Archives for category: British Symphonies


With James MacMillan’s Symphony No 4 just performed at the Proms, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of representative British symphonies composed over the past decade. I’ve listed one symphony per year and made it a rule that no composer can have more than one entry. The dates used refer to the premiere performance where possible or to the date of composition where the premiere took place a long time after the work was composed (or where there hasn’t yet been a concert performance).

As with all these things, this inevitably leads to some compromises – 2006 and 2011 were “famine years” as far as the symphony was concerned, whereas 2007 was crowded with new works. Omissions from the list include works by Ronald Stevenson and Giles Swayne (both 2007), and by Ronald Corp (2009) – not to mention just as notable alternative symphonies from the listed composers and many others by perhaps lesser known names, such as the highly prolific Derek Bourgeois, who has now written over 100 symphonies.

Excluding Bourgeois, there are over 50 symphonies on my full list that were composed or premiered between 2005 and 2015 – and I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed. Astonishingly, recordings are available for all but two of the eleven symphonies listed.

James MacMillan: Symphony No 4 (premiere 3 August 2015, BBC Proms). The Proms premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990 made MacMillan internationally known. The first symphony “Vigil” came out in 1997, followed by No 2 (for chamber orchestra) in 1999 and No 3 “Silence” in 2002. (Listen again).

Michael Nyman: Symphony No 11 “Hillsborough” (premiere 5 July 2014, Liverpool). Nyman recently began to plan a series of 19 symphonies, some of them re-using themes and material from earlier works. The first of these (starting at numbers 5 and 6) received their premieres in 2013. Recording: MN Records

David Owen Norris: Symphony (premiere 27 May 2013, Dorchester). David Owen Norris is better known as a pianist and broadcaster, but studied composition with Eric Thiman and John Gardner. The London premiere of his Symphony is on October 1 2015 at St Paul’s Covent Garden, where the Piano Concerto in C and a new choral work, Turning Points, will also be performed.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No 9 (premiere 9 June 2012, Liverpool). The first of Maxwell Davies’ cycle was composed in 1976 and premiered two years later. Numbers 7 and 8 were both composed in 2000. No 10 was first performed at the Barbican in February 2014. Recording: Youtube

Christopher Gunning: Symphony No 7 (composed 2011). Gunning studied with Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett, but became best known as a composer of film and TV music (such as La Vie en Rose and Poirot). His first symphony was composed in 2002. Most of them have been recorded. Recording: Discovery

David Matthews: Symphony No 7 (premiere 24 April 2010, Manchester). Matthews has written eight symphonies (between 1978 and 2014) with a ninth in the works. The sixth, his biggest, was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2007. Dutton is working on recordings of the full cycle. Recording: Dutton

Richard Causton: Chamber Symphony (premiere 16 October 2009, Birmingham). Causton’s breakthrough work was The Persistence of Memory for chamber orchestra in 1995. His Chamber Symphony uses a combination of live and pre-recorded music. Twenty-Seven Heavens, for large orchestra, premiered in 2012. Recording: NMC

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No 2 (premiere 15 June 2008, Sydenham). Sawyers studied with Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. He has been particularly successful in the US. Symphony No 1 appeared in 2004. A third symphony has been commissioned by the English Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Nimbus

John McCabe: Symphony No 7 “Labyrinth” (premiere 14 September 2007, Liverpool): McCabe, who died in 2015, wrote thirteen symphonies before he was eleven, but there are seven numbered symphonies in the official catalogue, the first composed in 1965. Recording: Youtube

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony No 6, op 124 (composed 2006, premiere 2009, St Petersburg). As well as the seven numbered symphonies (1956-2012), Butterworth wrote symphonic studies, concertos, brass band pieces and around 40 chamber works. The final symphony (No 7) had its premiere on 28 February 2012 in Huddersfield). Butterworth died in 2014.

