Opus 14

Symphony No. 1 in D Minor "Pandemic"

Program NotesReturn to the score

I. Vivace "Outbreak"
♩ = 144 (D Minor)

Sometime in November 2019: Nobody knows of the catastrophe that is going to afflict the entire world in a few months to come as a new disease is transmitted to humans.

The symphony begins with a faint solo horn call announcing the first case, which grows in orchestration and texture as this “outbreak” theme is repeated in a more severe manner by the strings, with octave jumps to highlight the impending turmoil that humanity is set to endure, the following chromatic lines representing the uncontrollable spread, and then the rest of the brass join in a build-up to the explosion of disease and overwhelming of hospitals marked by the first cymbal crash. The main “outbreak” theme is then repeated in a martial manner by all of the horns, with a response from the strings once more, now thick with orchestration. But after a modulation to G Minor which ensued even more drama and tension, the orchestra quiets down, and a sweet waltz in E-flat major is introduced. This section represents the innocence in North America: despite an alarming spread of a novel coronavirus, life continued as normal, and what was happening on the other side of the world posed little to no relevance to them. After the strings play a chromatically rising arpeggiated motif, the once sweet theme is now pounded by the orchestra in E Minor, and this little innocence comes to an end, as all of the horns re-enter with the “outbreak” theme, and the lower strings continue in a rumbling interlude.

The exposition, as per sonata-allegro form is repeated, and instead of stopping at E Minor this time, the strings continue to rise, and reach A Minor, where a new fanfare theme is introduced. After a modulation to C Minor, a motif spelling C° V-I D 1-9 is played (inspired by Nicholas Papadimitriou), using scale degrees and note letters, and the climax of death and pandemonium is reached as the orchestra plays violent tension-filled syncopations to the rapid ascending bassline of the lower strings and brass. Once the climax ends, the orchestra is reduced to the faint rumbling of the cello of bass, where the recapitulation replaces the horn with a solo cello announcing the “outbreak” theme once more. 

The main theme repeats, but now with even thicker orchestration, and once we get to the point where the innocent waltz had started before, it instead continues in D Minor. After the strings play the chromatically rising arpeggiated motif once more, A Minor is reached again, but instead the orchestra quiets down and makes way for a solo clarinet. It plays a simple variation of the fanfare introduced in the development, accompanied by a minimal waltz line barely audible from the violins. The interlude which was once rumbling in the celli and basses, is now repeated high up in the violins, with a simple waltz pattern in the pizzicato of the violas and celli. After this interlude ends with a sigh, the horns announce the start of the coda, which is a fugato played by the strings to a “marchified” version of the outbreak call. This will not be the last fugal passage in the symphony, as the principle of buildup in fugatos, with melodies overlapping each other work well to represent the spread of something. The fugato ends with other sections of the orchestra entering and bringing about more tension and build-up, until the “outbreak” theme is blasted slowly in its maximal glory, with the fullest orchestration. As the violins rapidly descend chromatically, the tempo increases, and the marchified version of the melody is pounded repeatedly, taken apart, put back together again, and descends until the final three notes of the movement.

II.  Lento e isolato "Lockdown"
♩. = 52  (F Minor)

17 March 2020: A provincial state of emergency is declared. Stay-at-home orders are issued. Nobody knows what the future will hold. 

The movement begins with a faint F from the violins. A fugato with the simple “lockdown” motif played only by the strings follows until they land at musical “sighs”. The celli then take the spotlight with the rest of the string section adding tensions to the downbeat, continuing the “sighing”, until we get an unexpected taste of E Major with added tension, then landing in C# Minor. This harmonic meandering appears throughout the movement, and is representative of uncertainty and fear of what is to come. Once the celli modulate to B Major, they sing in their high range, until it all dies down to the same “sighs” as before, and we land back in F Minor. The celli and basses play successive rumbles of perfect fifths, each day passing slowly, as a solo viola plays a lament of boredom, disappointment and fear. 

