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Giacinto Scelsi

Hymnos (1963)

Hymnos (1963) marks the end of Scelsi's great symphonic trilogy begun with Hurqualia and Aion: the later orchestral works call for chorus or a solo instrument (in Anahit). It also marks his convincing return to harmony and his consolidation of forces in the mid-60s. Hymnos is a single movement work lasting eleven and a half minutes, and scored for Scelsi's largest group of instruments (including violins for the first time): two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, sixteen first violins, fourteen second violins, ten violas, eight cellos, and six double basses; these instruments are divided antiphonically into two symmetric groups placed about: organ, timpani and three percussionists. The percussion is quite subdued in this piece, and includes a gong on top of a kettle drum; the organ plays a major supporting role; and all timbres are indicated with extreme precision.

Hymnos is a Greek word, and is of course the origin of our word hymn: and in this respect the meaning of the work is more clear than in the preceding two. The origin of 'Hymnos' in Greek is from the number six, and though it may be coincidence, the piece is made up of three distinct sections multiplied by the two orchestras. The two outer sections are in Scelsi's typical massive style, surrounding a quiet and sublime middle section during which the violins and high winds dominate as never before in Scelsi's mature orchestral music.

The first section begins slowly on D, gradually building to a climax which wavers between D minor and Bb major (keys which already had important associations for Scelsi during his First Period). This is broken up by microtonal fluctuations on the violins in the highest register, and the piece gradually dissolves into the ethereal second section on E with dissonant tensions of interior chromaticism. Rumblings in the percussion gradually inaugurate the third section which returns to the harmonic context of D minor/Bb major and finally cadences at about the ten minute mark. This is followed by a recapitulation and above all by a consolidation of the previous uninterrupted development which fades away by the eleven minute mark; the piece then ends in a grand unison on F.

Hymnos is one of Scelsi's easiest pieces for analysis, and it is also one of his most simply effective. It has a hymn-like healing quality about it, and one can imagine Scelsi finally conquering his harmonic demons in this hymn. Harmony will continue to play an important role throughout his Third Period - and this is a harmony which Scelsi was able to develop out of his own style, rather than having it imposed upon him.

Edited from materials originally posted to the Internet in 1992 by Todd McComb
Copyright © 1992-2000, Todd Michel McComb.