The 10 Symphonies of Erkki-Sven Tüür – Part 4: Symphony No. 10 ‘ÆRIS’

The 10 Symphonies of Erkki-Sven Tüür - Part 4: Symphony No. 10 'ÆRIS'

This text is an expanded version of the article originally published (in Estonian translation) by Sirp, 16 September 2022.

Looking back through Erkki-Sven Tüür’s first nine symphonies, they exhibit a great deal of consistency, primarily with regard to the use of contrasting musical ideas, often presented as bold juxtapositions, sometimes forming the basis for development. Tüür has also compartmentalised the orchestra in increasingly familiar ways: the woodwinds tend to form textures from cascading lines; the brass veer between fanfares and stretched out chords; the percussion boom, clatter and dance, whether reinforcing other ideas or stating their own; while the strings, depending on their mood, opt either to sing, hover or propel the music along. Of course, these types of behaviour are not solely restricted to these instrumental groups, and they inevitably spill over the boundaries, but it’s interesting to note the generalised attitude Tüür has towards each section of the orchestra.

Symphony No. 10 – completed in 2021, but only premièred this year, due to the pandemic – extends this notion of compartmentalisation further, separating the horns from the rest of the brass section and making them a concertante group. This is hinted at in the symphony’s subtitle, ‘ÆRIS’, the Latin word for brass. In many respects the work recalls the “negotiations” that Tüür spoke about in Symphony No. 5, in terms of the relationship between the horns and the rest of the orchestra.

In the first movement (Tüür refers to the work having four “movements” in his programme note, though they are not labelled as such in the score, and the only indication of where they begin is the presence of double barlines), the winds act almost as an antagonist, pursuing their own florid agenda in a similar yet even more assertive manner to that in Tüür’s earlier symphonies. The brass and strings align with the horns, who progress from a steady sequence of microtonal chords to more fanfaric material. The percussion can be thought of as ‘neutral’ in this divided outlook, embellishing or reinforcing both sides of the argument.

Erkki-Sven Tüür

There are echoes of the primordial power of the ‘Magma’ and ‘Mythos’ symphonies as the music develops, arriving at a rhythmically driven middle sequence where a two-note motif becomes insistent. Just as nature doesn’t care about short-term variety, Tüür lets this phrase continue to pound relentlessly. It’s this sequence that crystallises the fact that Symphony No. 10 is in part a return to the polarised world – clear or vague, delicate or raw – that typified Tüür’s earliest symphonic works. That being said, clarity is restored via the most wonderfully messy microtonal chord in the brass (with fading echoes of the two-note motif still continuing), which finally coalesces onto a single pitch.

That opening movement suggested that what was necessary, in terms of the work’s inner dynamic, was to bring the woodwinds into line with everyone else. Yet the slow second movement unexpectedly goes the other way, showing the winds’ independence beginning to influence the horns, who imitate their flowing lines. Yet this plays out in a typically Tüür-like environment of contrasts in parallel, emerging from a beautiful, dream-like opening into a place where ideas are thrown around, moving abruptly between the sections of the orchestra. However, these ideas aren’t as disjunct as they first seem, sounding more and more mutually sympathetic; they begin to cohere, leading to dialogue and a unified orchestra.

This cooperation is extended in the lively third movement, with sympathetic ideas in the winds and trumpets. Rhythmically the music takes a turn for the funky, building to a playful climax where everyone is united in filigree littered with repeated notes and weird recurrent glissandi (with echoes of the microtonal slides heard in the first movement). At the end, the winds begin a new rhythmic game and everyone – eventually even the horns, who initially resist – gets involved.

The symphony concludes with the opposite of a conventional finale: another slow movement, featuring a renewed emphasis on the horns. Its atmosphere mingles dark and light elements, the brass initially coming across as a ‘dirty’ core to floating, ethereal music. Though mysterious, a rising harp and vibraphone idea heard throughout the symphony now acts like a familiar landmark in an otherwise strange place. There are behavioural echoes of the first movement, though the winds now respond to the horns (with rising flurries) rather than contradicting them. The strings finally get some time in the foreground, before a final climax, without the horns (who have literally vanished), combining rhythmic and sustained elements. When the horns return – now located at the four corners of the performance space – they bring the symphony to a close with calm counterpoint, the final word falling, again, to the vibes and harp.

