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Jack Speirs (1939-2000)
Fioriture (1969 rev. 1970)

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Jack Speirs (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand,  14 August 1980

Jack Speirs was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1939. He settled in Dunedin in his mid-twenties where he taught in the University of Otago Music Department until his death in 2000.

He once described his pet hate as the idea that a New Zealand composer should look to the Pacific rather than to Europe to become a genuine New Zealand composer. He was interested in the music of various non-European cultures but believed a New Zealand composer to be one who lives and writes in New Zealand, inevitably absorbing the complex resonances of this country.

The work we are going to hear tonight is his Fioriture dating from 1970.

The title is the name given to the flowery, embellished vocal line found in many arias from 19th-century opera. It derives from the Italian 'fiore' (flower). It certainly applies to this work which expands, modifies and develops the given thematic material, much as an opera singer would have done with her or his vocal line 150 years ago.

Commissioned for the centenary celebrations of the University of Otago in 1969, the work was revised the following year. Fioriture is built in five sections arranged as an arch. The first section consists of four 'fanfares' - the first is for six trumpets characterised by crescendo-diminuendo effects and long sustained notes which rise steadily up semitonal steps to a climax.

The second fanfare is for woodwind and percussion, the third is an extended version of the first while the final fanfare modifies the second. This section leads directly into an agile, toccata-like allegro based on material from the trumpet fanfares. The scoring is deft and I love the way that Speirs uses a piano to enhance the pointillistic nature of the woodwind writing.

The work also demonstrates the influence of Webern and serialism on Speirs via his teachers. Both Kenneth Leighton at Edinburgh University and Boris Blacher at the Music Academy of Berlin adhered to 12 tone procedures, in the early 60s at least. Leighton went for a lyrical style, whereas Blacher tended towards French-inspired instrumentation.

The third, central section is a long lento based on material from the woodwind fanfares. Here, biting dissonance and angular melody are replaced by gentle melodic lines and an ever-present backdrop of soft string chords. Oboe, flute and trumpet solos occasionally give way to soft flurries from the woodwind and piano. However, Jack Speirs' use of series-based harmonies in the upper strings and the sad poignancy of the melodic lines lend a disquieting atmosphere to this section, at least to my ears.

The fourth section returns to the character and ideas of the second with increasingly impassioned utterances from the strings aligned with rhythmical block harmonies in the wind and brass, leading to the work's major climax: frenetic passagework from the 6 trumpets.

This then subsides into the original fanfares which opened the work. Now, however, the music is turned back to front so that the gradual intensification of the opening becomes a process of gradual relaxation. The arch form of the piece is thus complete.

More about Fioriture on the SOUNZ website