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Richard Rodney Bennett

Publisher: Novello & Co

Symphony No. 3 (1987)
Novello & Co Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
22 Minutes
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Programme Note
Richard Rodney Bennett Symphony No. 3 (1987)
i. Andante - Vivo
ii. Allegretto
iii. Adagio

My third symphony was written in New York City and London between April and July 1987. It was commissioned by West Midland Arts for the 1987 Three Choirs Festival, and is dedicated to Edward Downes.

My first two symphonies, commissioned respectively for the London Symphony and New York Philharmonic Orchestras, were written in the late ‘60s and are primarily extravert, display pieces in which I was exploiting the resources of the modern orchestra, creating show pieces for the virtuosity of the players. The new symphony, composed 20 years after the second, is a very different proposition. The orchestra is moderate - only 9 winds and modest percussion in addition to the usual strings, plus piano and harp. The music is mostly thoughtful and lyrical in nature, more or less monothematic and has a strong feeling of tonality, particularly at the opening and closing of the score.

The first movement opens with a long winding theme centred on F sharp, the predominant tonality of the entire symphony. This theme passes from violin and harp to cor anglais and oboe, followed by a brief textured Scherzo, threaded through with the main theme in various guises. The scherzo builds gradually until, at the climax, the opening temp returns with a broad re-statement of the principal theme. What seems like a warm, quiet reprise of the scherzo is, in fact, the beginning of an extended coda, and the movement ends with the return of the oboe and cor anglais.

The gentle Allegretto is perhaps too lyrical to be called a second scherzo; the strings are muted throughout, and the wind and string families alternate in quiet interplay. The whole orchestra unites only at the climax of the movement, which concludes with the timpani quietly reiterating the key-note of F sharp.

The third movement is a continuous succession of free-flowing variations based on what seems to be a new theme stated by the woodwind and centred around C natural, the opposite pole from the central F sharp. The first variation is for strings and harp. In the next two variations the thematic centre of the texture is spelt out by violins in harmonics doubled by two horns and by the cor anglais respectively. The tension slowly builds through this central section and at the climax, what may at first appear to be a new theme is revealed by the full orchestra to have been the main subject of the symphony, in yet another disguise. This broad, climactic passage diminishes towards a coda in which the last-movement ‘theme’ is stated first by a solo cello and then by the first violins; at a certain point in this last statement, the harmony becomes clearly tonal, with a succession of expanded major and minor triads, passing slowly from C minor to a hushed unison F sharp - the ‘key’ of the symphony.

The work lasts about twenty-two minutes.

Richard Rodney Bennett

  • Ensemble
    Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo
    James DePreist
    Koch Classics:
  • Ensemble
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
    Colin Currie, marimba
    John Wilson
Bennett's searching Third Symphony from 1987, in which the balance between tonality and chromatic lyricism seems exactly right...
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,29/11/2016
Symphony No 3 (1987) deftly combined Bennett's gifts as a symphonic craftsman and natural melodist. Cast in three fluent, expertly-scored movements for modest orchestral sources, it was a turning point for the composer as he moved from serialist rigour, as in the first two symphonies, towards such accessible, unreservedly tonal pieces as the charming Partita of 1995. THe BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, got the full measure of this elusive, lyrical and contemplative work, a model of textual clarity.
Paul Conway, Tempo,01/01/2007
Symphony No 3 made a gently seductive opener. Rejecting the 12-tone orchestral bravura of his previous symphonies in favour of a small-orchestral and ultimately tonal reflectiveness, this three-movement structure impressed for its deft colour and the sheer fluency of its argument.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,16/04/2006
“All grown up” is Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s surprising verdict on his Symphony No 3, which opened this 70th birthday party. He seems to mean that he no longer needed to show off, but the work, written in his fifties, is a turning point in more fundamental ways. It puts his love of musical variation into the kind of evolving, dramatic context that makes symphonies tick. It reaches out toward, and at the end frankly accepts, a sense of tonality that not only he but most prominent composers of his generation had resisted up until then. And it relishes a new-found simple beauty of materials and composing skill that has severed him well ever since … the symphony is one of his most powerful pieces.
Robert Maycock, The Independent,11/04/2006
The Symphony No 3, silkily played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, was warm, lush and lyrical, Bennett may have flirted with the avant-garde in his youth, but here he came across as the grandson of Vaughan Williams.
Paul Gent, The Daily Telegraph,11/04/2006
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