scoring: 13 players (see below for precise scoring)
duration: 14 minutes
composed: December 1965, revised after Spring 1966
First performance of original version (as Abraxas): 20 May 1966, at a concert given at Yale University under the auspices of the New Haven chapter of the ISCM, in honour of Milton Babbitt, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. The performers were:
Pauline Scott, violin
Nobuko Imai, viola
Edward Culbreath, cello
Alan Moore, bass
Patricia Harper, flute + piccolo
Richard Killmer, oboe + English horn
Richard Stoltzman, clarinet + E-flat clarinet
Ronald Quinn, bassoone
Ritchie Clendenin, trumpet
Ronald Borror, trombone
Frank Bennett, percussion
Robert Howland, percussion
Harold Oliver, piano
Justin Connolly, conductor
No other performances of either version are known.
There is a recording of the premiere in the Justin Connolly Collection at the Royal College of Music Library.
This concertante work is one of a pair which exploit certain possibilities of the 1arge chamber ensemble. It is a piece in which the idea of the tutti is of great importance, and its seven sections, separated by brief pauses, show a continual tendency to build up and dissolve in various ways moments when the entire ensemble is used. Those portions of the work in which solos appearemphasise the contrast of the constituent groups of the ensemble, winds, strings, and percussion, as well as being points on the way to establishing or changing situations where the groups are used as interacting masses.
These tuttis are very often made up of music which in another context might have been deployed as a series of solos, containing within themselves contrasts of attack, rhythm and timbre. It is from this concept that the title 'Obbligati' derives, for an obligato is a musical gesture which does not confirm to the notation of a solo thrown into relief by an accompaniment, nor on the other hand to the function of an accompaniment itself, but rather occupies an intermediate position between these ideas.
The seven sections are further characterised by a contrast of metrical and non-metrical material. During the first the timbrel qualities of the instruments are introduced, and the three groups are strongly contrasted in non-metrical music.
The second and fourth sections are metrical, and the music of the groups has a more unitary nature, with fluctuations of tempo; while the third section is somewhat slower, employing pairs of instruments from the group, also in metrical music.
This more soloistic character of the third section prepares in turn the very slow fifth section, which contains a critical conflict between metrical and non-metrical elements presented in simultaneity. The section begins with one of the few real solos in the entire work, which is gradually eroded until the music comes to a complete standstill.
The sixth section is an abrupt contrast, attempting to establish metrical music against interruptions of non-metricAL material in a faster general tempo more related to sections 2-4.
The final section begins with all the instruments united in non-metrical music reminiscent of the very opening of the piece, and against this background of slowly moving sounds a trumpet solo introduces the three groups for the last time, each in a cadenza-like passage; first winds, then strings, each punctuated by percussion, whose own cadenza is interrupted by sudden ejaculations in the metrical style of the earlier quick movements. At the very moment when the metrical elements seem to be about to re-establish themselves the work comes to its end.
Premiere of first version (as Abraxas):
The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 368-383
(Second, surviving version:)
B-flat clarinet/E-flat clarinet
bar. saxophone/tenor saxophone
trumpet in B-flat/trumpet in D
percussion (2 players - vibraphone, xylorimba, 3 timpani, 28", 25", 23". Small and large bass drums, Tenor and snare drums, 3 Chinese tom-toms, 3 suspended cymbals, 5 temple blocks, 2 wood blocks, Tamtam, small gong, tubular bells, interior of piano)
Programme note from score held by Illinois University
Performers at premiere from box containing original tape recording