The Scarlet Letter for Orchestra, Symphony No. 8
Based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), Symphony No. 8 contains musical portraits of the three main characters: Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale.
I. The first movement, Hester, highlights the conflicts that Hester faced: guilt and confession, sin and purity, sex, and abstinence, making her a lasting heroine in American literature. The music reflects these turbulent and conflicting qualities in dissonance versus lyricism, both rhythmically and melodically. The opening five-note timpani motives convey Hester’s indecision and anguish over her life choices. The woodwinds carry her “longing and searching” for redemption. A gentle, decrescendo leads into Hester’s theme of solace, portrayed by the clarinets. The mood is abruptly interrupted by the timpani bringing back the opening agitation. The themes converge, leading to an ending that brings no resolution for Hester.
II. Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, is obsessed with exacting revenge on Hester and Dimmesdale. The second movement portrays him as a symbol of evil who does the devil’s bidding, using the bassoon, trombone, and tuba. The music is restless and dark, using the lower ranges of the woodwinds and brass. There are moments reflecting the musical style of the 1850s, with drawn-out sequences to portray Chillingworth’s obsession, conniving and manipulation. The slower tempos indicate his evil ability to use the aura of sacred music to further his nefarious desires.
III. In the last movement, Dimmesdale, the ordained Puritan minister struggles with the status of his soul: he ably carries out his pastoral duties but knows he has sinned and is eternally damned. Themes from the first movement, including the five-note timpani themes, are reminders of Dimmesdale’s fragility and guilt, and his confession on the scaffold. Statements in the tuba and trombone portray his inner conflict and the conflicts with Chillingworth. Dimmesdale’s torture is depicted by the alternation of major and minor intervals and keys.