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Symphony No 4 'Of Time and the River'


The Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the BBC as part of an exchange project with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the premiere being given in Melbourne by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (with whom McCabe has had a long and fruitful association) under Vernon Handley on 16 March 1995. The British premiere was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 May 1995 under David Atherton (replacing Eduardo Mata, who had died in a plane crash earlier that year).

The form of the symphony is cyclic: the two movements chart a tonal course from a swift-moving, positive D major, ‘Allegro deciso’, to a bleak A flat (tonally the most remote point from D), reaching a state of inertia at the close of the first movement. The second movement begins, ‘Largo’, in almost complete stasis and gradually increases in tempo, returning to the initial ‘Allegro deciso’ as the key circles back to D major (with a recapitulation of the opening section). A six-bar coda marked ‘Mesto’ concludes the work, however, in a questioning A flat. “I wanted to ask a question” the composer commented at the time of the British premiere. “I don’t know what the question is, but after having re-established D as the main key I wanted deliberately to be ambiguous, to say ‘It’s not just about D, it’s also about A flat’, about the positive as well as the negative”.

Time is the other key element of the work’s construction. McCabe intentionally (and unusually, since he does not normally plan pieces in such detail in advance) set out to write a symphony where the tempo gradually decreases to a central point of stasis and then gradually increases in pace to the close, without recourse to simple rallentandi or accelerandi but with the actual changes in pulse imperceptible point-by-point to the listener. The composer achieves this by keeping attention focused on the foreground activity where groups of interrelated tempi combine in the upper parts, so that the underlying pulse can quietly step up or down a gear in the bass. At times these ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ speeds appear to run together, at others they seem to run counter to each other. In his preface to the score, the composer suggests an optical equivalent for this effect: “Who hasn’t experienced that strange feeling of two different speeds of time happening concurrently – for instance, the sensation that, while sitting on a train passing another, the second train is moving backwards even when one knows it is going in the same direction as oneself?” Trains, incidentally, ‘are a recurrent leitmotif’ in Thomas Wolfe’s novel Of Time and the River, which McCabe started reading at an advanced stage of the symphony’s production. While there is no direct connection between novel and symphony, the shared temporal concerns suggested to the composer the use of Wolfe’s title. “After all,” he has remarked, “it’s a more interesting one and ‘Symphony No. 4’ has been used before!”

The symphony opens vigorously without preamble, octave Ds thumped in piano, timpani, cellos and basses, followed by an ostinato built on the first five notes of the D major scale, but with the fourth (G) sharpened as a tritone (G sharp). This is answered by a broken ostinato on another tritone, A–E flat, prefiguring (at the interval of a fifth above) the first movement’s tonal progression of D to A flat, also encapsulated in the figures on timpani and trumpets that propel the initial development of the opening material forward.

The intervals of the tritone (the medieval diabolus in musica), third and whole tone are the primary building blocks of the symphony, recurring constantly throughout the musical fabric.

What sounds like a second subject group occurs after forty bars with a descending phrase for flutes, oboes, clarinets and harp. Essentially a variant on a previous theme played both forwards and backwards and doubled at the ninth, it is accompanied in the violins by a line in even quavers. The horn motif moves chromatically down from E to C sharp (and at its next appearance is much extended). One of the first themes sounds again in the trumpets, a solo oboe intones what proves one of the most fecund motifs for the whole symphony.

The ‘second subject group’ is characterised by descending lines whereas those of the opening material generally move upwards. They are brought almost immediately into opposition when the oboes muse while the clarinets play a variant on a previous theme below them. Gradually all the motifs from two themes are added to the texture, embellished and subjected to thoroughgoing development. A sudden diminuendo to a soft D major chord leads to a chordal statement in the strings, whereupon the flutes lead off again, against which the bassoon, contrabassoon and – in quasi canon – the alto saxophone enter with a long-breathed theme built by extension, inversion and in retrograde ultimately from another subject.

After this subtle slowing of the pace, first the clarinets then violas and cellos propel the music onward with a broken form of the first subject. As altered versions of different subjects re-enter the fray at differing but complementary levels of activity, the music swings into A major. The actual slackening of the tempo is masked by the change of metre (common time hitherto, now in 12/8) which gives fresh impetus to the music in the violins. A new and insistent subject appears on the oboe, its repeated notes reinforcing the new surface tempo, quickly spreading through the other winds, then to the strings against which piccolo, cellos and basses recall a previous theme.

The tonality rises a step further to E major, with a return to 4/4 time in even semiquavers in the strings, and punctuated by a chord still of A major on trumpets and timpani. The impression is of increased activity, but with the A major chord holding it in check, the music seems for a moment to be running on the spot. This passage alternates with a dancing episode in winds and piano. As this latter takes over the foreground, horns and harp play an extended version of another theme, leading to a new and rather mysterious-sounding theme.

