Symphony (2008-2010) by Kevin O'Connell

Symphonies have been with me all along. I listened to them more than any other form of music through my teens, working my way through the canon from Mozart to Mahler.

Why write one now? Because the symphony remains a challenge like no other. The form gives you nowhere to hide. Everything in a symphony is structural. In this sense, it is a more demanding form than opera, where every kind of dodge can be justified for the sake of the story.

This is all intimidating, of course. And I can understand fellow composers who prefer to leave the form alone. But for myself, I had to attempt it. I toyed early with the idea of a one-movement form, justifying my choice, as who does not, by the towering example of Sibelius' Symphony No. 7. Then I thought again, for how many good one-movement symphonies have there been since? I can think of one that has made it into the repertoire: Roy Harris' Symphony No. 3. In short, this was dodge number one, the first of several by which I mistakenly hoped to make my task easier. But in the end, good sense won out: I would attempt a real symphony.

So four movements it had to be. They follow the classical pattern of a fast Allegro followed by a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale, but my symphony represents my own very personal take on this classical template. For example, the slow movement (II) is the shortest of the four. Why? Because I often find classical slow movements too long. In the pre-record era it was understandable for the composer who thought up a great tune to want to spread it out. The audience might only get one chance ever to hear it. But I am one of those whose ear has been spoiled by recording. I can get impatient with even the most heavenly lengths. To write something with the gravitas of the true Adagio but that lasts less than five minutes appears the real test.

My scherzo (III), by contrast, is long and involved, with even a kind of development section. Most of my large works of recent years have contained a scherzo. The challenge of writing one is to keep the energy level high, even when the scherzo is in moderate tempo, as here. So the scherzo is not really a piece of light relief but an intensification of the argument.

The main argument-bearing movements are, as you would expect, I and IV. The first's often quiet surface masks a sort of impatience that is apt to explode at any moment. The last falls into two parts, the divide made by a tune for tuba solo which becomes the basis for almost all the music that concludes the work. The symphony plays for almost half an hour.

Kevin O'Connell
December 2010

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