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Symphonic Fantasy

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Bernard Rands wrote his Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement as a response to Jean Sibelius’ one-movement Symphony No. 7. The BSO and BBC Radio 3 (for the BBC Symphony Orchestra) co-commissioned the work in celebration of his 85th birthday year.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born March 2, 1934, in Sheffield, England, and moved to the U.S. in 1975; became a U.S. citizen in 1983, and lives in Chicago
  • Year completed: 2020
  • First BSO performances: April 14-16, 2022, Alan Gilbert conducting (world premiere)
  • Approximate duration: 20 minutes

Bernard Rands was born in Sheffield, England, on March 2, 1934, and moved to the U.S. in 1975. He became a U.S. citizen in 1983, and lives in Chicago. He wrote his Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement on a joint commission in recognition of the composer’s 85th birthday year (2019) from BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, supported in part by the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. The premiere was originally to have been given in July 2020 by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Andris Nelsons’ direction, but that was postponed due to the pandemic.

The score of the Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones and bass trombone, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, large triangle, suspended cymbal with sizzles, large tam-tam), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 20 minutes long.

Although born in Yorkshire, Rands grew up in Wales, the experience of which remains in his accent even after more than 40 years in the U.S. His early life included piano lessons and rudimentary training in harmonization and composing. He later worked with the composer Reginald Smith Brindle on a scholarship at the University of Wales, where he also studied literature, for which he has maintained a lifetime’s passion. He became a lecturer at the University of Wales himself in his mid-20s. In the late 1950s he studied with the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola and became associated with the younger generation that included the composer-conductor Bruno Maderna, who led the premiere of Rands’ Actions for Six at the famous Darmstadt festival in Germany, and Luciano Berio, with whom he worked closely for several years in a variety of practical musical occupations. Rands’ Italianate experiences also have remained with him throughout his life.

In the mid-1960s Rands received a fellowship for travel and study in the United States, at Princeton via an invitation from Milton Babbitt and also at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Returning to England, he taught at the University of York for several years, but in 1975 he accepted a position at the University of California–San Diego, where he founded and directed the university’s SONOR new music ensemble. Rands has lived in the U.S. ever since and became a U.S. citizen in 1983. He was coaxed to Boston and the faculty of Boston University by the great American soprano Phyllis Curtin, who was Dean of BU’s Schools for the Arts as well as a faculty member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center. Rands’ music was introduced to the BSO’s sphere with performances of his song cycle Canti Lunatici led by Luciano Berio at Tanglewood in 1982. He left BU for Harvard University in 1988 and remained there until his retirement from the faculty in 2004. He has also taught at Tanglewood, the Juilliard School, and the Aspen Festival, among others. In 1989 he married the composer Augusta Read Thomas; for the past two decades they have lived primarily in Chicago, where Thomas has served on the faculties of Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

In the early 1980s the New York Philharmonic commissioned Rands for its Horizons series, which was curated by the American composer Jacob Druckman. The commission was an orchestral version of his song cycle Canti del Sole, which was premiered in June 1983 on a program that included his mentor Berio’s Sinfonia—a prominent NY Phil commission from 15 years earlier. The orchestral Canti del Sole was awarded the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in Music. (That piece is part of a trilogy with Canti Lunatici and Canti dell’Eclisse.) The New York Philharmonic premiered his Chains Like the Sea under Lorin Maazel in 2008 and ...where the murmurs die... under Leonard Slatkin in 1993. Rands had already worked extensively with the BBC Symphony under Pierre Boulez in the 1970s. Rands wrote his Symphony for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra for the Cleveland Orchestra. From 1989 to 1995 he was composerin-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra; he and the orchestra’s music director Riccardo Muti would later reconnect in Chicago. Rands’ collaborations with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra include apókryphos, premiered by Daniel Barenboim in 2003, Danza Petrificada, led by Muti in 2011, and Dream, premiered by Muti and the CSO in November 2019. Next month, the composer’s new orchestra work Aura will be premiered by the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra in Chicago and on tour in Berlin, Leipzig, Prague, and Vienna.

Rands’ first Boston Symphony commission was for …body and shadow… in 1989; this was followed by his Cello Concerto No. 1 in honor of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s 70th birthday in 1997, premiered by Rostropovich under Seiji Ozawa’s direction, and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, written for pianist Jonathan Biss, who premiered it with the BSO and conductor Robert Spano in April 2014. The BSO also commissioned his Folk Songs for the Tanglewood Music Center in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday.

