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Nigel Osborne: Concerto

  • for flute and chamber orchestra
  • ob(2), hn(2), str: vln.I(6), vln.II(4), vla(3), vc(2), cb(1)
  • Duration: 16’
  • Soloists:
  • Instrumentation details:
    1st oboe
    2nd oboe
    1st horn in F
    2nd horn in F
    1st violin I
    2.3th violin I
    violin II
  • Composer: Nigel Osborne

Work introduction

This work was commissioned by the City of London Sinfonia, and completed at Easter, 1980. I was particularly thrilled to be asked to write a work for Aurele Nicolet, an artist whose playing embraces not only the highest of performing standards, but also a very Special quality of human and musical insight.


The first movement derives its inner tension from the conflict of seven different metres, superimposed in various combinations, in layers. The effect is as if we were to take, say, a helicopter's eye-view of a seven-lane motorway, with traffic travelling at different speeds in each lane, sometimes changing lane, sometimes overtaking, occasionally reduced to a single stream (this is of course only a metaphor for technique and has nothing to do with what the music has to say).

The metres are matched by seven sets of pitch intervals, ranging from notes very close to each other (a mixture of semitones and microtones) to notes relatively far apart (the seventh set is in fact a Phrygian scale). In fact the whole work turns out to be based on the numbers 7 and 3, although this is something which imposed itself upon me by force of coincidence, rather than through any conscious process of decision making.

The solo flute part is virtuosic but not elaborate, and perhaps even ascetic in character. The relationship between soloist and orchestra is much the same as in the Baroque solo concerto: the flute tends to merge into the tutti, or stand alone with reduced ensemble. I am aware of having been influenced by certain ethnic techniques in the flute line (flute playing from New Guinea, the Amazon basin, Japan) although these were not added ornamentally, they are an integral part of the inspiration and thrust of the work.

The second movement enters a completely different scale of time and action: from the compressed, motoric intensity of the first movement to a musical world which is infinitely calm and relaxed. I t is a series of dialogues between the most compressed and the most expanded of the pitch sets. The flute leads with an attenuated mimosa-like line over microtonal accompaniment, and is answered by the Phrygian scale in a sort of prolation canon. The metres are not worked as it were, contrapuntally, and if one were to seek a comparison in music of the past, it would be with English Renaissance polyphony. The music moves through all seven sharp keys, although its implicit tonality is neither romantic nor nostalgic. It is simply the logical outcome of the natural laws operating in the piece.

The final movement existed originally in a different form. It was only relatively late in the compositional process that I realized that what really belonged there was the material of an instrumental setting of a poem of Andrei Voznesensky I had written in 1977. My previous attempt at the last movement had been simply a pale shadow of this work. It became clear to me that in the first two movements of the concerto I had, as it were, opened the book of this earlier composition. Conversely, in the third movement, the aces of the first two were now collapsed on earth other; the pages and lines which were read separately were now closed together in a single, multi-faceted object.

The original instrumental combination of the song – flute, oboe, violin and cello – becomes the solo group of a sort of Corellian concerto grosso, where the tutti reinforces the ensemble from behind. But as this richer more fluid counterpoint establishes itself, it is brutally arrested by the return of the rigid motoric line of the first movement, now in full unison. By the end of the piece we have opened the book once more, and discovered that there is now but a single page within.

Nigel Osborne

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