After some interludes in the woodwinds and horns, the movement builds up to its first orchestral tutti, where chords played by the upper winds and strings are responded to by Fs being pounded twice by the lower strings and winds, until we hear the lament played once more, at a quicker tempo by a solo cello. Following some fanfare-like calls from the horns, the movement reaches its climax, and the violins play rapid descending lines accompanied by Fs being pounded by the rest of the orchestra. After some tension, the key of C Minor is reached. In this section, the celli and basses are confined to “stay at home” in their pedal point of the “home” key C, while the world changes around the as the lockdown motif is blasted by the trumpets, flute and piccolo in Neapolitan chords. After a brief restatement of the “outbreak” theme by the winds, the orchestra quiets down to make way for a repeat of the fugato, however this time in C Minor and played by the woodwinds. The bassoons then take the place of the celli and play the very same expressive melodies now in A Major, accompanied by magical sounding tremolos in the upper winds. After the musical “sighs” once more, a simple violin duet is played between the first and second violin sections. Once they reach D Minor, the “outbreak” theme is restated, and it unexpectedly modulates to the remote key of B-flat minor. It is now the upper brass’s turn to play the fugato, but it gets cut short and slows down to a grave tempo. The trumpets, syncopated with the horns, descend gradually in a staircase of harmonic tension and development, until we are only left with the horns. The musical “sighs” faintly sound once more, with grand pauses separating them. Finally, the movement ends with a horn playing, very faintly and weakly, the pounding rhythm which violently appeared earlier in the movement.

III.  Scherzo: Allegrissimo "Restart Plan"
♩. = 172 (B minor-D Major)

May 2020: Hope may have been restored; a restart plan is at its inception, we are developing a vaccine quickly thanks to international collaboration, and does that mean we can all go back to normal now? 

This is the first movement of the symphony to begin in a major key, however, as is known now, the pandemic was far from over, so you will hear the major and minor keys fight in this movement. The strings start with simple layered A major triads of optimism, followed by a cheerful little woodwind trio, which is joined by the bassoon. After moving up to B major, the timpani distantly boom, representing the army of isolation-fatigued people rushing to beaches and parks, and the restaurants, recreational centres and other non-essential services which have recently opened. The glockenspiel makes its first appearance in playing the main “optimism” theme of the movement, which contains chromaticism to add a layer of humour and playfulness, accompanied by dance-like syncopations in the strings, and descending chromatic lines in the woodwinds. The bassoons take over and continue the melody in B minor, still with a hint of comedy. After the bassoons finish tumbling down, the horns heroically enter and take us back to D Major, but then the strings realize that we might be celebrating too soon, and bring us back to B Minor. After a descending tutti section which utilizes Neapolitan chords to add a new flavour, the orchestra quiets down to make way for a humorous clarinet variation of the “optimism” theme, which then is responded to by the oboe, and then the bassoon, until they descend together. The first section ends with the basses plucking a two Bs with the violas just barely audible playing a B major triad, comedically entering half a beat late. 

The strings then play a B Minor scale which reaches G-flat major with echoing flute arpeggios, then the horns enter heroically once more, playing a dance-ified version of the “outbreak” theme in D Major, until the orchestra explodes with joy. A flute, which is shortly joined by a clarinet plays the “optimism” theme, with comedic pizzicato accompaniment from the strings, and after a quick visit to B minor, the trumpets join in with the amusing sound of their Harmon mutes. They briefly visit B minor once more, and once the violins take over, they build up to what would be expected to be D major, but no, instead we move to D minor, and a syncopated version of the “outbreak” theme is accompanied by an exertive baseline. Taking advantage of the A strings of violins, they then play an undulating ascending line until they reach the point of a rapid two octave jump between "A"s, which acts as pedal point for the following turbulent section, with the cymbal and bass drum pounding on every beat. The trumpets and horns play the “optimism” theme in D minor, but in this musical context it sounds anything but optimistic. The once comedic line which followed in the bassoons is now joined by the trombones, contrabassoon, and clarinet, and now instead sounds suspenseful. The horns, as well as the trumpets join in with their heroic response, and the violins follow, now with tension being created between B-flat in the viola and the aforementioned “A” pedal point. The descending tutti section follows in its heaviest appearance, and it builds up to suddenly end with a huge marcato chord in the unexpected key of G Major. 

A solo bassoon brings back the optimism with a simple melody played by the bassoon accompanied by the clarinets playing a recognizable figure from the “optimism" theme” After the winds finish, the second violins and violas humorously pluck two pizzicato notes on seemingly random beats. What follows is a waltz based on a theme which should be recognized by anyone who ever had to use the Zoom Video Conference software to communicate during the pandemic. Once the horns enter, we begin a short harmonic journey to F Minor with the “Zoom” motif being repeated in various keys. After a brief interlude in the celli, a single horn enters with a single F, and F Minor becomes F major as we move to the last section of the movement. The clarinet solo now plays a tame legato version of the “optimism” theme, with the flute and oboe joining in playing the “Zoom” motif. Once the clarinet settles on an E, tension is created by switching to D Minor briefly. The movement draws to a conclusion with simple arpeggios in the violins which are reminiscent of the “optimism" theme, and the movement ends quietly in C Major. The rest of the layers fade away, we are left with a single C in the violins. All is well.

