I guess I should take a post and explain what this symphony thing is.
In its simplest form, I want to see if I can do it. I want to see if I can write a piece of music in the highest form of orchestral composition in Western civilization.
I’ve thought about trying it for a long time, but of course I’ve been stymied by my own lack of skills and lack of time. But now seems as good a time as any to start. What does it matter if I fail? No one’s career is going to be derailed, for sure.
Those of us who are not gifted or trained as composers live in an age of magic, in that we can nevertheless carve our sounds out of the computer in front of us. With the right software, we can even hear it performed in a reasonably realistic, synthesized version. It’s almost like being Mendelssohn: young, talented, and with a wealthy banker father who could hire orchestras to play Felix and Fanny’s stuff whenever they liked.
Many years ago, whenever I wrote anything, I’d have to head over to First Baptist early enough on Sunday mornings to chat up Luine Baxter (the organist) and get her to sight read my stuff. She was always kind enough to do it for me. Otherwise, I could only hear individual lines as I plunked them out on the piano, plus whatever harmony I could wrap my left hand around.
When Barbara Petzen was chosen as State STAR Student in 1983, and that made me State STAR Teacher, the first thing I bought with my award money was software for the Apple ][e with game paddle inputs that let me input up to seven voice polyphony. If I recall correctly, it allowed for a few actual “voices,” but mostly it was just beeps. But what a marvelous thing! Suddenly I could hear my music in real time and make adjustments accordingly. I’ve never been without a synth/sequencer since.
Two things have made me think I’m ready to tackle this project. In 2004, I took most of the year to write an opera for children, Am Südpol, denkt man, ist es heiß (At the South Pole, you think, it’s hot). It was for a competition for the Köln Opera, based on a German children’s book about the penguins at the South Pole and how they lived for the annual visit of the Opera Boat. It was great fun to work on, and it vastly extended my control of an orchestral texture. It also gave me valuable work habits for such a large project.
The other was the song, “Sonnet 18,” which I wrote last summer for men’s chorus and two celli. It was performed in the GHP vocal majors’ Rotunda Concert. (In fact, I wrote it with that concert in mind.) In that work, I extended my tonal palette, using a lot more dissonance than I ever had before. I also learned to work quickly, since the main theme for the piece didn’t show up until the night before the students arrived and I had to finish the piece in a couple of weeks if the vocal majors were to learn it in time for the concert.
So now I think I’m ready to extend myself even further by tackling a symphony. This thing is not going to be Mahleresque in its scope. I figure if 35-40 minutes is good enough for Brahms and Dvorak, it’s good enough for me. Am Südpol was 44 minutes, so I know I have it in me to do that. I also have to think about performance forces; what good does it do anyone writing something perfectly marvelous for a cast of thousands if you’re never going to have those forces to perform it? I mean, look at “Sonnet 18,” a perfectly lovely little piece, but men’s chorus and two celli? How often do people have that at their disposal? What was I thinking? (I was thinking, wow, I have a great men’s chorus and two cellos at my disposal!)
I will go ahead and say that it’s programmatic, but I’m not sharing what the program is, mostly because I’ll probably lose track of specifics in the heat of composing, and it would be stupid to finish up a perfectly good symphonic movement, only to have people think, “Well, that doesn’t sound like the Worm Ourobouros struggling with Kronos to me!” I will talk about general emotional impulses from time to time, though.