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FIFTH SYMPHONY LES LENDEMAINS CHANTANTS (1941-1944)

(all audio fragments are taken from a live recording by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ingo Metzmacher on 30 June 1997 in the Holland Festival programmed by Jan van Vlijmen)

 
The Fifth Symphony marked a change of direction for Vermeulen, as he employed a composition technique that became more and more leading in his later work: the constant variation of melodic material. The first and second movement of the symphony are both built around a single theme of which elements are used in a succession of long, ever-renewing melodies. Vermeulen's reasoning behind this was the Greek philosophy panta rhei: everything flows and one cannot step twice in the same river.
         Besides diversity and change, Vermeulen also tried to achieve organic unity. He obtained that unity by means of motivic relations between the themes of the movements. When one compares all five themes (the finale movement has three), the similarities become apparent. The themes also link the movements to each other. For example, the rising major sixth and the rising major seventh with which the Adagio opens form the beginning of a twelve-tone melody that can be heard four times in a row, with small rhythmic variations, as apotheosis of the third movement. According to the programme notes of the composer below, they confirm 'that a vision, conceived in the Adagio, can be realised'.
         In his Fifth Symphony Vermeulen continues a practice that he started in his Fourth Symphony: he forms such long melodies that they need to be taken over by different instruments in a relay system, which requires special technical skills of the performers. However, the subtle, well-considered changes in timbre give Vermeulen's orchestration an extra dimension.
         For the symphony's premiere on 12 October 1949 by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum, Vermeulen wrote the following programme notes:
 
"The Fifth Symphony, which will be premiered tonight, was started on an evening in October 1941, in the darkest depths of the tunnel called war. The title, Les lendemains chantants, is derived from a letter that one of the great leaders of the French Résistance [the Communist journalist and politician Gabriel Péri] wrote as a last farewell when he was waiting to be executed after being tortured. The composer heard these words on the radio. They overpowered him and produced a frame of mind that was strong enough for him to, in the midst of darkness, attempt to depict something of the singing morn of a happy future through music.
         The work consists of three movements (fast – slow – fast) and was completed during the winter preceding 1945.
         After a short, turbulent introduction in the double basses and against their dark background the horns present the main theme:  
The entire first movement is built around this central idea. It appears in numerous forms, but it is always easily recognisable. It is alternated with many episodes, as if it is journeying along a horizon of melodic options that are connected with its disposition, and in most cases emanate from it. Little by little, gradually or in leaps, it leads to a culmination of the dithyrambic energies that it evoked. It still resounds in the final measures, like an echo.
         In the Adagio the composer has attempted to address an invocation to Love, and to express to some extent what she can give and what she could be like in music. This movement is a series of hymns and antiphons, grouped around the theme, started by the tenor saxophone in the stillness of the beginning:
 
If the composer has managed to realise the intention that inspired him, the music should gradually rise and lead one to a realm where everything is pure goodness, as the power that is invoked desires.
         In the third movement of the symphony the composer naturally had to attempt to take into account the consequences of and draw conclusions from the previous material. Man is limited and continues to hesitate, even when the path is completely clear to him. He no longer needs to conquer the certainties that he saw. They are within his immediate reach. But (what is far more difficult) he has to confirm them. Three themes, surrounded by several others, in turn try to express that desire and safety.
         The first theme that is still searching and hesitant:
         The second that wants to eliminate every hesitation:
         The third that drives forwards:
         The second theme dominates and leads to a balanced end, to a calm and affirmative conclusion that suggests that a vision, conceived in the Adagio, can be realised.
         This, then, is the psychological content and progression of the Fifth Symphony, as the composer who, considering his work, a posteriori envisages that, amidst the disaster, he wrote as in a dream that surprises him now, but that was real for him, and that, despite everything, confirms that happiness is attainable."
 
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