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Composed: 1998-2002
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (all = piccolos; 4th = alto flute), 4 clarinets (4th = clarinet in A; 3rd and 4th = bass clarinets), contrabassoon, 3 horns, 4 trumpets (1st = piccolo trumpet), bass trumpet, 2 trombones, tuba, 3 percussionists, piano (= celesta), 2 harps, 5 violins, 3 violas, and 8 basses
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

It’s remarkable how many significant British composers of the past century were first greeted as prodigies: Benjamin Britten, Oliver Knussen, and, a decade before Thomas Adès, George Benjamin. A formative period of study in Paris – where he was a favorite pupil of Messiaen – instilled in Benjamin a characteristic sensitivity to tone color as well as a perfectionist attitude which has kept his list of compositions lean.

Benjamin’s meticulous craftsmanship shapes every gesture of Palimpsests, which began as a single-movement work but was later expanded when the composer added a longer second movement, connected thematically with the first. A palimpsest is, literally, a “scraped-over” piece of parchment from ancient or medieval times which preserves successive layers of text. With each reuse, the original layer becomes more obscured and fragmented.

As the composer observes, “the term can also be applied to natural landscapes, even cityscapes, where contrasting structures evolve over the ages.” Indeed Freud compared Roman excavations – a kind of urban palimpsest – to how memory operates in the psyche. Stone churches in the midst of shiny steel and glass towers are our modern palimpsests.

The palimpsest metaphor suggested a musical process for Benjamin, which he describes as “the play of perspectives as multiple musics superimpose and interlock.” In Palimpsest I, the quasi-medieval chant first intoned by a quartet of clarinets becomes the foundational “text.” This song is periodically obscured by sometimes violently contrasting layers, only to materialize again “each time on a greatly expanded scale.” At its climactic eruption, the piece is jolted into a mysteriously quiet passage for drums, out of which delicate shards emerge to present the opening theme in a fragile state of decomposition.

Benjamin’s clarity of orchestration – calling on an unusual deployment of forces – is about more than color: it’s a crucial part of his conception, “with each musical layer having its own distinctive shape, form, and timbre,” as he emphasizes. The overlayerings of Palimpsest II evince a process similar to that of the first movement, although Benjamin guides the longer second Palimpsest “along a smoother path, its lines spanning ever wider contours.” A massive climax (with forceful scoring for brass) again leads to a deceptively calm breakdown. The music then regathers for a prestissimo coda, juxtaposing material from both movements in the dazzling counterpoint of timbre and memory which is Benjamin’s musical palimpsest.