Symphony on a Pavane was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to whom it is dedicated, and derives from the Fifth Pavan and Galliard from My Lady Nevell’s Book by William Byrd, which has been part of my repertoire as a pianist for many years. Though the opening of the Pavan, somewhat distorted, is heard in the brass at the final climax of the work, it hardly ever appears, even in passing, in direct quotation during the rest of the piece – it simply provided me with a lot of melodic phrases and some harmonic ideas out of which the Symphony is built. In a sense, it pervades the piece, but only as an unheard presence.
Despite the title, and the derivation, it is for much of the time fast in tempo, and even ebullient in mood, at any rate until the Pavane finally forces its way to the forefront of the music. There are four basic movements, played without a break, with a moderately-paced Scherzo as the second, and the slow movement as the third. There are also three sections linking the movements together, called Dissolve, a term borrowed from film technique and used in this instance as a very direct counterpart to the cinematic device for dovetailing from one scene to another. (It should be added that Tippett, in his opera The Knot Garden, employs the same device, though his use of it is more complex and relates to his dramatic intentions.)
The orchestration is not particularly large (double woodwind, four horns, only two each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, and strings) but there is an important part for celesta. The percussion includes a large part for rototoms (sometimes played by two players) rather than the usual timpani, and that rare and wonderful beast the Bass Oboe also has an important role to play. The symphony lasts about 21 minutes. Like most composers, I prefer to let the listener “interpret” the music, rather than explaining its “meaning” – sometimes the results of this process can be interesting and illuminating!