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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

IS THE SYMPHONY VIABLE TO-DAY?
by

Humphrey Searle (1968)

Many people have proclaimed the death of the symphony, and yet it obstinately survives. It is true that not many composers are now trying to write the big nineteenth-century type of symphony, and others rather beg the question by calling their works “Sinfonia”, “Symphonies” or something of the sort, but there are still enough composers who are willing to tackle the form in one way or another, including progressive figures like Lutoslawski - not to mention Shostakovich. Berio has described his Sinfonia as “music sounding together”, and this is really all that a symphony means in essence-a fairly extended work for large orchestra, though Webern’s symphony is very short and written for a chamber group. So a symphony is really what a composer makes it, and there is no need to follow the nineteenth century tradition and fill up a predetermined form: as Alan Rawsthorne pointed out, “forms in music differ from those supplied by H.M. Inspector of Taxes: they are not there to be filled in”. And Stockhausen in a recent BBC interview defined the “three basic qualities of musical formation: the lyrical, which is the instant, the here and now: the dramatic, which is development, with precise beginning and ending, climaxes, high points and low points: and epic, which is the juxtaposition of different moments, as in a variation form or the traditional form of the suite”.

The romantic symphony inclined to what Stockhausen calls the dramatic form, but a good deal of modern music is epic in character-not of course meaning heroic. Hence the rather static character of many modern works, which is emphasised even more in those works which consist of a number of short fragments which can be played in any order-no question of a progress from darkness to light here! But the pre-nineteenth century symphony was more epic in character: Mozart conceived a symphony in its full form at one moment of time, and a modern composer can learn from this.

Personally I think it is very difficult to construct a symphony without themes of some kind-though Roberto Gerhard almost managed to do this in some of his later symphonies. Nevertheless a work like his Concerto for Orchestra has some definite thematic material which returns from time to time, even if it is not always easy to recognise it, and younger composers like Maxwell Davies seem to think in much the same terms and reject athematism as such. When Hermann Scherchen asked me to write an orchestral work for him in 1953 there were very few twelve-note symphonies and I had to rely to some extent on classical models. I know that the classical symphony is based on contrasts of key which cannot apply to twelve-note music, but Schoenberg used classical forms even in big works like the wind quintet, and there is no reason why one should not use them if one wants to. Actually my first symphony is the only one in which I used classical forms fairly consistently: the four classical movements-allegro in sonata form, adagio in ABA form, fugal intermezzo and rondo finale - are flanked by a slow introduction and a slow coda, and some of the thematic material is common to all the movements-the whole work is played without a break.

In the second symphony, which I finished in 1958, the outer movements are based on the contrast between fast and slow sections, and much of the thematic material in both movements is similar - the finale is a kind of further development of the themes of the first movement. The first movement of the third symphony of 1960 again contrasts two opposing tempi: the second movement begins with scherzo-like material which leads to a kind of march, but both these elements are brushed aside by stormy figures which dominate the rest of the movement, so that the form is dictated by the content.

In the fourth symphony of 1962 I tried to clarify my style of orchestral writing: there are no more octave doublings and the music is more fragmentary. It is still however based on themes, even if they are short ones, and there are vestiges of classical forms such as rondo and variations, though these are handled fairly freely. I also tried to get as much contrast in colour as possible, introducing a cimbalom as well as quite a lot of percussion in the final two sections of the work.

The fifth symphony of 1964, written in memory of Anton Webern, consists of five sections played without a break-Andante, Allegro, Intermezzo, Allegro deciso and Adagio. Here the opening and closing sections have some material in common, and so do the two Allegros, which both have a rondo-like character, though the second Allegro leads into a stretto which provides the climax of the work: the final Adagio is an epilogue.

My latest orchestral work, Labyrinth, is a symphonic rondo rather than a symphony: the maze music which links the various episodes appears in a different form each time and consists of several interwoven strands at various speeds. I have used a large symphony orchestra in it: I do not believe that the big orchestra is dead any more than the symphony itself. Of course a modern composer would handle a large orchestra differently from his romantic predecessors - there is much more scope today for chamber music for full orchestra, for one thing - but a large collection of instruments gives one a wide variety of colours to choose from, and I have tried to make as much use of these as possible.

Humphrey Searle

[From 20 British Composers ed by Peter Dickinson, Chester 1975]


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