A much-repeated horn-call leads into the modulation to B major, where the metre changes to 3/8. Over a flowing melody in the strings, a trumpet plays a swifter version of the horn-call, extending it into a fanfare and masking the fact that the tempo is now roughly half that of the opening. The woodwinds and brass now take centre stage in an extended scherzando episode, founded largely on the trumpet’s fanfare version of the horn-call. This section reaches its conclusion on a grinding chord of A flat, topped by woodwind figures close to C sharp (the relative minor of E). Now finally emerges an audibly slow-paced music, the strings playing a theme in crotchets and minims, a solo horn reclaiming its call from earlier, and a much slowed-down version of another theme in the cor anglais and alto saxophone. These lines die away in F sharp, with the cellos and basses musing in inversion, over which the oboe plays it right-way-up. After barely eleven bars, the tempo slackens again to ‘Molto adagio’ as the key slips to C sharp in a chorale-like passage for brass in slow triplets. The first movement closes in a bleak A flat with an undulating trumpet solo rooted to F sharp.

After the complete stasis and silence following the first movement’s close, the second opens with the slowest tempo yet, ‘Largo’, in common time. The sounds are stark in their simplicity: a chord of A flat minor in the strings, the ghostly wail of a cymbal played with a cello bow, and a micro-glissando from D (the tritone again) to C on a flute, which all accompany a mournful passage (starting on D and progressing down to F) on the alto saxophone. Here perhaps is a resonance, however unconscious, from Wolfe’s novel, of the “image of man’s loneliness, a feeling of sorrow, desolation and wild, mournful, secret joy, longing and desire”. Violins take up the saxophone’s solo, starting now on the ‘tonic’ A flat, and combine it with elements of a previous theme against woodwind sextuplets.

As music gradually spreads through the string body, a theme is taken up by the upper winds and two trumpets become occupied with another theme, the welter of sound resembling some bizarre dawn chorus in a blasted landscape. A new modification appears in flutes and piccolo, punctuated by falling sevenths, slowly increasing the tension until it is suddenly (but only temporarily) dissipated by a move up to E flat minor with a quiet undulating motion (in 6/8 time) in the flutes and harp. The trumpets, however, raise the temperature with an agitated inversion of a previous passage, with repeated notes emphasising its kinship. The bassoons and alto saxophone come back, but the key has shifted to B flat, the metre back to 4/4, as the strings state a new theme. This climaxes in a grand, forceful iteration of one of the subject in the brass and winds. A sinuous violin line quickly builds up a richly layered texture to which the brass and winds rapidly join, leading to the pivotal point of the movement, if not the entire symphony. A slow, chiming ostinato on G and F (the latter repeated an octave lower to provide the illusion of a falling pattern) breaks out high up on flutes, piccolo, glockenspiel, bells and violins, against which is set a grinding, upward-thrusting motif for the trombones and tuba.

Here if anywhere is the composer’s comments concerning the optical illusion of two trains moving at different speeds in the same direction made manifest in sound, although to the present writer it also echoes the epigraph of Wolfe’s novel:

Who knoweth that spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?

The passage builds to a thunderous climax for the whole brass and wind sections plus the percussion, giving way suddenly to a shimmering, swirling, pianissimo tapestry for flutes, clarinets, vibraphone, harp, celesta and violins, quite athematic were it not for a solo bassoon’s musings on A flat.

The texture clears with a shift to F major and a metre of 2/2, although the tonic is indicated as much by its absence initially. Flutes, celesta and harp chime away in thirds over busy string figurations, against which the bassoon returns, leading the way to C major and rapidly moving triplets in the violins. These sound very clear and deliberate after the preceding haze, masking the increase in pulse, and are opposed by a staccato passage in bass clarinet and pizzicato cellos. Other woodwinds join in and extend the bass clarinet and cello line, but the violins hold their own, though their reinforcement by the trumpets is timely as the tension mounts, driving on through G major (in 12/16) into the return of the opening D major and the first theme in a powerful, varied recapitulation. Perhaps because of the frenetic activity, the sense of homecoming proves less of a resolution than might have been expected, and this climactic section expires on a hollow chord of D major superimposed by F sharp major, and incorporating a C sharp – G tritone, followed by low, bare octave Ds in the piano, timpani and basses. This last, brief section, ‘Mesto’, returns to the initial tempo of the second movement, with the alto saxophone and solo strings musing quietly in A flat minor for the last time. A question to which there is no answer, perhaps, perhaps even of Wolfe’s ‘strange and bitter miracle of life.’

from notes by Guy Rickards © 1999


McCabe: Symphony No 4 & Flute Concerto


Movement 1. Part 1: Allegro deciso –
Movement 1. Part 2: Allegro deciso –
Movement 1. Part 3: Allegro deciso –
Movement 1. Part 4: Allegro deciso –
Movement 1. Part 5: Allegro deciso –
Movement 1. Part 6: Molto adagio
Movement 2. Part 1: Largo –
Movement 2. Part 2: Largo –
Movement 2. Part 3: Largo –
Movement 2. Part 4: Largo –
Movement 2. Part 5: Allegro deciso –
Movement 2. Part 6: Mesto

Track-specific metadata for CDA67089 track 1

Movement 1 Part 1: Allegro deciso –
Recording date
16 December 1998
Recording venue
Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. McCabe: Symphony No 4 & Flute Concerto (CDA67089)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: October 1999
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