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Death and Transiguration

Saturday 16 March, 7.30pm at High Storrs School, Sheffield

Chris Noble - Piece for a Dark Place

Richard Strauss - Death and Transfiguration


-- Interval --

Tchaikovsky - Symphony no. 6 "Pathetique"

Jon Malaxetxebarria – Conductor

We are grateful to Sheffield Town Trust for their support in putting on this concert

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Next Concert:
Hallam Sinfonia at the Movies

11 May 2024, 7.30pm at Victoria Hall Sheffield

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Chris Noble

Piece for a Dark Place

Chris Noble (1983-)

1. Surge

2. Ire

3. Process

Piece for a Dark Place explores the large number of emotions experienced when dealing with a dark or difficult event. Surge represents the heightened emotions, the numbness, the rush of blood, the sheer shock; Ire is the anger or disbelief that follows, and Process, a way to a means of dealing with said event.


The work has been many things in the run-up to its final form; it started life as a brief orchestral sketch some 15 years ago or so, was shelved and forgotten about, and then reworked more comprehensively into a couple of still-orchestral bit-parts a few years ago.  Then last year the opportunity arose to write for the Azalea Wind Quintet in Manchester, and the piece became a two-movement wind quintet (the first and last movements here, albeit the other way round).  Finally, when Hallam Sinfonia offered me a spot in this already quite heavy concert, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to rework it once more, into its current guise.


The sketch written all those years ago actually pre-empted my current favour for writing more 'horizontally' - that is to say, it focusses more on interweaving melodic lines than 'vertical' chordal chunks, although there are still plenty of those too, not dissimilar to the compositional process involved with City in the Sea, written for Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra a couple of years ago. The piece also contains a lot of cyclical material that knits the three movements, not least the theme passed between the orchestra in the first two bars.


The first movement swerves unnervingly between different moods and tonal centres, with short solo sections providing textural contrast.  The second movement is for brass and contrabassoon only; it is a rather violent chorale-like format with only very slight cracks of light in the gloom. The third movement offers some space and respite; there are tender, sparsely scored patches, some rich string scoring, and delicate solo entries comprising occasional fugue-like moments.  There is nevertheless the occasional angry outburst, but the work closes in a more reflective manner than offered by the previous movements.


I'm very grateful to Hallam Sinfonia for this commission; for supporting a local composer and giving me an orchestral voice.

Notes by Chris Noble.

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Death and Transfiguration

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration from the moment of its first performance would cement itself firmly into one of the great masterpieces and compositions of Strauss’ life. Alongside the Alpine Symphony and Don Quixote, this tone poem depicted the true nature of Strauss’ pioneering techniques of orchestration, the subtleties within this and his harmonic style. 

Written between 1888 and 1889, Richard Strauss was a mere 25 years old, and stated that the inspiration for this piece was a form of his imagination. The music depicts the death of an artist as he reflects upon his childhood, the struggles of manhood and his aspiration for worldly goals. Ultimately, he is led to the final transfiguration of death and to the world beyond. 

Strauss described the dramatic outline of Death and Transfiguration in an 1894 letter to his friend Friedrich von Hausegger: 

It was six years ago when the idea came to me to write a tone poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving and passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below. 

The structure of the piece deeply reflects the tone poem – a musical technique pioneered by Franz Liszt and a strong influence upon Strauss- in the four movements that it takes. The piece is intended to be played through without interruption further alluding to the passing of time and movement of life. The first section, Largo, is the sick man near death. The ticking of time or perhaps his heart is a motif which weaves its way throughout the opening part. The slow introduction evokes dreams and as the tempo quickens, the orchestra creates a notion of maelstrom with the dominating sound of the brass glimpsing towards the notion of transfiguration. The Allegro, section two, represents the battle of life and death with fleeting moments of a gentler notion and the pain passing. As his life passes before him in the third section then the great fanfare like theme of horns and winds represents a young man in his prime, the romance of life and then the ultimate road leading towards death. The final section, a moderato, shows that in order to be transfigured he must leave this world. The pained music of the slow introduction returns as the hour of death approaches. 

It is said that Strauss on his own deathbed, remarked that ‘dying was exactly as I had composed.'


Notes by Mary Dougherty


Symphony no.6 "Pathetique"

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo

2. Allegro con grazia

3. Allegro molto vivace

4. Adagio lamentoso

Nothing in music invites intrigue and speculation more than a composer’s final work, and Tchaikovsky’s death 9 days after this symphony’s premier immediately invited speculation about the work and the state of mind of its composer. By the time of the second performance rumour had crystalised into the established fact that this symphony was a ‘suicide note’ with listeners (accurately) identifying in the music allusions to the russian orthodox requiem. It’s hard to hear the devastating last movement and not assume it is the work of a troubled mind. The symphony was dedicated to His cousin Vladimir ‘Bob’  Davydov with whom Tchaikovsky was infatuated and although Tchaikovsky stated there was a clear program in this symphony, he never revealed it.