Matthew Taylor: Symphony No 3 (premiere 7 January 2005, St John’s Smith Square). Taylor studied at Cambridge under Robin Holloway, and later with Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold. His largest body of work is chamber music, but he has also written five concertos and three symphonies, the first in 1985. A fourth symphony has been commissioned for 2015/16 by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Dutton


arnoldThe opening movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No 2 is a great place to start getting to know the music of this fascinating composer. Arnold has often been accused of undermining the intent of his more serious works through the inclusion of over-sweet and sentimental melodies, but such conflicts are at the heart of this composer, who in his day-to-day life often swung between personality extremes to alarming effect – he was a manic depressive and an alcoholic. Arnold’s music can seem jolly enough in his lighter pieces, such as the sets of English and Scottish dances. But his nine symphonies are another matter altogether.

However, in some of his earlier works the clashes can seem less anguished. The opening allegretto of the Second Symphony is a brilliant fusion of light music and symphonic writing – it’s in traditional sonata form, and almost straight away we hear in the first clarinet theme a classic light music melody, with its signature upward flourish towards the end, echoing some of the popular dance melodies often found within Mahler symphonies. The theme is immediately repeated three times in its entirety, as it might be in a lighter piece, but with each repeat more ambiguous material swells up from underneath, undermining the regular dance tempo. Then comes the more angular second subject, heard first in the flutes and then in the strings, with a similar throwaway melodic flourish hinted at here too. It all flows beautifully despite the contrasting material, with the two themes more closely united at the end. However, the geniality of that first theme is never overwhelmed or defeated in this generally easy-going and lyrical movement.

The composer himself commented: “If this movement expresses the quiet joy of being alive on a fine summer’s day, then it is successful.” More turbulant moments are evident elsewhere even in this symphony (particularly the third movement), but in later works the balance would change more often towards darker moods.

The Listening Post: Havergal Brian Symphonies (2)
In the second part of our annotated list of Havergal Brian’s 33 symphonies (32 numbered), we start moving into less charted territory. All the first ten numbered symphonies, apart from number 5, are available in commercial recordings. In this group, numbers 14, 19 and 21 have only recently been re-issued and re-mastered by Klassic Haus from previously pirated and misattributed radio broadcasts on the Aries label. Number 21 (along with number 10) has also been re-issued by Klassic Haus, from the pioneering Unicorn recording made by the Lecistershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s.

Numbers 11 to 21 were written over nearly a decade from 1954, when the composer was between the ages of 78 and 87. They continue to explore the “late style” established in Symphonies 8-10. In particular, Symphonies 13-to 17 form a series of five highly compressed single movement works written between 1959 and 1961, begun after the 83 year-old Brian had moved to a council flat in Shoreham-on-Sea, overlooking the beach. Symphonies 18-20 return to something closer to classical forms, with three separate movements. Number 21, in four movements, is my choice from this group. It’s unusually accessible with an opening allegro in something close to sonata form, a relaxed second movement and a sparking scherzo. And the story behind the first recording is a particularly inspiring (and well documented) one.

1954 – Symphony No 11 (fp November 1959, LSO, Newstone): “The Eleventh starts where the Tenth finished, with the same three notes – in inversion – and a very serious Adagio grows from them.” (MusicWeb). This is followed by a joyous scherzo, a march and a long slow section before the finale, one of Brian’s characteristic English Dances. It’s more transparently scored than most of the symphonies, though still full and with an array of percussion. (Recordings: Dutton, Naxos).

1957 – Symphony No 12 (fp November 1959, LSO, Newstone): Brian’s shortest symphony up to this date, an extremely concise single movement, internally suggesting a four movement design with a funeral march at its heart. Inspired by the Greek Tragedy Agamemnon of Aeschylus, which Brian later set as one-act opera.. Argument proceeds by abrupt juxtapositions and intensely dramatic musical gestures (Malcolm MacDonald) (Recordings: Naxos).

1959 – Symphony No 13 in C major (fp 23 June 1976, RPO, Pope): the first of four short, single movement symphonies for large orchestra, lots of woodwind, brass and percussion all written within a 12 month period. This work opens with menacing brass and percussion, leading (between many pauses) to some particularly fierce climaxes. (Recordings: Dutton).

