About this Recording
8.571371 - CHAGRIN, F.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (BBC Symphony, Brabbins)
English 

Francis Chagrin (1905–72)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2

 

A few general reflections

Often, when writing music—either on commission, for a deadline or at my own behest, in my own time—I have the distinct feeling that the final product exists in its ultimate form in some distant (or near) future; and that all I have to do is to listen intently and bring the future forward. I confess that I never make a definite plan for a work beforehand, deliberately. It would for me be almost an arrogance to do so. The themes must be given the right to live, to develop, to have their say and make their impact, once I have accepted them. The problem is not the invention, the thinking up, the creation of themes or musical ideas. They come readily and offer themselves in profusion; and I write them all out inn innumerable shapes and variants, and alter these again and again, lest one or the other should fit better in the scheme. But the real difficulty, the supreme responsibility of the composer—I think—is to make the final choice of the musical ideas he is actually going to use in a work. Once these have been adopted, they must have their own say, and I must listen to their conflict and be guided by their implication. As a conductor, I have had the opportunity of performing some avant-garde works in which the composer has given one or more players the instruction to play, for instance—all the notes between a certain range (either by writing them out specifically or indicating only the extremes) as fast as possible, in the order they choose; and the result can sometimes be quite exciting. I wish I had the courage to do the same with some of my film music, when I have to work against time! But I feel I cannot, and will not, abdicate from the responsibility of making all the decisions myself—albeit in all humility—and accept the blame for every single note, every rhythm, every expression mark, for all of which I have carefully chosen what appeared to be, after long consideration, the only, final solution, the one that already exists in the future. This is a method of work, which I have always applied to my music, whether it was a 15-second commercial, a song, a piece of light music, a concert piece, a film, or a Symphony.

Symphony No. 1

The Symphony was composed during the period 1946–59. I am not fast worker and need—like most of my colleagues—a deadline, a strong incentive to force me to “get on with it”. The incentive was very strong, but the luxury of second and third thoughts slowed the work down in favour of immediate tasks: commissions for films which had to be delivered urgently; or engagements to conduct concerts and visiting ballet companies; or finishing other works that did not overawe me quite as much as the Symphony. After my first and second movements were completed in 1955, the work was interrupted further by a heart attack. But life started again and the third movement was completed in January 1959 and the last in December 1959. Since then I have revised the work twice; the final version was finished in December 1965. The work is written for a normal symphony orchestra and is dominated by a theme that recurs in various guises in all movements, in addition to their own thematic material; and each movement has an inner section in sharp contrast to its mood and tempo. The first movement, apart from a short Largo introduction, is an Allegro almost throughout, except for a passage that is Andantino and illuminates a more lyrical aspect of one of the themes. Similarly the second movement, a Largo, has a sudden burst into a short Allegro, and then resumes its slow pace. The same happens with the third and fourth movements. In addition to the inner contrasts within the movements, the contrasts between movements is as marked as possible. The first is violent and passionate with echoes of the war; the second is slow and very lyrical and singing; the third is a Presto Scherzando that has a reflective section and also a quasi-Viennese waltz passage, brutally interrupted by the discordant brass; maybe the war was not yet far away and did not allow too long for frivolities. The fourth movement Allegro, in addition to its own new material, contains and develops the Largo section of the first movement  and further develops the main theme. A closer analysis of the work’s overall architecture reveals that the beginning and the end of the Symphony are structurally interrelated. In the short introduction a melodic phrase, of which every second note is sustained, climbs from the low G of the pianissimo basses to the top C of the piccolo, leaving in its wake a series of superimposed chords containing all twelve notes and encompassing the full pitch-range between these extremes. From this ‘chaos-like’ fortissimo sound springs the main theme of the work in two contrapuntal strands. The counterpart of this introduction is the coda of the last movement, where the superimposed chords are first sounded simultaneously and then gradually ‘build down’, while a percussion trio (timpanis, bongoes and side drum) pursue a dialogue based on the main rhythmic themes of the symphony, until the harmonic and rhythmic tension is resolved into a pianissimo chord on the low G. The Symphony was first broadcast in November 1963 by the BBC Northern Orchestra, conducted by Stanford Robinson, and is dedicated to Jo and Lawrence Leonard.

