for orchestra and choir, including blind & vision-impaired musicians.
Duration: 30 mins
Premiered by the Irish Memory Orchestra with 26 blind and vision-impaired instrumentalists and singers, conducted by Bjorn Bantock, Glór Theatre, Ennis, Ireland, Oct 26th 2019.
Revised version premiered by the Irish Memory Orchestra, IMO Youth Orchestra and Choir, Cois Cladaigh Choir, conducted by Dave Flynn, Black Box Theatre, Galway, Ireland, April 16th, 2022.
Commissioned by Clare Arts Office with funds from the Arts Council of Ireland’s Invitation to Collaboration Scheme
Programme Note (From the premiere programme)
As a composer of orchestral music I’m often asked “What is a symphony?”. Though I studied symphonies in college and attended many symphony performances, I’ve never been able to give a straight-forward answer, because there isn’t one. Before composing this, my third symphony, I decided to delve deep into the historical development of symphonic music, to get to the heart of what a symphony really is.
The first symphonies were composed in 1730’s Italy as an extension of the opera overture. In college I learnt about Giovanni Battista Sammartini who perfected the three movement structure of early symphonies. An opening fast movement in ABA form, a slow air-like Adagio movement and an energetic finale based on popular dances, such as a giga (jig). Early symphony orchestras were small, mainly strings and harpsichord.
Austrians and Germans soon took over the form from the Italians, with a little help from the Bohemian composer Johann Stamitz. Stamitz, leading the Mannheim orchestra in 1750’s Germany, expanded the symphony to four movements, with a light-hearted Scherzo third movement between the slow second and fast fourth. He expanded the orchestra with oboes and horns and thrilled audiences with the Mannheim crescendo, a gradual volume increase from very quiet to very loud.
However these early symphonies are rarely heard anymore. They are mere footnotes to the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition, which reached maturity with the ‘father of the symphony’ Franz Joseph Haydn. So I decided to listen to all 107 of his symphonies (played by Adam Fischer’s Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra). As they developed from the short early symphonies to the epic ‘London’ symphonies via the dramatic ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, I was struck by how much Haydn was influenced by the folk music of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Without folk music there would be no such thing as a symphony.
I continued chronologically through the great Austro-German symphonists. Mozart politely charmed, but Beethoven was the most revolutionary, expanding the symphony to epic lengths with his 3rd Eroica, perfecting the development of motifs with his famous 5th and adding voices to his towering ‘Choral’ 9th. Could anyone truly follow that?
I tried Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss. All had their moments, but none surpassed Beethoven’s ambition. Thus it was left to Bruckner and Mahler to battle it out with their vast symphonic cycles. Once the final notes of Mahler’s unfinished 10th died away, I realised there was no contest. Bruckner won my vote!
I hear a clear line connecting Haydn, Beethoven and Bruckner, a gradual expansion of the same underlying principles. Their symphonies are built upon repeating motifs, dancing rhythms and concise folk-like melodies. Mahler said “A Symphony must be like the world – it must contain everything” and he followed that line of thought to extremes. That is not the symphonic world of Haydn, Beethoven and Bruckner. They perfected the idea of a symphony being a work with one coherent, connecting structure.
The cyclical Haydn-Beethoven-Bruckner symphonic tradition has proved the fundamental inspiration for The Vision Symphony. Within its four movements there are hints of all three composers, but with modern clothes and a cosmopolitan Irish accent. It is built on two simple melodies, a newly composed Irish reel and a Beethoven-like rhythmic motif.
I didn’t stop with the Austro-Germans though, there were so many more interesting symphonic composers to explore.
Next I moved to surrounding countries, the colourful symphonies of the Czechs Dvorák and Martinu, the Hungarian Liszt and the Frenchman Berlioz. I noted how each placed their nation’s distinctive musical characteristics into symphonic form.
