by David Hackbridge Johnson
As a composer of six symphonies myself, I am always interested in discovering new works in the form – a form that shows no sign of dying out despite the increasing difficulty in obtaining a performance for new works on a large scale. There are many fine symphonists currently active in this country. Paul Conway’s articles over recent years have introduced members to many of them. Among my own favourite currently active British symphonists are Lloyd, Butterworth and ApIvor. Some of these works can only be studied by score reading as no recordings are available for many recent symphonies. More readily available are recordings of Maxwell Davies’ 8 impressive works in the genre.
Writing a symphony is not something to be taken lightly – the example of masters like those mentioned above is too challenging for that. Neither is it easy to obtain advice or encouragement from fellow composers since many do not attempt the form. Some months ago I was about half way through my latest symphony when I met by pure chance a fellow composer in a second hand book shop in Colliers Wood. His name is Michael Garrett. I soon discovered that Michael was about to start his 9th Symphony. I feared that our new friendship would be quickly terminated by another post-ninth fatality – luckily the composer has survived and is already part way through a 10th Symphony. Michael’s music may be unfamiliar to members of the Society as performances and recordings have been all too rare. In view of this I feel a short biographical note to be of use before discussing the 9th Symphony.
Michael Garrett was born in 1944 and began learning the piano and composing at the age of 12. In 1961 he was awarded a scholarship to study composition (firstly with Edmund Rubbra, later with Alfred Nieman) and piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He later continued piano studies privately with Leschitizky pupil Frank Merrick. The late 1960’s were busy years. Michael wrote for film and television, most notably in Ken Russell’s Woman in Love and Savage Messiah. He was also musical director of the Lindsey Kemp Mime Company whose members included David Bowie. Jazz has always been a passion for the composer and in !968 he recorded an album with American jazz stars Bill Coleman and Art Taylor. His interest in jazz has run concurrently with that for neglected pianist composers. His studies of Godowsky, Busoni and Medtner among others have informed his own writing for piano which, while not sounding like any of the above, shares a preoccupation with a virtuoso technique set to purely musical ends.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s Michael was busy in the fields of teaching, composing and performing. He lived in Edinburgh for some years and was responsible for staging many concerts of contemporary music. In more recent years he has ceased performing in order to concentrate on composition. His work list is extensive and includes 9 Symphonies (the 10th in progress), 5 Piano Concertos, 12 Symphonies Concertantes, 6 String Quartets, several song cycles and dozens of short piano pieces including the 10 volume Book of Circe. Perhaps the core of his output to date are the 19 Piano Sonatas which span his whole compositional career. I have been lucky enough to hear Michael perform some of these himself and to hear some tapes privately made of performances given by Richard Deering in the late 90’s. Michael’s dedication to composition is complete.
Despite Michael’s large work list he is methodical and far from cavalier in his approach. Each score is meticulously prepared in the composers broad and clear hand. The manuscript score of the 9th Symphony from which I recently prepared a computer setting was a model of clarity – a copyists dream no less. A strict compositional routine is the key to his creativity. Composing is done in the mornings, followed by long walks or bike rides through the greener areas of SW17. I quizzed Michael on this as someone rather more used to sitting in the gridlock surrounding the Colliers Wood Savacentre – he quickly assured me that green spaces do exist particularly along the hidden banks of the River Wandle. Evenings are spent inking in fair copies of recently finished works. Apart from the large cycles of works in abstract forms, Michael is also drawn to musical responses to works of literature. Authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s hold a fascination for him. Flecker, Machen, Yeats and Synge are among his favourites. He is drawn to writers who portray a spiritual world somewhat askance to those fulfilled by establishes religions. His interest in the music of Ireland and Bax is also indicative of this tendency. Indeed his richly chromatic harmonic language stabilised by tonal interventions owes something to the example of the two English masters. Rather like Malcolm Arnold he has a fondness for 7th chords and jazz inflected rhythm. Although he has explored serial techniques they are often used in a quasi tonal context albeit one that is constantly shifting. His music is often optimistic in tone yet is far from easy both for performer and listener. Rather Michael creates his own world of sound which draws on an eclectic mix of processes without sacrificing a consistent style.
