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Composed: 2012
Length: c. 55 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (1st & 3rd = piccolo, 2nd = alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet; 4th = contrabass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, harp, piano (= celesta), electric guitar, accordion, strings (violins also play noisemakers), mixed chorus, and bass-baritone

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (U.S. premiere)

The Last Days of Socrates was commissioned by the Rundfunkchor-Berlin, the Melbourne Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it received its world premiere April 25, 2013, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, the Berlin Radio Choir, and soloist John Tomlinson. Peter Coleman-Wright was the soloist in Melbourne for the Australian premiere, with Simone Young conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Brett Dean had been thinking about ideas for an opera and his wife, the artist Heather Betts, suggested Socrates and the impact that his death had on his followers, the subject of a cycle of pictures she was painting. Dean eventually decided that it was better suited to an oratorio-like concert setting. The initial commission for the piece came from the Berlin Radio Choir and its chief conductor, Simon Halsey, for a major work in which the chorus took a central role, and that in turn influenced the shape of the libretto.

“This drew us quite naturally to pivotal ‘peopled’ scenes of the Platonic dialogues, specifically the Apology in which Socrates argues his case before the court, and Phaedo, in which he awaits his death in the company of his followers,” Dean said in an interview with David Allenby. “The Melbourne-based poet, Graeme William Ellis, has adapted aspects of these particular writings as well as other strands of philosophical thought attributed to Socrates and prefaced them with a ‘scene-setting’ hymn to the Goddess Athena.”

That scene, with its often hushed choral chant, dramatic apostrophes, and sonic mysteries, “carries with it something of a classical distancing rather than launching straight into the drama of the Apology,” Dean says.

“However, we also revisit and reinvent the classics largely to uncover what contemporary relevance they may offer us. The Socrates story transcends eras and raises questions relevant for all humanity in all epochs. It’s a story that is hovering whenever we witness the attempts of freethinking opposition to state control, for example. Our approach is built on the inherent energetic and dramatic discourse of this very real human drama, which, although having taken place well over 2000 years ago, still resonates with us. One could tell this universal story in a myriad of contemporary or stylized ways; in this instance it’s told using a modern choral/orchestral setting that I feel contains both message and mystery.”

In telling that story, Dean found “the sonic, dramatic, and poetic potential” of spatial elements and unusual instrumental groupings irresistible.

“In The Last Days of Socrates a distant group of violins in the first movement is echoed by an offstage group of female voices in the final movement, used ostensibly as instruments. The orchestration uses the distinctive, street-wise colors of the accordion and the electric guitar in addition to extensive use of terracotta and metal percussion sounds, inspired by the legend that the verdict of guilt or innocence in Athenian courts was reached by ordering the jury members to cast one of two different types of metal disc or coin into large terracotta vats.

“What’s more, being in essence a work about the philosophical and moral potential of the individual, the score is inhabited by a large cast of individual protagonists; not only the bass-baritone role of Socrates himself and the solo and multi-layered uses of the choral forces, but also within the orchestral fabric, including significant moments for the six horns, for three solo double basses, and a long reflective cello solo at the opening of the final movement, written in memory of Berlin Philharmonic cellist Jan Diesselhorst, one of the most philosophically minded musicians I ever had the pleasure to meet.”