Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 23

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Symphony No. 1

1. Allegro moderato

2. Adagio

3. Scherzo – Allegro vivace ma non troppo

4. Finale – Allegro

My First Symphony had a double impetus: it was composed in 1995 for the University of Salford’s 1996 centenary celebrations, but Todmorden, the Pennine town in which I live, was also celebrating a centenary that same year (that of its Charter). Much of the music was written walking in the hills around my home.

The brief opening tune on bassoon generates most of the music material in the first movement and may also be considered a motto theme for the Symphony as a whole. It passes to higher woodwind and strings and reaches an initial climax with harmonies moving up a whole-tone scale before a songlike melody is heard on first violins. This is, in fact, a lyrical, drawn-out version of the motto theme. A brassy martial passage follows, containing a call-and-response exchange between horns and oboes. It is succeeded by a development section, which is based on fragmentary motives from the motto theme shared, first among the brass, and then among the strings and woodwind. The whole-tone harmonic progression then returns before the beginning of the recapitulation is asserted forcefully by English horn, bass clarinet, bassoons and trumpets. Everything proceeds in similar fashion to the exposition, but with a change in harmonic direction that ensures the appearance of the second subject in the home key. There are also textural changes, such as the addition of timpani and harp to the accompaniment of the second subject, as well as a clarinet countermelody. The martial music returns and is soon joined with a loud restatement of the song and its countermelody – the latter now transferred from clarinet to flutes and piccolo. The momentum continues and the movement closes with a recollection of its opening.

The second movement is characterized by Celtic elements, in particular the presence of the rhythm often referred to as the ‘Scotch snap’. Undoubtedly, my playing of the Highland Bagpipe had an influence here, although the spread of notes in the main theme (stated by the English horn) are not available on the chanter of that instrument. The repeat of this pastoral theme is joined by a trombone figure based on the motto theme of the previous movement. An interlude follows, also referencing the opening notes of the Symphony, before hints of the main theme enter, leading to a climactic statement for full orchestra. The interlude material is then heard again (on the English horn) while a bass clarinet plays variants of the Symphony’s motto theme in counterpoint. This continues into a final restatement of the main theme and a gentle close.

The jaunty tune of the Scherzo appears amid snatches of the motto theme, and they even creep into the tune itself at some points. After a little climax, the tuba takes up the tune. Then, following another brief climax, the flutes begin a subsidiary theme. This heralds what, at first, seems to be a tranquil middle section, in which glockenspiel and trumpet play in two beats to the bar, against the prevailing three beats elsewhere. However, peace is disrupted by some menacing references to the motto theme. The Scherzo tune returns on clarinets, followed by the subsidiary theme on violins. The tranquil melody now has it calmness disrupted further when it reappears with multiple cross-rhythms and above sinuous phrases in the bass clarinet and lower strings. Nevertheless, order is restored for a final statement of the Scherzo tune and its subsidiary theme before the movement ends.

The leap upwards of a perfect fourth in the motto theme is widened to a fifth in the opening of the Finale. The last two bars of the opening subject are of much importance to this movement, and I will refer to them as ‘Motive A’. They are given a varied repeat immediately by the oboes and English horn and, after a brief interruption from trombones, repeated once more by the first violins. A second subject, characterized by syncopation, is soon announced by cellos and bassoons in the subdominant key, which quickly takes on a minor colour. The instrumental forces strengthen, the mood turns harsher, and a three-note syncopated bass figure becomes more insistent. Motive A is heard in the violins, then upper woodwind. The three trombones punctuate this section, and a four-voice fugue based on Motive A begins in the violas. The fugue transfers to the heavy brass and reaches a climax in which melodic strands that has been previously heard weave themselves into the musical texture. The recapitulation is varied and curtailed, and an augmented version of the fugue theme rings out in the first trombone. The intensity is then reduced and preparation begins for an extended return of the second subject in the relative minor key. The coda begins with a repeat of the movement’s opening material set again bell-like sounds in the trombones. Motive A also makes a last appearance, and the music gathers momentum, increasing in dynamic level as it approaches the final bars.





Date published
01 July 2022
Date recorded
22–26 March 2022
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, cond. Paul Mann
Recording format id
Record company
Toccata Classics
Derek B. Scott – Orchestral Music, Vol. 2
Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja