by Walter Simmons
Symphony No. 1 by Nicolas Flagello
Nicolas Flagello composed his Symphony No. 1 during the years 1964-68; it was first performed in 1971, with the composer himself conducting the symphony orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music. It is Flagello’s largest and most ambitious abstract work and is, in many ways, a definitive statement of his identity as a composer and as a human being. That is, like most of his music–and that of many of his beloved late-Romantics–it is emotionally autobiographical. At the same time, it is a work of consummate compositional mastery and discipline, a virtual textbook of classic symphonic technique.
The work opens boldly with a three-note motif that is the basis of the entire symphony. The first movement, Allegro molto, is an explosive sonata-allegro, in which a violently agitated first theme is offset by a brooding, restless second theme, which ultimately achieves the major climax of the movement.
The second movement, Andante lento, opens with recitative-like passages that gradually lead to the body of the movement, a long-breathed lyrical outpouring that ebbs and flows with the immediacy of an operatic scene, though the basic three-note motif is woven throughout. This aria for orchestra builds to a towering climax, before returning to the recitative-like passages with which the movement opened.
The third movement, Allegretto brusco, is an ironic scherzo with grotesque and sinister undercurrents, based on an inverted form of the basic motif. An eerie trio section offers a brief but unstable moment of respite, before the scherzo returns in modified form. This leads to a stretto, culminating in a wildly demonic outburst. The movement concludes on a note of uncertainty and anticipation that sets the stage for the mighty finale to follow.
The fourth movement, Ciaccona: Maestoso andante, opens with a majestic tutti statement that conceals a bassline created from an extended retrograde elaboration of the symphony’s basic motif. The chaconne that follows is built on that bassline. A series of 19 strict variations gradually becomes increasingly agitated, leading to a return of the opening majestic statement. Now a series of freer developmental variations follows, which create the effect of a poignant, bittersweet interlude. However the moment of tenderness soon turns ominous and tense, leading, after a total of 26 variations, to a vigorous fugue of which both subject and countersubject are transformations of the chaconne bassline. The fugue proceeds, further developing all the movement’s thematic material in increasingly concentrated fashion, rising to an intense emotional pitch. A stretto then culminates in a stark triadic statement of the chaconne theme that is both triumphant and defiant, leading the work to an extremely hard-won conclusion.
After its first performance, Music Journal described Flagello’s Symphony No. 1 as “a really notable addition to the literature. The work is beautifully expressive, doesn’t meander, and is brilliantly orchestrated to boot . . . . Nicolas Flagello is a major talent and one looks forward to hearing him and his symphony continue to give pleasure to audiences the way they did this night.”