Programme Notes – Scenes from Bruegel (1994)

Children’s Games – Vivace Leggiero
Two Monkeys – Lento
The Peasant Dance – Presto con Fuoco
The Wedding Banquet – Moderato Pesante – Allegro Molto

In this suite of four short movements, I have been drawn to the wonderfully detailed and multi-layered depictions of village life by the sixteenth century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. There is a strong element of satire in his paintings; what comes across most strongly is Bruegel’s pinpointing of human folly and hypocrisy. Man’s lust, cruelty and greed is repeatedly shown, sometimes in a wild, garish light, at other times beneath the surface.

His painting Children’s Games at a cursory glance may seem full of life and gaiety, on closer inspection the hundreds of children depicted seem to be manipulated by an invisible hand, there are no expressions of joy here, and the games being acted out have very little of the spontaneous. In this first piece I have tried to capture the mood of the painting in three and a half minutes of robotic six/eight time from a deceptively innocent beginning to a brutal conclusion. At one point in the movement a very well known medieval song is quoted.

The painting Two Monkeys is in marked contrast to the other three. Here the crowd is not crowded with frenetic activity. Two gloomy-looking monkeys, portrayed in the movement by two bassoons playing in their highest registers are chained to a windowsill under a deep dungeon-like arch. They have been chained down for their greed for a hazelnut. Behind them is Antwerp covered in a thick mist.

The third movement The Peasant Dance is wild, uncouth and very brief – and includes another quotation, this time from a bi-tonal sixteenth century dance by the German composer Hans Neusidler.

In The Wedding Banquet Bruegel’s characters are completely ruled by their lust for instant gratification – something that hasn’t changed very much in the last five hundred years. Any sense of the spirituality of the occasion is swept aside by the constant demand for food and drink. The music is intentionally two dimensional, never leaving the tonal area of B flat.

Scenes From Bruegel was commissioned by the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Great Britain with financial assistance from the John Lewis Partnership.