Tim Benjamin

composer, writer, storyteller

Piano Concerto


The piano concerto is inspired by the painting The Three Ages of Man, by Titian (Tiziano Veccellio). Like Titian's painting, the concerto's central subject is an allegory of the transience and temporary nature of human life and love, and the existence of that life within a natural world that also exists in a cycle of birth and death.

This piano concerto tells a story about how I imagine the character portrayed by Titian (in Three Ages of Man) to have reflected on his life. Titian depicts a man’s life in three stages, and once you start to unravel the secrets hidden within the painting - through its structure of layers and symbols - this fires your imagination to wonder what happened during the rest of the man’s life. What happened in between the moments that you can see in the painting? How did one lead to another? What dramas, triumphs, and tragedies led from the baby in the foreground to the old man on the hillside?

I think the painting raises more questions than it gives answers. The “old man” figure is reflecting on two skulls, an incredibly dark and bleak and poignant image. Why is he doing that? Why are there these symbols of death (and also the dead tree, and the ominous, or perhaps omniscient chapel), when the start of the life was as a happy child, and there was at least one potentially happy moment with a woman? What happened - what changed? That’s what this concerto is about.

The piano soloist is the man that Titian painted, the life being portrayed, the character, the subject - and the orchestra is the story, or the context for the man in the story. Given that the subject is telling the story himself, the man (i.e. the piano) is an ‘unreliable witness’ – can we believe the character’s own justification for his life and deeds?

About the music

The concerto begins with a playful childlike scherzo, moves on to a turbulent romanze, and concludes with a reflection on the end of a long life. But the greybeard of the finale doesn't go entirely gently into the night, his contemplation instead driving him to rage at the dying light. At the close (as at the beginning), the music reflects the painting's focus, the distant chapel, drawing on the Gregorian chant "Ut queant laxis", old even at the time of Titian.

"Ut queant laxis"[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ut_queant_laxis] was used to teach singing, each phrase beginning on a successive note of the scale, matching the words, each line beginning ut, re, mi, like an ancient prototype of The Sound of Music - and so music, too, proceeds from generation to generation.

The plainsong weaves throughout the concerto, growing and shrinking in stature as does the painting's subject, by the end a distant memory of childhood music lessons, as night falls and the bells of the chapel are heard tolling. These bells are another key feature of the piece - like the chapel, present at each moment of the man's life, so are the bells: at his birth, his wedding, and finally at his death.

The final ingredient of the work is a simple nursery rhyme or lullaby, based on Three Blind Mice. There may be similarities and allusions between the rhyme and the concerto; however, it is used as a representation of memory. The man remembers snatches and fragments of the song throughout his life. Like any memory from childhood, it can become almost forgotten, then reappear with devastating clarity when least expected, and it can be half-remembered, even half-reinvented, waxing and waning with advancing years.

Symbols in the painting

Titian's masterpiece hides a remarkable structure and layers of symbolism, depicting babies, Cupid, a romantic woodland seduction, and a greybeard's meditation over two skulls: distant memories of lost childhood friends or loved ones, perhaps? The life is shown proceeding from foreground (two babies, watched over by Cupid, on the right) through to the a muscular young man, perhaps leaning back post-seduction (post-conception?), to the left and set slightly further back, and finally in the background an old man, holding two skulls. There is symmetry both left and right, and foreground-background. One old man with two skulls; one Cupid and two babies. The woman holds two pipes, and the old man holds two skulls...

The lines of perspective, and the lines implied by the two pipes, lead toward a distant chapel (converging perhaps just above it), calling to mind the central rituals of life - baptism, marriage, and funeral. The life-cycles of the natural world are also present in the forms of a sprouting shrub, great green branches, and a dead stump.


45 minutes

Instrumentation / 4hn / 2tpt 3tbn tba / timp / perc (bell) / strings

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