Standford and his Fifth Symphony, 1986

by: 

Leslie East

Date: 

1986

For Patric Standford, ‘symphony’ is an all-embracing term. He has used the epithet six times and the results have been very different on each occasion. Yet, at the centre of Standford’s concept of what a symphony actually is are three fairly conventional definitions. Symphony can simply and literally mean ‘sounding together‘; it can encompass the traditional classical representation of conflict and resolution; and it can espouse the late Romantic, Mahlerian view that symphony means more than just abstract instrumental argument.

Of Standford six symphonies, only the first (1971 - 2) presents its argument in pure orchestral terms and even this is qualified by the programmatic element of each movement representing a season. On the second (1971 - 2) the title ‘symphony’ sits very uneasily: the hour-long Christus-Requiem is more fittingly described by the composer as ‘symphonic oratorio', relying on poetic and dramatic continuity rather than musical unification. The third is closely related to the second (both draw motivation from Dante’s Divine Comedy), being choral in two of its four movements. Though still far from the conventional symphonic working-out of conflicts within movements, Towards Paradise (Requiem-Symphony) does suggest conflict and resolution on a larger scale with relationships between movements that Mahler would have recognised and applauded.

Then, for one of his occasional (but highly successful) forays into ‘light’ music. Standford produced perhaps his most classical structure, A Christmas Carol Symphony (1977). As if to emphasise how narrow a concept of symphony this was, however, Standford simultaneously produced Taikyoku (1975-7). In this, the Japanese concept of ‘a large and important work’ is translated into a ‘symphony’ for two pianos and six percussionists. The character of and relationship between the four movements are suggested by Togaku pieces which generally followed ti four part form: JO, a prelude in free form; HA, a large middle movement; El, an optional vocal movement; and KYU, a fast finale. Standford’s four movements are continuous but strongly contrasted, particularly the urgent, unrelenting and large scale second movement against the static, translucent third with its texture of bell sounds. ‘Sounding together’ is an apt summary of the piece and the intensity of conflicts that are set up and resolved both within and between movements is symphonic in conception. It is significant that Standford talks about ‘an orchestra of percussion' in describing the work himself and, further, that ‘the pianos are like the strings in a conventional orchestra - the bearers of the greatest musical weight’.

Over and above any justification of Taikyoku as a symphonic structure is the significance of Standford's reflection and absorption of a ‘foreign’ influence. The Japanese starting point of Symphony no.4 is obviously essential, providing structures and pentatonic modes as basic building materials, but there was no intention to imitate the classical music of Japan - to Standford that was ‘musically irrelevant’. What is relevant, however, is that Standford's music of the late 1970s and early 1980s has reflected the growing accessibility of all kinds of musiic to contemporary audiences. Whether music of the East - the Orient in the case of Taikyoku; Eastern European folk traditions in the case of Dialogues for cimbalom and chamber orchestra (1981) - or music of current popularity in our own culture. Standford feels it is sufficiently familiar to draw on it, quote it and comment on it in his own fashion, without alienating his audience.

The Fifth Symphony, completed in February 1985, takes this preoccupation one stage further. The composer talks of ‘the frightening availability of music and its obsessive use as a sort of narcotic’, and the symphony attempts to comment upon this.

It does so in three ways. Its six movements include four that are essentially frenetic and two that are essentially reflective. Throughout, there is a deliberate dependence on what the composer calls ‘simple and obvious regular pulses: deliberately crude, or, as Poulenc would say, “rude”’. Quotations from familiar classical works figure prominently in the structure of two movements and in two others familiar idioms are referenced.

Standford has borrowed extensively before and always to good effect. The Lutheran chorale in the Third Symphony is a crucial source of melodic and harmonic material, while the inspired transformation of a soprano aria from Brahms’s German Requiem into a ‘Theme and Variations in reverse’ in his Cello Concerto gives that work a serenity and force akin to Berg's treatment of Bach in his Violin Concerto. But in the Fifth Symphony the quotations are frenzied ‘rather than calm and almost religious’, as if the pieces that are ‘overheard’ are part of a nightmare, ‘their once-admired beauty now like the Picture of Dorian Gray’.

Thus the third movement, the first to be written, is built entirely on the first movement of Mozart‘: Symphony no.40 (familiar to a wider audience since it was ‘updated’ in a recording with rhythm section). The composer’s intention it to ‘make music out of a familiar background - familiar at least to the sort of audience I imagined the piece to be heard by. The recognition is a part of the effect, but my world of sounds and notes goes on around it all despite Mozart’. Framing this scherzo fantasy are two arias in which a solo soprano sings settings of poems from the Carmina Burana. These are intentionally reflective and represent the only periods of calm in the work apart from the presentation of the theme in the fifth movement variations, where again the voice is employed. The songs are of the seasons - Spring, Summer and (in the variations) Autumn - and ‘in effect say that time goes on, year after year, and we don’t tell each other a lot of things’. The idiom of the arias is deliberately derived from ‘Howard Jones and his calmer pop successes’ of 1984. In the second movement there is little that is more elaborate than the tonic-dominant with flat 7th-to-tonic progression of Ex.1 while the slightly more sophisticated harmonic movement of the second aria is rooted by mesmeric orchestra ostinatos and the repetitiveness of the vocal line (Ex.2).

The variations that follow (movement 5) take the example of the Cello Concerto and only reveal their theme at the close. Standford describes the movement as ‘a series of vulgar little variations reminiscent of Glazunov and Tchaikovsky’.

The theme revealed is an English folksong, set to bare diatonic harmony and forced on to Latin words (Ex.3) but, after three and a half repetitions of the theme, the autumnal atmosphere is shattered by a recapitulation of the variations.

The quotation does not end there, however, as ‘the finale brings the nightmare to a head, with Dvorak, Beethoven and Elgar's "Land of Hope . . .”' making appearances, ‘the humour of the quotes being itself tragic'. The finale balances a first movement of substantial proportions, an electrifying orchestral scherzo that resembles the opening movement of the Third Symphony in the way it establishes a feeling of ritual (albeit at a very different tempo) through multi layered motivic blocks constantly overlapping and repeating. The same technique, and some of the same motifs, reappear in the finale but here with less intensity so that the quotations will make their point and the movement (and symphony) resolve an nearly as possible into silence.

What then is the point of the quotation? is it possible to accept that such extensive borrowing is justified in the context of a major symphonic work? Standford's bold conception could not even be said to he deliberately provocative. Rather it is a genuine reaction to a genuine aesthetic concern. Besides, while the quotation may be blatant, and the idiom in which it is presented may be intentionally ‘crude’, Standford’s technical expertise seems to ensure that the work will be distinctively the composer's. The first movement alone looks to be a gripping orchestra essay, full of strong rhythmic counterpoint and imaginatively scored. The ‘Mozart’ movement will exert a fascination if only on a technical level, even if the composer's aesthetic intent is not appreciated. Above all, the Fifth Symphony will probably ‘work’ because it is full of strong contrasts, is well balanced and sets up conflicts, both traditional and novel, that are argued and resolved with considerable conviction.

Standford’s Fifth Symphony, a BBC commission, will receive its premiere at the RNCM in Manchester on 24 January; it will be performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Brian Prestman, with Joan Rodgers, soprano.