The Flight of Icarus

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Recording by Norrköping Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Martyn Brabbins (BIS-CD-1578)
By kind permission of Bis Records

I belong to the first generation to whom the idea of men walking on the moon was reality and not fantasy, and ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by manned space flight.

I remember the excitement of watching the television pictures of the Apollo 11 moon landing when I was five years old. Equally vivid are memories of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, and the even greater tragedy of the Russian Soyuz 11. In later life this has brought an awareness that technological advance always outstrips human wisdom in its application, an observation that led me inevitably to the myth of Icarus.

According to Greek legend, Icarus and his father were the first mortals to fly. Imprisoned on Crete in the labyrinth of King Minos, they built wings of wax and feathers, and flew to freedom. However, the excitement of this discovery caused Icarus to grow reckless, and he flew too near the sun, with the result that the wax melted, and he plunged to his death in the sea.

My orchestral work uses this legend as the basis of its shape. Its arch-like structure can be traced back to the story: ascent from the labyrinth; flight; descent to the sea. For me, the myth also implies the four elements: earth/labyrinth, air/flight, fire/ sun, water/ sea – which proved useful in determining the musical character of certain sections.

Scored for a large orchestra, the work is in a single twenty-minute movement which divides into three main sections. The first is dramatic and builds up energy, culminating in a great release of tension – a sort of ‘lift-off’. This leads into the second section, the main body of the piece, which maintains an almost unbroken momentum through a series of climaxes. At its height the music suddenly falters and collapses.

The slow final section was inspired by one of several endings to the story collected in Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths: after Icarus’ death, his father flew on to Cumae, near Naples, where he dedicated his wings to Apollo and began a new life. As he was flying westwards, he would have been flying over the sea into the setting sun – the poetic image lying behind the work’s final minutes.

Although an ancient legend informs its dramatic structure, my main concern in writing The Flight of Icarus was to say something about the story’s timeless relevance: that human endeavour inevitably generates catastrophe. We rarely learn anything from such events, but simply try to put our lives back together and carry on as best we can.

John Pickard