Symphony no. 1 - a small world

for 3 flutes (1 and 3 doubling piccolo, 2 doubling alto flute), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (2 doubling bass clarinet, 3 doubling E flat), soprano and alto saxophones, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani; percussion (5 players); celesta, 2 harps; strings (16, 14, 12, 10, 8)
45 mins.

Commissioned by the BBC and first performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen at St David’s Hall, Cardiff on 17th November 2007. First broadcast on Radio 3 on 23rd November 2007.

Programme notes

Symphony no. 1 was commissioned by the BBC and first performed on 17th November 2007 at St David’s Hall, Cardiff by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. It was completed in September 2007, and has three movements.

The first movement takes its title from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar : “Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war”. To cry “Havoc” meant to give a victorious army licence to rape and pillage – which is exactly what we are doing to our planet. It is hard to deny the truth of Albert Schweitzer’s terrifying prophecy (quoted by Rachel Carson at the opening of Silent Spring): “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”

The dogs of war is a sonata-form structure with two contrasted subjects. The thematic material of this movement – which portrays the restlessness of the human spirit and its consequences – is built up from shifting combinations of the five different metres (bar-lengths) used in the movement. Almost no two consecutive bars are in the same metre, which creates continuous tension. The movement opens with an introduction which passes through all eight possible transpositions and alternates between the first and second subjects. The exposition begins with the first subject, which represents the human spirit, and is characterised by a yearning sigh which gradually becomes more aggressive; after a short bridge-passage (trumpets and drums), the second subject appears. This represents our fragile world, and consists of a long melody played by unison strings, accompanied by melodic fragments which represent creatures in a forest environment. At the centre-point of the movement, the music goes into reverse: the sonata-form has been overlaid by a musical palindrome, so that when we reach the recapitulation of the opening material it is barely recognisable. The final element is the part played by the drums. They symbolise our capacity for violence, and in the exposition play only in short linking passages. But in the development section their voices become louder and their contributions longer; and once the palindrome has kicked in the drumming grows rapidly more insistent until it is the drums which dominate everything. At points of extreme violence, the drums are reinforced by the industrial noise of an anvil; this eventually crushes all resistance, and the movement ends with a coda which is a ghostly shadow of the opening introduction.

The second movement, Silent Spring, is named after Rachel Carson’s book. This movement functions as a scherzo; and like a traditional scherzo uses dance as its medium – in this case a saccharine waltz-tune. This movement is most easily explained by a quotation from Rachel Carson’s introduction to her book: “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and wood and marsh.” In contrast to the first, this movement remains in one metre throughout. It begins like a window opening suddenly on a forest: the dawn chorus bursts in, played by seventeen solo instruments – all creatures great and small – and accompanied by a heartbeat on pizzicato strings. After a while the waltz appears briefly: quiet and wispy. But its first appearance silences one or two creatures, and the next stretch of chorus is shorter. The waltz returns eight more times, each time longer, more seductive and more aggressive; every time it reappears, several creatures are silenced. This continues until the waltz completely dominates – its final appearance is grotesque and triumphalist, swooping all over the orchestra. When it ends, the forest is a thing of the past; but each wild creature sings one solo phrase in a desperate plea for survival – from the brief chirrup of the piccolo to the longer lament of the harps and celesta. Each is chopped short by a killer blow from the full orchestra, and Rachel Carson’s prophecy is fulfilled – Spring is silent.

The finale, Threnody, is a lament for the extinction of our own species, which has become so spectacular a victim of its own success. It begins with a melody for solo piccolo – symbolising once again the last bird in the world, singing its heart out in a lifeless landscape. This is followed by eight variations – the last being a passacaglia with eight short variations of its own. These return us, via a brief final climax, to the mode of the opening – which is also that of the start of the first movement.

Symphony no. 1 is dedicated to my wife Malu, who made it possible.

Giles Swayne 2008