Symphony No. 2 Op.33 (1956/58)
Symphony No. 3 Op. 36 (1959/60)
Symphony No. 5 Op. 43 (1964)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Alun Francis
CPO 999 376-2
Two powerful musical encounters in the mid 30s, while Humphrey Searle was a classics undergraduate at New College, Oxford, were to become seminal influences in the composer's subsequent career: the British premiere of Alban Berg's 'Wozzeck' given by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Orchestra, and the music of Franz Liszt. Little was understood in Britain at this time of recent European musical developments in general and of the Second Viennese School in particular, and the young Searle was fortunate in making the acquaintance of the musicologist and former pupil of Berg and Schoenberg, Theodor Adorno, who had arrived in Oxford as a refugee from Germany shortly after the 'Wozzeck' performance. Adorno introduced Searle to Schoenberg's twelve-note method of composition and was later instrumental in securing lessons for Searle with Anton Webern in 1937 The music of Liszt, although generally better known, was almost as misunderstood and mistrusted as that of Schoenberg and his disciples in pre-war Britain. While still a student, Searle began championing Liszt's work: he would later write the influential book 'The Music of Liszt', the first such study in the English language, and promote wider recognition and publication of many of the later works, long since out of print.
Such a heady combination of stimuli at an impressionable and formative stage marked Searle out for a compositional trajectory radically different to fhose of nearly all his peers. That he pursued his own path so rigorously, single-mindedly and heedless of passing fashions, surely accounts for the fact that Searle himself has been at times misunderstood, neglected or both. However, his position as a leading modernist in the history of British twentieth century music is undisputed, and his canon of works, of which the five symphonies form the core, is impressive in its expressive ease and formal mastery. From today's more liberal post-modern perspective, Searle's music should no longer present a problem of polemics, but simply be enjoyed for its beauty, drama, compassion and consumate artistry.
As will have been gathered, Humphrey Searle's musical education was hardly conventional. Apart from his five months with Webern and two short periods of study either side at the Royal College of Music in London (with John Ireland and Gordon Jacob) he was self-taught. His leaning towards German neo-romanticism - partly perhaps a result of German blood inherited from his paternal grandfather- was apparent in his earliest student works which eschewed the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams and his followers. By 1939 he had embraced the twelve-note method with a set of Piano Variations and a String Quartet which paid homage of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in turn. It was however from Schoenberg and Berg, rather than from his more cerebral but greatly respected master, that his mature style would develop - Lisztian rhetoric and lyricism counterbalancing the intellectually rigourous demands of the serial language. In this respect he differs from the only other British twelve-note composer of this time, Elizabeth Lutyens, whose austere, fragmentary style more emulates Webern. Searle would always unashamedly declaim himself a Romantic, a view that might have baffled the more conservative factions of audiences at early performances of the First Symphony (1953), a work of shattering power and violence which firmly established Searle's reputation as an enfant terrible of British music.
In the late 40s and early 50s Searle composed a trilogy of large scale pieces for speaker and orchestra: 'Gold Coast Customs', 'The Riverrun' and 'The Shadow of Cain'. These works display a sure mastery of the twelve-note technique and of maturity of style. Structural unity, here, is provided by the text; the purely orchestral form of the symphony poses problems of which Searle was aware: 'the classical symphony' he has written, 'depends to a great extent on contrasts of key which cannot be realised easily in twelve-note music'. In the First Symphony he responded to this challenge with a tight control of essentially classical formal procedures. In the Second Symphony (1956-58) however, he chose a note row with strong tonal implications giving the work a gravitational pull towards the key centre of D. Indeed, the sonata form first movement is articulated along the most classical of tonal polarities, tonic and dominant, while the third movement finale sets off in the dominant and, in the coda, resolves to the tonic.
The symphony begins with a slow and majestic introduction in which the row is stated in its original form: the first note, D, is reiterated throughout by the horns with the remaining eleven notes unfolding on lower strings and bassoons. This gives way to an allegro molto exposition of the principle material of the first movement: a vigorous first subject featuring driving motor rhythms in the woodwind and syncopation in the upper strings, followed by a more relaxed second subject for solo clarinet. Before the development section gets under way, the music of the introduction returns, now transposed to the dominant and with the row in its inverted form. A more extended version of this same material occurs again (on the tonic D) before the recapitulation, in which first and second subjects reappear condensed and in subdued vein. After a distant echo of the introduction, the movement rushes headlong to its conclusion with the first subject material back in its original character.
In the second movement, marked Lento, a lyrical and expressive melody in the violins weaves a sinuous line above ominous repeated chords in the brass. A climax in reached with a fortissimo statement, by the full orchestra in unison, of the first seven notes of the row in inversion. The climax subsides to reveal a hauntingly luminous central section in which celesta and high string tremolondi accompany birdsong-like melodic figuration an solo wind instruments, reminiscent of Bartokian night music. The violin melody of the first section returns and rises to a second climax; in a short coda, fragments of the 'night music' are heard distantly on the woodwind. The finale follows without a break and immediately resumes development of material from the first movement. It is constructed in two large musical paragraphs, each one ending with a series of dramatic crescendi on pedal points and under-pinned by a repeated rhythmic motive on two side drums and tenor drum. The last of these gives way to a restatement of the symphony's introduction which heralds an extended slow coda, taking up the violin melody of the second movement. This time the music insserene, the menacing brass chords have disappeared and the orchestra soars to a final ecstatic climax, before the introduction music brings the work to a forceful close, resolutely affirming the symphony's principal tonal centre. The Second Symphony is dedicated to the memory of the composer's first wife who died of cancer on Christmas Day shortly after the work had been completed in sketch form; the opening page bears the simple inscription 'for Lesley 25.12.57'. The first performance was given in October the following year by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under John Pritchard, and the success of this occasion inspired Searle to begin planning another symphony almost at once.
