The Broken Symphony

Alasdair Nicolson (1961)

The Broken Symphony 2007

2(1)+12+12+12+1 4331 4 Perc Tp 2 Hp Pf Str

Given that the original commission for this work was for two pieces which could act as a frame in a concert or could be joined to form one piece, it is perhaps a most unlikely situation for which to choose the word “symphony”. I wanted to make a piece that could be played in two separate parts or as a joined whole and which, in either situation, would have a long-distance, arching form. The making of two “separates” that can interlock if necessary, but which if separated have some sense of continuity and consistency of thought, is a tricky one. This has meant that the build up to the centre of the piece and the move on from that moment have been key, formal pivot-points and that the musical material has had to be paced to create a trajectory which, if interrupted seems to demand its conclusion. In this sense I have attempted to write a symphony in one movement which is “broken’.

As I started work on this piece however, it was more of a “broken” world that was in my mind. Conflicts, extreme ideologies and man’s inhumanity, dishonesty, destruction and intolerance seemed to be all around me and on many occasions I was left highly disillusioned with, and disturbed by, the world in which we all live. It is difficult and frustrating to watch world events, often at some distance, and to feel in equal parts remote from, and part of, the unfolding story. The war in Iraq was one of the most extreme horrors amongst many.

In some research for text for another piece I came across a poem by the 8th century Iraqi poet Abu Nuwas which, though probably about a more debauched, hedonist experience, seemed to sum up one ongoing horror of our current world at the forefront of my mind.

The party’s over. The bursting zanies and their night
have whitened away. The place is spent and still.

I stopped someone. Wild, I said, wasn’t it?
And only a booming silence round Sabat

could tell me who we’d been.
One heady day. Two. Three. Four. Five.

And now softly go …

In some form I wanted to reflect this poem, at least in the sense of a destructive, intrusive, one-off madness in conflict with the ongoing line, the stillness, the old songs.

Laments seem to be an increasingly present expression of outrage, grief, horror and abuse and, in the absence of power to change things, serve as a warning, reminder and cry from the heart. My laments take their root in my own culture where a few hundred years ago people were “cleared” off the land by those who had come from outside; unfortunately this has a strong contemporary resonance. The laments also contain an old Persian song whose patterns and contours are not dissimilar to the other music I have used.

I have used transformations of these old laments – whose original single line melodies have a keening and repeating quality that makes them seem endless, timeless and highly charged – as a basic material for this work. As they progress, the songs are interrupted with more violent and more frequency, as the first section unfolds, until they are all but fractured and destroyed. But the destruction is only momentary and the laments continue as a thread through the entire work. The first section could be seen as a mosaic of fragments gradually destroyed by ever more conflicting voices.

In the second part, as these ancient songs continue, remnants of other musics seem to float around like ghosts as if lost and searching, trying to find resolution: remnants of the destructive music from before. Eventually the strands merge to form a unified music, and an eerie stillness which eventually evaporates.

Alasdair Nicolson


The work is performed in two parts during the same concert. Each movement lasts about 10 minutes.

23.5.07 Barbican, London: BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
2nd doubling piccolo, 3rd alto flute
3rd cor anglais
3rd bass clarinet
3rd contrabassoon