I then moved to Russia, to Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Some people describe classical music as ‘Western Art Music’, but the Russians symphonies are distinctly Eastern. The influence of the folk traditions of Russia and former Soviet countries is unmistakable. The rhythms are wilder, the melodies more oriental, the harmonies richer. I couldn’t help but take in these influences.
From Russia, I moved to the two masters of the Nordic symphony, Finland’s Sibelius and Denmark’s Nielsen. Sibelius I was already immersed in, his seven mystical symphonies influence my first symphony, but in this context, his music sounded even fresher. Sibelius was an utterly unique symphonist, perhaps the best of the 20th Century. He brought a cool Nordic sheen to the symphony. Nielsen suffers in Sibelius’ shadow.
Then my ears travelled to England where Vaughan-Williams, Elgar, Holst, Walton, Britten and Arnold all did their bit to try to keep the symphony alive in the 20th Century. They each relied on folk and popular music to some extent, Arnold even paid homage to The Chieftains in his 7th Symphony. Aside from Arnold, I found little to warm to in the British symphonies. Holst’s Planets Suite eclipses them all as a symphonic statement.
Before crossing the Atlantic, I wondered why all the ‘great’ symphonists were men. Not a single female composer is ever spoken of as a ‘great’ symphonist. Perhaps because women were mostly suppressed from taking composing seriously until the 20th Century. Interestingly, the most significant early symphonies by women have Irish connections. French-born Augusta Holmes had Irish parents, she composed two ‘Dramatic Symphonies’ Lutéce (1877) and Les Argonautes (1880) and several Symphonic Poems, including Irlande (1882). Yet these works are completely neglected.
Traveling to America I found Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896. It was the first symphony by a female composer to be published and receive wide acclaim. Under the influence of Dvorák’s New World Symphony, she based it on the folk melodies of her Irish and British ancestors. Florence Price broke further ground in the 1930’s, becoming the first female African-American symphonist to achieve success. Beach, Holmes and Price paved the way for female composers to compose hundreds of symphonies through the 20th and 21st Century.
Nevertheless, the symphony is largely considered to be a pre-20th Century form, so female composers got another raw deal when the most influential early-mid 20th Century composers like Berg, Boulez and Stockhausen abandoned the symphony altogether.
Their influence was huge, so by the 1950’s, even the colossus of 20th Century French music Olivier Messiaen fell foul of his student Boulez, who dismissed Messiaen’s kaleidoscopic symphony Turangalila (1948) as “bordello music”. With this, the idea of a symphony became almost terminally unfashionable.
But did the symphony die in the mid-20th century with Turangalila?
Not quite, in 1968 the Italian Luciano Berio went against modernist trends and resurrected the form invented in his homeland. He did so in an original, psychedelic way, as befitted the times. Time though has not been so kind to his Sinfonia. With its collage technique, quoting Mahler, Beckett, Joyce and even The Beatles, it’s more an interesting relic of the 1960’s, than a true reset of the symphonic tradition.
The traditional symphonic style was properly resurrected in 1970’s Eastern Europe. Estonian Arvo Pärt’s sparse, neo-tonal Third Symphony (1971) and Pole Henryck Gorecki’s moving, minimalist Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1972) led the way. Gorecki’s third symphony languished in relative obscurity until, 20 years later, a 1992 recording did something extraordinary in the world of classical music, it sold over a million. This marked the rebirth of the traditional, tonal symphony.
American John Adams’ 1985 masterpiece Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name, was recorded in 1994. When I first heard it as a student in the early 2000’s it was a revelation. Harmonielehre may be the most important symphony of the late 20th Century, it connected the newly revived symphonic tradition with the repetition-focused minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Glass joined the neo-symphonic revolution in 1992, and now has 13 to his name. Reich, like Bartók, Berg and Boulez, has none.
So where does my new symphony fit in to this? What am I doing to advance the 300 year-old symphonic tradition?