1959-60 – Symphony No 14 in F minor (fp Jan 1969, LSO, Downes): single movement lasting just over 20 minutes, but in four sections. Malcolm MacDonald thought this one of the weakest, and its only recording has been the BBC radio broadcast by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted Edward Downes. (Recordings: Klassic Haus).

1960 – Symphony No 15 in A major (fp 27 June 1976, RPO, Pope): single movement symphony scored for large orchestra. “This work takes another look at pompousness and circumstance and magnificence and ceremonial, and ways of undercutting these things….monumental subversion raised to a fine art”. (Malcolm MacDonald, quoted here). (Recordings: Naxos).

1960 – Symphony No 16 (fp 1 April 1973, LPO, Fredman): pastoral mood (described as “troubled Delius”). Building block, contrast and relief form, orchestrated with glittering percussion. (Recordings: Lyrita).

196o-61 – Symphony No 17 (fp 23 June 1976, RPO, Pope): after numbers 13-16, single movement works for large orchestra, written over the previous 12 months, No 17 is for a smaller orchestra (though still with two tubas and lots of percussion) and is shorter still – around 13 minutes long. “One of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral equivalent…to the big keyboard toccatas of Bach…’ (Malcolm MacDonald, quoted here). (Recordings: Naxos).

1961 – Symphony No 18 (fp Feb 1962, Polyphonia Orchestra, Bryan Fairfax): written (on the request of Fairfax) for smaller forces than any other Brian symphony. though percussion is still actively employed. Breaks from the one movement form of Nos 13-17, including three separate movements suggesting classical forms. This one opens with a “hard-bitten march” (sleeve notes). (Recordings: Naxos, Klassic Haus).

1961 – Symphony No 19 in E minor (fp 18 June 1976, BBC Scottish, John Canarina): another three movement “classical” work, but much lighter in mood than its predecessor, especially in the dance rhythms of the outer movements. (Recordings: Klassic Haus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra).

1962 – Symphony No 20 in C sharp minor (fp 5 Oct 1976, NPO, Vernon Handley): “Compact, thematically sophisticated, and deeply expressive – abandons Brian’s previous practice of one-movement symphonies in favour of the more classical three movements.” (Naxos sleeve notes). (Recordings: Naxos).

1963 – Symphony No 21 in E flat major (fp 14 Jan 1969, LSO, Downes). The 1973 Unicorn LP (now restored by Klassic Haus) was the first ever commercial recording of Havergal Brian’s music, by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, and was made just a few months before the composer’s death aged 96. Composer Robert Simpson advised the orchestra to tackle Nos 10 and 21 and helped with the rehearsals, and the TV arts programme Aquarius filmed the recording session. (Recordings: Klassic Haus).

Part One: A Fantastic Symphony to Symphony No 10
Part Three: Symphony No 22 to Symphony No 32

550533-34 bk Mahler EU The Listening Post: Havergal Brian Symphonies (1)

This is an exploration for me – I’m aware that Havergal Brian (1876-1972) has many followers who make great claims for his music – but personally, I find his compositional style hard to crack. Continuous development doesn’t give you much to latch onto, and violent juxtapositions of style within a short space of time can get tiresome. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by such a substantial body of work, and so have put this annotated list of the 33 symphonies together, culled mostly from reviews and sleeve notes, in order to help get my head around it. I’ll publish it in three parts and choose one representative movement from each part. For further information, two of the best sources are the Havergal Brian Society website and the astonishing three volumes on the symphonies by Malcolm MacDonald, extremely expensive, but available in good libraries.

As for recordings, we are getting close to having a full set available. Only seven of the 32 numbered symphonies – (that’s numbers 14, 19, 21 and 26 to 29) are as yet unavailable in mainstream commercial recordings, and there are recordings of these as well if you search around (from BBC broadcast material and amateur performances – Klassic Haus has recently been issuing re-mastered versions of some of these recordings). So – here is the annotated list covering what’s left of A Fantastic Symphony through to Number 10. The famously huge No 1 “Gothic” anchors this group, and the next three are also expansive, large works. Numbers 5 and 6 are smaller (the first of Brian’s many single movement symphonies) and more conventionally thematic. Number 7, a transitional work, is again epic, with four separate movements, but already looking towards the composer’s late style: episodic and fragmented, continuous development and rapid changes of mood. The last three (numbers 8, 9 and 10) are representative of that late style and were regarded by Brian as a trilogy – he called them “brothers”. Brian was 73 years old when he started number 8, and 78 by the time he had completed number 10 – but he still had 22 symphonies to go.

