Brett Dean, The Last Days of Socrates

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simone Young
The Last Days of Socrates
Music by Brett Dean
Libretto by Graeme Ellis
26 July

With the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus ranged at the back of Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall and a hefty complement of brass and a battery of unconventional percussion augmenting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, it was evident that we were in for a work of epic proportions. Or shall we say tragic, as the immense forces were mounted against a lone Peter Coleman-Wright downstage as Socrates. Part courtroom drama and part soap opera, Dean’s secular oratorio depicting the trial and execution of Socrates provokes heartfelt association with the protagonist.

Dean reflects Socrates’ famously unattractive appearance and fatal questioning of every and all convention through an acerbic half-spoken style of singing. As the Athenian jury, the chorus sings in chant-like unison, summoning the protagonist with a thunderous “Socrates!” There are effective attempts to deviate from this static, though classically correct arrangement, with string sections, soloists and parts of the choir moving offstage and around the auditorium. Dean’s flair for orchestral colour also adds depth to the drama, with the orchestra superimposing uncertain, quivering strings lines with decisive, rhythmic tuned percussion and serene brass chorales. The addition of terracotta pots and pieces of metal—representing the coins that the jurors would throw into pots to cast their vote—helped lend the piece a unique sonic character.

Socrates finally breaks from his sprechstimme to perform his “swan song,” a touching and forlorn meditation on man’s irrational fear of death. The aria is another example of Dean’s capacity to drop solo lines of moving elegance into his larger structures. But this sentimentalisation of Socrates’ reason would never have stood up to peripatetic interrogation. In Plato’s Republic, written as a Socratic dialogue, modes encouraging sorrow and softness are banished from the city. While I am glad we sing with more than two of the ancient Greek modes today, the question lingers as to what music would befit the words of Socrates.

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