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John Gardner died on December 12th 2011 . He was 94.


© Paul Conway

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John Gardner's Symphony no 1 in D minor was the making of him as a composer. It was written between August 1946 and June 1947 at his home in Morden, Surrey and is dedicated to the composer's friend, the distinguished conductor Reginald Goodall. Its world premiere at the Cheltenham Festival on 5th July 1951 with the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli, led to more performances of the work. Commissions for other pieces followed swiftly along with royalties and performing rights fees and Gardner became a professional composer on the strength of the great success of this remarkably assured op2. Perhaps the first thing to say about the Symphony no 1 is that it is NOT a "Cheltenham Symphony"! Unlike its successors, the First Symphony was not the result of a commission: indeed, whilst he was engaged in creating it, the composer had no thought of its being performed: it was a work he felt he had to write in order to return to composing upon demobilisation (during the War he served in the RAF).

The First Symphony is in four movements and scored for a full orchestra: triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, triangle, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, celesta, harp and strings. Although completed after the Second World War, the symphony's material derives from many earlier sources and stimuli: firstly a piano piece written around 1939 from which the opening motto theme of the symphony was fashioned. Secondly, a mid-War setting of passages from Blake's Book of Thel provided some of the material. Thirdly, a theme originally conceived for a set of variations found its way into the score and finally, the opening of the Finale of a subsequently withdrawn string quartet (which was performed a few times by the Blech Quartet in 1939) was transformed into the main theme of the Finale of the Symphony no 1.

In some ways the opening Lento e grave is the most problematic movement in all John Gardner's symphonies. It needs a sympathetic conductor, scrupulous in adhering to tempi indications if it is to sound entirely convincing and free from awkwardness. A successful performance, such as that achieved by David Lloyd Jones and the BBC Concert Orchestra (broadcast as an 80th birthday tribute on 28th February 1997) can persuade the listener that this movement, far from being too choppy and sectional, has the breadth and logic of a true symphonic movement. It is in fact a worthy precursor to the three finely crafted movements which follow.

The memorable opening motto theme on horns recurs throughout the work. Its haunting first phrase resembles superficially one of the main themes of Cesar Franck's symphony (a work also in D minor). Immediately following it is an ascending figure which also assumes importance later on in various transformations. The opening theme is developed and ruminated upon. John Gardner's painterly skills as an orchestrator are almost immediately apparent in the ethereal, otherworldly passage for woodwind, horns, harp and divided strings just before fig2. The tempo quickens (poco piu molto ma flessibile) to double its original speed and the lower strings announce a new subject, itself clearly derived from the motto theme (fig3). An archaic march-like pizzicato passage provides more important material to be worked out throughout the movement (fig6). The second subject proper appears fortissimo in B flat on horns (five bars after fig10). The woodwind and strings reflect on the theme originally heard at fig3 before the arrival of the development section. This begins with luscious orchestration (strings in a high register and woodwind vaulting over a solo horn and a B pedal in lower strings) reminiscent of Respighi's "Pines of Rome" in its ripe Romanticism. A couple of climaxes follow (a raucous passage for trumpets and trombones five bars before fig17 is so ripe one might be forgiven for thinking it had strayed in from a Malcolm Arnold score). An atmospheric dirge-like passage (based on the archaic march from fig6) is initiated by lower strings (lugubre e misterioso) and cymbals (fig18). Other instruments join in, notably tremolo strings, until a huge crescendo builds up at the climax of which the opening motto theme resounds on horns and violas. The brief coda reflects on the motto theme and the march-like motif before the music vanishes with a whisper.

The second movement is a Scherzo (Allegro), brimming over with bucolic fun. It is a perfect antidote to the profundity of the two substantial movements which surround it. An oboe solo driven by grace notes sets the pastoral tone but the most striking theme first appears at fig 6: a jolly, lumbering melody which would not sound out of place in Chabrier's "Espana". The kaleidoscopically changing sea of harmonies which this theme undergoes is one of John Gardner's most memorable inventions, injecting the theme with a bittersweet piquancy that lingers in the listener's memory like a wistful dream. The rural riot continues until the pace slackens "un poco meno mosso" for the binary-form Trio in B major - hardly less countrified than its Scherzo counterpart but more measured in its tread. Its richly agrarian lilt suits the woodwinds perfectly and the composer duly passes the tune amongst this instrumental section's solo players. An accelerando heralds the arrival of a varied repeat of the Scherzo. In the closing page, the oboe tries to instigate a reprise of the Trio in the form of the opening bars of that section's melody but the Scherzo material spirits it away - as ever with John Gardner's music, the movement's length is perfectly judged and this delightful Scherzo is not allowed to outstay its welcome.

The solemn introduction of the Lento slow movement sounds strangely Russian in its melancholy, from the Pathétique-like divided lower strings to the Firebirdesque woodwinds floating upwards over divided upper strings. The main central theme of the Lento is clearly related to that of the opening movement. The scoring in this Lento is particularly fine, especially when its main theme takes flight on solo horn over bass clarinet, celli, bassoon gurgles, harp arpeggios and murmurings from the first violins (figs 9 to 12). The beautiful theme is clothed in evermore-luxuriant orchestration until a powerful climax is reached (triple forte tutti at fig 20). The material never fully recovers from this and the subdued mood of the Lento's opening returns. The movement ends in almost complete stasis (lentissimo), inhabiting a mood of disquiet, reflected in the ambiguity of its closing harmonies.

