Archives for posts with tag: Richard Rodney Bennett


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

BennettA recent Wigmore Hall concert (27 June, 2014) featured the four male voices of New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied. The programme included Richard Rodney Bennett’s, A Colloquy with God, which he composed specifically for the group in 2012, just before his death on Christmas Eve that year. The text, by Thomas Browne, begins “The night is come, like to the day; Depart not thou great God away”. It is a meditation on sleep and death, and it’s been set to music before by composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Vaughan Williams, W H Harris and Gordon Crosse. The 1961 Harris setting, in particular, has a particularly intense and expressive ending:

These are my drowsy days; in vain
I do not wake to sleep again:
O come that hour, when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bennett, who effortlessly straddled musical styles from Boulez to popular film music and cabaret, though as he grew older he distanced himself from his early, more radical musical language. All credit to New York Polyphony for championing this piece to the extent of commissioning a video to help promote it, which is freely available. (The recording is also available on their 2013 CD Times go by Turns). Their performance is excellent, but for me the new layer of meaning added by the filmed narrative is entirely irrelevant and superfluous. For Bennett’s musical language in this piece is paired down to the most minimal of materials. It’s largely homophonic (like a partsong rather than a madrigal), and the melodies and sequential passage are almost subliminal, sunken in as they are within the overall textures of four equal voices.

The opening material in F minor is used for the first two verses and the last, though the rhythmic emphasis and harmonies change each time. The range of pitches is kept very tight, but in the first and third verses the music rises towards a very Purcell-like dissonance, reaching a high D flat (on the second syllable of “eclipse” and, at the end, on the middle words of the phrase “never sleep again”). The middle section builds up to its greatest intensity on the words “Sleep is a death, O make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die.” What little polyphony there was is abandoned in this passage for a rising sequence of very close chromatic block harmony. When the opening material returns (marked “tutti poco portamento”) the music slides lazily across the bar lines for the words “these are my drowsy days,” resolving into an F major chord at the very last second, providing perhaps just a glimmer of hope on “wake forever”.