Saturday, 11 July 2020

Furnace of Colours – Symphony, Symphonic Song-cycle or simply 3 Orchestral Songs?

Furnace of Colours – Symphony, Symphonic Song-cycle or simply 3 Orchestral Songs?

When I was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2010, largely by the efforts of Jac van Steen, to write a work for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales the brief was to compose a work for soprano and large orchestra of 20 minutes in duration with its orchestration within that of Lutoslawski’s Third Symphony which was to form the second half of the concert.

In May of that year, I completed work on my Third Symphony which was subtitled “Fire in the Snow” and which took its inspiration from Vernon Watkin’s eponymous poem. I have long been enthral to Watkins’s poetry having set his “Peace in the Welsh Hills” for soloists, chorus and chamber orchestra after being awarded the Afan Thomas Composer’s Prize in 1985. I find his poetry a source of calm, peace and solace and often turned to it during this tumultuous time in my life.

The Third Symphony had been the expression of the long journey through grief, despair, depression, acceptance and, finally, closure (if only partial) following the deaths of Alun Hoddinott and my cousin Peter (within a month of each other) and the existential crisis that this and other life events had caused. It is dedicated to all those dear friends who pulled me through it despite the rather difficult person I had become.

Apart from my own father, Alun Hoddinott had been the most important man in my life; I had been privileged to have been close to him and to have gone from being a student to being his publisher and, much more importantly, his friend and confidante. One of my many treasured memories is of the day when he said that he would no longer comment on my work in progress as I had ceased to be his pupil and was now his friend and colleague. 

Having already written several works, many of them drawing on Watkin’s poetry for inspiration, as a way of dealing with the feelings of loss and hopelessness, I decided that this new work, to be dedicated to Alun Hoddinott and to his beloved BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was to be an end of this chapter and would be more of an expression of gratitude and joy at the life of this wonderful, shy, funny, kind and generous man who was described by Peter Pears as “a Father Christmas of a man”. 

Moreover, having discovered, after his death, that Alun was a great fan of Watkins’s work and had known him when he (Alun) had been a boy in Swansea, I decided to set one of his poems.

I was extremely fortunate to be invited to meet Vernon’s widow, Gwen, at her house and we spent hours talking, looking through handwritten drafts of his poems and discussing the work I planned to write. I had already decided that I wanted to set “Music of Colours: Dragonfoil and the Furnace of Colours” and Gwen very graciously gave her blessing to this and to my shortening the title to “The Furnace of Colours” as a nod to Alun’s synaesthesia and also to the BBC orchestra being the furnace for much of Alun’s creativity.

As with all things that one invests all of one’s efforts and belief into, the work was painfully slow and constantly re-written (something I very rarely do as most works are written directly into the full score with little revision); there was also the irony of writing a work, capturing the heat and light of high Summer, in the middle of Winter and being sat in my workroom (often very, very late at night after a day’s work as the orchestral librarian at BBC NOW) with a duvet wrapped around me and my feet on a small radiator – very bohemian!

I had decided from the outset to divide the three sections of the poem into different movements but the intention was always to take a symphonic approach with a unifying idea of atmosphere and development and recurrence of motives throughout the work. Indeed, my late friend, the composer Peter Reynolds (who wrote the programme note for the BBC) remarked after the premiere that one can only truly understand the work when the climax of the third movement is reached – this comment by my much admired and revered friend is enough to instantly discount the possibility of this work being three orchestral songs.

The idée fixe of the entire work is a theme that occurs in many of Alun’s works – a falling fourth, second and sixth followed by a rising fourth and second – which, I am told by Rhiannon Hoddinott, Alun used as her theme, to make her a part of the music. The last occurrence of this theme in “Furnace of Colours” is on an off-stage trumpet right at the end of the work (before the final viola solo – Alun was an accomplished viola player) and is, in my mind, Alun’s farewell to the world.

During the composition process, it became increasingly obvious that it would be impossible to do justice to the poetry and to remain within the 20-minute time limit. After discussions with Jac van Steen, Radio 3 and the orchestras producer it was agreed that I could go up to 35 minutes – the maximum allowed for the concert before pushing the orchestra into overtime!

This relaxation of the original brief allowed for greater expansiveness but resulted in a work, due to both its size of orchestration and duration, that is difficult to place in orchestral programmes as a first-half closer in the traditional solo/concerto spot. Also, as both the orchestral and vocal writing (the soprano soloist at the premiere was the remarkable Claire Booth) are demanding this has the feel of the focal point of a programme.

I have given a great deal of thought to this in the 9 years since the work was premiered and oft-debated with myself as to what this work is – symphony or symphonic song-cycle?

My reasons for initially not calling it a symphony were very simplistic – I had not long completed a symphony and feared that it would be seen as arrogant and a little bit precious to produce another so soon, I hoped that my third symphony would have its UK premiere (it’s still waiting) before the fourth appeared and. lastly and most importantly, it wasn’t what I had been commissioned to write.

Can setting one poem, even when divided into three parts, be considered as a symphonic song-cycle? To me, it cannot – I always regard song-cycles as being a collection of poems that are assembled to create an overall mood or statement, their aggregation producing something larger than the sum of its parts.

Now that we are no longer in the era when the symphony had set structural conventions (if it ever did as it was/is a constantly evolving genre) then the use of the term must depend partly upon what the composer’s thoughts were when writing and the processes used to build the work.

As the work draws together several strands of emotion through its three movements to express one overall feeling and aims for cohesion by the development and re-use of ideas while attempting to take the listener on a journey, I would argue that this is, in fact, a symphony.

Before I rename it as “Symphony No.4 – Furnace of Colours” I would be extremely interested to hear supporting and counter-arguments – this is, to date, the most important piece that I have composed and, I feel, is my best work, and as such, I would like to give it its proper place in my catalogue.

Also, although originally written for soprano, it could equally be sung by a high tenor so I may make it for "High Voice" rather than "Soprano"

Score & audio (YouTube)