Symphony No. 5

David Matthews (1943)

Symphony No. 5 1999

2222 - 4220 or 2110 - perc(1) - harp - strings

1. Allegro energico 2. Presto con fuoco 3. Adagio 4. Molto vivace

The first piece I composed was a symphony, and I have been obsessed with the form--which was well defined by Hans Keller as "the large-scale integration of contrasts"--ever since. But perhaps because I hadn't written one for eight years, and because of intermittent doubts about the continuing validity of the form at the end of this century, I experienced unusual difficulties in starting this Fifth Symphony. In October 1998, I arrived at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where I had a five-week residency, with one bar in my head and virtually nothing else. But as soon as I entered my studio in that paradisal place--the same cabin in the woods in which Copland had written {italic on}Billy the Kid{italic} in 1938--ideas began to flow, and I was able to draft over half the piece during my few weeks there. My original plan for a two-movement piece, fast/slow, changed while I was writing the symphony and I ended up, for the first time in my life, with the traditional four movements, though the finale is brief--an expanded coda to the slow movement. The first movement is probably the closest to the classical archetype that I have written, although it is not a strict sonata movement: its form is more statement--expanded counter-statement--coda, a formal idea I have borrowed from the first movement of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. Its momentum is sustained throughout, and its energy hardly ever relaxes. The scherzo second movement steps up the energy level still further; but in contrast to the first movement's positive energy, this scherzo negates: its tonality is centred on A flat, a tritone away from the first movement's D, and its dark, restless mood is emphasized by a relentless bass drum. The scherzo's shape parallels that of the first movement, and like the first movement its coda is founded on a pedal point, with its solo bass drum ending matching the first movement's solo timpani. The slow movement is, perhaps inevitably, elegaic in tone, beginning with a broad song for the violins over bitonal repeated chords. In contrast there is a gentler theme on the violas, separated from the first section by a dissonant canonic trumpet fanfare, which returns, this time on muted trumpets and horns, to end the movement over a sustained E minor chord on muted strings. This chord leads into the finale, whose origin was a piano duet that my then wife Jean Hasse and I wrote jointly as a 70th birthday present for our composer friend Peter Sculthorpe. Jean wrote the bass, and I the tune on top. I used the first few bars to open the finale, then both the tune and the bass idea develop in other directions. The mood is brightly energetic, and the symphony ends with a sustained passage which incorporates ideas from its opening, with a brief return to the initial tempo. The Symphony was originally composed for the Britten Sinfonia, who gave the first performance at the 1999 BBC Promenade Concerts. Soon afterwards I made an arrangement for a slightly expanded orchestra, with four horns instead of two and two trombones instead of one.

Symphony No. 5 was commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia with funds from the Arts Council of England and Eastern Arts Board.

David Matthews

17.8.99, BBC Proms, London: Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
15.11.03 St Mary's Church Ealing, London: West London Sinfonia/ Tim Redmond
10.6.10 St John's Church, Waterloo, London: Southbank Sinfonia
2.3.13 St Petersburg, Russia: Capella Orchestra/Matthew Taylor
27.10.13 BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins
2nd doubling piccolo
2nd doubling cor anglais
tambourne, suspended cymbal, chinese cymbal, tam-tam, bass drum