It’s a gesture that highlights the way that the different parts of the orchestra behave so consistently throughout the symphony while at the same time altering and accommodating their behaviour in relation to others. In his programme note, Tüür speaks of the horns as “messengers”, wondering “Will their message be understood?” Symphony No. 10 seems to suggest that the horns’ message was, at least, accepted, as part of a general progression towards agreement and unification.

In August 2018, i wrote, when exploring Symphony No. 8: “On the strength of this and his more recent Ninth Symphony, i really can’t wait for Tüür to write a Tenth.” And in July 2020: “Despite lasting only a little over half an hour, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is easily one of the most powerfully arresting new symphonies i’ve heard in many, many years. i can’t wait until he unleashes No. 10.” Well, the wait is finally over, and it’s nice to reflect on the extent to which Symphony No. 10 lives up to that promise, tapping into familiar elements from throughout the four decades of Tüür’s symphonic output while at the same time charting a new path, one that tends to avoids the levels of full force ferocity that have sometimes appeared to typify these symphonies, focusing instead on interactions and relationships. Likewise, the role of juxtaposition, such a vital aspect of these symphonies, has progressed from simple contrasts to an exploration of the way ideas can be incorporated into each other and subsequently developed. Where this evolution will lead next remains to be heard – if and when Tüür eventually composes his Symphony No. 11.

Erkki-Sven Tüür, German Hornsound, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Olari Elts: 16 September 2022, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn (photo: ERSO)

Following some delays due to the pandemic, Symphony No. 10 received its première on 18 May in Bochum, featuring soloists German Hornsound (to whom the work is dedicated) with the Bochumer Symphoniker conducted by Olari Elts. Its first performance in Tüür’s homeland took place last month, with German Hornsound and Olari Elts now joined by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Having compared the two (Tüür kindly sent me a private recording of the world première), the Estonian performance is more compelling; Elts takes it at a much faster pace and overall there’s a greater sense of urgency and drama. It was performed on 16 September at the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn.

Programme note

In Latin, ÆRIS means brass, which is also the name of a certain instrument group in the symphony orchestra. However, AERIS means ‘air’ and without this essential element, not a sound would come out of brass instruments. Thus, the title of my tenth symphony focuses mainly on the brass sound that carries the weight of this composition.

The symphony begins by exhibiting this sound, which seems to be arriving from beyond the horizon. The illusion of an “upward stretching” axis pitch formed by quarter tones is the first sign of a mysterious group of guests who will soon start playing a decisive role in the entire development process.

The increasingly dense layer formed mainly by the woodwinds presents a contrasting material to the slowly stretching sound axis of the French horns. In turn, this contrasting material later forms the basis for the theme of the French horn quartet.

The symphony is divided into four movements that transition without clear separation. Every movement expresses a different development between the ensemble of soloists and the orchestra. Sometimes their motifs spread into the orchestra like memes that start changing and gradually take on lives of their own; sometimes they enter a debate without reaching common ground; sometimes there is a dialogue between the soloists and the ensembles within the orchestra, creating the impression of shared development principles…

The French horn quartet may be regarded as messengers, bringing prophecies of imminent irreversible changes. Will their message be understood? What will be the reaction and how will it impact communication? Where did they come from anyway? What did they want to tell us? Let every member of the audience deal with these questions according to their social compass and imagination. It is not up to me to paraphrase my music and I won’t bother anyone with my composition techniques or creative methods – that is a topic for special seminars. What I wish is for the audience to take this journey with an open mind.   

I am extremely grateful to the French horn quartet German Hornsound who came to me with the idea of composing such a piece.

—Erkki-Sven Tüür
(Translated by Pirjo Jonas)

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