IV. Tema con variazioni "Variants of Concern"
♩ = 192 (F Minor) 

September 2020: Cases and deaths are spiking, reaching all-time highs. Even worse, new variants are emerging, which may jeopardize the effectiveness of the vaccines. (Note: this movement was completed before the inception of the Omicron Variant)

Wait! No, absolutely nothing is “well”, and the light at the end of the tunnel was a mirage. The timpani enter with a loud roll in C, and the orchestra heavily erupts with the main theme. This is followed by violent syncopations, dramatic fortepianos, and then the secondary theme which ascends tragically, trilling away until it slams into C minor with biting sextuplet tensions in the violin accompanied by repeated descending lines alternated in the woodwinds. The main theme is then blared by the horns and trumpets, with falling lines in the violins and a deconstructed version of the “outbreak” motif in the woodwinds, and the biting sextuplet tensions now move to the woodwinds, with the strings playing the alternating descending lines in F minor. After a brief hint of B-flat minor, the orchestra builds up and smashes 3 chords, which is then resolved by the first variation.

Variation Ⅰ. Moderato

In this variation, the six COVID-19 variants chosen by the composer are featured in this movement. How exactly? By spelling their WHO labels and PANGO lineages using note letters (C, D, E, F, G, A, B (or H in German) ) names (Do, Re, MFa, Sol, La, Ti (first letter only) ) scale degrees (including “T” for tonic), in roman numerals or Arabic numbers, and chord symbols (such as M for Major, m for minor, for “diminished”, and N for Neapolitan). For example, the Delta variant would be spelled D-E as in the note “D and E”, L as in “La”, T as in “tonic”, and A as in the note “A”. 

Variation Ⅱ. Fuga a11 “Beta Variant”

What? An 11-part fugue? Yes, Aybar definitely got carried away with this variation, as this one took him the longest time to complete. After 11 statements of the main theme with “B-E-T-A”, “5-01-V-2” and “B-1-3-5” being spelled throughout, this fugue finishes with a dramatic B-flat pedal point building up to a final Picardy third, which then switches back to B-flat minor.

Variation Ⅲ. Marcia funebre “Gamma Variant”

The strings enter with a subdued syncopated rhythm. A solo clarinet slowly performs the secondary theme now in dark E-flat minor, with the oboe joining in to add tension. Eventually, the horns join in and spell “G-A-M-M-A”. The variation concludes with a B-flat pedal point in the piccolo creating tension with the repeated descending lines heard in the original theme, and a faint major second as the final chord.

Variation Ⅳ. Marcia militaire “Alpha Variant" 

A bass drum is quietly tapped. Another tap. Now it is struck every downbeat as the snare drum, cymbal, then timpani join in. The lower string and brass play some rhythmic octave jumps, then the upper strings and horn join in with a march rhythm. The trumpets play A minor triads, which create tension once the rest of the orchestra switch to Neapolitan chords, then the march-ified version of the main theme comes in, played by the upper woodwinds, with stabs from the upper brass and strings. The trumpets then take over with a march-ified version of the secondary theme. The basses and celli continue their octave jumps with 4 notes per bar, which clashes with the upper strings who join in with 3 notes per bar. To this clashing rhythm, the lower brass introduce a new theme, which eventually brings us to D minor, where the trumpets play their arpeggios once more. Now in D Minor, a new melody is introduced by the flute and piccolo, which then is responded to by the clarinets and oboe. After a repeat, we finally move back to the movement’s home key of F Minor, where the horns and trumpets take turns playing the melody. Afterwards, the percussion gets a chance to shine, and then the piccolo and flute join in with the secondary theme once more. The trumpets play their arpeggios once again, this time with the repeated descending lines in the woodwinds which have been heard throughout the movement, and the movement concludes with the tap of a snare drum.

