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Symphony I

On Saturday, March 11th, 2017, Symphony No.1, made its world premiere with the National Orchestra of Belgium.

Kevin Houben took inspiration from the work of the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), and selected three poems: 'I died for beauty’, ‘There's A Certain Slant of Light’ and ‘Hope’.


The town of Peer (P-E-E-R) - Kevin´s hometown - is embodied in the notes si - mi - mi ♭ - re with an expressive interval of a seventh between mi and mi ♭. This cell is the main motif of the symphony. Also his family name H(ou)BEN is incorporated in the composition as a musical signature. In addition, a rhythmic pattern regularly emerges, which mimics the sound of the so-called ‘clappers’. A clapper is a board with a handle on which, when it is moved, a mallet clacks.


These three motifs are intertwined through the different parts of the symphony, providing connectivity throughout the work. Sometimes the motives are used literally, sometimes they emerge in a surprising form and sometimes they are barely recognizable. But always, these cells organically structure the composition. As such, Kevin Houben refers in an abstract way to the underlying ideas and evokes rather cinematic moods that are open to the ideas of the listener.


Movement 1.  Arise

The symphony opens with mysterious soft, scraping sound clusters in the high and low strings and the flutes and clarinets. What seems to start insignificant, turns out to be the accumulation of all the musical material as the germ from which the symphony will sprout. The ‘Peer Motif’ sounds grand and is enforced mainly by the horns.



Movement 2.  Hope

The second part is the true musical heart of the symphony.

The opening bars bathe in a dark, nocturnal mood. The soprano tones in gently with low notes and gives words to the meditative mood: 'I died for beauty'. Kevin Houben knows to give voice to the poetry in expressive lines that flourish along with the verses.

An instrumental passage leads to the second poem, 'There's a Certain Slant of Light’. The chords underpinning the melodies are modal and archaic. Alienation arises by the subtly surprising harmonies and sinister tones.

 Suddenly, all dark feelings and sounds are swept away as the soprano sets in the third poem, 'Hope'. It sounds like a true hymn that blossoms more and more towards the closing words. The soprano is supported by the melodious violins in her high, ecstatic notes. This musical highlight is a concatenation of the ‘Houben’ and the 'Peer Motif’, which is showcased by the soprano in a pure form. The composer gives a clear message: as bad as the world apparently looks, there is always the power of hope.


Movement 3.  Cherish

After the moving second part, it is time for a celebration with a lively finale. The main motif of the city of Peer emerges transformed as a triumphant march. For the first time in the symphony, it sounds as a strong signal in an open, major third key. All themes and motifs eventually culminate in a festive apotheosis.

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