Movement 1: Andante
Movement 2: Allegro vivace
One of the most striking features of the Eleventh Symphony is the chamber-like quality of most of the Andante and of a large part of the finale. Simpson once said that he wished to create a sort of luminosity of texture not unlike that of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony. Indeed, there is a sense of spaciousness and eloquence, reminiscent of much of the slow music from the ninth and tenth symphonies but never expressed with the economy of scoring enjoyed in No 11.
The first movement, Andante, is largely polyphonic in design: its pervasive feeling is one of tenderness and quiet serenity, despite continual shifts of orchestral colour. This is apparent from the work’s opening paragraph where a motif on the first violins, which provides the basis for much of the argument throughout the symphony, is answered by oboe and muted horns. The accompaniment is often very sparse, sometimes consisting of a single line. The music evolves slowly, seldom rising above piano, continually transforming the initial violin theme into new patterns. Soon the texture becomes more animated until the whole orchestra reaches a majestic unison C, before the music floats off into an ethereal coda.
The Allegro vivace must surely be one of the longest fast symphonic finales since Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Simpson once suggested that the opening might have ‘something of the character of a Mendelssohn scherzo, though I’m not trying to imitate Mendelssohn’s language. Anyone who tries to do that is an idiot!’. Certainly the woodwind flickers supported by delicate string pizzicati that launch this movement recall the style of Mendelssohn (the scherzo of the Octet, or the music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but as the piece gathers steam it is taken over by a more muscular vitality and Beethovenian energy. The final climax is combative, dominated by an insistent B flat, before disappearing on a defiant timpani note in a similar manner to the corresponding part of Simpson’s Ninth Symphony. The coda is made up of strange rustling fragments, “until the whole thing ends with a flick of the wrist, as if dismissed” in the words of the composer. So ends one of the greatest symphonic cycles of the twentieth century.
Robert Simpson provided the following additional note prior to the first performance of the Eleventh Symphony conducted by Matthew Taylor with the City of London Sinfonia:
After hearing Matthew Taylor conduct a superbly penetrating performance of my Symphony No 7 with an orchestra mainly consisting of students, I felt an immediate compulsion to compose a symphony for him. It depends on his opinion of that performance of No 7 whether he considers this new symphony a reward or an act of revenge! If the latter, I do not share his views.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 2004