Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 2b (Sinfonia Solenne)

This work was begun in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially it was to be an exercise in fugue writing, but I soon became captivated by the expressiveness of the counterpoint and shaped it into a long, one-movement polyphonic fantasia. The first version was for string orchestra only (Op. 2a), though with distinct "choirs" and an embedded string quartet as well. My original aim was to try to write a piece in a Classical idiom that has been largely abandoned after Beethoven, as a sort of homage to the Age of Reason. Even the harmonic language is essentially Classical (unlike in my String Quartet), though with a tendency to modulate continually a la Carl Nielsen, and even a couple of bitonal passages. The first version ended with a feeling of defiance or maybe stoic triumph.

After preparing a version for a full (but Classically-sized) orchestra, I began to feel that the material and colouring were too dark for the piece to end in a blaze of defiance. I have now tried six different endings in all, and this is still very much a work in progress. A few (including the one I'm presenting here) end in a mood of resignation, though one was decidedly grim (posted elsewhere). The main technical problem in the music is that the Coda strives for C major against a tendency for that key to work as the dominant of F minor. Many Baroque-era works end with a similar cadence (and Nielsen used a form of it in his Commotio), but the tendency to move to the subdominant minor is usually not so strong in those works. In this piece, I'm convinced that the cadence cannot be the end because of this - some kind of postlude is needed, but it has to be much shorter than the rest of the Coda. The current version ends in C after a brief, chromatically descending passage based on earlier material.

Since posting it on the previous board, I made several tweaks to the rest of the work as well, especially expanding the timpani part. I do believe that part is likely unplayable without an assistant to manage the frequent retunings.

A rendering made with NotePerformer 4 is attached, along with the raw Sibelius score.

Playing time: about 27.5 minutes. If you only want to hear the Coda, it begins at about 24:50.

Edit: I made a couple of small changes to the postlude, to make the transition back to C less jarring. The ending chord is also now an open fifth.

Edit: I added an extra bar of timpani roll (on low G) to the postlude, as breathing space after the intensity of the main part of the Coda, and also to bring the work "full circle" back to the opening. Unless someone can convince me that something else needs to be changed, I think this will be "it" for now, i.e. tentatively final version, if that makes sense. My musical language has moved on from that of this piece, and I need to start working on something new.

Audio file


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  • There were a few comments about this first time round, including on the various alternative endings. I'm in two minds whether it's a good idea to use the -- arguably by Shostakovich himself overused DSCH motto -- as the basis for the work but there's no question that it develops powerfully and, like the quartet, is a deeply serious work if here the idiom is a bit more "conventional" whatever that means.

    Anyway, I'd urge anyone new to the forum who is still tuning in to investigate this fine piece.

    • Thanks David. I see the DSCH motto as analogous to BACH, a motif that many composers have used, so it's no longer heard as a Bach "fingerprint", or even necessarily as a reference to Bach himself. In my case there is no meaning beyond that to the choice, except that musically it's highly versatile by virtue of being almost infinitely transposable, ditto its inversion, which is also modified to give it a tendency to modulate. The piece is totally permeated with the motto and inversion. I definitely did not intend DSCH to be heard as a reference to Shostakovich himself; the work is in an older idiom, as you say, despite a few "modernisms" that come and go throughout.


      • no, I can understand that you chose the motto theme because of its flexibility and not as a reference to the great Russian, nor as in any attempt to imitate his style (not something that actually occurred to me). I suppose my point is that this theme is so associated with Shosty - in a way I'd argue BACH is not -- that it takes on a different meaning. But never mind -- I was only raising the topic for discussion and have no particular view myself.


        • I can certainly appreciate that argument. My thinking, from the start, which you may not agree with, is that Shostakovich has been dead for almost 50 years now. After a not well-defined time, a personal motto like that has to become public domain. I think the maiin difference with BACH is the length of time JSB has been dead. And if a motto is going to go into the public domain, someone has to be the first composer to use it (I believe that was Schnittke), the second, third, etc. I don't think I'm the second either, and I might not even be the third. Of course there might be questions about it, but I think it's clear enough here that the motto is being used for a legitimate artistic purpose.

          I was kind of surprised that the conductor I submitted the work to two years ago didn't say a thing about the motto in his rejection letter. I think it's very possible to listen to this work and have it not dawn on you that it's largely based on DSCH because the way the motto is used is so different from Shosty's way, and the idiom is entirely different as well.


          • I don't know Shostakovich that well, nor this so-called "motto," but I think the importance of a motto or theme is exaggerated. It's just a seed, something to work with. Only in popular music, where the motto (or melody) is everything and the rest is less important, should a theme be protected (for a short while). Even then, it can be used as a seed or a quotation. I use well-known fragments all the time, just to play or fool around with. So far, the music police haven't come to my door.

            I took the first measure of Bach's famous Prelude No. 1 as a beginning once and then went off with an entirely different development. So what? You do you.

            • Agree!

              For what it's worth, the DSCH motto is D-Eb-C-B, because in the German spelling of the notes of the scale, Eb is S and B natural is H (B in that system means Bb). So it is just 4 notes, that can be stated in dozens of rhythmic contexts and continued in countless different ways, and the motif itself is as versatile as BACH.


              • I see. Thanks, I didn't know what the DSCH motto is. I know German, but DSCH in my language sounds like douche (bag). This motto can't be such a big deal. It is usually I in C minor with the D as a suspension. I must have used it dozens of times. So now I'm a Shostakovich aficionado too. One never stops learning.


  • Hi Liz -

    This is Ken Lindner. I like your piece - I think it's one of the better things I have heard on this site.

    Thank you for writing for orchestra. It is much more interesting, I think, to compose using an orchestra, as the play of different orchestral colors is often what makes the difference between an interesting piece and a thoroughly enjoyable piece.

    I very much enjoyed your chromatic pallet! Quite creative. The changing treatment of the theme as the piece progresses is very interesting.

    The only thing I would suggest, is that the piece is rather long and may lose some audience in its length. I guess it just depends on how contemplative they may be when listening.

    Congratulations on a fine work!


    • Thank you for listening, and for your kind words regarding my piece! As I wrote in the OP, this is an orchestration of a work that was originally for strings only. So it's not really composed for orchestra - I'm not sure whether you're saying that it sounds as if it was, or if you're hinting that it's apparent in listening to it that it's an orchestration. :) I personally think the orchestral version is much better and more expressive than the strings-only version. I made many changes of register and even composed new passages for the orchestral version (not to mention added an important timpani part), and my feeling is that it is overall darker but wins through to more intense heights near the end.

      Oh yes, I'm painfully aware of the length of the piece. It's certainly not for everyone. If you're attuned to it, if it speaks to you, then the length might not even matter (one listener on a different board said as much). If you're not attuned to it, then you'd probably lose interest even if the piece were half the length it is. The thing is, there's really nothing in it that I would excise, except that if I can think of a postlude that is shorter but does the same thing the current one does, I'll use it instead.


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