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It starts as in a classical concerto: The majority begins and presents various aspects and ideas against which the soloist waits for the ideal moment to enter the scene. The opening of Brett Dean’s work may seem like a solo concerto, but the classical proportions don't remain for long. The first cellist does indeed wait a long time before the initial high note of his melody pierces the turbulence and agitation of the other instruments; the unpretentious cantilena opposes turmoil with gentleness... However, what can one of twelve angry, frustrated men achieve when he enters a plea for restraint and deliberation against the heated mood of the other eleven?

In Brett Dean’s Twelve Angry Men, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker for the 25th Anniversary celebrations of the orchestra’s famous 12 Cellos [and premiered by them in February 1997], a single voice asserts the right to express a dissenting opinion and ends up influencing the others. Little by little, a few players moderate their standpoint, echoing the outsider’s motivic arguments, at first thoughtful, uncertain and imitative, until gradually the emphasis is changed, and they start to follow him with conviction. Working through this process, other voices likewise evaluate their previous musical behavior and, taking the single voice as a role model, also commence passing through stages of insecurity and indecisiveness and start to follow the leader.

So, does this amount to an example of good old classical dualism after all? An extension of the same antithetical dynamism which gave the sonata form its inner momentum in the first place? In Dean’s composition the opposing thematic ideas are not reconciled, despite the influence they have on one another. A new theme does not emerge as a harmonious synthesis from the elements and embellishments of the conflicts, nor is there a recapitulation, as in the classical sonata form, with its confirmation of the value and importance of the major themes against the background of the original setting. In Twelve Angry Men there is a change of emphasis, which follows the movement of the predominant musical action. The strength of expression at the beginning of the concertante is, at the end, only a muted, hesitant shadow of its former self. The voice of dissent, the call to consider the contrary view, has — almost unanimously —convinced fellow players and peers... just like in the film.

For it is indeed a film that gave the composer not only the title but also the idea for his anniversary composition. In 1957 Sidney Lumet made his first major film, Twelve Angry Men, his most impressive plea for civil courage. The story concerns the fate of a young Puerto Rican who is accused of murder and is facing the death penalty. The twelve jury members have to judge his guilt or innocence and thus whether the accused shall live or die. In the end, after lengthy discussion and disagreement, the balanced view of the single juror wins over all of the other eleven — with one exception. One member of the jury still believes the accused is guilty as charged. His obduracy however cannot withstand the unity of opinion confronting him: as his voice is lost in the group, similarly the opening motive reappears as a mere echo in the work's final bars.

— © Habakuk Traber