Belgian composer Luc van Hove has, to date, completed four symphonies. The first two (available on a double CD from Megadisc Classics) present a musical attitude that doesn’t just embrace extremes of aggression and tenderness but also moves between them quickly. The first movement of Symphony No. 1 (1989) is like a pitched battle between storm clouds and clear skies, while its central movement (titled ‘Mahler’) features an even greater contrast, where achingly still, fragile music is ripped apart by assertive, shrill momentum. In Symphony No. 2 (1997), the opening movement (‘Elegia’) is similar, seemingly speaking in the wake of a harsh, dark pain, resulting in tight volatility culminating in a climactic plateau (though never letting rip), while the second movement suggests a conflict between convoluted primary material and something more mild and gentle within: again the idea of a soft centre being affected by harder-edged elements. Symphony No. 3 hasn’t been recorded and i’ve been unable to find any information about it online; it would be interesting to know to what extent it explores these ideas.
Symphony No. 4 dates from 2020, and in many ways demonstrates both a continuation and development of this kind of alternation, though now with much greater subtlety and with a stronger sense of long-term vision. The way in which tension is harnessed in the symphony is an especially interesting aspect, all the more so as, unlike those earlier symphonies (especially the First), Van Hove avoids brute force tuttis in favour of a more graduated and nuanced emotional contour.
The first and third movements tap into a similar kind of stillness to the ‘Mahler’ movement of Symphony No. 1. The opening Andante is mysterious, with a restrained lushness that sounds heady, almost balmy. The music grows through its central section, but while these expansions often materialise through hints of tension, the reality is that they work in sympathy with the prevailing gentleness, causing it to glow. Van Hove establishes a recurring feature here, whereby pretty much every time the symphony expands in size – in the process triggering more energy and detail (e.g. in this movement, 1:55, 2:48 and 3:32) – it’s always accompanied by sustained notes within or drones below. At this point in the symphony it begs the question of whether the work is principally concerned with opposite forms of material, i.e. with or without momentum. The fact that these surges in no way work against the tone of this movement means that it’s able to end as it began, fading to glittery softness.
Van Hove follows this (6:18) with what promises to be an absolute contrast: a huge opening statement, rapid movement, and loud impacts. Yet immediately the music passes beyond these with a momentum that’s almost implied more than actual, seeming to glide or shimmer along. Subsequent impacts (7:18) are gentler, to the extent that they come across more like structural markers than moments of release, particularly when they become channelled into a more playful mood. Here too, throughout the increases in energy suspended pitches appear, suggesting in this context that they’re holding everything together and in check. The tempo instruction, Molto allegro, leggiero, could hardly be more perfect, as the forward motion operates with such lightness that sometimes (8:50) it’s revealed only in glimpses of sheen while elsewhere (10:44) it seems to have vanished entirely. In the same way as in the first movement (though dynamically opposite), the result is a balance of forces in which the music continually flexes, simultaneously caught by suspended material while other ideas push forward and project outwards.
The third movement (13:20), Poco andante, tranquillo, is the slow movement proper. Extremely quiet and tender, its music is an exquisite combination of far-off horn, high violin, wind chords, harp and glockenspiel coloured by small tendrils of melody in an atmosphere of dream-like whooze. Darker hues appear (15:20) and things briefly turn solemn, though Van Hove doesn’t really allow them to develop. A muted violin (15:42) comes to the fore, though a tiny accent (16:05) knocks all of this on the head, briefly halting the music (small pauses like this appear throughout the symphony, indicating a kind of real-time thoughtfulness about how things are proceeding). It continues back to a state of rapture, chords tilting over a music of gorgeous serenity, given a small amount of extra warmth (17:34) towards its close.
