Finished in 1955 when the composer was 83 years of age, the eighth symphony is commonly overlooked, if not neglected. Although given a standing ovation at its first performance under Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra in 1956, critics were confused by its enigmatic beauty perceiving it as backward-looking to the composer’s earlier style, stylistically similar to the ‘Antarctic’ symphony (No. 7) in its use of variation form and reminiscent of the haunting Symphony No. 3 ‘A Pastoral Symphony’.
I Fantasia (Variazioni senza Tema) – Moderato
Described by the composer as being constructed as “seven variations in search of a theme”, this whimsical description belies a beautifully constructed movement in which each of nine musical ideas presented (some just a few notes long; others more elaborated) are intertwined around a framework of an opening slow section, then a Presto (fast music) followed by a chorale-like section. The music then changes to an Allegretto in 6/8 time suggestive of a wistful-like dance in character. Earlier musical ideas now return in various guises, either one after the other or on top of each other. The music then changes once more back to a quick tempo (with more repetitions of each separate musical idea) starting softly and finally rising to a climax before sinking back down with a repeat of the opening idea.
II Scherzo alla Marcia (per stromenti a fiato) – Allegro alla marcia
For wind instruments only, this movement is musically referred to as a ‘Scherzo’. It also has a middle section ‘Trio’ and a recapitulation of the opening scherzo. In this movement, Vaughan Williams brilliantly introduces a ‘fugato’ before the trio where musical ideas presented are performed by various instrument groupings in an organized sequence (something akin to musical ‘rounds’ often sung by young children). The actual trio itself – again in 6/8 – interrupts this fugal interplay before reverting back to a truncated version of the fugato (called a ‘stretto’) incorporated into the repeat of the scherzo. The movement ends with a short added coda.
III Cavatina (Per stromenti ad arco) – lento espressivo
For strings only, this is one of the composer’s greatest inventions and a sustained cantilena of unearthly beauty. The development of the movement contains an exquisite cadenza for solo violin and ends with an equally sublime solo for the cello.
IV Toccata – Moderato Maestoso
This movement is remarkable being the only time the composer ever used a large amount of tuned percussion. Its design is known musically as a ‘Rondo’ and acts as a finale to the first movement set of variations. It is to the percussion section we give our attention, making use of glockenspiel, celesta, xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells and three tuned gongs (thank you Ben!) One of the reasons that this symphony is rarely heard in-concert is because of these large percussion resources needed.
Atoms of Silence for Symphony Orchestra, no. 444 (2017-2018)
‘Atoms of Silence’ was commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC and especially composed for the Australian Discovery Orchestra (ADO), and is dedicated to American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, and author Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996).
“Atoms are mainly empty space. Matter is composed chiefly of nothing,” states Sagan in Cosmos (1980), to then explain that “…beyond a single atom we confront an infinity of the very small. And when we look up at the night sky we confront an infinity of the very large.
These infinities are among the most awesome of human ideas. They represent an unending regress which goes on not just very far, but forever…” The actual title has been derived from Atoms of Silence: An Exploration of Cosmic Evolution (1981) by French Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves CC OQ, which in turn was derived from a line from the poem Palme by the French Symbolist poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945).
“Chaque atome de silence / Est la chance d’un fruit mûr!: Every atom of silence / Is the chance for a ripened fruit!” According to Reeves, at the essence of this statement is the proposition that the “epic cosmic organization is structured in time. Every second, something ripens a little. Nature does its work in secret and blossoms in its own good time.”
In a chapter about music, contained in Atoms of Silence: An Exploration of Cosmic Evolution (1981), and entitled ‘Music from the Start’ Reeves explains that, “in order to write music (in the literal sense of the word), the composer chooses a certain number of elementary tones. He then places them in a particular sequence that will unfold in time. If these tones have been chosen randomly, and if there is no relation between a tone and the ones that preceded it and follow it, we have ‘noise.’ If they are ordered according to a particular structure, whether that of J.S. Bach or that of the Beatles, we have music. There is an infinite number of ways to make noise, but a much more limited number of ways to make music.”