Section 1: Tranquillo molto lento sostenuto
Section 2: Allegro con spirito
Section 3: Scherzo: Dance of Satyrs
Section 4: Fanfare: Allegretto con moto
Section 5: Molto lento, sostenuto e rubato
Section 6: Allegro molto e con fuoco
The Pagan Symphony is a case in point. Here Bantock’s dream is of classical antiquity. According to his daughter, Myrrha, he began work on the symphony in 1923. The published orchestral score, however, firmly attaches the date 3 September 1927 (and the place, Paris) to the first bar, and 20 June 1928 to the last, some 1,046 bars later. It may well be that the initial sketches were made at the earlier date, but it is clear that the final details and orchestration belong to 1927/28. As with the Hebridean Symphony (1913) and the Celtic Symphony (1940), the Pagan Symphony is cast in one continuous movement which falls into a number of sections which provide the element of contrast that is characteristic of the separate movements of traditional symphonic form.
As a classical scholar Bantock was able to preface his symphony with a suitable Latin motto: ‘Et ego in Arcadia vixit’ (‘I too lived in Arcadia’). But although he provided several pointers to the general ‘meaning’ of the work, he remained silent about the fine detail. One programme note, presumably by Bantock (or at least sanctioned by him), makes reference to the second book of Horace’s Odes and the opening of Ode XIX:
Bacchus I have seen on far-off rocks—if posterity will believe me—teaching his songs divine to the listening Nymphs and to the goat-footed Satyrs with their pointed ears.
The note continues:
The music may be described as a vision of the past, when the Greek god Dionysus (Bacchus) was worshipped as the bestower of happiness and plenty, the lover of truth and beauty, the victor over the powers of evil.
Immortal Aphrodite of the broidered throne appears for a brief moment as the goddess of Love, to remind the world of her supreme power and glorious beauty.
Beyond this, interpretation must be left to the imagination of the listener—always bearing in mind that music, however descriptive, also develops according to its own laws and therefore without any precise reference to any ‘programme’ that may be on offer.
The elements that are actually signposted in the score provide sufficient clue to the work’s overall structure and meaning. It begins with a slow introduction (Tranquillo molto lento sostenuto) which sets out the thematic material for the entire work in an evocation of pastoral calm and classical nobility. This leads to a more positive section (Allegro con spirito), the equivalent of the normal symphonic first movement. The third section, a scherzo, is described by the composer as a ‘Dance of Satyrs’. The fourth section, labelled Fanfare, quickly evolves into an antique dance (Allegretto con moto). This is followed by a sensuous evocation of the goddess Aphrodite (Molto lento, sostenuto e rubato), inscribed by the composer with a line from a poem by Sappho: ‘Poiliothron athanat Aphrodita’ (‘Immortal Aphrodite on your elaborate throne’). The finale (Allegro moto e con fuoco) brings about a triumphant musical summing-up of everything that has gone before. Each section grows naturally out of its predecessor; and though they explore a variety of changing moods, each section is a marvellous evocation of the Arcadian vision that Bantock has ascribed to it.
More important is the fact that every scrap of what may at first seem a plethora of thematic material grows organically out of a limited number of ideas that are in themselves quite simple. To appreciate this it is necessary to become acquainted with five themes that open the introductory section. The first is an innocuous downward modal scale presented in the strings, divided and muted. Scales, ascending and descending, plainly stated or disguised by additional motivic figuration, form an important part of Bantock’s thematic argument. Next comes a short flute motif, part fanfare, part birdsong. This, in a variety of manifestations, is perhaps the most important thematic element in the symphony, its interlocking fourths and fifths informing nearly every other motif. The brief horn-call that follows also plays its part—usually in the more triumphant passages of the Symphony. It is followed by a sinuous melody for cellos and bassoons, related to the flute motif. Out of it grows the fifth and final motif: a yearning melody for solo violin.
It is not the intrinsic quality of these themes that matters but what Bantock does with them. The entire Symphony is a masterly demonstration of the Lisztian art of thematic transformation. Moreover, the dramatic and pictorial moods that each transformation conjures up are extremely potent. The music engages the imagination and emotions as thoroughly as it may satisfy the intellect. The limpid beauty of the dance section: flutes in thirds describing a primitive but hypnotic melody (derived from the horn-calls of the introduction) that floats above a gentle thrumming of harp and pizzicato strings. The wonderfully grotesque yet good-humoured ‘Dance of Satyrs’: a fugal texture derived from the flute motif and ingeniously scored, in a maze of interlocking, imitative phrases, for woodwind and brass, and culminating in a thunderous climax for percussion. This is music of the highest imagination and it is a matter for astonishment that the work has been largely neglected since Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in 1936.
from notes by Michael Hurd © 1992