Symphony for small orchestra

for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contra), 2 horns, strings (players: 8/6/4/4/2)
25 mins.

Commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra and first performed by them under Stephen Barlow at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 1st June 1984.

Recording by Langham Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Cleobury

Programme notes

Symphony for small orchestra was commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra in 1983, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on June 1st 1984, conducted by Stephen Barlow.

During the first half of the 1980s I drastically trimmed my musical language, eliminating harmonic complexity and dissonance, and restricting myself to a modal sound world and audibly physical rhythms, often derived from my interest in African music. Symphony for small orchestra (together with a small group of pieces written that same year) represents the most extreme point of this quasi-minimalist phase. It is a single-movement piece lasting twenty-five minutes, yet scarcely departs from the Aeolian mode (white notes of the piano, from A to A). The title is ironic: the piece has nothing to do with the symphonic tradition, and relates more closely to the baroque concerto grosso. It is scored for flute, two oboes, two bassoons (second bassoon doubling contrabassoon), two horns and strings with important concertante parts for flute, first violin, viola and cello.

Rhythmically it is both simple and complex – simple in that the pulse rarely alters, and there are almost no values other than crotchets and quavers; but also complex, because the patterns formed from these constantly shift in length, and are frequently superimposed in unpredictable ways.

Giles Swayne 2008