The liner notes quote Humphrey Searle: ‘The idea of this [third] symphony came from two visits to the Mediterranean [during 1959] …The first was to Venice, where I stayed with friends for a few weeks and sketched out most of the work; the second was to Greece later in the year. There I visited Mycenae for the first time and was so struck by it that I wrote an entirely new first movement for the symphony [I wonder what happened to the score of the original? JF]. Searle insists that it is not ‘meant to be a purely descriptive work, like, say, Respighi’s Pines of Rome; the Mediterranean scene merely acted as a starting point for what I hope can be listened to as music for its own sake.’ The work was completed in March 1960.
If the there is a programme in this music, it includes the ‘grim ruins’ and ‘battles of long ago’ inspired by Mycenae in the opening movement, a religious dance, neither pagan nor Christian in the ‘scherzo’ and a nocturne suggesting a gondola trip by starlight.
Searle has used serial technique in this symphony, but he has used it in his own terms: the methodology does not lie heavily on the work. There is also a romanticism that harks back to the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. I always find the last movement the most evocative, with its ethereal imaginings of the Lagoon by night.
The work was first performed at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival (3rd September) by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under John Pritchard.
One other commercial source for Humphrey Searle’s Symphony No.3 is the CPO recording with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alun Francis (CPO 999 376-2).
The Symphony No.5 was written between June and September 1964 in memory of Anton Webern. He had been accidentally killed in 1945 by an American soldier. Searle was the only British pupil of the Austrian composer. The work has five movements or sections which are played without a break, with each section having some allusion to the life, character and achievement of the elder composer. For example, the violent climax in the 4th section represents Webern’s death.
This symphony has moved away from the more romantic (Listzian) sound world of some of Searle’s earlier works. It is, as if following his teacher’s example, he has removed all unnecessary material and reduced the music to its ‘bare essentials.’
The structure of the symphony implies an arch, from an elegiac opening through the ferocity of the fourth movement to a plaintive conclusion. In spite of the subject matter, this is an optimistic work: it is a splendid synthesis of the composer’s own technique with that of his late teacher.
Alun Francis and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra recorded this on CPO 999 375-2.
Composers have often looked to the heavens for inspiration. Witness Gustav Holst’s The Planets, David Bedford’s Star Clusters, Nebulae, and Places in Devon as well as his magisterial Star’s End, Olivier Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) and the recently heavily promoted work on Classic FM The Musical Zodiac by Debbie Wiseman.
The present ‘serial’ Zodiac Variations by Searle is a little bit of a misnomer. The listener will hardly be conscious of any huge musical difference between, say Capricorn and Cancer. Searle does not seem to have used any esoteric ideas for characterisation of the various ‘star signs.’
Gerald Larner has gone as far to suggest that ‘a new title may reveal a different work.’ (Musical Times September 1970). The liner notes point out that the characteristics of each sign are not to be taken too literally and ‘the piece never strives for pictorial realism.’
The work was first given at the Cheltenham Festival on 7 July 1970 by the Orchestra Nova and Lawrence Foster, to whom the piece was dedicated.
Humphrey Searle’s orchestral work Labyrinth has been criticised as being of ‘exaggerated gesture but slight event.’ The work was commissioned for the Feeney Trust and was first performed by City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux on 18 November 1971.
The composer has suggested that this is ‘a kind of rondo in which the ‘maze music’ heard at the beginning returns in different forms between other episodes which are themselves interrelated thematically and some of these themes are also combined…’ It is scored for a large orchestra. Conway notes that in the composer’s autobiography, Quadrille with a Raven, Searle had further indicated that the music did to some extent follow the myth of the Minotaur and Daedalus and Icarus’ flight to Cumae.
It is interesting to note that Labyrinth is actually longer than each of the two symphonies on this CD. In spite of some bad press that this work received at its premiere, I enjoyed this stunning and colourful score. You do not have to be a classics scholar to enjoy the imaginative progress of this music.
Of great interest is the essay-length liner notes by Paul Conway. This gives an overview of Searle’ music as well as exceptionally detailed programme notes for each work. This includes references to important contemporary articles and reviews.
As a listener, I never lie awake at night worrying too much about the quality of a recording, especially when it is historical. Some people will be traumatised that all the music on this disc is in ‘glorious mono’ sound. I feel that Lyrita have given us the best possible aural experience bearing in mind that, for example, the Symphony No.5 was recorded 50 years ago! I would rather have the works in my collection as they are here, than wait another lifetime (which I do not have) for pristine stereo digital sound.
I welcome this CD, even if it did not quite make the centenary of Searle’s birth. As noted above, most of these pieces are available on YouTube. However, the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust has used as its source recordings made by Richard Itter on ‘high-end’ recording equipment. There are some 1500 works recorded between 1952 and 1996 in this collection which were made on magnetic tape. Important early works were also transferred to acetate disc. Over and above the technical quality of these present recordings, there is always the danger that the YouTube channel is lost in the mists of cyberspace.
Hopefully, there are plenty more recordings of Humphrey Searle’s music in both the BBC and the Itter archives. It would be good to have the Joyce setting for speaker and orchestra, The Riverrunn, the beautiful description of the River Thames, Tamesis and the eclectic The Three Ages for orchestra as part of the catalogue.
Humphrey Searle is a composer who acts as an antidote to the anodyne ‘sub Einaudi’ music that seems so popular these days. His music owes much to the European romantic tradition. Yes, he uses serialism, but rarely as an end to itself. There are often lyrical themes and memorable fragments. Searle has written that ‘I am trying to write music first and use the twelve-note method afterwards. Paul Conway conclude his liner notes by insisting that ‘serialism need not preclude emotional engagement at the basic human level, nor does it oblige a composer to neglect orchestral balance.’ Lyrita’s new CD of music by Humphrey Searle proves conclusively that this is the case.
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-83)
Symphony No.3 ‘Venetian’. Op.36 (1960)
Symphony No.5, op.43 (1964)
Zodiac variations for small orchestra, op.53 (1970)
Labyrinth for orchestra, op.56 (1971)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Pritchard; BBC Broadcast 12 July 1971 (Symphony No.3)
Hallé Orchestra/Lawrence Leonard; BBC Broadcast 12 March 1966 (Symphony No.5)
Orchestra Nova of London/Lawrence Foster, BBC Broadcast 7 July 1970 (Zodiac)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux, BBC Broadcast 23 November 1971 (Labyrinth)
LYRITA REAM 1130 ADD
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.