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About this Piece

Composed: 1991-93

Length: 25 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, 2 harps, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

The Rose Lake was the last major work completed by Michael Tippett. Its world premiere on February 19, 1995, with the London Symphony conducted by Colin Davis took place six weeks after the composer's 90th birthday. Nevertheless, The Rose Lake should not be seen as a summation of Tippett's compositional career or as a conscious final statement - his large-scale work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra The Mask of Time, premiered in Boston in 1984, had been that. Rather, taken with works such as his opera New Year (1986-88), Byzantium for soprano and orchestra (1989-90), and the Fifth String Quartet (1990-91), The Rose Lake finds the composer in the final decade of his life continuing to grapple with musical questions that had preoccupied him throughout his long career.

The work began with Tippett's visit to Lake Retba - commonly known as Le Lac Rose, or the Rose Lake - in Senegal, about 20 miles northeast of Dakar, in 1990 during one of his "adventure holidays." The color of the salt-water lake changes to varying shades of pink depending on the sunlight. According to Tippett, quoted in an article by his amanuensis Meirion Bowen: "I reached Le Lac Rose at midday, just in time to see it turn a marvelous translucent pink. The sight of it triggered a profound disturbance within me, the sort of disturbance which told me that the new orchestral work had begun."

In that "new orchestral work," Tippett grappled with musical questions centered around large-scale form, musical development, and the use of the orchestra. Tippett again: "I was able to formulate a musical structure whose main stages I risked identifying with captions: 'The lake begins to sing,' 'The lake song is echoed from the sky,' 'The lake is in full song,' 'The lake song leaves the sky,' and 'The lake sings itself to sleep.' All this may sound naive, but in fact the titles signify an important dimension to what might otherwise be summarized as a continuous five-part composition… in essence a set of variations. The descriptive captions finally suggested an overall subtitle for the piece: 'A song without words for orchestra.' Overall, one can think of the piece as also manifesting a progression from dawn to dusk."

Basically, Tippett contrasts the five song episodes, which tend to employ a more traditional orchestral sonority (strings, winds, brass) and are largely diatonic, with interludes that are frequently percussion-driven and rely on other methods of tonal organization. The last four songs are each a variation on the first, which begins with the entry of the six horns. (The atmosphere here is remarkably similar to the opening of "The Walk to the Paradise Garden.") "The lake song is echoed from the sky" introduces its theme in the bass clarinet and the "echo" in the flute. Big rolls on the bass drum launch "The lake is in full song," and the strings, fronted by several soloists, come to the fore in "The lake song leaves the sky." The final song, "The lake sings itself to sleep," opens with a violin solo over a shifting orchestral accompaniment - we have arrived at dusk - and the piece ends with several long pauses before a final flourish dominated by the xylophone and marimba and a "plop" (Tippett's word) from the brass.

- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.