Symphony No. 3
(Palo Duro Canyon)

My Third Symphony was commissioned by the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra with the request that it somehow be based upon the Palo Duro Canyon, an impressive natural wonder which is located some twenty miles south of Amarillo and which exerts such a powerful influence on the people of that region. The work received its premiere on May 1, 1992, at the Amphitheater of the Palo Duro Canyon State Park with Music Director James Setapen conducting the Amarillo Symphony. Since its premiere it has received numerous performances both in this country and abroad, and a television program featuring the symphony has been broadcast over more than 150 of the nation’s PBS stations.

As I was composing this work there were several ideas I wanted to be sure it incorporated. I wanted the piece to have many different layers—of sound and of meaning. I wanted it to conjure up an intuitive awareness of the long movements of time required for the creation of a canyon. I also wanted in some way to pay homage to native Americans, to whom this canyon was a sacred place. And I wanted to capture in music that magical moment which everyone experiences when they first see the flat, treeless High Plains fall dizzyingly away into the colorful vastness of the Palo Duro Canyon itself.

This work became for me a series of meditations inspired by the canyon. The form that these meditations took was that of a symphony with the usual four sections, but in this case connected together into one overarching movement. The symphony begins with music which depicts the ever-present wind as well as the landscape of the plains. After a time, swooping woodwinds and strings portray the bottom dropping away as we catch our first sight of the canyon. The feeling becomes spacious, open, noble, as the brasses proclaim the canyon theme for the first time. The music then descends to the very depths of the orchestra and begins an extended section which describes the geological eras which one sees in the canyon walls.

The second section opens with a lyrical English horn solo and functions both as the slow movement and, on a higher hierarchical level, as the subsidiary theme of the large sonata form which is the symphony’s overall shape. It is interrupted from time to time by an ominous fragment of the earlier music, which eventually takes over as a mysterious, deep-voiced chorale to remind us that despite the beguiling natural beauty of the canyon the forces of nature are ignored at our peril.

The third section functions as both development section and scherzo. It begins with the plains theme in muted brasses, as a fugato shorn of intervening contrapuntal connections. The strings then take over the fugato, vehemently this time rather than with the hushed tones of the opening. Just as the fugato builds to its most complex and intense moment, everything abruptly halts and the violins lead to new material, an extended section built from actual Comanche Indian themes. Later these themes are interrupted by the violins, whose variant of the plains theme now suggests the music of white settlers. The two themes struggle for ascendancy, finally appearing together simultaneously. Almost immediately, however, they are both cast aside by the canyon theme, as if to remind us that human affairs come and go, but the canyon (as a metaphor for the earth) preceded us and will endure long after us. This recapitulation ushers in the last section.

Throughout the foregoing one can sense the passage of time on several levels. The music can be felt as a journey from ancient prehistory through the relatively recent period of human habitation of the earth on toward the distant future. Or it can be perceived as the progression of time within one day from first light to the starlit evening. In composing the coda of the work I was haunted by the feeling we all have had when we lie on our backs and contemplate the stars and through them the universe itself and the ancient mysteries: what does it all mean? what is our role in it? what lasts? The symphony has divided its tonal universe into three equal parts. Music centered on D (which signifies the earth) and that centered on B-flat (which signifies human life) now alternates with that centered on F-sharp (which signifies the creative spirit of the universe). In the end, it is the F-sharp which remains, floating, seemingly forever, over all.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones