• Benjamin Frankel
  • Symphony No. 7 (1970)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation

  • 3(3pic)33(bcl)34331timp.perc.glock.xyl.vibhpstr
  • 30 min

Programme Note

As the works begin to pile up behind the composer, he may be forgiven a moment of two of nervousness. Has he said what he intended to say, have the forms of his choice been the suitable ones for his purpose, have the thoughts which parade themselves in his works been his conscious intentions, has he "found" himself? Such uncomfortable ruminations will seem particularly apt in our own time, when the temptation to concede to inherent wisdom to what is modish, to accept fashionable styles and techniques as "proven," lies in wait as a dangerous trap for the developing composer. No doubt it has seemed, at settled periods in the arts, natural enough to follow what is being generally done, to take the styles and purposes of the day as a basis for a compositional manner, and to accept current attitudes and language. In these days, of constant revolutionary change and heady challenge, such a characteristic yea-saying has special difficulties attached, the first of them being that unless the composer writes quickly he may, unexpectedly, find himself in the rear-guard; the second, that the thing being challenged seems not to have too clear an outline. Some people demand the rejection of melody and motif; others will have nothing to do with conventional instruments, looking forward to the electronic world now in construction; still other innovators require neither musical thought nor invention - aiming instead to enslave the audience by a display of random selection of sound.

It is, therefore, with suitable apology and in the hope that I will confuse no one other than myself that I now present myself as the unashamed symphonist. I take it that it is no longer necessary to explain the weakness of spirit (or is it the poverty of mind?) which has led me to the rediscovery that the symphony remains a wholly viable vehicle for the expression of the most compelling musical thought. In any case, I find myself in most distinguished company - even if I may not have earned the right to be there.

What can be daunting is to find that the structure which in its multifarious ways we recognise as the symphony is one that has been put aside by most composers of today, some of them in a kind of pitying contempt, others with a wise, if sad shake of the head. And to continue to use it with any confidence one has to summon a certain deliberate indifference: not to one's fellows, but to the notion that there can be general outlawing of a form which offers such diverse opportunities. We need think only of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Hartmann, David, Gerhard, not to mention Schoenberg - all of whose work is symphonic although he is credited only with chamber symphonies - and Webern, to see that any objections to the form will have to be better grounded than the usual dismissal of first subject, second subject, development section and so on, as primitive and outdated. These procedures are indeed limited and under-subtle; but so they should be, since they represent not what composers have done but only what pedagogues and analysts claim they have done.

If, then, one presumes to take the symphonic path, there opens before one inevitably the question of choice of influences - and no composer can be sure which the influences were that have, mostly unknown to him, left indelible impressions on his musical consciousness. One knows so many stories of composers whose particular bête noires have turned out to be of subtle and pervasive influence on the formation of their own style and language. And, in curious, almost metaphysical sense, it is very hard to study that quality of thought and structure which calls itself symphonic. To have listened, constantly and raptly over the years, to the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is to have received the essence of a linguistic style that does not lend itself up willingly enough to pedagogic word-play. And when one takes into account the new symphonic worlds opened up by Mahler, Sibelius and Bruckner, and yet sees that their relationship to the "classical" form is the more complete for being sometimes oblique and hard to follow, one is then face to face with this most mysterious quality of mind which makes one man a symphonist and another not.

It is not my intention to make any kind of claim for my type of mind, be it symphonic or merely dull. I will explain that throughout my composing life, and from far too early on, I have wrestled with ideas which have seemed to me symphonic in substance and which have produced a number of works which were wisely destroyed (it will be seen that I am claiming some kind of wisdom). However, since 1958, when what calls itself my Symphony No. 1 appeared, I have not succeeded in finding it possible to destroy anything more and am left, now, with a series of works, seven in number, which call themselves symphonies.

It so happens that this group of works all concern themselves with serial techniques and there must, I suppose, be a certain connection between my somewhat tardy adoption of serial methods and my "emergence" as symphonist. Nothing will persuade me to go further than that in speculation. If there is anything to be drawn from this connection, it will bear consideration that the works which were occupying my attention more than any others at the time of this convergence were Schoenberg's (non-serial) Five Orchestral Pieces and the Tenth Symphony of Mahler (the first movement).

To turn now to my Seventh. It follows hard upon my Sixth with no other works in between, and was thought, by me, to be well in hand until I came to the point of setting it down. I then found myself with a mass of material of great diversity and full of challenge but somehow, as my mood had changed over the months, no longer what I was feeling, not containing what I now wanted to say. Indeed, I confess to a certain panic at having several almost completed first movements, none of which led me where I wanted to be. Until, to my relief, I came upon the two lines from Marlowe which exactly fitted my inner mood and showed me the way I must go. At the head of the score stands: "That time may cease and midnight never come." And at the foot of the last page: "The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike." One may say that the whole work lies between these extremes. The first movement begins in a hovering, almost mystical way, searching, on might be forgiven for thinking, for ways to hold time back (I don't apologise for such subjectivism, being no longer young and having been dangerously ill, as I was again to be before the piece could end). The movement is on rather a large scale and contains a number of dramatic episodes before ending in repose.

The second movement, contemplative and tender, is marked allegretto, piacevole and on may imagine oneself contemplating a vast temporal clock-mechanism, with strange chiming devices and a rather hypnotic action. There is a central section of sudden violence and distraction, but the movement again settles to its hypnotic gait and ends in utter tranquillity.

The third movement begins with a low throbbing, and almost immediately a strange leaping, angular figure appears in the basses; this is followed by a series of chorale-like interjections from the brass, solemn and rather "prophetic" in character, interspersed with frequent developments of the leaping figure which, after a series of exchanges with the brass, emerges clearly as the motivic substance of the movement - based nevertheless on the most simple of scale patterns. Over these, three piccolos breathe gentle benedictions and gradually - though not without some drama - the movement makes a determined dash for a liberty which it cannot hope to possess, attempting to turn its back on all the serious problems adumbrated in the earlier movements and ending defiantly, almost absurdly, in E major.

The final movement says, in the coarsest German vernacular "Denkst," and turns directly back to the serious business of the work, alternating between drama and nostalgia, between imminent threat and a dreamy closing of the eyes. There are processional moments of a certain splendour and strange echoings of such processions in ghostly imitation. The face remains solemn, the tension gathers, and just before the end five solo strings weave a tender regret: then, in the last five bars, the clock suddenly gathers itself excitedly up and breathlessly hurries to the point of striking.

© Benjamin Frankel

Listen

Symphony No. 7, Op. 50: I. Andante tranquillo
Symphony No. 7, Op. 50: II. Allegretto: Piacevole
Symphony No. 7, Op. 50: III: Alla marcia: Moderato
Symphony No. 7, Op. 50: IV. Andante