Symphonies have been with me all along. I listened to them more than any other form of music through my teens, working my way through the canon from Mozart (I never really got into Haydn) through to Mahler. I still wonder if I was the only student in Northern Ireland who, asked on the ‘O’ level paper for an essay on any symphony after Beethoven, wrote about Nielsen’s Fifth.
Later came Sibelius, the marvellous Stravinsky examples (the symphony in C is I think the greater of the two), and Shostakovich. Maxwell Davies’s symphonies were the first cycle I followed as they were written. His Second was given an early outing by the RTE orchestra and I remember the Irish Times critic Charles Acton, sitting a row in front of me, spending most of the time trying to keep his place in the huge score. And I little knew when I heard Henze’s Seventh on Radio 3 in 1985 that I would be responsible for organizing its Irish premiere 20 years later.
Why write one now? The question is fraught. Symphonies are unfashionable. They mark a composer down as someone who lives in an Elgarian manse with an orchard, creeper growing up the walls and ‘Modernists, beware of dog’ painted in large letters on the gate. Yet the symphony remains a challenge like no other. To find out how good a composer you are, you have to write one. Why? The form gives you nowhere to hide. Everything in a symphony is structural. In this sense, it is a more demanding form than opera, were every kind of dodge can be justified for the sake of the story.
This is all intimidating, of course. And I can understand the argument of composers who prefer to leave the form alone. But for myself, I had to attempt it. I toyed early with the idea of a one-movement form, justifying my choice, as who does not, by the towering example of Sibelius 7. Then I thought again. For how many good one-movement symphonies have there been since I can think of one: Roy Harris’s Third. In short, this was dodge number one, and as such to be avoided. I would attempt a real symhony.
So four movements it had to be. But my symphony represents my own take on the classical template. For example, the slow movement is the shortest in the work. Why? Because I find classical slow movements too long. In the pre-record era it was understandable for the composer who thought up a great tune to want to spread it out. The audience might only get one chance ever to hear it. But I am one of those whose ear has in this sense been spoiled by recording. I get impatient of even the most heavenly lengths. To write something with the gravitas of the true adagio but that lasts less than five minutes appears the real test.
My scherzo, by contrast, is long and involved, with even a kind of development section. This is because much of my favorite symphonic music is in the scherzi: those of Beethoven’s Ninth and Bruckner’s Eighth I think particularly marvellous. And most of my large works of recent years have contained a scherzo. So the scherzo is not really a piece of light relief but an intensification of the argument. The main argument-bearing movements are, as you would expect, I and IV.
The musician Randall Shannon asked me a while back what I was working on. When I replied ‘Symphony’, he said, ‘that’s a very adult thing to do.’ The witticism actually strikes near to the bone. Am I a composer? I can’t guarantee that people will like this work - that is never guaranteed in any case. But in one sense I can put hand on heart and say, yes, I am a composer. I have written a symphony.
Kevin O’ Connell’s Symphony will be premiered by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall Dublin, on January 11th 2011.