Stravinsky famously said that there is much good music still to be written in C major. But a composer’s fear is that, whatever about good music in C, the best has already been done. I was thinking of none of this during the three weeks of Christmas holiday of 2008-09 when my Suite in C for string orchestra was written. I needed a break from the symphony that has now been occupying me for over two years. And feeling rather ill at that time, I needed a project that would sweeten the slow hours.
The work brings together a number of threads in my musical life. The first of these is my fondness for the string orchestra repertoire. At school I was familiar with the serenades of Tchaikovsky (an ‘O’ level set work), Elgar and Dvorak. This last is a particularly beautiful piece. Also I knew Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D. Probably my favorite string work is Stravinsky’s Apollo.
Another thread relates to my role as a teacher of composition. The six movements of the Suite are almost all in one of the standard forms: fugue, sonata, minuet and trio, chorale prelude, air and rondo. The air in fact began as a classroom exercise in writing a piece using only white notes. This is one of my standard assignments. For over 500 years composers wrote music with few or no accidentals and I still worry about the progressive muddying of our ears by chromaticism. The chorale attempts the tricky task of accompanying the Lutheran melody with a texture that is by itself a self-contained fugue. The finale is a conflation of rondo with theme–and-variation form. So the Suite is a kind of young person’s guide to musical forms.
There are aspects of the string repertoire I have only recently encountered. I am thinking of Hindemith’s Lehrstücke for strings. These pieces belong to Hindemith’s functional music phase when he was concerned with music for amateurs and for domestic performance. But they are interesting as concert pieces too. And there is Schoenberg’s Suite in G major of 1934, his first American work. Schoenberg hoped that it could be performed by student and school groups. But he evidently knew little about such groups. The Suite was eventually premiered by Klemperer and the LA Philharmonic, and it nearly killed them. My Suite is technically demanding. But my experience of teaching and working with these young RIAM performers is that they can do pretty well anything you ask of them. Listeners who heard the RIAM Symphony Orchestra do my The young are always right in 2007 will know what I am talking about.
The symphony has dominated my thoughts for two years. The modern composer who essays this form is usually attempting to achieve the coherence and excitement of the older symphony, but without the help of tonality as it is traditionally understood. Some would argue that this is a hopeless endeavour. Save us from atonal symphonies, Ligeti begged, while contradictorily turning out atonal concertos at regular intervals. In my Suite, I re-visit tonality so that I can get a first-hand idea of what it really gave composers. To state a paradox, I hope this exercise in tonality will sharpen my sense of how to manage without it.