A symphony is a large-scale, multi-movement, non-programmatic orchestral work.
Nothing in that sentence is true. Since its origins in the 18th century, there have have been plenty of short symphonies, single-movement symphonies, and symphonies which tell stories or articulate philosophical ideas. There are symphonies with voices, and symphonies for piano or organ alone. But, except for the “large-scale” part—at a little over twenty minutes, it’s no longer than a typical Haydn specimen—my Symphony No. 4 adheres to the conventional model.
I think what really distinguishes a symphony from, say, a suite, is what musicians call “development”—an abstract narrative or argument in which musical cells (an interval, gesture, rhythm, chord, or tune) are repeated, transformed, and combined to take the listener on an auditory journey. While there’s really no such thing as “absolute” music (all music carries associations with other areas of human experience), this symphony isn’t “about” anything except that development, that auditory journey. The first few measures of the opening movement generate everything in the rest of the piece. Themes which crop up in later movements sometimes wander pretty far from their source, but they all derive from it. One thing leads to another. For instance, the main melody of the third movement is an expansion of a couple of measures heard briefly in the second. The leaping tune of the last movement takes the opening melody of the first and flips it upside down. And so on.
Since the featured piece on this program was to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, I scored Symphony No. 4 for the same forces. (These include the rare luxury of a harp, in which I have perhaps overindulged. But who can resist?)
My gratitude to HCS and to my colleague and champion David Kidwell, who commissioned the work.