• Robert Walker
  • Symphony No. 1 (1987)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 3(pic)3(ca)3(bcl)3/4331/timp.2perc/syn/str
  • baritone (last movement)
  • 1 hr
  • Composer
  • English

Programme Note

Robert Walker: Symphony No. 1

A symphony is a funny thing. Because the word simply means "sounding together", it can mean almost anything to a composer (Symphony of Psalms, Symphony for Cello and Orchestra). But to most audiences there is a kind of received opinion of what a symphony should be like. We have Beethoven to blame (praise?) for that. For years I have discoursed with myself and others about its value as a medium for orchestral music. I finally came down on the side of those for whom there is still some mileage to be got out of the old banger. But there are aspects of it I am not sure about: if there is more than one movement, the usual four seems unbalanced (Haydn's finales are always a disappointment to me); I am not happy with the idea of continuing the 'heroic' nature of the symphony as expressed by Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler (and I could never match the heroic sadness in the two Elgars) - it seems quite inappropriate for our times; nor could I countenance a journey into the heart-on-sleeve bombast of a Shostakovich - I find his brand of cynicism perfectly horrible.

So my concern for balance produced five movements (three is miserable) with two scherzos framing the slow movement. This produces a satisfying arc emphasised by the tonal centres climbing and descending in fifths (D, A, E, A, D). And secondly, I determined to make my symphony unheroic. Here my taste in the visual arts helped. I am very much on the side of peter Blake, David Hockney and especially the photo-realists. I like the bright colours, admire the techniques and feel sympathy with the obviousness of their expression. I am not inclined towards any art where the messenger is more important than the message. This is, then, a "photo-realist" symphony: it sounds like and does what you expect of a symphony. I have swiped mercilessly from others; a bit of Tippett here, a snatch of Bax there, whole chunks of Elgar and a direct quote from Wagner.

The first movement is classically constructed. (I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account. If you don't get the gist of it, no amount of words will expiate my failure. - I once heard a new work which was over before I'd finished reading the programme notes! No chance here: it lasts nearly an hour.) The materials for the whole symphony are heard at the beginning in quick succession. They are: -

1. An expanding chord sequence
2. Oscillating double sixths
3. A nine note mode (which I treat serially)
4. Four notes.

The second movement (scherzo 1) is a hum-dinger which might make you smile a bit.

The slow third movement is the peak of the arc and is the nearest I get to being 'heroic'. Rather sombre, canonic and cerebral, it climbs to its own majestic heights (which, incidentally, was the first bit of music I composed and from which the rest of the music could be said to radiate.) As a sort of coda, I have an indirect reference to Bax's The Garden of Fand. I don't know why; it just seems right for that moment.

The second scherzo posed a problem: I wanted rapid movement but at the same time something static. Much pondering until I hit upon the solution (blindingly obvious when you get there) of the change-ringing of bells. Here was something always different but always the same. The Rector of Petworth was dragooned into plying me with books, gin and much advice. We came to Stedman Caters, which exactly fits my nine-note mode. Geoff Rix (the belfry captain) did me a computer printout of over three hundred charges which are heard in the woodwind. The instruments are organised in a secondary pattern of ringing - a Plain Bob - which seemed too appropriate to ignore. Around this are heard spasmodic motifs. Notable is a luscious tune which, with the bass and most of the harmony, is entirely composed of the four-note figure.

So to the fifth and final movement. A crystallising of thoughts perhaps? An epilogue of sorts, certainly. It takes the form of a cycle of four songs. I wish I could have used the words of a real poet but there was none to hand that fitted the bill. They go back to those Hockney clear, blue skies, rippling water, sunlight and lazy days. They might constitute a latter day Phaedra or roughly hewn Death in Venice. I don't know. But no heroes.

Only after I had finished the symphony did I come across a telling passage from John Stewart Collis (quoted in Richard Ingrams' gentle "…I shall never discover anything, never make new things know. I am content to make known things new."

© Robert Walker 1990

Four Poems for a Symphony - Robert Walker

1. On the beach

First when I saw you stretched by the rock-pool,
(Beauty is in the lie of the boulder.)
Cold-shouldered, wet and cool I sat
And pondered, wishing you were older

Or more, that I was young again.
(but knowing: In Youth is Pressure.)
I wished to speak, to make a sound;
But found no phrases' lilt or measure.

You spoke:

"Tide's coming in; I must be moving."
(Time and Tide race for nomads.)
Topaz-eyes gazed straight and clear.
"Don't drown!" I laughed, "come home and - "

"Yes." You whispered across the ages.

(Fear no more the heat o' the sun….
Golden lads and girls, all messed
As flimsy sleepers, come to rest.
…Nor these curious splintered pages.)

2. On the beach. 2.

You sprang from the white water

Golden in the sun-down,

Sun clown
I laughed at the sand on your hands,
Harlequin-sand on your thighs.
More eyes than mine shone bright with desire,
As you dried blond strands and towelled a shoulder.
Older eyes, hungry eyes dipped their lashes,
Fashioning fantasies not for requiting.
Biting back that which cannot be spoken,
You lay beside me with fingers hooked in mine.
Look, Sunshine - That was once me, remember?
I can never be sure it might not be me again.

3. Passing Clouds

You have seen me with my eyes glistening,
My limbs taught, my mouth laughing,
And you said nothing.
But I knew.
I saw your eyes questing,
And your ears listening

You have seen me with my eyes searching,
My legs, my arms, my mouth reaching,
And you said nothing.
But I felt.
I felt your eyes closing,
And your body greeting.

You have seen me with my eyes reddening,
My limbs hanging, my mouth twisting,
But you said nothing.
And I knew
I saw your eyes retreating,
I felt your limbs stiffening,
I saw the mouth-words forming
But still you said nothing,
And I knew…I knew…

4. Sunbathing

Whilst a Painted Lady sucked sweat from my toes,
Crows looked down from their thermal spirallings.
I motioned to them that I was alive
And not a cadaver.
But they could not see, or took no notice
From their high vantage point.
My moving arm
Frightened off my guest of brief acquaintance,
And she retreated low across the lawn.
I was more sad for her
Than worried by the error of the crows.

© Robert Walker 1987