In the Third Symphony Searle departs from classical forms adopting a freer approach. The three movement work in programmatic in the manner of the Lisztian symphonic poem in as much an the music is never slave to the 'programme' or pictorial representation but is suggested by extra musical criteria, in this case Italy and Greece. Although tonal centres play an important structural role, they are not an overtly stated as in the Second, and the musical landscape is altogether darker, more turbulent and psychologically intense.
The original Venetian first movement was scrapped after a visit made by the composer to Mycenae in December '59 which, according to Searle 'even in broad daylight still seemed to smell of the blood of the Atrides'. Suddenly the Ancient Greek, somewhat reluctantly studied at Oxford, came to life, and the, by turns, brooding and violent music of this movement in Searle's response. It consists of a slow introduction, at the outset of which the row in stated in its original form, a dramatic, war-like allegro of scurrying semiquavers and brass fanfares, and slow final section, extending and developing material from the introduction and ending in the manner of a funeral march. Before the final climax we hear; quoting an annotation in the score made by the composer, an 'echo of the battle in the distance' - a striking and original use of extremes of register: high stuttering woodwind and violins over pianissimo timpani and double bass ostinati. Searle describes the central movement (originally titled 'Festa e Bora') as 'a tarantella, interrupted by the stormy wind which whistles down from the Alps on to Trieste'. This compositional tour de force is as colourful and exhuberant as anything in Searle's output and develops and combines three main ideas: the tarantella rhythm, which opens the movement and is never far from the surface throughout, a raucous parody of a religious procession (a march for blaring brass and bass drum) and swirling scalic figurations on woodwind and strings depicting the wind. About two thirds into the movement, tam-tam strokes and clashed cymbals mark the eye of the storm; but the momentum never lets up and out of the ensuing maelstrom a furious restatement of the tarantella rhythm by the full orchestra brings the movement to on abrupt close. The third movement is 'a nocturne ('Notturno lagunare') inspired by a trip at night across the Venetian lagoon with the full moon shining on the calm black water and the island of San Francesco del Deserto calling to mind Bocklin 's painting 'The Isle of the Dead". The sombre quality of the music is achieved by featuring instruments of the lower register; and the middle section contains a poignant duet for cor anglais and the rarely used baritone oboe over rippling arpeggios on bass clarinet, the simplicity and austerity of which bears a resemblance to Liszt's late piano piece 'La Lugubre Gondola' no.1.
The Third Symphony was premiered at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival, again under the direction of John Pritchard. Searle himself conducted the first performance of the Fourth with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra two years later. The latter explores a path of extreme economy of thematic material and sparseness of texture, experimentation that would bear fruit in the tightly controlled but warmly expressive works of the composer's maturity: the Fifth Symphony, the opera Hamlet, Oxus, Labyrinth and Kubla Khan.
Fiona, Humphrey's second wife, remembers a visit they made to friends at Gordon's Bay, South Africa, in 1964. Sitting in the garden amidst the beautiful landscape overlooking the Indian Ocean, the composer appeared to go into a trance-like state for several minutes; as the party moved indoors for lunch, Searle quietly said to his wife, 'I've got the Fifth Symphany!'. The work is dedicated to the memory afWebern: 'possibly the beauty of the mountains encircling the bay had led me to think of him' writes Searle, 'for he hod been a great nature-lover and had lived and walked among the mountains of Austria in his youth '. It would be wrong however to look for the influence of Webern in this symphony; passing references, in homage of Searle's teacher, there certainly are, but this is an assured work by a composer who had assimilated several diverse influences and forged a musical language unmistakably his own.
The symphony, which was composed at white hot speed and premiered by Lawrence Leonard and the Hallé in October 1964, plays continuously and its five sections form an arch: introduction (andante); allegro 1; moderato; allegro 2 and coda (adagio). As the ethereal music of the opening slowly unfolds and moves down through the orchestra, the lines become more agitated and the harmony mare dissonant, until the first allegro section breaks in with a low C on the tuba and a march-like dotted rhythmic motive on the lower strings. This material soon gives way to a more delicate, filigree music for solo woodwinds, harp, celesta and solo strings, and these two contrasting elements alternate as a rondo: A B A B A (the repetition of B has a fuller scoring and a running moto perpetua acompaniment). Mirroring the gradual shift of register in the opening section, the allegro ends with a sustained high D on piccolo and violins with tremolandi on piano and glockenspiel, the latter softly continuing the tremolando alone as a transition into the central moderato. This might be regarded as the 'biographical' section of the symphony, with clear hints of Webern's early free atonal style (the use of repeated-note ostinati and tiny melodic fragments), pre-war Vienna (the shadow of a Viennese waltz) and the composer's tragic accidental death at the hands of an American liberating soldier at the end of the war (military drum). The dream-like quality of this music is interrupted by a new idea in the strings, marking the beginning of the second allegro, which will act as a binding element in what is essentially an extended development of material from section two. Mid-way through is an 'up tempo' jazz variation of the A music from allegro 1 which is distinctly un-Webernian! After a shattering climax the coda returns to the still character of the introduction, but this time the process is reversed - beginning low with bassoons, bass clarinet and cor anglais, and ending high on upper strings and woodwind- bringing to a close one of the most significant and exciting symphonic cycles of the post-war era.
© CPO and David Sutton -Anderson
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