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Above the Clouds
Symphony No.3 "Fire in the Snow"

Duration: 50 minutes
Opus: 52
Date: 2010



The genesis of this symphony stems from reading Vernon Watkins’ poem of the same name and whilst the symphony is not a literal depiction of the poem, certain lines of text did have a resonancefor me.

My use of the term “Fire in the Snow” refers to the death of the creative spirit in a jaded artist and its gradual rebirth through contact and interaction with younger, brighter, spirits. This is indeed what I experienced prior to writing this work. In March 2008, my great friend, mentor and patris musicus, Alun Hoddinott died after a long illness. This tragic loss was followed, two weeks later, by the death of my cousin Peter who had become like an older brother to me. These two losses affected me deeply and sent me into a dark world of black moods and listlessness which rendered composition all but impossible. Slowly, with the help of my family and some very good friends, I started to climb out of the gloom and my enthusiasm for composition began to return. Apart for a short work for violin and string orchestra which was written in two weeks in the white heat of inspiration for a concert conducted by one of my friends at Christmas 2009, “Fire in the Snow” is the first large scale work I have written since March 2008.

This was such a painful and personal journey for me, my family and my friends, that I have decided not to name any of them openly but they will know who they are and that they have my eternal gratitude.

The symphony is cast in four movements beginning with an extended slow movement meant to depict the frozen landscape of the creative mind which gradually unfolds into a multi-layered passacaglia for divisi strings. Watkins’ first stanza is very apt here:

White lambs leap. Through miles of snow
Across the muffled fields you go,
Frost – furled and gazing deep,
Lost in a world where white lambs leap.

The second movement is a spirited, if a little violent, Scherzo which is an homage to Alun Hoddinott. There is minimal development of the material as blocks of ideas are juxtaposed and flow relentlessly to a helter-skelter conclusion.

Into a million eyes of light
You look, beneath that mask of white
Where lambs, wrinkled, without sound,
Bound in the air and print the ground.

The following movement is marked Lento sostenuto and is a mixture of elegy and serenade and contrasts the sense of loss with a calm acceptance and with a longing for what might have been. The movement features solos for horn, cor anglais and alto flute and is based upon a fragment from a piece which is very dear to me.

...The brilliant, beautiful
Sun has dropped, and the noon-cracked pool
Freezes back. Come, seek from night
Gloom’s fire, where the unlit room is white,
I wait, intent, by the firelit stones
Strewn with chopped wood and fallen cones.
Come in, and watch with me in dark
The red spark eating the black bark.

The symphony concludes with a fiery Allegro vivace with spiky woodwind passages, strings rushing pell mell ever onwards although pausing occasionally for more legato sections, short, sharp brass chords punctuating the sections before the inevitable tutti forza ending signifying the complete reignition of the creative and spiritual flame.

This final movement is an extension and re-working of a movement, now withdrawn, of “Forest of Dreams” a work written for Alun Francis when he was Chief Conductor of the Thuringen Philharmonie in Germany and is included not merely because I wanted to re-work it but also as a special tribute to Alun Francis who has been very supportive and from whom I have already learnt a great deal.

I have headed the score not with a specific dedication but with the concluding lines from Watkins poem which have a particular, very personal and private, resonance for me:

.............and your eyes, most watchful, glow,
Seeing in the firelight the brightness of snow.


3/2.2+1.2+1.2+1 | | T+4 | Hp | Pno./Cel. | stgs

Commissioned by

Alun Francis & Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM

First performance

First performed on the 19th of June 2010 at the Sala Nezahualcóyotl in Mexico City by the Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM, conducted by Alun Francis.

Score & Audio
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