Symphony No.3

Programme note by Geraint Lewis for the June 1997 première

John Pickard’s music is characterised by an inexorable sense of sustained momentum. The energy which drives his music is awesome in its power – and this is immediately apparent in the first movement of his two movement Third Symphony. The music begins quietly enough – but it would be more accurate to say that it flickers to life and that the life instantly takes hold. It very soon develops into a conflagration and there is literally no stopping the onward march of this music – until it eventually reaches a point of such unremitting, destructive ferocity that it seems to implode – in the composer’s words ‘the musical fabric is torn apart’. With no pause for breath the music then simply evaporates. This opening movement answers no questions – but in its ten minute span poses plenty.

Although it was composed between 1995 and 1996 the origins of this Third Symphony go back to 1983 when Pickard produced his Symphony No 1 as a graduation ‘exercise’ for his degree at University College, Bangor – a feat as rare in that establishment at the time as it was entirely characteristic of this composer. And as one of his notional ‘examiners’ I well remember his quietly confident assertion that he had two further symphonies clearly formulated in his mind – and that these would in time be written. I am probably less surprised than the composer himself at the fulfillment of this assertion here tonight. He had a clearly defined sense that these symphonies were ‘dramatic structures based upon the idea of conflict -and its possible (though far from inevitable) resolution’. In a nutshell this is his all-embracing symphonic philosophy and in the last work of this trilogy ‘the conflict is at its starkest’ – it is also a significant milestone in that it is finally ‘the one in which a resolution is attempted’.

After the ‘unremittingly fast’ ten-minute opening movement the second movement is three times as long and unites three clearly defined and contrasted sections as a single sweep of music. The initial section is an intense slow movement and it starts from the premise of ‘reconstructing’ the musical edifice. The mood is elegiac – and brooding but the sustained string melodies seem to rise inevitably to ecstatic fanfare-dominated climaxes which glimpse a distant glimmer of resolution. These gradually recede and the music retreats on each occasion towards a deepening sense of introspection and a clarification of the melodic line. The still centre of the symphony is suddenly shattered by a strident ‘scherzo’ which nevertheless sets out with a genuine lightening of the rhythmic drive of the first movement. But the brief sense of respite is illusory and the exhilarating play ‘soon acquires a steely edge and a sense of determination before it mysteriously peters out.

An outline of a new theme has however been suggested and this now is sketched out quietly in the depths of the orchestra. The composer describes the movement which now tentatively emerges as a ‘passacaglia in negative’ for ‘instead of announcing a definite theme which is repeated and elaborated with each variation, here the theme is at first nebulous and uncertain. Only gradually does it acquire greater definition – and clarity in the course of 15 variations. Towards the end the thematic threads of the entire work are drawn together and the clear tonality of E flat major, which has been slowly evolving throughout the symphony, emerges.’

It should be clear by now that Pickard is far from reluctant to invoke the archetypal movements and gestures of the great symphonic tradition – but uncompromisingly on his own terms. As he has- said, he hopes that a ‘listener who knows a reasonable amount of the symphonic repertoire will be able to locate my works in that long historical line. I should then like that common musical awareness to act as a channel of communication between us, whereby I can assume that certain gestures and procedures will be readily understood’. In structural and textural terms the symphonic fabric of Pickard’s Third Symphony can be suddenly illumined (as in the scherzo) by shafts of Beethoven- inspired dancing elation. And, rather appropriately in this, of all years – a Brahmsian rigour informs the unfolding of the passacaglia finale. More clearly detectable on the surface – but just as relevant to the organic evolution is a direct kinship with the Scandinavian symphonic giants Sibelius and Nielsen. And there are also occasional nods towards two British masters of the symphony – Ralph Vaughan Williams and Michael Tippett. Yet the symphony also reconciles the intricately serial derivation of its material with a clearly diatonic goal. This is unequivocally a Symphony with a capital S – and conclusive proof that in the right hands the Symphony remains alive and well.

Finally, there is in this music a profound sense of emotional and technical struggle and the triumph of the conclusion is not easily achieved. But achieved it is, and with a corresponding sense of mastery orchestral, structural and expressive. This ultimately life-affirming expressive thrust is the most difficult element of the music to describe meaningfully – but I am confident that it will speak more than eloquently for itself and render any words of mine quite superfluous. It remains only to add that the score is headed with a dedication to Mark Wigglesworth.

Geraint Lewis – May 1997