A symphony in three and a half minutes: Jonathan Woolgar

Three and a half minutes is not enough time in which to fit several movements of a symphony. But what about just their beginnings? Something like this idea lies behind Jonathan Woolgar’s PROTO-SYMPHONY, a grand symphony in its smallest possible form. Written during his time on the 2019/20 LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme and due to be workshopped by the Orchestra in March 2020, Jonathan heard his piece performed for the first time one year on, in March 2021. This month, you can hear it for the first time too. Read on to find out more.

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 scheme, 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 three-and-a-half-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 Sunday 16 May.'

Jonathan Woolgar's PROTO-SYMPHONY was workshopped by the LSO in March 2021 at LSO St Luke's, alongside works from other LSO Panufnik composers. On Sunday 16 May, you can hear these works for the first time in a short film introduced by the composers themselves, and the mentors and musicians they worked with throughout the scheme.

ONLINE EVENT: LSO Panufnik Composers present …
Sunday 16 May 7pm BST, youtube.com/lso

Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade Sleep-Chasings
Joe Bates Muted the Night
Caroline Bordignon Iridescent Flares III
James Chan Tanztheater
Jonathan Woolgar PROTO-SYMPHONY
Louise Drewett The Daymark

Jack Sheen conductor
London Symphony Orchestra

Colin Matthews composition director
Christian Mason composition support

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


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