The Rondo Finale bursts upon us with a curt and stark version of the motto theme of the symphony. Immediately following this, the main theme of the Finale establishes itself. Characterised by pungent accents, the theme is belligerent, if not hectoring and for a moment, there seems to be a danger that the movement will become too obsessed with its grim danse macabre centred on D minor. The Finale of Dvorak's Fourth Symphony, also rooted in D minor fails to provide sufficient relief from its own hammering, insistent dance. In his first symphony, John Gardner avoids such a drawback by introducing a welcome contrast in the shape of a return of the beautiful main melody from the Lento (close relative of the first movement's principal theme), thus reinforcing the thematic integration of the Symphony (fig20). The opening material returns with a vengeance, whipping the Finale up into a final crescendo at the climax of which the main theme of the symphony appears for the last time on the horns (the very instruments on which they made their first appearance at the start of the work (fig45)). The symphony ends in a blaze of D major, a final note of optimism which has been hard fought for throughout the work.

John Gardner's First Symphony is a skilfully accomplished opus 2 and stands up remarkably well today as a superbly crafted work written by a subtle and imaginative orchestrator. The symphony's appearance on CD is ludicrously tardy and if a new recording is unforthcoming, the BBC should release the David Lloyd Jones broadcast performance without delay: it captures perfectly the mercurial nature of this piece from the bucolic gambolling of the Scherzo to the emotional depths of the Lento. Most importantly of all, the challenges of the first movement are met and surmounted with ease. As a tribute to its composer on his 80th birthday, it could not have been more fitting.

The Symphony no 2 in E flat was completed on January 3rd 1985. It was written in response to a commission from the South East Arts Association for performance by the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra under its conductor, Adrian Brown. It is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B flat, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (side drum, bass drum, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, tam tam), piano and strings. The symphony contains many effects untried by its predecessor and the composer seems deeply concerned not to repeat himself with his second example in the genre. In the first and last movements, for example, the overwhelming impression is of rhythm and motor rhythm at that. The percussion writing is consciously virtuosic, especially in the Finale and there are many solo passages throughout the work's thirty-two minute span to show off the talents of the different sections of the orchestra.

The Opening Moderato begins with a pianissimo timpani roll over which an extended clarinet solo enters and weaves an evermore intricate and florid line. The theme it announces is eventually taken up by the rest of the orchestra before the side drum introduces an important motto rhythm which permeates much of the movement. The lyrical, airy, Nordic-sounding second subject is distributed amongst the woodwind, playing in Sibelian-like thirds. After a sustained tutti climax, the opening material returns, telescoped into a mini-recapitulation. A concluding solo clarinet over a pianissimo timpani roll brings this sonata movement full circle.

A fleet-footed Scherzo follows, marked Allegro molto. The first violins introduce the main theme, a dancing melody of insouciant grace. The whole movement is tastefully scored, extracting the maximum effect with the minimum of means - a sure sign of a practised and experienced composer. The Trio section (which continues at the same tempo as the Scherzo thus avoiding any loss of momentum to this fluent movement) is shared between a dignified chorale-like theme for woodwind and a flighty solo for first violin which reminds the listener of the Scherzo's material. The end of this movement is masterly: several pauses in the flow of the music herald a gradual thinning out of the texture before the woodwinds and strings alternate the remaining wisps of music, the Scherzo petering out altogether with a telling final silent bar.

The third movement is an evocative Andante largo in ternary structure. Its main material - a "slow trill" - rises to epic proportions in the final climax of the movement with an inevitability which speaks of a composer with an unerring sense of timing and building symphonic structures. Following on with no break, the final Allegro moderato, cast in sonata rondo form, provides the necessary light relief. As in the first symphony, themes from previous movements return to lend the work a firm structural coherence. The "Turkish" sound to one of its myriad themes is most effective and allows the percussion to come into its own. The symphony finishes with a variant on the Sibelian second subject from the first movement and a grand orchestral tutti rounds off the work in a blaze of E flat major.

Although nearly forty years separate the Second Symphony and its predecessor, it is still instructive to consider the differences between the two works. Unlike the First Symphony which is more of a personal testament, the Symphony no 2 is an occasional work, clearly written to a specific commission. Studded with significant solos for instrumentalists from all the orchestral sections, its spare, chamber-like textures are in marked contrast to the frequent bold tuttis and rich harmonies of the First Symphony. The Second is less inwardly inclined than its predecessor, ending with an extrovert flourish, its high sprits ensuring an ovation from any audience lucky enough to hear it - a professional performance, not to mention a recording of the work is long overdue and would provide a valuable example of this gifted composer's more recent orchestral style.

