Symphony No. 4 is a large work that demands a longish program note.
Not all my friends and colleagues in my present world as an attorney know that my “first career” was as a professionally trained composer of modern / contemporary classical music. As part of that early phase of my life I lived in the UK for six years, including one year study at Edinburgh University, and a Ph.D (in the UK a “D.Phil.”) at the University of York. I was promising in the way that many young composers show talent, had quite a few commissions, awards, prizes, performances, good press reviews including in the Telegraph, and even a couple of commercially released recordings and a BBC broadcast.
However, I did not obtain the academic teaching post (i.e. a job that would actually pay the rent, an essential for a family!) I had trained for, and fortunately experienced something much better for me: a life-changing opportunity to work at the highest levels of international classical music publishing (for Schott and Universal Edition’s U.S. office). I became the publisher for so many great works and composers, but indeed there was no time to compose and that part of my life, composing, mostly just stopped (though a few small works were kindly published by my employer).
Later, I went to law school and most of my friends and colleagues are familiar with me as a (hopefully) leading entertainment and copyright attorney, now based in my home town Los Angeles, after many years on the “East Coast.” Some call me a lawyer who composes. Others a composer who became a lawyer. Either way, I do both, but the composing has in recent years emerged as a something that has its own compelling voice, a beautiful one that allows me to hear the new works that I need to hear, and that I can only create for myself. And it reminds me every day what my own legal clients actually do (including both individuals who create and business entities that create): bare their soul to the world and see what comes back. Composing makes me a better lawyer.
So, it was in some ways a surprise when around 2018, I started composing again, but perhaps it was something inevitable that only took many years because it emerged as something organic to my life. What emerged after a long and perhaps subconscious gestation was a way to use my well-trained professional composing skills in service of expressing something deeper than the deepest ocean, something beautiful and poignant that could attempt to be a musical response to the passing of two of my three children in 2004 and 2008. As any parent in that position knows (or at least I know) the only possible way forward, the only tribute that really works, the only worthy monument, is positive beauty and love that expresses the great gift that life grants us every day. In my case, the desire to express these things resulted in large musical works far beyond anything I had ever contemplated when I was a "professional composer."
And the musical style that emerged (or more accurately took me over) in 2018 was utterly different than what I did previously. For me, it flowed, I rediscovered for my ears and heart the original simple but profound power of major and minor chords and their enduring emotional impact, simple memorable melody, and shifting harmony that to me was part mid-twentieth century "non traditional tonality" and partly reveling in "false relations" between notes and keys that provided harmonic tension and direction in a manner that is different from traditional harmony (at least for my ears). Thus, notes and keys may "collide" in a journey between tonal centers, and familiar chords such as seventh chords can behave in unexpected ways compared to their traditional function. Many more treasures awaited as I sought to rediscover basic harmony and melody in my own way, often constantly modulating and changing keys, a technique that can sound "late romantic" in style but also allows for a subtle modernism as a seemingly "tonal" work may in fact cover most of the available tonal centers (there are 12) in a short period of time, shifting between major and minor modes along the way.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, when I did re-learn how to “sing”, it was with an impossibly gigantic trilogy of large choral symphonies, 30 minutes each, that together told the “story” I needed to tell only for myself, that allowed me to create the works I wanted to hear that nobody else would or could compose for me. That is true of all my compositions today, they are the works I want to hear, but can't hear unless I write them myself.
Once I found a musical language (you can decide what my music sounds like for yourself but I have sometimes said that if Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Charles Ives, and John Williams had a baby, it might be me…) large works started pouring out of me in a way I had never previously experienced. The Shakespeare Symphony uses excerpts from plays and poems to tell a story that is perhaps partly a hidden one, though for example a scene between King Lear and Cordelia, father and daughter, was a vehicle for me to express what I needed to, as is a scene between Prospero and Miranda. Fathers and daughters are prominent in Shakespeare that that opened the floodgates for me musically.
The Hymn Symphony is just that: it is a spiritual journey that sets texts by William Blake, from the Bible, and by other poets in a spiritual journey I needed to take and complete. The Dreams Symphony completes the trilogy, setting poets as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Yeats, and James Joyce. In our Dreams, we see people from our past, and they live.
Thus the choral symphony trilogy the initial outpouring of music that I was compelled to create, was complete. I wrote the choral symphony trilogy between 2018 and 2020, during the pandemic, when choral concerts were, technically, illegal, which gives you some idea of the challenge of arranging for performances then and now. Thus with this story and your kind indulgence, the stage is set to tell you about the Symphony No. 4.
Symphony No. 4, completed in 2021, is the first of the symphonies to have a number, because it does not have an overtly dramatic theme or text set in song. It has a total duration of about 35 minutes.
