3 (=picc)-2-2 (II=bass cl)-2(II=contrabsn) / 2-2-0-1 / piano / perc / timps / strings
Composed for the Australian National Academy of Music, funded by a fellowship from the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts
First performance by Orchestra of the Australian National Academy of Music conducted by Brett Dean, ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 28 November 2008
Nobody today writes a symphony – especially not a first symphony – without having to explain why they have adopted the title.
Ten years ago, my friend and colleague Martin Buzacott told me he thought I should compose ‘a symphony in D minor’. At first I thought he was joking, but he was perfectly serious. I was never convinced about the ‘D minor’ bit, but the idea of the symphony has nagged away at me ever since. So, from time to time, has Buzacott.
I have never counted my ‘opuses’. By now, I suppose there must be about a hundred of them. All but three of these pieces have descriptive titles, rather than generic labels. The exceptions are my first string quartet (1985) and my first and fourth chamber concertos (1979 and 2002). But in recent years, I have become aware that in most cases there’s quite a gap between the music I have written and the name I have called it by. In Snatches of Old Lauds, for example, there is no discernible connection between the five-minute solo for bass clarinet, and the quote from Hamlet I’ve pinched for its title. The musical ideas have seemed to be striving for their independence, and therefore my writing roughly 20 minutes of music entitled simply ‘Symphony’ is an acknowledgement of this.
Is this, then, a piece about the music only? Not quite. More than any musical term I can think of, ‘Symphony’ comes with the baggage of all the great symphonies of the past. Even so great a symphonist as Brahms found himself paralysed by the example of Beethoven. But one can’t simply put the history of the symphony out of one’s mind, or why call it a symphony at all? Why not use one of those generic no-names so beloved of composers in the 1960s: Music for Orchestra? Piece No 12?
I felt that if I was going to call piece ‘Symphony’ – and I even toyed with ‘Symphony No 1’, but that just seemed to be tempting fate – then there had to be a real reason for it. Just as you wouldn’t call a poem ‘Sonnet’ and then write 23 lines that didn’t scan, if you take on the word ‘Symphony’, you must deal with first subjects and second subjects, developments and recapitulations, scherzos and slow movements, key relationships and codas. You may choose to reject these things, but you’d better have a good reason. I chose to keep them all, even though they are not laid out in a conventional manner. Within the single movement span, however, you will find clear traces of the component parts of a standard symphony. They tend to interrupt each other and occasionally they superimpose themselves; things come in the wrong order; what sets out as something like a first subject later returns as something like a scherzo; the slow movement and the coda are one and the same: but it’s all there. There is even a hint of D minor.
There are three more influences I ought to mention. One is my wife, Anni, to whom the Symphony is dedicated. She told me she wanted a long tune at the end, and she has it. There’s also a secondary dedication on the final page: ‘in memoriam Ralph Vaughan Williams’. I have listened to a lot of his music this year (the 50th anniversary of his death) and especially the nine symphonies, so strong and personal and, to my ears, ever more impressive. I am not aware of his musical influence on this work, but I would not be unhappy to discover it.
Finally there is the Australian National Academy of Music, its staff and students and its artistic director. I wrote this piece for them to play and for Brett Dean to conduct, and I am very grateful to them for their efforts and for their art.
Brett Dean conducting the ANAM orchestra in the premiere of Ford’s Symphony in November 2008.