Michael Garrett’s Symphony No. 9 was written in the summer of 2002. It is scored for 2 Flutes (2nd doubling Piccolo), 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets in Bb, 2 Bassoons (2nd doubling Contra Bassoon), 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets in Bb, 2 Tenor Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, 3 Percussionists (clashed and suspended Cymbals, Triangle, Xylophone, Snare Drum, Conga, Tambourine, Bass Drum, Low Gong and Tubular Bells), Harp, Celeste, Piano and Strings.
The symphony is in one compact movement lasting about 12 minutes. There are 6 sections subtitled; Evocation, Dance Episode I, Contemplation, Dance Episode II, Dawn and Finale. The composer has not revealed a specific programme to the work but has spoken of a general way in which the music reflects the energy of nature and the elements. The dances are ones essentially celebrating nature rather than human activity. The Finale which acts as both a coda and as another Dance Episode takes on an almost brutal character as if untameable forces are being unleashed. The finale is very heavily scored with a riot of percussion very much to the fore. Much of the rest of the work is lighter in texture and shows the composers skill at marshalling large forces for quite delicate effects. Thematically the work is particularly rich although themes are rarely treated in a classical manner. Recapitulations are replaced by thematic evolution. Melodies are introduced which share characteristics of previous ones and in turn evolve into something else. This sense of ‘becoming’ gives the music its momentum. It also leads to a feeling of material acting under compression in the manner of Havergal Brian's symphonies – although the style is far from Brian's. Garrett manages to achieve a sense of structure that allows the music to breath despite its diffuse surface.
The Evocation is marked Lento misterioso, and is the longest section of the symphony. Even within this section the composer traverses a number of moods and colours from the dark oppressive opening with dissonant bassoons and double basses to the more limpid response of the flute at letter A. At letter C a miniature procession seems to suggest a forgotten Baxian landscape before the music reaches a powerful tutti climax at letter D. In the wake of this, a solo violin recalls the flute of letter A. The music gathers momentum to the Dance Episode I, marked Allegro scherzando. Much imaginative use is made of conga drum, xylophone and tambourine in this section. The percussion instruments act in dialogue with playful violins and more aggressive brass interjections. A climax is abruptly cut off by heavy percussion, not unlike the way Brian ends some of his paragraphs. The Contemplation follows and returns to the opening slow tempo. Here is the core of the symphony with some unique ‘glassy’ harmonies achieved by woodwinds spaced widely apart. Some complex sounds ensue with piano and tubular bells. The Dance Episode II is short and gnomic; jagged piano rhythms and snarling brass. It lead into the slow Dawn section which mirrors some of the textures of the Contemplation. The music gathers itself to a pause before the Finale launches itself. Here Garrett uses a favourite dotted rhythm found also in the finale of his 8th Symphony. It might also be traced to the similar rhythm heard in Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances. In the Finale Garrett makes much use of the whole tone scale. The last pages are a riot of colour and energy. The above is only the briefest of guides to the Symphony which of course would benefit from a committed performance as such it deserves.
In this compact one movement symphony, Garrett presents a fertile imaginative world in a language that is both challenging and accessible. The flexibility of the structure reflects his interest in the natural world; its rhythms, colours and shapes.
By asking me to typeset his symphony Michael gave me an opportunity to gain considerable insight into the work which I hope readers will be able to share by studying his music. The score is available together with a synthesiser realisation on cassette – please phone Michael on 0208 543 7734 for details. My own work as a composer has benefited from my friendship with Michael. We regularly meet to discuss the progress of current works and to play each other completed ones. His passion for nature has influenced me a good deal. I recently dedicated my 3rd Violin Sonata to him and he wrote a recent piano work called Nexus Enantiadromia as a wedding present for myself and my wife, Carol. When I finished my 6th Symphony Michael was soon round to listen to the recording and offer encouragement and advice. Suddenly composing doesn’t seem such an isolated occupation.
©David Hackbridge Johnson xi.2002