Gramophone guest blog

Why write symphonies?

Christopher GunningWed 9th July 2014
Christopher Gunning in the recording studioChristopher Gunning in the recording studio

'I would like to think we might now be in a phase when composers no longer seek merely to impress with complexity'

Why, in 2014, write symphonies? People often ask me this. They are probably mindful that I’ve spent most of my active life composing for the media. First it was TV commercials – including my music for the long running Martini campaign 'The Right One' ("any time, any place, anywhere"). Then came TV dramas, notably Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. And there were films too – such as Oliver Dahan’s La Vie En Rose, which concerned the life of Edith Piaf. None of these, or the hundreds of other productions I had the good fortune to work on, would lead you to think I’d also write seven symphonies and a growing catalogue of concertos and chamber music.

In fact I’d always wanted to write concert music, and as a teenager imagined I would spend my life doing just that. Then, after leaving music college, the harsh reality of earning my keep forced a decision as to whether I was going to be a teacher or work in the media. I chose the latter, thinking that I could write film scores while also working on symphonies and concertos. In the event, I got totally sidetracked, and found myself so involved in non-concert activities that I was working flat-out seven days a week for twelve months of the year. I couldn’t afford, and anyway didn’t want, to say 'no' to decently paid work because I never knew where the next offer might come from, and feared being broke. And a great deal of the work was hugely enjoyable.

In my late 50s I began to realise that my greatest ambition - to write those symphonies - would never be fulfilled if I didn’t do it NOW. A potentially fatal illness was also a stark wake-up call. And so it is that Symphonies Nos 6 and 7 are now seeing the light of day in new recordings by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, following the recent releases of my 3rd, 4th and 5th, as well as several concertos.

But why? A symphony - by which we understand 'extended orchestral work' - is a considerable undertaking. The challenges are quite different to those of writing a series of cues for a TV drama. Most importantly, the music has to stand alone, and its success or failure depends on how strong is its narrative. Does the work hold your attention from beginning to end? Does it have something important to say?

It is vitally important to me that my music communicates readily, and I use all means available. Sometimes I am extremely dissonant, sometimes totally consonant, for my symphonies are like novels - they tell stories, although since music can rarely be specific, each listener will inject his or her own narrative too. In order to propel the narrative, I have returned to some methods from the past. It’s certainly not that my music sounds like Brahms or Mahler (far from it) but I do use themes and motifs, and often try to build long structures from relatively simple ingredients. In the Third Symphony, I based the whole 20-minute structure on the opening chords, which return time and again in various guises. In the Fifth, I used a motif (which contains all 12 notes of the chromatic scale) as the basis of the whole work, and I hope its many transformations can be heard quite clearly. I followed a similar principle in the much more condensed Sixth - everything is drawn from a simple five-note woodwind phrase heard at the start. In the Seventh, there’s a rising whole-tone scale which determines the harmony for the greater part of the symphony.

During the second part of the 20th century a lot of classical music appeared which felt to many like a series of unconnected gestures. The result was to disconnect contemporary music from an audience. Fashions in music change, and I would like to think we might now be in a phase when composers no longer seek merely to impress with complexity and bafflement, but concentrate on relatively straightforward communication. It is not an easy path to tread, for so many commentators still notice style rather than content, but I have the audacity to think that my chosen course is somehow important - which is why I am already planning Symphony No 8. 

Christopher Gunning's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and Night Voyage are released on July 14 on Discovery Records 

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