Symphony no 3, Symphony no 4, Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra

Composing “serious” classical music is not a new thing for me - not at all! Throughout my school and college years I was intent on pursuing a career as a composer of concert music, and that intention has never left me. It’s just that there have always been more immediate concerns to be attended to. For a start I have had four daughters to feed and water, and anyway it’s virtually impossible to support yourself financially as a concert composer in this country - so you have to do something else. Most composers teach. I decided very early on that I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, and preferred to make my way composing somehow, and it therefore had to be via the media. Since I already had great enthusiasms for films, pop music, and jazz, it didn’t seem like a dreadful cross to bear. 

As a teenager I thought that one could compose film scores for six months of the year and compose one’s own music for the other six months. In fact I had read that was what Elizabeth Lutyens did, and later I could see that Richard Rodney Bennett managed several careers at once, so why shouldn’t I?

Little did I realise what demands the media would make! No, I’m not complaining - I have enjoyed nearly every minute of it, and have learned a fantastic amount through sheer hard experience. But it’s been a full time job; for example, when composing “Poirot” for about forty episodes, there was absolutely no time to think of anything else for months and months on end, and then, when a break happened, I was completely exhausted. 

Perhaps another reason for “not getting down to it” was a growing concern about the very nature of concert music. The audience for contemporary music has been small, and I have felt it isn’t solely the fault of music lovers. The idioms favoured by most composers particularly during the 60’s and 70’s have been difficult. Indeed, much contemporary music is still just as difficult, and I have found myself out of sympathy with much of it. And yet, at the same time, I have not relished the thought of being a fuddy-duddy composer writing in worn out idioms. I suppose I was trying to define a way in which I could write music which communicates directly but is not hopelessly predictable or slave to the various “isms” which have cropped up over the past fifty years or so.

For me, the breakthrough happened about ten years ago, when I was out of work and badly needed something to do. I found myself writing a saxophone concerto (now recorded by John Harle) and then several other pieces. Of these I am most fond of the Piano Concerto - in it I found the basis of a style of working which had been eluding me to some extent. I’ve enlarged on that since, and my most recent efforts are the 3rd and 4th Symphonies, and the Oboe Concerto, newly released on the excellent Chandos label. 

The two symphonies are each in single 20 minute movements, but they are quite different in tone from one another. I hardly dare describe the life events that led to the 3rd. My new wife, Svitlana, had become desperately ill, was misdiagnosed in a London hospital, and operated on in Kiev, Ukraine, in early 2005. She then developed peritonitis and was on life support for several days. From these two operations, Sveta did not recover for two years and her condition deteriorated to the point where we all thought she would pass away at any moment. 

Simultaneously, I was diagnosed with a heart condition with pretty dreadful survival rates. So I couldn’t travel to Kiev, and the two of us endured these worrying times in separate countries. One of the doctor’s recommendations for my condition was to walk as much as feasible. I took this seriously and one of the places I loved to visit was Wales and the Brecon Beacons. I found the rawness of the mountains beguiling, and was particularly attracted to the changing light patterns which pervade the area. It is astonishing how the mountains can be hospitable one moment and the next anything but! I saw a parallel with certain musical devices - the same material changed, perhaps radically, by reworking the same notes to different effect. The result is that In this symphony everything is derived from the opening dissonant chords - for several weeks I was obsessed with them. And when I was at home I would look at pictures of Pen y Fan and want to be there.

By the time I came to write symphony no 4, much had changed, thankfully for the better. I had found a miraculous doctor in Kiev who, over the space of a couple of months, cured Sveta. And my own heart was pumping enthusiastically again. So, for the most part, Symphony no 4 is a far more optimistic affair. It even dares to be triumphant. And the idiom is much more tonal.

The Oboe Concerto presents another side of me - I suppose it’s more conventionally “classical” on some ways. I wrote it before the two symphonies, towards the end of 2004, and gave it to my 3rd daughter Verity as a Christmas present. If you know Verity, you might agree that it echoes her personality to some extent. Youthful, witty, and “poised.” She’s a great player! The outer movements are bright, but the middle movement is melancholic, and it was composed in a single day - the day Yasser Arafat died. No, it isn’t supposed to be a eulogy for him, but my mind was taken with a sense of sorrow for the appallingly tragic situation in Israel and Palestine. 

The recordings of these three pieces took place in March 2008 at Air Studios, with my dear friend Chris Dibble engineering. The RPO pulled out the stops for me - superbly .musical and efficient, and I’m so grateful to everyone involved. I’d love to work with them again soon, and I’m hoping that Symphony no 5, which is well on the way, can be recorded before too long.

Christopher Gunning

April 2009
April 27, 2009 |

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