Panufnik composer Jonathan Woolgar: Writing for a full symphony orchestra

Over the course of the last twelve months, eight emerging composers on the Panufnik Composers Scheme have been experimenting with writing music for a full symphony orchestra. With support and guidance along the way from renowned composers Colin Matthews and Christian Mason, these eight artists have each developed a piece roughly three-minutes in length, all of which will be performed and discussed by the LSO and Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth in two public workshops in March. But what does it take to follow in the footsteps of giants like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler? Panufnik composer Jonathan Woolgar shares his thoughts with us.

Composer Jonathan Woolgar'The make-up of the orchestra is loaded with musical-historical subtext. After all, the line-up was built for and developed alongside Western classical music – its instruments, layout and hierarchy reflect this. Why should a violin lead the ensemble? Why do the woodwinds sit in that formation? Why are the basses to the left, to the right, or at the back depending on which piece and orchestra it is? None of these things are just facts of life; they happened for a range of complex reasons, some acoustic, some pragmatic and some arbitrary. That the orchestra is what it is, sits how it sits, wears what it wears, and plays how it plays, is not to be taken for granted. It is the living embodiment of a particular tradition.

Therefore, one question I asked myself when writing my piece for the LSO was when to go with the grain of that tradition and when to go against it. The essential make-up of an orchestra creates certain sonic hierarchies and acoustical facts which inform how a composer can make that orchestra sound good, to make it balance and really ring. But there is also the matter of performance tradition and repertoire. There is music that sits snugly and deeply in the DNA of an orchestra, which defines the traditions of orchestral music – one might think of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. One of my favourite sounds in the world is an orchestra, especially one like the LSO, playing Wagner, Mahler or Strauss. I want to engage with that soundworld in my own orchestral writing because I love it so deeply; many orchestral players and listeners love it too.

'I have sought to make the Orchestra sound gloriously like itself, to create a piece that relates to the traditions of what an orchestra is.'

But I don’t write neo-Romantic pastiche, the harmonies and gestures I use are not always those for which that kind of orchestral sound was designed. Besides, there is a fine line between idiomatic and predictable. There is now a wealth of more recent repertoire which goes against the conventions of 'good' orchestral writing and seeks to redefine it, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. Like any composer, I want to bring something new to the table, to give listeners something that they haven’t heard before – or at least something that they have heard before but expressed in a new way.

In my piece for the LSO Panufnik Composers workshop, I have sought to make the Orchestra sound gloriously like itself, to create a piece that relates to the traditions of what an orchestra is and which the musicians can sink their teeth into. But I have tried to do this in unexpected and even disorientating ways. The title, PROTO-SYMPHONY, reflects this. The loaded tradition of the symphony is pressure-packed into a tiny 3½-minute space; familiar sounds and gestures are compressed or combined or reordered, the earnestness of an Austro-German symphony meets the hairpin turns of a funfair ride. I have, I hope, met the Orchestra on its own ground, while also giving the musicians and listeners something new to chew on. You can judge the results for yourself on 26 March!'

Jonathan Woolgar's PROTO-SYMPHONY will be workshopped on Thursday 26 March at LSO St Luke's, alongside works from the seven other LSO Panufnik composers. The day is split into two sessions, both of which are free to attend. 

Morning session 10am–1.30pm

George Stevenson Vanishing City (5’ commission)
Louise Drewett The Daymark
Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade Sleep-Chasings
Jonathan Woolgar Proto-Symphony

Afternoon session 2.30–6pm

Caroline Bordignon Iridescent Flares III
Joe Bates Muted the Night
James Chan Tanztheater
Joel Jarventausta Sunfall (10’ commission)

Tickets: Free entry, booking essential
You may book for either or both of the sessions
Please call the Box Office to reserve a seat: +44 20 7638 8891

The LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme is generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust

Related Reading

> About the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme

> Read more about the 2019/20 Panufnik composersbout the 2019/20 Panufnik composers

> Six new composers appointed to the LSO Panfunik Scheme for 2020/21/21