Analysis : First movement

Graham Saxby

First movement - Graham Saxby

Introduction . Movements 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 and Conclusion

The opening of the symphony is dramatic. Against a pianissimo timpani roll on a bare 5th chord, the lower strings, pizzicato, play a slow chromatic theme consisting of a 3-note motif, and a number of further motifs which are clearly derived from it. The motif and its metamorphoses are very important: they will eventually dominate the finale, and before then they reappear in reappear more than once in different guises. The motif spans a tritone; this interval is destined to play an increasingly important part as the symphony progresses.

Each of the two main subjects has three themes. The first is highly chromatic and lacks a definite key centre, beginning in what appears to be A minor, but contradicted by the bass instruments in something like a Dorian minor. The theme itself is in 3rds, rapid and impassioned, and in a way reminiscent of the later Elgar. The brief second theme on woodwind merges into the third, a chromatically-inclined canon at the 5th, with each repeat of the motif raised by a semitone, so that the imitation actually sounds at the tritone.
A fter a brief but fierce climax the sound abruptly collapses (a gesture typical of the composer) into the second subject, which begins with a theme on strings that is even more redolent of Elgar. However, its elaborated repetition, varied and with contrapuntal accompaniment, is nearer to the world of Mahier’s Ninth Symphony (there is no evidence as to whether Brian heard Mahler’s Ninth at this time, though he may well have seen the score). The second and third themes have a yearning quality that suggests the Romanticism of early Schoenberg. However, this does not dominate for long. A strange rustling on strings, con sordini, and slow-moving woodwind chords carry us into the development.

The development itself is short and very complex, mainly contrapuntal, with the themes greatly metamorphosed and the contrapuntal lines in several keys at once. But at bar 143 the sound abruptly fades to nothing, as when a radio is switched off, and we hear, in a dreamlike state, the notes of the introductory theme on flute, oboe, glockenspiel and harp, while the violas play a languishing chromatically descending motif, and quietly stalking arpeggios in strange tonalities are heard from cellos end basses. It is as if the unconscious were suddenly exposed. Episodes of this type occur often in Brian’s symphonies, where the external clangour suddenly disappears and the mood turns, as it were, to one of inner contemplation. Here, in the shadows, we hear the slow chromatic theme from the very beginning, quiet but firm, with a hint of menace. It is still there, and will return.
Just as suddenly, we are plunged back into the development, this time of the second subject group. The recapitulation, when it comes, seems fairly orthodox, though the themes are presented in rich new orchestrations that are entirely Brian’s own. But at the conclusion of the final theme comes, not the expected coda, but a passionate outburst in which the first two motifs of the opening theme, the second modified by a passing-note, ring out fortissimo, like the sudden materialising of some dark power. As the sound fades, the bass instruments mutter a widely-spaced mutation of the opening three-note motif, and the movement closes with a sombre reiteration of the opening timpani chord.

In this first movement the themes are orthodox enough: even the first, passionate theme, with its wide span and violins in thirds, belongs to a world not far from that of Elgar’s Second Symphony; and the orchestration of the exposition is fairly traditional, though Brian produces some interesting timbres - for example the pairing of muted cellos and clarinet at the octave at bar 108, ushering in the muttering, on strings that grow and erupt into the development. The texture of the development is far from orthodox, however, abounding in a highly individual kind of polytonal counterpoint that Brian made his own.

The eerie effect of the "other world" episode in the development is achieved largely by the unusual timbre of the instrumental combination, with its stealthy bass accompaniment. And when the recapitulation arrives, its orchestration is entirely novel; it has, so to speak, been Brian-ized. For the most part the brass body carries the burden, seen strikingly in the score between bars 212 and 220. In this section, not only are trumpets, horns and tenor trombones carrying the burden, but the bass trombones and the tubas each have their own powerful counterthemes. This type of orchestration was to become one of the hallmarks of Brian’s instrumental style, as was his use of timpani as a melody instrument (a practice he had adopted earlier in The Gothic and in his comic opera The Tigers.)

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