- Orchestral/Large Orchestra
Patric reflects on writing his first symphony...'First symphonies are not always literally the first. There may be several attempts to take charge of this formidable challenge, through which a composer may, perhaps, find a reason to stop imitating others and hopefully discover a personal identity. Early endeavours are sometimes converted into less pretentious pieces or discarded, as my two premature trials were, leaving only a store of subliminal wisdom.
The second of these early attempts was composed under the guidance of Edmund Rubbra, with whom I was studying at the Guildhall School of Music in London. It was given a performance in the Great Hall there, generously prepared and conducted by Allen Percival, who was later to become the School’s principal. The rehearsals were conducted not without considerable and invaluable practical criticism – painful at the time, but which has remained with me to this day. Like my first attempt, this one didn’t really work. I then galloped through a further ten hectic years of professional composing, arranging and conducting before returning to the challenge, this time completing what I felt was a real four-movement symphony deserving to be called a ‘first’.
Completed in February 1972, the First Symphony took about a year to write, and grew out of a piece for strings conceived as a memorial to Sir John Barbirolli, the hero of Sheffield concerts I had attended regularly as a boy since the age of seven. I recall also Barbirolli’s rehearsals, in which it was his habit to wander away from the rostrum while the orchestra continued playing, into the body of the hall from where he could gauge the broader effect. On one occasion he sat beside me and asked: ‘Well young man, does it sound alright?’ I forget both what music the Hallé was playing and much of our conversation – I was perhaps only ten years old, and he had just received his knighthood – but remember feeling extremely proud when he called back to the orchestra: ‘This young man approves!’
The first movement of the Symphony came to me quickly, an ebullient and powerful portrayal of springtime, bursting with energy. It seemed an appropriate way of preceding the summer warmth of the second movement, which is for strings only and represents a strongly optimistic and dynamic memory of Barbirolli, who had left our British musical landscape in 1970.
Summer then explodes into autumn almost without a break. Creating the third movement involved trying to capture pictures in sound of the English autumnal mist, weak sunlight shimmering on beads of rain covering vast spider webs, the sighing of falling leaves, and evening lamplight reflected from damp pavements – an image derived from J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement.
The fourth and final movement, a ‘Winter Epilogue’, is a series of five variants built over a chorale theme originally intended for inclusion in my large-scale oratorio Christus Requiem – which I began writing as the symphony was entering its final stages – but which found its home in this finale. The movement, which depicts a winter that vigorously fights against the cold with bursts of energy, comes forcefully to rest on the E flat harmony with which the work began.
At last I felt I had made something that might be worthy of the title First Symphony – at least that was my personal judgement – and its achievement opened up the road ahead as an incentive to try and do even better henceforth. I dedicated the work to my wife, who was so much a part of it.’