Well, my listening journey from Haydn to Glass, and my experiences with modern classical music, made me realise that many modern symphonies are missing two essential ingredients that really define the nature of a symphony; memorable folk-like melodies and thematic coherence. To remove these elements is like removing the heart and lungs. The symphonic structure falls apart. It is here where the melodic strength of Irish folk music becomes a symphonic savior, especially when played by musicians who fully understand the nuances of folk music.
Most modern symphonies are also composed for old-fashioned instrumental forces. The standard symphony orchestra we know today is really a 19th century development. This kind of orchestra does not reflect the modern world, it doesn’t even reflect the 1970’s and 80’s. So my “Irish Memory Orchestra” begins a new evolution for the symphony. It mixes “classical” strings, winds and percussion with Irish pipes, flutes and whistles, electric guitars, synthesizers and a jazz-influenced brass and rhythm section.
We also memorise the music we play. This is perhaps my most important innovation in terms of orchestral music. Though “memory” orchestras have long existed in Asian and African traditions, “Western” orchestras simply couldn’t play without reading sheet-music.
That all changed in 2012 when my orchestra debuted in glór as the Clare Memory Orchestra. In that show Liz Carroll joined us to perform a full show by memory, including my Fiddle Concerto ‘Aontacht’. In 2013, with the assistance of Clare Arts Office, we developed a 70 piece symphonic “memory orchestra” to premiere my hour-long ‘Clare Concerto’ in glór. That marked the true beginning of a memorised symphonic revolution.
Some people label us a “folk orchestra” or “trad orchestra”, but we’re not. We focus on newly composed orchestral music using classical forms like Symphony, Concerto and Suite. Our work is an extension of the classical orchestra tradition, albeit with a strong influence from Irish folk music and other styles.
In 2017 we premiered my first symphony The Memory Symphony in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. The piece was exactly what it says on the tin, a symphony specifically composed to be performed by memory. The first of its kind.
Then we presented another first with The Vision Symphony, the first ever symphony composed specifically to include blind and vision-impaired musicians. The fact that we play by memory allows this to happen. All our musicians could conceivably play this piece blind-folded, since they have it memorised. Yet this would miss the point, this piece isn’t about blindness. It is about the concept of ‘Vision’ and all the connotations of that word.
The symphony is in 30 minutes and four movements – Allegro, Adagio, Scherzo and Passacaglia (a baroque form with a repeating bass).
The music itself is concurrently classical, traditional and contemporary. Newly-made reels and jigs mix with Baroque sequences, electronic dance music, South Indian percussion, Congolese guitar, minimalist pulsations and mystical airs. The music is by turns joyous, hypnotic, mournful, dramatic and, by the end, life-affirming.
With The Vision Symphony I’m trying to regain something that is almost lost in modern orchestral music, a sense of real connection to everyday people. All the great symphonists connected with their audience, their work reflected their times.
With this piece, and The Clare Symphony which precedes it, we are embarking on a new symphonic evolution. Bringing symphonic music screaming into the 21st Century with joy, poignancy and innovation.
The symphony’s four movements are dedicated to four renowned blind Clare musicians who were among the most renowned Irish musicians of their times. Pipers Patrick O’Brien and Garret Barry and the fiddlers Schooner Breen and Paddy ‘Mack’ MacNamara.
The symphony as a whole is dedicated to the recently deceased East Galway legend Paddy Fahey (1916-2019), my favourite Irish composer. I’d like to thank the Arts Council, Creative Ireland, NCBI and the following people, who helped make this project possible. Siobhán Mulcahy and Ceara Conway of Clare Arts Office, Brian Magill of 3L Online Music, Bernie Healy – The Vision Symphony project manager, the members of the Irish Memory Orchestra and Bjorn Bantock, Eamon and Mary O’Donnell, all the symphonic composers who came before me.
Celia Walshe, my wife and inspiration, who shared this symphonic journey with me and designed the programme for the premiere.