'Everything in his piece seems to be a state of flux, with shapes and tempos constantly changing, and the thematic material always liable to transform itself... a glistening sound world.’ The Guardian
3(I=extra fl tuned ¼ tone flat, III=afl+picc).3(III=ca).3(I=extra cl tuned ¼ tone flat, II=cl in A, III=Ebcl+bcl).bcl(=cbcl).3(III=cbsn) – 4.3(III=tpt in D).3.1 – timp – perc(4): 4 SD/tam-t/glsp/whip/BD/large tgl/4 susp.cym/tuned c.bells/2 mar/vib/guiro/t.bells/large military drum with snares/2 low tom-t – harp – piano(=keyboard ¼ tone lower) – strings
My Symphony was the largest piece I’ve wrote as Composer-in-Association to the CBSO and their Principal Conductor Sakari Oramo.
The title, first: when I started work, I had no idea the piece might be called Symphony. It evolves in a single continuous movement split up into many smaller sections, with an emphasis on continuous transformation. The ideas behind the work were - with one exception – entirely abstract, and for that reason finding a more colourful title proved impossible. The chosen title to my mind best reflects the notions of gradual growth and change which are central to the music. Additionally, the piece is much concerned with the integration of sometimes sharp surface contrasts of texture and pacing into a connected musical statement, and this too seems well covered by the word ‘symphony’.
The sole extra-musical inspiration was a painting by the Finnish artist Axel Gallen (a friend of Sibelius – one of the latter’s final pieces is a memorial to him). Entitled simply ‘Morning by a lake’, it is set in early Spring. The lake surface is still faintly frozen, and bands of ice cross the water in jagged shapes. The sunlight is bright but not dazzling against the pale blue of the sky and the surrounding hills covered with snow. With a great economy of means, the artist manages to suggest to the viewers that the lake is actually unfreezing before their eyes.
Thus the principal musical notion is that of ‘unfreezing’, so to speak. I tried to convey an initial sense of near-immobility which progressively dissolves until the music gathers speed and momentum to such an extent that it reaches the limits of playability. This is the overall plan, but the detailed form of the music is much more complex.
The following resumé may be of help to listeners in finding their bearings through the form of the music. (However, those who wish to simply listen may ignore this if preferred). Although I number the sections in the following description, the music is in a state of continual transformation, for which reason the dividing line between adjacent sections is in reality much less clear-cut than this programme would suggest.
1) The melodic and harmonic bases of the music unfold with extreme slowness. The use of many non-standard playing techniques – such as brush-bowing on the strings, breathy tones on flutes and ‘bowed’ piano (threaded with string) produces a texture mixing notes and noise at the threshold of audibility.
2) Under this a long, continuous harmonic progression evolves several times in the bass and gradually rises both in pitch and speed, leading to –
3) the first scherzo, a lively passage using non-tempered tuning for the first time in the work (see below for an explanation). This culminates in a fast brass chorale, a variation on the harmonic progression unfolded in (2)
4) A violent sequence of eruptions – like a thunderclap – an image which will recur later.
5) Slow movement, part 1. The start of a long, sustained, melodic line, mainly in the violins, which will continue, with interruptions, through the rest of the work.
6) A comic, light-hearted variation on (5), the start of the scherzo.
7) Slow movement, continued, now high and ecstatic in the cellos and violas, with gently rocking accompaniment.
8) A more extended scherzo passage for the full orchestra – the violin melody continues throughout. An extremely violent thunderclap breaks this up dramatically.
9) The slow movement, third phase. The melody grows to a climactic lyrical episode on violins and trumpet. The woodwind continue the scherzo intermittently through this.
10) The music sinks to the extreme bass, but the melodic line continues evolving. A violent series of accelerations and thunderclaps propels the music to
11) a prestissimo based on a compression of the opening – which took over a minute originally - into under two seconds (or a single bar of music!) This rapid dance accelerates to the limits of playability until the music simply hovers.
12) A resonant sequence of overlapping chords summarises the harmonic world of the work in a semi-frozen stasis, before the final sprint to the finish (complete with a last thunderclap).
As in my previous pieces, the harmonic language is neither atonal nor tonal but freely evolving modally. The music can therefore court extremes of consonance or dissonance, as needs be, within a continuous flux of harmony. The occasional use of non-standard tuning enlarges the modal world through a single flute, clarinet and sampled piano all tuned ¼ tone below the rest of the orchestra. They aren’t meant to sound ‘out of tune’ but add a different form of colour to the harmony – somewhat exotic and Indonesian-sounding, perhaps.
My Symphony plays continuously for around 18 minutes. It is dedicated in affection and gratitude to Sakari Oramo.
Julian Anderson, November 2003
‘A strange sound like distant layers of ice fracturing, a cool blue flute horizontal, a moment of melting in harp and piano. This was the start of Julian Anderson’s new Symphony. Throughout, Anderson uses what, even for him, is a wide range of technical “effects” — breath tones to pitched percussion to retunings — to carry his symphony from near-immobility to what he calls “the very limits of playability”... the alternation between the slow, chilled sections and scherzo-like, increasingly violent “thaws” is brilliantly achieved in a process of rhythmic and harmonic transformation as well as variation, expansion and compression.’
The Times (Hilary Finch), 8 December 2003
‘There are enough ideas to sustain a piece twice as long by many other composers. Though the music is fundamentally abstract, one of Anderson's starting points was a Finnish painting of melting ice. Everything in his piece seems to be a state of flux, with shapes and tempos constantly changing, and the thematic material always liable to transform itself. The result is a complex network of musical relationships, laid out with enormous accomplishment in a glistening sound world.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 6 December 2003
‘Symphony, a Winter-to-Spring piece, begins from nothing, with the lightest touches of sounds. Expressive woodwind melodies ensue, there are percussion riffs, one might hear the cacophony of birdsong and there is glorious lyricism; there are momentous passages that might relate to ice-cracking – with at least one stupendous outburst – and if this all sounds outside the Symphony as we know it, Anderson says that the work is of “continuous transformation ... neither atonal nor tonal but freely evolving...” – certainly towards the end when the return of Spring is sensed, a rebirth, and not without the pain of delivery.'
Classical Source (Colin Anderson), 22 October 2017