Variation Ⅴ. Corale d’ottoni "Epsilon Variant" 

This variation features the brass section in a chorale of death and despair.  The trumpets create tension as the horn plays the theme to the pulsating of the trombones and tuba. After the trumpet and horn hesitate on a note, they bring the end of the chorale to the unusual key of D-flat major, which has been described as “A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture”.

Variation Ⅵ. Cantabile “Eta Variant”

Continuing in D-flat major, this variation takes up a light waltz, where the clarinet plays the first major key iteration of the main theme. After some simple arpeggios, the horns continue by pulsating in syncopations with each other until they land on a single D-flat. Now, the entire orchestra begins to come in and completes a completely unexpected modulation to…

Variation Ⅶ. Pesante “Delta Variant”

...C Major, a key which is usually regarded as being simple and naïve, however in this variation, simplicity and naïvety are nowhere in sight as the orchestra erupts into a heavy theme which is reminiscent of the second movement. As the tension builds, the tam-tam makes its first entrance as the orchestra bursts into A minor. After a quick revisit to C Major, the main theme of the movement finally gets stated in A minor, which moves to D Minor where the brass blast (D-E-L-T-A). The movement draws to a conclusion with A major arpeggios increasing in intensity and speed, until the loudest chord of the symphony so far explodes in A major, followed by absolute silence.

V. Vivace "Vaccine"
♩ = 144 (D Major)

June 2021: Could this be it? Is the end of this torturous era in sight? The virus can be finally defeated—all it takes is mass vaccination. Surely, all of us will be sensible enough to agreeably receive these little meager pokes, so we can finally get this done and over with?

One bassoon, playing only a single D, resolves the heightened anticipation left by the monstrous A major chord, then the horn comes in with the very same “outbreak” motif it started the symphony with, however now in D Major. The first violins continue the theme on, as they did before, this time to a driving rhythm of the second violins and viola. The woodwinds then come in with a canon of the major-ified theme, which ends with hints of despair as their sixths are flatted. The violins then play repeated D minor descending lines which snowball into a roar of joy in D major, though still with a “hint of salt” with the flatted sixths. This roar quiets down to the first violin playing harmonics perfect fifths apart, which is then resolved by the bass pizzicato joined by the woodwinds playing a simple waltz line. 

The simple main "vaccine" theme of the movement is stated by the upper strings, which is then carried on delicately by the oboe. The horns heroically take over and bring us to E major, where the celli lead a lullaby for COVID-19 to finally go to sleep, accompanied by swelling string tremolos and glockenspiel arpeggios. After the lullaby comes to an end, the violins hesitantly play only 3 notes up the A major scale. After a long pause, they play it once more. The second violins respond after another pause. This rather humorous exchange continues as the rest of the orchestra enters and builds up in tempo and intensity until the orchestra bursts into a fanfare of celebration, where the "vaccine" theme is shouted by the trumpets, followed by a luscious string serenade. The horns forcefully interrupt with the outbreak motif, and takes us to a dramatic suspended chord which warns us not to get excited too fast. The bassoons enter with the note they started the movement on, and we begin a harmonic journey across D Major, G Minor,  A♭ Major, D Minor, E♭ Major, E♭ Minor, E Major, A Minor, A♭ Major again, until landing at the penitential key of C  Minor. 

A timpani roll quietly enters. The horns warn of the imminent conflict that is to erupt created by those who oppose the vaccine. Their march through the streets follows, and though at first their ridiculous conspiracies and "justifications" for not receiving the vaccine seem harmless, as the lower brass humorously blurt the "ignorance" march, their conspiracies spread rapidly—even more so than the virus, thanks to the internet. More and more people choose not to get vaccinated, highlighted by the following section, where we move to the key of G# Minor for a more suspenseful chromatically rising melody by the woodwinds. This builds in intensity as the conspiracies become increasingly dominant, until the orchestra hits 3 loud notes, reminiscent of the fourth movement. Moving up another half step to finally reach C Minor, three more notes are hit. In this section, the orchestra reminisces over all of the pain and hardship the pandemic has put us through by reiterating all of the previous themes of the symphony, until we are brought back to the vaccine theme once again. However, in this reiteration, the optimism is cut short as the horns move us somewhat abruptly to E Minor. A tense build-up begins as the celli and basses play rapid descending lines until a climax is reached where the once humorous "ignorance" march is heavily roared by the lower brass to the pounding of the tubular bells and painful crunches from the horns and trumpet. Vaccination progress has been hampered, and what was supposed to mark the end of the pandemic has been met with a lot of resistance. Thankfully, we are reminded that this group only represents an insignificant minority as this section's coda reaches D Major, followed by a heavy "stomp" from the brass, and an unexpected crash into G Minor. 