My suggested starting point from this group is the short third movement “ostinato scherzo” of Symphony No 2 with its massed horns, piano and xylophones driving forward an increasingly menacing march. There’s some impressive snarling brass in the second half, and it’s all undeniably exciting. But as layer upon layer is pasted on for the climax, including a passage where everyone joins in with unison downward scales, I do find it a bit clunky. Links to Part Two and Part Three of this list are below.

1907-8 – A Fantastic Symphony: revised through 1909, but then split into three separate works, two of which were published in 1914: Fantastic variations on an old rhyme (the original first movement), Scherzo and slow movement (unpublished, now lost), and Festal Dance (the fourth movement). The “old rhyme” is Three Blind Mice. (Recordings: Cameo, Naxos).

1919-27 – Symphony No 1 “Gothic” (fp 1961, Bryan Fairfax): the most famous of Brian’s symphonies, notorious for the huge forces required. Three orchestral movements, followed by a massive choral setting of the Te Deum. (Recordings: Hyperion, Marco Polo/Naxos and Testament).

1930-31 – Symphony No 2 in E minor (fp May 1973, Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Head): notable for the brief “battle” scherzo with its 16 horns, and for the melodic passages for the two pianos and three timpani. Striking use of the solo violin in the second movement, Andante sostinuto. Wagnerian elements in the finale. Inspired by Goethe. (Recordings: Naxos, Klassic Haus).

1931-2 – Symphony No 3 in C# minor (fp Jan 1974, New Philharmonic Orchestra, Stanley Pope): for two pianos and large orchestra. Initially conceived as a piano (or two piano) concerto (the pianos feature mostly in the first movement). His most “expansive, objective, heroic and lyrical symphony…Brian’s Eroica” (sleeve notes). (Recordings: Hyperion).

1932-3 – Symphony No 4 in C major Das Siegelied (fp July 1967, Leeds Philharmonic, Handford): “Psalm of Victory” for soprano, two choruses and very large orchestra, contemporary with the rise of Nazism in Germany, is a violent setting of a Lutheran psalm text. There are three linked movements, the second for soprano solo and orchestra. (Recordings: Naxos).

1937 – Symphony No 5 “Wine of Summer” (fp Dec 1969, Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Head): for voice and orchestra (voice not specified, though baritone or contralto implied). This single movement symphony sets words by Lord Alfred Douglas. “A luxuriant pre-Raphaelite rhapsodic orchestral setting” (Rob Barnett). (Recordings, São Paulo SO, Royal Scottish National Orchestra).

1948 – Symphony No 6 “Sinfonia tragica” (fp Jan 1966, Douglas Robinson, ROH Orchestra): single movement, 25 minute work originally intended as the prelude to an opera based on J M Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows. “Masterful and consise” says Rob Barnett. After this and the transitional seventh, he says, the symphonies. become “kaleidoscopic screes, sphinx-like, enigmatic mosaics”. (Recordings: Lyrita).

1948 – Symphony No 7 in C major (fp June 1966, RPO, Newstone): an epic four movement symphony inspired by Goethe’s writings and by the 13th century cathedral of Strasbourg. A transitional work between “the ‘bigness’ of the Gothic, Second, Third and Fourth, the approachable theme-shaping of the Fifth and Sixth, but….already beginning to succumb to the episodic trompe l’oeils and puzzles of the later shorter symphonies”. (Rob Barnett). (Recordings: EMI).

1949 – Symphony No 8 in B flat minor (fp Feb 1954, London PO, Boult): the Eighth “proceeds through a series of motivic, textural tonal and rhythmic oppositions” (Grove). Premiered on BBC radio in 1954, a performance that started off the modern day revival of interest in Brian. (Recordings: EMI, Klassic Haus).

