Symphony No. 1

Anthony Powers (1953)

Symphony No. 1 1996

333.asax.3 - 4331 - timp.perc(4) - harp.piano - strings

I: Molto Moderato/Energico
II: Allegro molto
III: Molto Adagio e sostenuto
IV: Allegro moderato: Presto

Without necessarily setting out to write a symphony it soon became clear to me that this was what I was doing. A large-scale, essentially abstract discourse in a number of movements, working with the friendly ghosts of the symphonic tradition, the time-honoured thematic and motivic ingredients, a number of small, infinitely malleable ideas, it would be misleading not to call the work a symphony, however late in the day it might be for such ventures. The slow movement was written first (in autumn 1994) then other work intervened before I picked up the symphony again in the summer of 1995. It was completed in June 1996.

After a brief but turbulent introduction the first movement begins with a curtain of quietly sustained string music as a backdrop to lyrical horns; this is immediately contrasted with a vigourous little flourish for clarinets. The rest of the movement is made from these two different ideas (first and second subject, if you like), but the balance between them changes completely. The strings music starting in 34-part chords becomes more and more linear as the number of parts reduces - by the end of the movement to two - and each appearance of this music is shorter. The clarinets idea grows from one part (with a tiny but crucial rhythmic figure - long, short, short - on the wood blocks) to full wind, brass, and percussion, and each time this music increases in length, so that, in effect, the strings with their lyrical counterpoint are snuffed out by the ever more assertive, and increasingly harmonic, wind band. Cutting across this structure at four points is a refrain-like chime for keyboards, bells, harp, and flutes, apparently quite unrelated to all the other music. It acquires an ever darker undertow at each hearing. The structure of this movement is deliberately formalized in strict architectural proportions, the impression reinforced by the partitioning of the orchestra into clearly distinct groups. The movement is preludial, in the sense that, throughout the symphony, I have tried to throw the structural and expressive weight of the piece forward.

The full tutti is then unleashed in a violent scherzo, unremitting in its energy and drive. This is a full-scale development of the wind/brass music from the first movement, rhythmically highly organized, an infernal machine, at times jazz-rock, at times symphonic. There are only two points of respite, a short trio about a third of the way through, pre-echoing the next movement, and a momentary recall of the horns music from the first. But towards the end as the low strings begin a slow processional the scherzo gradually fades out as the strings again begin to sing and the movement leads without a break into the adagio.

Whereas the scherzo developed the rhythmic/harmonic elements from the first movement, now the melodic lines of the strings, unable to blossom there, are extended and developed at length. The sarabande-like sections of string-dominated music alternate with episodes for horns and alto flute, a central climactic passage in slightly faster tempo, and a remote, mysterious passage involving piccolo and double basses. Here there is a distant recall of the chime from the first movement, pre-figuring its important role in the finale. A sudden change of perspective brings this to the foreground leading to a fusion of the strings sarabande with the horns/alto flute material, and a richly scored climax winding down to a serene close.

These three movements have moved through a tonal sub-structure from C to F in the first movement, Bb to Eb by the end of the third. This cycle of descending 5ths is now reversed, the finale returning to C and working through an ascending cycle via G and D to end on A, the furthest remove from Eb. Few of these tonalities function, or are immediately audible, in a traditional sense, because the surface of the music is generally highly chromatic; but my harmonic language now depends on these foundations, and the possibilities of interplay and shift between tonal and non-tonal elements gives a maximum of expressive potential. If the cross-fade from scherzo to slow movement is borrowed from Elgar's Symphony No.1, the pick-up at the start of the finale of the trumpets final C (over Eb major) is a steal from the same juncture in Mahlers Fifth Symphony. And the mention of those two composers declares debts, due also to others, if less obviously.

The finale attempts to pull together many of the hitherto different and carefully separated ideas, particularly from the first movement, re-working them and eventually combining them. Most of the music is very fast, a kind of colour-fugue on one line (derived from the horn subject in the first movement) which builds, via a number of very contrasted episodes of chamber music, to a climax dominated by the first movements chime. After a quiet passage re-working the opening string harmonies from the beginning of the work there is a climactic coda, the music ending with the same noise from which it emerged.

The Symphony No. 1 was commissioned, in a remarkable and enlightened gesture of private patronage, by the David James Music Trust. I am greatly indebted to Mr James generosity which has enabled me to write this large-scale piece. The work is dedicated to my mother, and to the memory of my father who died shortly before I began writing it in 1994.

Anthony Powers

9.9.96 BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka
3rd cor anglais
2nd doubling Eb clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet
alto sax
3rd contrabassoon
vibraphone, hi-hat, guiro, 2 suspended cymbals, tubular bells, bongos, lujon, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, crotales, 6 tom-toms, cabasa, 2 woodblocks, sizzle cymbal, marimba, 4 cowbells, ratchet, 3 tam-tam, metal wind chime, crash cymbal
doubling celeste
2nd doubling alto flute, 3rd piccolo