Movement 1: Poco animato
Movement 2: Scherzo: Minaccioso
Movement 3: Adagio
Movement 4: Finale: Presto
This symphony … originated in the thought that the old composers (such as Haydn for instance) had the wonderful advantage of knowing exactly whom they were writing for. Haydn could see the faces of nearly all who would be listening to his next symphony … this is something the present-day composer can rarely enjoy—he can’t often say to himself as he works ‘I can just see old So-and-So’s face when this bit hits him!’ or ‘Must watch old Whatsisname when this happens!’ It’s hard for him to visualize even the sea of faces in a large concert hall, and on the radio it all seems to evaporate into thin air. So I got the idea of asking my old friend the late painter Anthony Dorrell what sort of symphony he’d like to hear, and then trying to oblige him. We had similar views on life and music, and he was intensely musical, so this seemed a reasonable proposition. At first he was startled, and naturally enough wanted time to think. But soon he came back with a few suggestions.
He thought of a symphony in two halves, two movements in each, with the only break in the middle. The second movement was to be some kind of scherzo, and the third a strongly elegiac slow movement reacting against a sense of menace in the first part of the symphony. About the finale he couldn’t be too precise, though it was to be fast and energetic.
The eighth proved to be Simpson’s most formidable symphony to date. It is scored for a very large orchestra containing triple woodwind plus E flat clarinet, four each of horns, trumpets and trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, plus percussion and strings. Although the work includes some of the toughest and most virtuosic orchestral writing in any Simpson symphony (particularly in the Finale), it nonetheless demonstrates the entire range of his symphonic language, showing a profundity of thought equalled by few of his contemporaries.
The two parts of the symphony adopt complementary processes. In Part I, the ‘sense of menace’ of which Anthony Dorrell spoke is felt to infiltrate the opening movement ‘Poco animato’. The Scherzo, ‘Minaccioso’, enters at the point of greatest intensity, when the menace has fully invaded the music. Part II opens with one of Simpson’s severest slow fugues which, as it progresses, allows space for calmer episodes. Each time the calmer music intervenes it expands. The tempo changes to Presto and a crescendo leads to the Finale which is propelled by a fast energetic momentum. As the composer has commented, … its energy has nothing to do with romantic triumph … it is simple energy, and energy can be used for good or ill’.
A tiny motif on piccolo sets the symphony in motion. Much of the argument seems to grow out of the woodwind figure presented in the opening bars: a rocking major second, often with the note in the middle of that interval sustained. This gentle dissonance hints at the enormous upheavals that are to occur later in the symphony. Initially, the amiable, rather pastoral atmosphere pervades the music for some time. The gentle contrapuntal movement continues, and the orchestral texture remains quite chamber-like and transparent. The first interjections heard on brass provoke a nervous triplet pattern on the strings, whilst the woodwinds attempt to continue singing in long, expressive lines. Tension mounts still further as the tempo quickens, the triple-time pulse becomes increasingly threatened by duple figures, and the violent outbursts from brass escalate. Eventually something is forced to give way and, at the point of greatest ferocity, the music literally collapses to reveal a series of quivering, sinister oscillating tritone figures. This point marks the beginning of the Scherzo, ‘Minaccioso’.
The Scherzo unleashes some of Simpson’s darkest and most explosive music. Four times a plaintive oboe melody (sometimes doubled by cellos) attempts to assert itself, but each time it stimulates a hostile reaction from different sections of the orchestra. The major seconds heard at the start of the symphony are applied here to conjure ominous repeated figurations and craggy dissonant clusters. The final appearance of the oboe tune draws forth the most mighty eruption yet heard in the work with full brass and the two timpani very much to the fore. But suddenly the climax breaks up, as if all energy were spent, and an insistent E quickly silences all the activity until it descends to the lowest depths of the orchestra amid distant strokes on the bass drum.
Part II unfolds with an Adagio. It opens with an austere, highly impassioned fugue announced fortissimo on violins where rising seconds and leaping octaves are prominent. Like the fugues found in Nielsen’s symphonies (the slow movements of Nos 4 and 6, for example), the contrapuntal texture is subservient to the necessity for symphonic growth. The first contrasting calm episode is intoned gently on stopped horns and answered by oboe accompanied by trombones. These episodes, full of evocative sonorities, are all delicately scored, and on each occasion expand while the stressful periods get compressed. The last calm episode leads directly into the Finale via a fully-orchestrated crescendo.
The Presto Finale displays a rough, athletic exuberance, with most of the principal ideas gravitating from the leaping figure on violins heard at the peak of the crescendo. This melody is derived from the corresponding figure in the Adagio’s fugue subject. Another important idea which assumes increasing significance as the Presto proceeds is a sequence of descending fifths, sometimes striding over two complete cycles of fifths. In the final stages the metre tightens from 12/8 to 9/8, from 3/4 to 2/4, and finally broadens again to 3/4. Four unison hammer-blows conclude the symphony, emphatically affirming the tonal centre of G. Simpson’s Symphony No 8 is published by Faber Music Ltd.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1996