1951 – Symphony No 9 in A minor (fp March 1958, LSO, Del Mar): harks back to the Fourth, 20 years earlier “with its hyper-Handelian grandeur, braggart brass flurries and confident march flourishes” (Rob Barnett). Relatively accessible example of Brian’s single movement works, with more of a discernible form and melodic material. (Recordings: Dutton, EMI).

1954 – Symphony No 10 in C minor (1953-54, fp Nov 1958, Stanley Pope): instrumental drama employed with offstage trumpet and a large array of percussion including thunder and wind machines. “Mighty climaxes and Brian’s quiet, atmospheric Sibelian interludes” (sleeve notes). The Aquarius documentary about the first recording of No 10 features the arresting opening right at the start. (Recordings: Dutton, Klassic Haus).

Part Two: Symphony No 10 to Symphony No 21
Part Three: Symphony No 22 to Symphony No 32


Musical Authors: Anthony Burgess (1)
Anthony Burgess inherited his love for music from his mother (a music hall singer and dancer) and his father (a part-time cinema pianist). His early introduction to music is lightly disguised as fiction in his novel The Pianoplayers (1986). He began composing seriously while in the army during the war, and then while working as a teacher in Malaya, but couldn’t earn a living from it. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1959 and told he had just 12 months to live, Burgess embarked on a series of novels in an attempt to earn enough money to support his wife after his death. He survived the diagnosis, and wrote 11 novels between 1960 and 1964, including his best known work, A Clockwork Orange (1962).

Nearly all the writings, fiction and non-fiction, reflect his musical experiences. Biographical elements concerning musicians, particularly failed composers, occur everywhere. His early novel A Vision of Battlements (1965) concerns Richard Ennis, a composer of symphonies and concertos who is serving in the British army in Gibralter. His last, Byrne (1995), a novel set in verse form, is about a minor modern composer who enjoys greater success in bed than he does in the concert hall. Fictional works mentioned in the novels often parallel Burgess’ own real compositions, and provide a commentary on them, such as the St Celia’s Day cantata described in the 1976 novel Beard’s Roman Women, which surfaced two years after the novel was published as a real Burgess work. But the influence goes far beyond the biographical. There are experiments combining musical forms and literature such as Tremor of Intent (1966), the James Bond spoof thriller set in sonata form, and the Napoleon Symphony, a literary interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica. His use of language often highlights sound over meaning.

Burgess wrote three symphonies himself, but the first two are lost. In his third, he contrived to take a theme directly from the pages of Shakespeare, using six notes quoted in sol fa notation by Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost. As Burgess himself explained: …“the pedant Holofernes, who was probably played by Shakespeare himself in the first presentation of the comedy, has a very interesting speech, in which he praises the old poet Mantuan, quotes a line from him, sings a snatch of Italian song – “Venezia, Venezia, chi non ti vede non ti prezia” – and also warbles the notes do re sol la mi fa. This snatch is, I believe, the only tune that Shakespeare wrote [Burgess was wrong here, there’s another sol fa sequence of four notes hummed by Edmund in King Lear] and it has been unaccountably neglected by Shakespeare scholars.”

The sol fa notation translates to the notes C D G A E and F, but of course there’s no indication of rhythm. Burgess points out that such as sequence “is suitable for a ground bass; it can be extended into a fugal subject. If we repeat it a tritone higher or lower, we have a perfect twelve-tone Grundstimmung for a serial composition”. In the third symphony, he says: “My finale pays homage to Love’s Labour’s Lost by basing itself on that brief Shakespeare motif – forward, backward, and upside down – and setting the Venezia words to an appropriate Adriatic- or Neapolitan-type melody, corny, full of schmalz, and with a mandoline tinkling away in the background.”

The symphony was commissioned by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra in 1974, resulting in the first public performance of an orchestral work by Burgess – a momentous occasion for the composer which spurred him on to renew his composing activities with other large scale works and chamber music, including a violin concerto. A short extract of the Symphony can be heard here.