• John McCabe
  • Symphony No. 1 'Elegy' (1965)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Hallé Concerts Society

  • 3(pic)333/4.3.2+btbn.1/timp.3perc/hp.cel/str
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Prelude (Lento moderato)
Dance (Allegro molto)
Elegy (Adagio - Allegro vivo - Adagio)

McCabe's First Symphony was commissioned by the Hallé Concerts Society and was given its première at the 1966 Cheltenham Festival, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

In what sense is this work in fact a symphony? In the traditional version of the form one moves psychologically from the serious first movements to the lighter final movements. The conflicts are resolved and the listener is restored. This work tells a different story.

The first movement is a slow introduction to the work, typified by processional repeated notes in the percussion section. Against this are set two kinds of motion, the first a gradually expanding melodic line, the second a quick wispy figure introduced by the flute. The flute idea grows and leads into the central section dominated by the bell-like ostinati in the brass. As in a traditional first movement there is a return to the opening idea, but here the sensation is of sinking back into melancholy.

The second movement begins with jazzy side drum and plucked double bass, in sharp contrast to the funereal first movement. However as the theme is repeated it becomes even more vicious, transforming into fierce martial dissonances. The return of the flickering melody of the first movement transforms into a macabre dance of death. The movement ends violently, at the opposite extreme from the cool opening.

The third movement contrasts massive full chords with a melancholy tune introduced by the bassoon. This acts as an introduction to a fast dance, which retraces the central section of the first movement with an increased level of hysteria. The section dies away on the opening glockenspiel note of the opening, and a coda recalls both the opening of the movement and the opening of the piece.

Through the contrasts of tempo one can trace the outline of the old symphonic form in a new guise, but here the fast music is violent and cynical rather than offering complete contrast. The optimistic form of the Classical symphony is rewritten as a pessimistic reflection on death.

© 1988 by Robin Hartwell / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society.


Symphony No. 1 "Elegy": I. Prelude: Lento moderato
Symphony No. 1 "Elegy": II. Dance: Allegro molto
Symphony No. 1 "Elegy": III. Elegy: Adagio - Allegro vivo - Adagio


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