Clermont Pépin, Symphony No. 2

CLERMONT PÉPIN: Born in St-Georges-de-Beauce, Quebec, May 15, 1926; died in Montreal, September 2, 2006

In this tautly constructed, finely-crafted work Pépin has used models of musical genres common to the Baroque world of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to create a thoroughly twentieth-century example of the symphony.

Clermont Pépin composed his Second Symphony in the latter half of 1957 and heard it premiered on December 22 by the Orchestra of the Little Symphonies of Montreal, for whom it was written, conducted by Roland Leduc. The composer writes:

“The overall form of the symphony differs from classical form in that in place of the conventional opening allegro movement, the symphony begins with a toccata. The word must be understood here in its general sense of underscoring the percussive nature of the music. The second movement is a chorale whose character, mournful and serene by turns, serves as a contrast to the excitable first movement. The finale is an atonal fugue whose subject is in a constant state of flux.”

It is interesting to note that, despite the thoroughly modern (for 1957) sound of this symphony, all three movements bear titles of musical genres common to the Baroque period (late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries). The toccata aspect of the first movement is found in the regular, rapidly pulsing eighth notes (beginning in the seventh measure), which travel relentlessly throughout the orchestra, often passing from one section or range to another. Pépin’s use of the toccata is somewhat free in that he interjects passages where the regularly pulsing eighths are temporarily abandoned and, most unusually, superimposes lyrical lines that ride over the pulsing toccata element.

The term “chorale” likewise is used freely. The opening and closing sections do bear relation to the kind of chorales Bach wrote, not in terms of harmonic practice but in the sense that all the lines move to the same slow, stately metrical pattern. As in the toccata movement, Pépin from time to time superimposes a lyrical element over the chorale material, initially with a solo violin, near the end a clarinet, then flute. Of the three movements, the final fugue adheres most closely to the Baroque model. Yet here too Pépin introduces a uniquely twentieth-century element: an extended episode for percussion alone. To a classical orchestra composed of just pairs of winds plus strings, Pépin has added enough percussion instruments to create an entire fugal episode that closely approximates what the full orchestra has previously presented: 5 wood blocks, 5 temple blocks, 2 bongos, 2 tom-toms, gong, triangle, cymbals, Chinese cymbal, bell, tambourine, snare drum, military drum, bass drum, 5 timpani, xylophone and marimba.
Robert Markow

© 2010, Robert Markow

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