During Prom 54, on Tuesday 25 August, Raymond Yiu’s Symphony will be premiered by countertenor Andrew Watts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. The programme also includes Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Janáček’s Sinfonietta and, with Emily Beynon, Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto.
What does the word Symphony, nominally a hallowed title, mean to you?
In my mind Symphony carried several meanings that influenced my decision on choosing it as the title of my new piece for countertenor and orchestra. First of all, I like the original Greek word from which Symphony is derived, symphonia, meaning the concord of sound, or sounding together. Combining a voice and an orchestra, setting words by poets from very different backgrounds (and not often associated together as a group), mixing orchestral songs with purely instrumental; these are different aspects of the new work which I consider the notion of ‘sounding together’.
Secondly, I always think a Symphony as a large musical work with a strong, well-defined structural framework, putting an emphasis on the development, and more interestingly, the recalling (with the Third Symphonies of Brahms and Lutosławski as significant examples) of musical materials. In effect, the sonata principle, exposition-development-recapitulation is a fancy way of describing the process of manipulating musical memories. From the onset, I decided the subject matter of this new work is memory, or the memories of love and loss to be exact. I thought it might be a fun idea to take the concept of symphony/sonata for a walk. In the end, this sonata-based thinking is not limited to the musical of the work; there is lots of cross-referencing in the texts chosen, both in words and meanings.
Thirdly, this is a piece loaded with personal memories and messages. It is preciously the hallowed nature, or even the objectiveness, of the title Symphony that drew me to it – it enables me not to give away the game.
Have you written Symphony with the 18th/19th-century lineage of same in your consciousness?
I love the Symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. But during the 20th-century, the concept of the Symphony has been stretched and redefined by the Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Lutosławski and Tippett, to name just a few. For me, their works are being taken into account too. And if there is a sense of lineage to speak of, it would be from the perspective of composers’ desire to find new ways of conveying personal ideas with the same sense of structural awareness as those old masters did in their Symphonies. Of course, this awareness could have either a positive or a negative impact on the creative process, depending on the composer’s taste and vision.
How is this reflected in the work you have written to a Proms commission?
I wanted to do something different, and yet to maintain a respect for tradition. On one hand, my Symphony is slightly different as it involves a solo voice, mixing instrumental symphonic music with orchestral songs, with a slightly unusual number of movements that play continuously. At the same time, the piece has an overall sonata-feel to it, namely that materials are presented, developed/distorted and recaptured. A lot of time, the divisions are not necessarily (and intentionally) black-and-white, as I want to maintain the organic nature of my music. But in the second and fourth movements, a Scherzo (with a Trio section) and an augmented verse-chorus song form can be clearly observed respectively.
Please outline the piece in terms of scoring, structure, ambition and any extra-musical stimulus…
Symphony is made up of five movements, with a short intermezzo bridging the last two. It is scored for countertenor and a large orchestra with a colourful array of percussion instruments – an affection which I believe to have been nurtured by my unpremeditated exposure to Chinese operas when I was young.
The shape of the new work was sparked by an ode by the Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting. This also forms the basis for the second movement, an instrumental scherzo titled ‘Strong with Cadence Multiply Song’ (a line from the Bunting ode). This text supplied me with the conceptual and structural framework that I was looking for. It was also the knowledge of Bunting drawing inspiration from the music of Domenico Scarlatti that fired my imagination. A few years back, Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor (Kk87) became a personal obsession after the suicide of a close friend. Its entanglement with sad memories, as well as its unique harmonic palette, was to become the musical source for the entire Symphony.
In the other movements, texts by Walt Whitman, Constantine P. Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne are set. Despite the diversity of the backgrounds of these poets, their words are chosen with the central idea of memories of love and loss, creating a sense of dramatic unity. In the fourth movement, where Gunn’s ‘In Time of Plague’ (from his 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats) is set, I draw on my own memories of living in London in the 1990s, when my clubbing days were at their wildest, and AIDS was still a constant source of anxiety and grief. This movement is in part a tribute to a musical genre originated from the black and gay communities (and has a personal importance for me), and in part a reminder of the horror of this “modern-day plague” in a time when its impact has become increasingly faint in our collective social memory. The use of a high male voice in this movement is also a knowing nod to the frequent features of the same in 1970s’ disco music, such as Barry Gibb in the Bee Gees, Jackie Jackson in The Jackson 5, and most notable of all, Sylvester James Jr., commonly known simply as Sylvester (who died of AIDS in 1988).
At the time of writing Symphony, did you know the rest of the concert? If so, have the other pieces influenced you at all?
No to both questions!
Your Symphony immediately follows Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem... does this intimidate or excite you? Or is it of no consequence?
I am excited to be sharing the programme with Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. Although out of his four ‘symphonies’, Spring Symphony would be my personal favourite, and that would possibly be the piece which would make me feel slightly intimidated if programmed together.
Further 'symphonic' comparison may also be considered with Janáček's Sinfonietta...
It’s a happy coincidence that my Symphony shares the five-movement shape with Janáček’s extraordinary work. But I think the beauty of this programme lies in its opportunity for the audience to listen to three very different takes on the concept of a Symphony. To be honest, I would be equally thrilled if one of the other pieces were Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, or Elliott Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras, or Symphony Concertante No.3 ‘Cantos’ for saxophone and orchestra by the Romanian composer Ştefan Niculescu – one of my working titles was Sinfonia Concertante because of it.