Rands’ imaginative approach to instrumental color is usually the first characteristic mentioned by those familiar with his music, followed closely by the lyricism, both in a purely melodic arena and in the broader sense of an organically wending, linear continuity. The character and flexibility of the human voice is central to his musical thinking, extending to his instrumental works as well, and works for voice also allow him to explore and engage with literature and poetry. The Canti trilogy sets texts ranging from Pindar to Milton to Octavio Paz—thirty-two poets in all. Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and John Wain have been particularly rich sources for other vocal works. Rands has written two operas: Belladonna, produced at the Aspen Festival in 1999, and Vincent, a decades-long project on the life of Van Gogh with a libretto by poet J.D. McClatchy. Vincent received its first full staging in performances by the Indiana University Opera Theatre in spring 2011. (His Van Gogh-related Tambourin Suite No. 2 was played by the BSO in 1996.)

Rands’ interest in Van Gogh, along with his literary preoccupations, reveal the composer’s broad cultural inquisitiveness; he has been concerned throughout his life with crossing and dissolving barriers between unnecessarily isolated artistic and humanistic pursuits. In his music, too, he uses the tools of modernism and of tradition to accomplish the expressive needs of the moment. Although it’s not his typical practice, music, too, in the form of either his own or other composers’ work, has served as inspiration for several works—usually not from a strictly musical standpoint but as a kind of “what if” scenario: what if applied this framework to newly composed music of my own? Such is the case with his Folk Songs, a response to Berio’s cycle by the same name; Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra mines his own Three Pieces for Piano (though in a directly material sense). For his Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement, the trigger was Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 in one movement, originally called “Symphonic Fantasy,” which was performed by the BSO here at Symphony Hall just last week under Anna Rakitina’s direction. Bernard Rands’ comments on his Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement follow.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.

Bernard Rands on his Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement

Shortly after receiving a joint commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony (London) I was in conversation with my friend, conductor William Boughton. Typically, the talk ranged widely across our respective musical concerns until the question arose “what will you compose in response to the new commission?” At that moment I had only embryo ideas vying for my attention.

As our conversation continued, the subject of Sibelius’ music and in particular his Seventh Symphony in one movement serendipitously came up, along with the idea that that work (beloved by both of us) deserves to have a “companion” piece of similar dimensions for programming purposes.

Much as I have loved Sibelius’ 7th since first hearing it live and learning it as a teenager, the idea did not immediately spark my enthusiasm—not least because, for my entire career as a composer, I have assiduously avoided using existing works of the repertory as models, except when involved in the musical act of recreation i.e. transcription.

The idea of perpetuating the beautiful, obvious, historically iconic forms—sonata form, rondo form, etc., is an anathema to my creative fantasies!

Following the above conversation, I went home and purely out of curiosity, took out my score of Sibelius 7th to be nostalgically reminded what a beautiful masterpiece it is! My immediate reaction: DON’T TOUCH IT! Due to my lifelong obsession of exploring in my own music the legacy of Debussy’s aesthetic stance, there appeared little I could share with the Sibelius. But, curiosity got the better of me!

First, the idea of a continuous, one-movement work of some twenty minutes duration intrigued me. Second, the use of an orchestra smaller than is generally my preference—more resembling in size and instrumentation a “Classical” ensemble—became fascinating. Third, the tempi relationships and character descriptions between different sections of the symphony are precise and vital.

Finally in the creative process comes a time when prevarication, indecisions and options have to be clarified; thus began sketches—formal shapes and musical objects were explored in my notebook. What emerged was a decision NOT to dismiss the iconic Sonata Form, but to invent ways in which its inherent principles could be extended and transformed into a unique form appropriate to my personal musical language and style. The outcome is illustrated below:

Each of the three main sections, which are clearly articulated, contains a “mini” sonata form design, thus allowing of a wider range of compositional opportunities and relationships e.g. nonlinear juxtapositions, unpredictable appearances and extended transformations of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and timbral entities. I think of them as an ever-evolving constellation of interrelated sonic objects.

Anyone listening (hoping!) for music that sounds like Sibelius is doomed to disappointment—I am not in the plagiarizing business! What I strived to create is a self-contained piece of music for orchestra with its own voice, vocabulary, nuances, mysteries, ambiguities, and energies in a stylistic unity at the same time pays respect and tribute to the Sibelius Seventh Symphony in one movement.

Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement is dedicated to William Boughton in affection and admiration.

Bernard Rands