strings together now – a gradually blurred unison, plangent, insistent, trumpets crowning a final climax before the music fades back into the atmosphere.