Those first three movements were originally conceived (and can still be performed) as a self-contained work, completed in 2019 as Symphonic Music I (in this form they bear a lot of similarities to the First Symphony). Van Hove added the final movement, turning it all into Symphony No. 4, in 2020, and it acts as a large-scale synthesis of those earlier movements, exploring the same ideas across a much larger durational span. As with the start of the second movement, it begins (18:24) with an imposing gesture that, again, is immediately pulled back into soft lyricism. When energy starts to materialise (20:15) and things begin to swell (21:03), suspended notes and drones once again permeate these sequences. Further to my previous remarks about their cohesive / constraining function, here i find myself wondering to what extent these sustained pitches are a contradiction to orchestral expansion or, rather, the only way that the music can actually expand.
The flexing of the second movement is writ large in this finale. After a few minutes (23:39) it sounds bright and excited, as if looking up, anticipating something momentous. What follows (24:16) is a series of swells that, depending on your perspective, are either faltering – two steps forward, one step back – or (akin to the Second Symphony) combining to form a plateau, from which a considerable amount of energy is given off, though, interestingly, not channelled into speed but a kind of hot radiance. Coming out the other side of this series (26:58) brings a return to the music from the start of the movement, Van Hove allowing it to grow a little more, becoming lush. The balance of tensions creates a long-term effect of restlessness, of nervous energy articulated within a relaxed environment, and this continues through the rest of the movement. A rising motif that earlier (20:08, 22:56, 28:12) only appeared before short pauses, now (29:00) becomes incorporated into a more rhythmically spritely development leading – via an unexpectedly clear perfect cadence (30:54) – to the symphony’s grand final climax.
The coda passes through another series of swells (31:07) that goes the other way from before, each smaller than the last, rolling surges that eventually become like tiny waves caressing the shoreline. For all its considerable flexing, the work’s overall inclination seems to be toward gentleness and peace, and it’s this that dictates the symphony’s end, arriving (32:16) at relaxed final chords where all the residual tension has finally been released.
The world première of Luc van Hove’s Symphony No. 4 was given in February last year by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elim Chan.
Throughout my career, I have been in awe of the symphonic orchestra. After the first symphony in 1989 (original title was simply Orkestwerk), the second in 1997 and the third in 2001, I have composed the fourth symphony. Opus 56, which is actually not that much, but I work slowly.
The symphony is in four movements. That fits in with my constant search for an integration of tradition in my musical thinking. And in that tradition, symphonies were four-part for quite some time. The genre itself was also still undiscussed. Thinking in parts clarifies listening. And it allows you as a composer an exclusive way of dealing with certain intentions and musical ideas. It also limits a musical time-space.
Originally, both corner movements developed the great symphonic ideas, often in sonata and rondo form, or a combination of both. In between there was a moment of introspection and lyricism in the slow movement, and the moment of play and often charming lightness in a minuet or scherzo.
I did not start from this scheme. One of the sources of inspiration for this work was the “Livre pour Orchestre” by Witold Lutoslawski. In it, the famous Polish composer unfolded a quasi-literary form based on four “chapters”. The first three parts are short and to the point, idiosyncratic as well, but hardly develop any great symphonic thoughts. The last chapter, which creeps in almost unobtrusively, directly connected to the preceding part, is then given a new lease of life, and finally gets the big symphonic gesture.
This idea is also present in my fourth symphony. A slow first movement (andante) acts as a grand introduction; the second movement (molto allegro, leggiero) is a scherzo; the third movement (poco andante, tranquillo) is a sober interlude, an intimate moment of waiting; the fourth movement, the finale (andante, agitato), unfolds the final symphonic development, integrating into the narrative the most important musical building blocks of the previous three movements. Immediately, this finale makes the whole thing really comprehensible. The duration of the finale is almost equal to that of the first three movements together. The whole piece lasts just under 37 minutes.
The basis of the whole work is, as always in my recent works, a division of the twelve notes into two complementary groups (or sets, after the set theory which first identified all possible note groups and gave them a ranking based on density and size). Only, in this specific work it concerns two divisions of eight and four notes each. In the finale, they are explicitly and audibly presented twice.
—Luc van Hove