Archives for posts with tag: Robert Simpson


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

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