The facts surrounding this symphony and Tchaikovsky’s death are unclear, what is clear is that none of the narratives we are left with really hold enough water to be trusted. But that’s OK, like the best art it’s up to us to find the meaning, or not, in the music. As a morose child I subscribed to the ‘suicide note’ theory and revelled in the symphony’s bleakness as only an adolescent can. As a morose adult I can now find in the symphony more catharsis than despair, and if there is death at the end I now don’t think it was Tchaikovsky foreshadowing his own death, but possibly mourning (and at times celebrating) something or someone now lost. In 20 years this symphony will no doubt mean something different to me, as it already does to you.


Death is certainly a theme in the symphony; writing about an early draft Tchikovsky wrote


“The ultimate essence ... of the symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”  


Although that doesn’t exactly describe his finished symphony it gives a good sense of his intention to celebrate both life and death. The first movement opens in a sombre mood with a plaintive bassoon melody over strings, then a nervy, tentative theme in the strings grows in confidence before dissolving into silence (pppppp dynamic!). After this comes a shocking fuge like section which again evaporates into a chorale statement from the low brass of the Russian Orthodox chant “With thy saints, O Christ, give peace to the soul of thy servant,” a traditional prayer for the dead. The movement ends in this mood with a resigned almost calm descending pizzicato.


For me the interior movements are dreams, or remembrances of something, a past relationship perhaps? Or Tchaikovsky looking back at his own hard-won successes. The 2nd movement could pass as a waltz, evoking any of Tchaikovsky’s timeless music written with three beats in a bar. The melody is graceful and beautiful like those melodies but it sits unsettlingly over a 5/4 (5 beats in the bar) metre. This creates the ‘something not quite right’ mood of this movement. The third movement is the most straight-forwardly triumphant, evoking some of the ‘impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity’ which Tchaikovsky set out to write. It’s a march, but not a military march, the ending is triumphant and positive, and would in a more traditional symphony be the last movement and ends triumphantly and unambiguously in G major.


The slow last movement ‘Adagio lamentoso’ feels to me like waking up from a pleasant dream (or two) and into a bleak realisation, the existential equivalent of thinking it was Sunday morning, and realising it’s Monday morning. The opening unfolds in an unconventional manner, with the first and second violins alternating to articulate the notes of the first theme. This results in neither section actually playing the melody as it is conventionally heard, and a similar approach is applied to the remaining instrumental parts. The second theme is hopeful for a time but we only really hear it once after which it seems too difficult to state again, the rest of the movement seems overcome by raw emotion. The tam-tam contributes its sole note throughout the entire symphony, followed by a funereal chorale from the trombones and tuba. The symphony fades away, with a slowing heartbeat from the basses. And we are left to make of it what we will.

Notes by Tom Davies


Jon Malaxetxebarria


Born in Gernika in the Basque Country of Spain, Jon Malax conducts regularly in both Spain and the United Kingdom. In Spain he has conducted many ensembles such as the Orquesta Radio Televisión Española, the Basque Country Symphony Orchestra, Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, Navarra Symphony
Orchestra, Oviedo Filarmonía, Orquesta Sinfónica de Extremadura, the Orfeón Pamplonés, Bilbao Municipal Band and the Malaga Philharmonic. Jon has been the assistant conductor at the two main opera houses in Spain: Teatro Real (Madrid) and Liceu (Barcelona).


From 2016-2021 he was Music Director of the Basque Youth Orchestra. He is currently Head of Conducting studies at Musikene Music Conservatory in San Sebastian.

In the UK he has conducted Manchester Camerata, Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, Crosby Symphony Orchestra, Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra, North Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra and the Derbyshire City & County Youth Orchestra amongst others. He was Music Director of Solihull Symphony
Orchestra from 2013-2023.

As a keen advocate of new music, Jon performed the world premiere of Simon Dobson’s Trombone Concerto with Peter Moore and the RNCM Brass Band, broadcast on BBC Radio 2.

Following his studies with Dale Clevenger at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Jon moved to Manchester in 2010 to study orchestral conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). Upon completion of his studies he was awarded the Mortimer-Furber Prize in Conducting, and in 2011 he was appointed as a conductor of the Junior RNCM. Jon has been Senior Lecturer in Conducting at Leeds Conservatoire since 2014. As a guest conducting tutor, Jon has taught at the RAF, RNCM (both undergraduate courses and international short conducting courses) and at the University of Manchester. 

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Hallam Sinfonia


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