The bassoons enter with the very same "D" they started the movement with, acting as pedal point through a faint but exciting build-up from the pizzicato strings and timpani to a peppy waltz rhythm. The horns switch with the strings and restate the "vaccine" waltz at a more eager tempo, and the brass continue on a chromatic ride up from D Major until they reach the same key once again for the second dose of the fanfare and the serenade, until a series of dramatic suspended chords lead us to a grim realization. 

Even after all of that, restrictions are reinstated as cases surge, mostly thanks to the unvaccinated, and life still cannot return to normal. The horn comes in with the very outbreak motif it started the symphony with, reverted to D minor, as it feels we are back exactly where we started. All of that suffering for nothing. The tension and agony of the first movement is recapitulated with a few dramatic changes, until a storm of string tremolos surge as misinformation rains from the sky. The winds blast a new hopeless "misinformation" motif as those who spread it can do so with such ease; it easily deprives one's faith in humanity. The next section entails the once trivial protests of the antivaccinists turning violent: blocking hospitals, attacking health-care workers, harassing schoolchildren, causing traffic chaos, occupying downtown cores, blocking borders, and storming buildings en masse. The ignorance march is blasted by the winds to tempestuous meandering tremolos of the strings. The trumpets burst into fanfare of the outbreak motif, then the theme is pounded repeatedly until a relentlessly noisy and intense dance of bloodshed marks the climax. Finally, after another explosion of an A Major chord, the timpani ricochets quietly. 

In the quiet after the storm, a tam-tam is barely tapped, and the basses begin a hardly audible pedal point. Despite all of the conflict, all of the misinformation, all of the divisiveness, humanity ultimately pulls itself together! To start the finale, a string quartet serenades the "vaccine" motif back in D Major. The solo viola sings, then joined in harmony by the cello. The quartet swells into a series of heavenly harmonics, then the solo violin performs the outbreak motif reiterated in A minor, until a Neapolitan chord brings us to more tension-filled harmonics, with the faint entrance of a timpani roll and the horns entering in E-flat major creating one of the most dissonant moments of the symphony. Clashing with the pedal point of the basses, the horns sentimentally reiterate the "outbreak" motif in its first appearance in E-flat major. This uneasiness is settled as the horns set us up for G Major, where the snare drum quietly enters for a soft march. The clarinets merrily play the "vaccine" motif, then with a cymbal crash, then the strings continue in a piercing high roar with the lullaby heard earlier in the movement. Every instrument playing reaches the strenuous top end of its range. 

This straining excitement reaches its climax as the orchestra smacks an ear-splittingly shrill F#, followed by the lower end of the orchestra finally entering with a boom, settling the imbalance between treble and bass. In its fullest orchestration, the "vaccine" theme is slowly sung lavishly by all of the strings, their sweetly stacked octaves filling the hall to the goosebump-inducing harmonic tensions of the brass.  The strings soar for one last time through the "outbreak" motif, now with tears of joy as they glissando up an octave in a cry of delight. The brass interject once more and take us to an immense build by all members of the orchestra, where the deep rumbles of the bass drum and timpani rolls are topped by the snare drum and tam-tam, drowning every single corner of the hall in sound. 

This rumble continues to a near-deafening threshold, until a euphoric explosion, where the horns and trumpets lead the orchestra through a dash with their alternating calls of joy. The strings hurriedly take over and scramble through G Minor, where they accelerando to these huge triplet rhythms reminiscent of the vaccine motif back in D Major, until they reach repeated arpeggios, with syncopated hits from the brass and percussion. The bass instruments of the orchestra ascend in a pattern reminiscent of the outbreak motif, until they reach the top of their climb at G minor, which alternates with D Major for that aforementioned "hint of salt". The entire orchestra arpeggiates down D Major, G Minor, until we reach the final sprint to the end where the violins gallop in their screaming-high range, clashing with stomping triplet rhythms of the lower strings and winds, where the tubular bells recite the outbreak motif repeatedly in D major. We hear G minor one last time as a reminder a catastrophe such as this pandemic could easily come in the future, and return to D major for the final time as the orchestra strikes the final three chords of the symphony.