The idea of a symphony can tend to suggest grandiosity and an epic sense of scale or significance, exemplified by those of Bruckner, Mahler, Scriabin and Pettersson, among others. But it needn’t be anything of the kind, working just as well at the opposite end of the continuum, greatly reduced in terms of structure, instrumental forces and duration. In 1906 Schoenberg condensed symphonic thinking down into a single-movement work lasting around 20 minutes, composing the first ever Chamber Symphony, and barely a decade later Milhaud began refining this possibility in a series of six Little Symphonies, the first and third of which last a little over three minutes each.
Like Milhaud, Huw Watkins‘ 2013 Little Symphony wears its diminutive stature as a titular badge of honour, lasting a mere 13 minutes. In essence the work is a chamber symphony, being composed for string orchestra and structured in a single movement with distinct sections. The fact that Watkins’ Little Symphony has four sections is less to do with conventional four-movement symphonic structure than with an oscillating focus. The nature of this oscillation is between opposite states of brisk rhythmic energy and slower lyricism, and this grows out of a twin behavioural impetus, in which these same opposites don’t alternate but appear simultaneously, where they cause friction and at times actively collide.
These dramatic collisions take place in the first and third movements. Watkins sets up the musical split personality right at the outset, where a fast trochaic rhythmic motif is juxtaposed with a slow-moving idea below. Initially there doesn’t appear to be any issue, and the two continue side by side, but soon there’s a sense of influence – or should that be irritation? – between these parallel strands, which precipitates the beginnings of them merging. In some ways there’s a nicely complementary aspect to this, but it also sounds like a real tussle, and the two elements diverge for a time, before coming together in an even more punchy sequence. (From the perspective of traditional symphonic structures, one could make the case – not that such a case needs to be made – for Watkins’ dual ideas being almost like a first and second subject presented simultaneously, and the convolution of their subsequent wranglings as development. But that’s probably stretching the point way too far.)
Coming out the other side, the second section (2:49) ejects the momentum in favour of lyrical reflection, Watkins colouring the searching melody with a clustery accompaniment. Though the tone of the music is intimate, there’s an earnestness beneath it that pushes forward a couple of times, later on causing the strings to soar. It becomes especially interesting a few minutes later (5:50) in a passage that, at first listen, can seem somewhat noodling, but is in fact nothing of the kind. The music gets caught up in a little motif, playing it round and round on different pitches and configurations, as if looking at it from all directions, seemingly captivated.
There’s something rather rude about the way the quick trochaics return and push their way to the front (6:10), bringing about a return to the jostling of the first section. i said before how there was a complementary aspect, and here it seems the strings finally seem to get that, in a climax that for the first time sounds properly united. This third section generally displays a greater sense of integration of the opposites, though also giving the impression that, if one had to choose sides, it’s the lyrical impulse that’s ultimately winning out. They converge and divide, forceful, passionate, passing through a nice sequence (8:48) where the music rises and falls towards a central point, before arriving at the work’s final climax (9:05), with the trochaic rhythms chugging in the bass while the violins continue to sing.
The outcome, in the fourth section, is a refocusing on the work’s cantabile impulse. Momentum disappears, and the character of the second section returns, melodic with supporting clustery chords, though quicker than previously, and with the presence of the lower strings (largely absent from the second section) causing everything to sound solemn, leading to a subdued dronal coda.
The Little Symphony was premièred by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by David Curtis, in June 2013; this is its second performance, given by them in November the same year.
“If you like this, then you’ll like…”
The implication with such “recommendations” always seems to be, at least in part, “you’ll like our recommendations or else“; nevertheless, if anyone is after something else post-Schoenbergian, but nevertheless indefinably “British”, then David Hackbridge Johnson might just be your symphonist (even if he is signed to Toccata, one of Simon’s least-favourite labels).
I’m now going to attempt to shut up for a few articles in this Lent series, to give others a chance to comment first, but it’s going to be difficult given that I share Simon’s adoration of the form…
Since when was Toccata one of my least favourite labels?
I may be overstating the case, but I’m sure you said somewhere (although I haven’t found where, admittedly – it was several years back) that it was a label about whose roster you had serious reservations, at the very least.
i’m not in a position to have much of an opinion, really, as about 90% of what they release is by composers i’ve never heard of!
A fair point – it is often very obscure stuff! Funny how I was convinced you said you didn’t like much of their catalogue, though: it reminds me of the regular Guardian commenter who I was sure was a dyed-in-the-wool Hanslickian who wasted no opportunity to denigrate Bruckner at every turn; either he’s undergone a drastic volte-face in recent times or I’d misremembered utterly…
Anyway, I digress: among Toccata’s bountiful roster of symphonists, I’d single out DHJ, and to a lesser extent Steve “don’t call me Stephen” Elcock, and a lesser extent still Rodney Newton, as worthy of any self-respecting symphony-appreciator’s time. Right, really shutting up now…