The first movement is my attempt at a full-blown sonata allegro form: there is a soaring first theme that is kept off-balance rhythmically by being both in 6/8 and in 3/4, creating constant cross rhythms between 2 and 3. The second theme is built on the 6/8 "triplets" rhythm featuring rising against falling melodies and counter melodies. There is an epic closing theme of intense downward half steps against full chords. This tension between rhythms (2 vs. 3), flowing but rhythmically changing melody vs. epic chords, and rising vs. falling directions are the key elements that propel the movement as the tonal centers also contrast and collide. The movement shares the "momentum" of some of my favorite classic symphonic allegros, works that flow and propel such as the opening movement of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, or Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, works of melody, joy, momentum.
The second movement is a “song without words” and a virtual tone poem inspired by the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill,” which is the greatest poem we have about the memory of childhood and the special world that time inevitably erases, the poem is a time machine of the utmost poignancy. It starts with someone contemplating the past, hearing only their own beating heart emerging from the slow chords of time. The main elements of the movement musically are indeed that "beating heart" (eighth-note followed by a double quarter note), a lyrical arioso melody that is a person remembering the beauty of the past, and a chorale like falling hymn contrasted with sounds evoking memory emerging from the mists of time past in the form of simple and beautiful major chords emerging from "clusters" of notes, the "fog of time."
The long winding melody emerges as solos for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, taken up in turn by the full strings and contrasted with the "mists of time" tonal vs. atonal shifting chords. The melody itself was inspired by a wordless setting of some of the most famous lines about childhood and memory ever written including "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs" and “Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.” The melodies, and the heartbeat, emerge from the mists of time represented by "blocks" of atonal chords shifting and revolving around simple harmonic tonal sighs, an attempt to capture time and memory. While I have no plans to do so, it would not be that difficult to "convert" this movement into a work perhaps for tenor and orchestra. As a young composer I did set a little-known Dylan Thomas poem Since On a Quiet Night for tenor solo, SATB Chorus, and Tubular Bells, and have noted the connection (the early choral work was published and is available from the publisher Schott).
The third movement is my modern take on a minuet and trio, here folk rock in the form of a gentle tune for flute, guitar (on harp), and tambourine meets an orchestra insistent on a wild ride, and ultimately the "party" succumbs to a huge drum solo, like a rock concert in the middle of a symphony, complete with police whistles, outbursts, and a triumphant return to the "tune," which then returns in a sort of haze before an exciting finish with massive chords. Thus my modern minuet and trio concludes with a bang, and I could not resist later offering the third movement as a separate six minute concert opener under the title Laurel Canyon. It has twists and turns, reaches ever higher, is indeed like a music party in "the canyon" that gets out of control, and is too much fun to leave only in the middle of a full symphony.
The finale is unashamedly inspired by the sort of “question” that Beethoven asked at the beginning of the finale of his Ninth Symphony: basses and cellos ask, the universe replies coldly. The movement gradually offers an “answer,” a consoling chorale that alternates with the somewhat anguished "question," though the “answer” comes at the cost of a great musical storm in the center of the movement, a storm of the inner mind as all storms truly are: a dramatic challenge. Here, the "storm" is primarily in the strings, and owes a dept to some of the great "musical storms" of the past, perhaps in particular to Tapiola by Sibelius. That I could write a symphony that "needed" to reference Sibelius to evoke a Shakespearian "storm on the heath" was for me a sign of the enormous challenge I set for myself, to knowingly "compete" with the great models we have, and I hope the listener will forgive that my references go back to the music I most love, however unfashionable that may be. As the "questions" in the basses and cellos return at the end, the ultimate answer comes as a gift of memories: a glowing, luminous final section that combines themes from all four movements (and especially featuring as an underpinning the "beating heart" rhythmic motto), offering at least a vision of what peace, and heaven, may sound like.
2 Flutes (2nd doubling Piccolo)
2 Clarinets in A (both doubling Clarinet in Bb; 2nd doubling Bass Clarinet in Bb)
2 Bassoons (2nd doubling Contrabassoon)
4 Horns in F
3 Trumpets in C
2 Tenor Trombones
Percussion (3 players):
Glockenspiel, Crash Cymbals, Suspended Cymbals, Hi-Hat, Sizzle Cymbal,
Triangle, Referee Whistle, Cowbell, Tambourine, Maracas, Claves, Tamtam,
Snare Drum, 4 Tom-toms, Bass Drum
Four movements. Duration ca. 34 minutes
The third movement is also available separately as a concert opener under the title Laurel Canyon - Overture for Orchestra.
The fourth movement is also available separately under the title The Redemption of Thunder.
Full score PDF on Issuu:
Commercial Recording on the First Leaf Music label:
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek
František Škrla - Drum Solo in third movement
First Leaf Music Label