Shortly after Peter Winkler arrived at Stony Brook in 1971, he began sketching a symphony to be conducted by his colleague, David Lawton, who was then the conductor of Stony Brook's fledgling orchestra. Lawton and Winkler had been friends since their undergraduate years together at Berkeley, some 50 years ago. Lawton's great gifts as an interpreter of 19th-century music inspired Winkler to attempt a work of Romantic size and ambitions—a symphony that would, in Mahler's phrase, "be like the world; it must embrace everything." The work, some 45 minutes long, took seven years to complete, seven years during which Winkler's own world changed dramatically. These changes left their mark on the symphony, especially in the concluding Adagio, written during a memorable residency at the MacDowell artists' colony in New Hampshire. For the March 2015 performance, Winkler spent the last half-year revising the work, refining the orchestration and some details of rhythmic pacing, but the original shape and conception of the symphony have remained the same.
The first movement is a set of variations that also follows the outlines of sonata form. The Introduction (sketched during a summer in British Columbia) consists of massive blocks of sound inspired by images from nature: craggy granite peaks, a seething ocean, bird calls in the forest, distant thunder. Melodies struggle to be born, and the introduction ends with a rising ritornello, which will reappear to articulate the end of every section. The first ritornello introduces the theme: a long melody buzzing with barely contained excitement as it passes around the orchestra. This 43-note theme constitutes the DNA for much of the entire work, serving as the source of both melodic and harmonic material.
The excitement explodes into Variation 1, a brief, playful scherzo built on a syncopated rhythmic pattern that alternately spins down from above and bubbles up from below. Variation 2 gradually dispels the energy in pulsating chords, and leads into the pastoral mood of Variation 3. Here the solo clarinet spins bird-call-like melodies against a slow, tranquil statement of the theme in the violins. As Variation 4 begins, other birds begin to join in, and the mood becomes increasingly uneasy. Distant thunder is heard again; then a devastating storm breaks. The brass instruments attempt to withstand its force, but are overcome, and the whole world seems to spin out of control. In the aftermath of the storm, the remainder of the movement recapitulates what we heard earlier, but in a more somber mood. Variation 5 (Marcia Funèbre) surveys the devastated landscape as it recapitulates the theme in bleak, isolated minor triads. In Variation 6 the birdcalls of variation 3 return, now tense and agitated. The calls coalesce into a single, repeated call that continues to sound through the concluding Variation 7, a coda recalling earlier passages in the movement, but bringing no relief from the bleak mood. The movement concludes with a final recurrence of the desolate sounds of the funeral march.
The second moment is a brief interlude titled Scherzoid - a paranoid (or perhaps schizoid) scherzo. Beginning as a dialogue between percussion and pizzicato low strings, the movement keeps looking nervously over its shoulder and retracing its steps: every time the bass drum thumps, the music runs in reverse. Elements of the first movement return in distorted form; for example, the first movement theme serves as the bass line for the middle section. This section gradually accelerates until it runs into a brick wall (the bass drum again). After a few attempts (and a hysterical outburst from the bass drum), the wall is breached, unleashing a descending cascade that repeats over and over, each repetition longer and softer. As the energy of the cascades dissipates, the nervous dialogue of the beginning sneaks back in, and the movement ends with a question mark.
The final movement is an extended love scene (inspired in part by the Scene d'amour in Berlioz's Romeo et Juliet Symphony). It begins with three gusts of wind that clear the air and expel the weight of the earlier movements. In the ensuing stillness, the clarinet and oboe repeatedly call out a motive tinged with loneliness and longing, as a slow string melody floats above. Desire, expressed by an impassioned melody in the cellos and lower winds, grows in intensity. It is answered by a gentle, consoling theme, again in the clarinet and oboe, supported by a soft heartbeat in the low winds and the marimba. This "consolation" theme dies away before it reaches a conclusion, and the music opens into the middle section, a world of nocturnal rustles and murmurs. As this night music grows more agitated, the cellos again begin to sing of their desire and longing. The intensity grows to a climax as the ""oneliness" call re-enters, then the music subsides to a bleak recitative for English horn, accompanied by the loneliness" motive in the bass clarinet. The music grows again, heading into an impassioned, dramatic reprise of the opening section of the movement. As it calms, the heart beat is heard again, and the horns sing a new melody that reshapes the "loneliness" theme into a gentle tune, answered by the clarinet and oboe singing their "consolation" theme, this time brought to a conclusion by the horns. In an Epilogue, the meter shifts to a lilting Caribbean groove, as the whole orchestra repeats the new melody and brings the symphony to a quiet ending.
David Lawton conducted the premiere of the symphony at the Grand Opening of the Staller Center (then called the Fine Arts Center) in October 1979. It is not often that a work of this size and ambition gets a second chance, and Prof. Winkler expressed his deep gratitude for the talent, dedication and inspired work that maestro Eduardo Leandro and the members of the Stony Brook Symphony brought to the March 28 performance.