The first performance of the final revision was given at the Odeon Swiss Cottage on Tuesday 15th March, 1966, as part of the 1966 St Pancras Arts Festival. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by the composer.

Symphony No. 2

My second symphony was written between November 1965 and March 1970. The work is scored for full symphony orchestra and requires—in addition to triple woodwind, the usual bras, harp and strings—also a piano and seven percussionists (including the timpanist) called upon to play on five timpanis, xylophone, vibraphone and celeste (two players on the same instrument) in addition to the usual drums, tom-toms and cymbals.
The movements—though strongly contrasting—are closely interrelated and contain melodic, harmonic, textural and rhythmic elements in common, whilst each of them has a clearly defined character and life of its own.

Harmonically, the two mainsprings of the whole works are: The use of six-note chords, of which the the same notes will form three different pairs of one major plus one minor chords, or two triads with augmented fifths. Two such six-note chords contain, of course, all the twelve semitones. ‘Grapes of sound’: bunches of notes, sounded all together, or gathered one by one, either

(a) by superposition of chords or of adjacent notes; or
(b) as the result of a ‘melodic contour’. Where a melody follows its own path while at the same time it leaves behind it a trail that continues to sound all the notes it has gone through; a simultaneous sound-picture of the present, and the ghost of  ‘all our yesterdays’.

Texturally:
Juxtaposition of robust and assertive f passages and delicate and reflexive ‘melodic contours’. e.g. celli and basses as opposed to piano, vibraphone, and sustained single strings.
Contrasts of density: the same chord played ff by the full orchestra and continued pp, like a ‘ghost’ of itself, but strings or wind only. ‘Sonorous mobiles’. The score contains the frequent instruction ‘Hold until the end of the last vibration’. The intention is to allow the orchestral sound to breathe out until it completely disappears, before another sound is produced. These silences separate and thus highlight the independent, yet related ‘sonorous mobiles’.

The first movement Allegro is dramatic, agitated, searching and full of contrasts. In addition to the elements (harmonical and textural) described above, it has a set of themes, some of which are used in various guises in the other movements, as well as a rhythmic impulse (cells of three and two quavers, used in different groups) which have an almost thematic significance.
The listener will have no difficulty in recognising the themes when they make their second appearance. I should like, however, to draw attention to a passage which I can only describe as a “transfusion” from one part of the orchestra (A) to the other (B).

(A) consists of all woodwinds, claves (also known as rumba sticks) two different side drums and clash cymbals.
(B) consists of all the brass (later all the bassoons and the strings) bongoes, tom-toms, suspended cymbals and bass drum.
(A) begins with a chord of twelve notes, a rhythmic pattern of its own, over thirty quavers and the intensity fff.
(B) begins with a chord of only two notes and its own rhythm and sonority, but the intensity pp.
Gradually, as (A) loses one note of its chord, (B) gains one, thus:
(A)  12    11    10    9    8    7    6    5    4     3     2
(B)       2      3     4    5     6    7    8    9   10   11    12

Also it transfuses into (B) more and more intensity, duration and rhythmic energy until (A) fades away and (B) has acquired all twelve notes as well as the intensity fffff, having called in all the strings to join it.
The second movement Molto Lento is in complete contrast; calm and romantic, at times impassioned and very simple in form, rhythm and texture. The third movement Scherzo (Presto) is extrovert, gay, exuberant, revelling in variety of tone colour and virtuosity. It consists, in the main, of two contrasting themes, one flowing, the other angular with a more reflexive middle part, in which a ‘melodic contour’ is described by the clarinet with the ‘ghost’ of sound sustained by 16 solo violins. Later the melody is played on the glockenspiel and two vibraphones while it is the woodwind that sustains the sound. The fourth movement Andante has a chorale-like beginning. The chorale appears a number of times, always altered, developed, intensified, but with the same harmonic basis and slow, dignified pace forming the main pilasters of this movement’s architecture. Between these pialsters there are new facets of the thematic material of other movements, most of which is briefly recalled, commented upon or combined with new material. The movement and work finish, reasserting in a fanfare-like flourish, the main rhythm as well as the basic six-note harmony, the duality between a major plus a minor chord.

The first performance was given at the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth on Thursday 20th May, 1971. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Chagrin Estate.


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