Lasting about seventeen minutes and in three compact, closely argued movements, the Symphony no3 in E minor (completed in August 1989) is direct in utterance and cogent in argument. It is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, four horns in F, 2 trumpets in B flat, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, cymbals and strings: the scoring of the work is the same as that of Brahms' Second Symphony, with the exception of a cymbal crash in the first movement. The symphony was written in answer to an invitation from Lawrence Leonard to write a short orchestral piece to play at a concert celebrating the centenary of Morley College in 1990. The work begins with an Alla Marcia, impeccably Classical in its Sonata form (complete with exposition repeat). The jaunty opening theme on clarinets, taken up by oboes and flutes, together with the symphony's motto theme: a tiny cadential figure on muted lower strings which provides the basic material for the entire movement. It is this sense of inevitability, of logical working out that makes the Alla marcia so satisfying to listen to. A grimly purposeful martial secondary theme steals in on violas and soon permeates the string section, dominating the rest of the exposition. With a striking economy of gesture, the development section starts to elaborate on the motto theme first heard on lower strings in bar 1, whilst the violins plunge in with another march theme, clearly derived from the woodwind flourishes in the opening bars of the movement. This march of Mahlerian angularity is rendered more intense by being played on the G string of the violins. The tension and volume increase, leading to a vehement and savage climax at the height of which the timpanist twice hammers out the outline of the second subject. The recapitulation is severely foreshortened but its light-hearted mood is quickly re-established and the movement ends with the dry ticks of the motto theme in the violins and cellos, reasserting this movement's claim to be the most formally satisfying of all the movements in the Gardner cycle.

The central Adagio molto movement is pure and chaste, almost Baroque in its appoggiatura flourishes. A heart-warming solo cello theme emerges from the string textures, second cousin to the clarinet theme which opened the symphony but transfigured into tranquil ruminations. The material is passed from strings to woodwind and then to brass, reaching a triple-forte climax with the initiation of a lengthy timpani roll which dwindles into silence. The opening material re-emerges with strings, woodwind and brass together, the strings muted and much divided. Wisps of solo cello and clarinet lead up to the final string cadence, the violas transforming the hushed final chord into a life affirming C major.

The Finale is a laconic Allegro con Brio. Over a long-held pedal E in the lower strings, the timpani taps out a rhythmic version of cadential figure from the opening bars of the symphony, after which the bassoon solo establishes a quirky, Prokofiev-like theme replete with a trill and a restless sea of key changes. The motto theme assumes prominence in the upper strings before the second subject bursts onto the aural stage, a chordal theme on horns of much grandeur. Soon material from the first movement begins to dominate. The recapitulated first subject sneaks in on cellos, taken up by the rest of the strings and a crescendo ensues, crowned by appassionato outbursts from first violins. The flutes reintroduce the opening theme of the symphony and the work ends fortissimo with the motto theme of the symphony, the triumphant climax postponed from the subdued conclusion to the Alla Marcia.

The first movement of John Gardner's Symphony no 3 impresses with its concision and crystalline musical argument, the second with its nobility and rich solo passages whilst the Finale's themes are scarcely given a chance to establish themselves before the tougher material from the Alla Marcia muscles in and confirms its supremacy. Expertly crafted and judiciously written for amateur forces, the Third Symphony is scored for the same sized orchestra as Brahms' Second (with the addition of a cymbal clash in the white heat of the climax of the Alla Marcia's development section).

One of the most obvious questions which arises in connection with the Gardner symphonies is "why aren't there more of them?" Given the great success of the First, why did the composer wait nearly forty years before producing another example in the genre? The answer is a practical one, appropriately enough since John Gardner is an eminently practical musician: the composer was initially commissioned to write works in other genres, notably cantatas, an opera and a ballet. Gardner is an artist who likes to respond to the challenge of a commission and had he been approached to write another symphony at any time before the Stoneleigh Orchestra asked him in the 1980s there is no reason to suppose he would not have obliged gladly.

It is tantalising to reflect that John Gardner was asked to write a new work for Morley College Chamber Orchestra to celebrate his 80th birthday in March 1997 and, at first, he contemplated writing another symphony but, realising that he would not have time to do justice to such a project, he produced a piece of light music, his "Irish Suite" instead. If only enterprising commissioning bodies would come forward and draw from him a Fourth Symphony: the three extant examples in the genre confirm his status both as a natural symphonist and as a composer keenly sensitive to the needs and demands of a specific commission. The energy and imagination of this octogenarian composer remains undimmed and the lack of a Gardner cycle of the magnitude of those by George Lloyd, Wilfrid Josephs, Edmund Rubbra, Robert Simpson and Daniel Jones is a source of much regret for lovers of British orchestral music. A final happy thought: John Gardner was 72 when he wrote his last symphony - at that age Havergal Brian had another 27 symphonies left to write!

©Paul Conway 11/99


Flute Concerto op.220. Symphony No.3 in E minor op.189. Sinfonia Piccola for Strings op.47. Irish Suite op.231. Half Holiday - Overture op.52. Prelude for Strings op.148a.
Jennifer Stinton (flute) Royal Ballet Sinfonia Gavin Sutherland.
ASV CD WHL 2125. (62' 46'')
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