Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2. Part 1: Canone 1. Comodo e tranquillo
Movement 2. Part 2: Canone 1. Comodo e tranquillo
Movement 2. Part 3: Canone 1. Comodo e tranquillo
Movement 2. Part 4: Canone 1. Comodo e tranquillo
Movement 2: Canone 1: Comodo e tranquillo
Movement 3: Scherzino: Molto vivace
Movement 4: Canone 2: Adagio
Movement 5: Finale: Molto allegro e con fuoco
The first sound to be heard is a single, very soft chord (subsequently referred to as ‘the chord’) containing three interlocking tenths which represent, in the composer’s words, ‘the part of the mind that quietly watches you, regardless of the sort of experiences you are having’.
This chord recurs at significant landmarks throughout the Symphony. Suddenly the music erupts into a fierce tutti whose temper is rough and volatile. The main idea is a contrary-motion figure, moving chromatically, blasted out on horns and trombones.
Though this Allegro does not adhere to sonata form, the air soon clears briefly to introduce a second subject on solo oboe against a nervous repeated-note accompaniment on bass clarinet and double basses.
This is soon combined with the first idea until ‘a devil of a fugue’ (as Elgar would say) is unleashed on strings. The tension continues to mount until the progress is abruptly halted, revealing ‘the chord’ once more. The music breaks up, whilst the chord remains static, unaltered.
The top note of ‘the chord’ (C) is released by high first violins and taken up by piccolo, which begins the first Canon, proceeding with an elegant melody marked ‘Grazioso, ma non espressivo’. The next canonic entry is given to the first clarinet, which begins on the second highest note of ‘the chord’ (A flat), just as that note is released. Each successive woodwind entry is marked by the release of the next note of the chord until it has been completely dismantled and we are left with a six-part canon. This music is one of the rare evocations of birdsong in Simpson’s work, and one where the listener may sense a parallel, not with Messaien but with the dream sequence in Nielsen’s Saga-Drøm.
The Scherzino (the shortest of all Simpson’s symphonic movements) is dominated throughout by an insistent side-drum figure. The form is simple: crescendo–climax–diminuendo. The movement, which opens with solo side drum (pianissimo) and a climbing figure on pairs of woodwinds, culminates in a passage of titanic force—the central point of the Symphony—before receding.
Just as Canone 1 gradually dismantled ‘the chord’ from the top, so Canone 2 (Adagio) re-assembles it from the lowest note. The first entry of the new canon starts on a low C (cellos and bassoon) which rises and falls before settling again on C amidst mysterious patterings. The entries alternate between this original and its inversion. The next entry (violas and oboe) takes E (a tenth above) and follows a similar procedure. Finally, the six-note chord is fully assembled once more but heard in repeated pizzicato figurations. A transposition of the chord (E flat, G, F, A, B, E flat) is then added on brass and wind, until the two missing notes (B flat and D flat) are supplied by trumpets. A menacing crescendo, containing all twelve chromatic notes, leads directly into the Finale. This Finale is a vastly expanded, modified reprise of the first Allegro, the pulse altered from three to two beats in a bar. Most of the material is familiar, but takes on new life, new energy. The massive coda occupies almost half the length of the Finale, beginning with a sudden, unexpected, hushed string tremolando alternating with reminders of ‘the chord’. From here the music gains further momentum, each climax more ferocious than the last, until the full orchestra arrives on a chord consisting of superimposed dominant sevenths on C and G. But even this is silenced by ‘the chord’. The Finale desperately attempts to reassert itself, but is dispersed into fragments, like the first Allegro, until all that remains is the chord itself. And finally that disappears too.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1994