'Everybody is frightened of the word symphony'


It has taken Kevin O’Connell more than two years to write his first symphony but it was worth the wait, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

KEVIN O’CONNELL has written a symphony. The real thing, not some smartalecky, 21st-century ersatz one. And he seems to be rather surprised by the idea. That’s partly because of the way he speaks about it. He’s from Derry, and he talks in an almost hypnotic, slightly sing-song manner, inflecting virtually every sentence as if it were a question. But it’s mainly because writing a symphony is a daunting prospect.

It’s an enterprise loaded with the burden of history, a burden felt as early as the middle of the 19th century by Johannes Brahms, who was haunted by the ghost of Ludwig van Beethoven. A mythology has grown up about the risks of trying to exceed Beethoven’s tally of nine, which Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler failed to do, assuming that you count the right works in and out in your reckoning. (Of course, Finland’s Leif Segerstam, who is still composing, is within reach of 250.)

O’Connell (52), is a latecomer to the idea of writing a symphony, though he decided to become a composer at just 17 on hearing Bruckner’s eighth symphony.

“I first encountered it courtesy of the record library in the Waterside in Derry,” he explains. “Because I grew up in a large family, I used to sit down to listen to music late at night, when I wouldn’t be disturbed, and with headphones on. [It’s] a huge piece, over 70 minutes long. By 7 o’clock the next morning, I’d listened to it six times straight through. I just didn’t go to bed.”

O’Connell lived in Northern Ireland through the worst of the troubles. They “came to our front door, in more ways than one, especially when we lived in Belfast for a period. We planned that as a permanent move, but, because of our house being attacked, it turned out not to be, and we ended up back in Derry.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that his earliest works for large orchestra carry such titles as From the Besieged City and North.

When he moved to Dublin, he feared for a while that the atmosphere in the North was “a kind of fuel” that he might miss creatively. It is not something that seems to concern him any more, however.

I was armed with three questions when we met: What is a symphony? What is not a symphony? And, what is a symphony not?

He says: “A symphony is what the composer makes it. The symphony I’ve written is a four-movement work. It lasts about half an hour. So there are traditional aspects to it. But, in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve worked on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the symphony is a way of thinking rather than a form. It’s a way of thinking about music. It’s a way of thinking about material.

“The symphony doesn’t really give you anywhere to hide. Even when you are writing a quiet passage, or a passage that seems like it’s marking time relative to the rest of the structure, there’s still got to be a kind of tension in it. To that extent, I think, writing a symphony makes you rather neurotic.

“It’s not like an opera, where there is room for certain kinds of dodge . . . because of the story, or going into something that slows the thing down or takes it in a different direction. You have got to keep everything between rather narrow tracks. Maybe that’s one reason for doing it.”

Not many symphonies are written these days, he adds. “Composers of my generation and younger do not tend to write symphonies any more. They write symphonic works. And I think they write works with symphonic ambition in them. It’s just that they don’t call them symphonies.

“Everybody’s frightened of the word symphony. I am as well. Because the moment you put that word on the cover of a score, the ghosts come up, with Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius and all the rest.

“People know the ballpark you’re in and, to some extent, you’re asking to be judged by that standard. It’s a somewhat terrifying thing in a way. I’m terrified of it. But on the other hand, my last piece for the Symphony Orchestra was called Four Orchestral Pieces, each with a kind of programmatic title.

“So I thought I can’t go that way again. I’m going to have to do the honest thing this time, and simply call the thing a symphony.”

He then answers question two.

“There are plenty of things that a symphony is not. A symphony is not like a loose assemblage of ideas, all gift-wrapped within the same package. There’s more to writing 30 minutes of music in a symphonic way than writing five minutes of music multiplied by six. This is one reason writing this piece has taken me quite a long time.

“You have to have two perspectives in your head. How you get from bar to bar is the stuff that every composer is concerned with all the time. But there’s an over-arching perspective that has to be constantly kept in mind as well, I think, if you’re to write a symphony and call the thing a symphony with any degree of justification. So we come back to the way of thinking.”

O’Connell has immersed himself in symphonies, exploring vast tracts of repertoire, and he’s not lacking in strong opinions about what he’s found. He is a little dismissive of Haydn. He’s fond of him, but sees him as a precursor to the transformative fulfilment of Mozart, whose final four symphonies are so perfect he thinks it’s virtually impossible to learn anything from them.

He charts a line through Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Sibelius, and another leading from Beethoven, through Berlioz and Liszt to Mahler. And he’s clearly more a Sibelius than a Mahler man. “I’m very aware of the Mahler/Berlioz line. You can’t avoid it. It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s programmatic. But if we structure this along a kind of romantic/classical dichotomy, probably I come on the classical side of the fence rather than the romantic. But my symphony is not neo-classical. I’m not really interested in neo-classicism. I think music can only move forward.

“You can move forward in various kinds of ways. There are different ways of skinning the cat. But I don’t think you can go back and say, well I’ll make Sibelius’s problems my problems. Because they’re not.”

Later (in the context of the retro-style of German composer Torsten Rasch’s Mein Herz brennt) he describes late romanticism as “really like the wet-dream that nobody wants to wake up from in music. I think we have to be careful of that. I like late-romanticism as much as anybody. But sometimes one must move on.”

He expresses his reservations about Mahler by referring to “the sheer on-and-on-ness” that you find in his symphonies.

He has some unexpected soft spots. O’Connell has a great admiration for Mendelssohn. “The definition of a natural composer is someone who has quite a lot of inspiration. It’s unfair. Life’s unfair. There it is. And you need a lot of ideas to put into a symphony. Big ideas, small ideas, connecting ideas, thematic ideas, harmonic ideas, rhythmic ones. It’s all got to go in. Mendelssohn has that.”

His favourite Shostakovich symphony is the Fourth“because of the extremity of it, the wildness of it”. Prokofiev’s are “probably the most under-estimated symphonies of the 20th century”. On the other hand, Tchaikovsky comes in for only a passing mention, and Bruckner doesn’t even get as much as that.

Kevin O’Connell’s Symphony is premièred by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Gavin Maloney at the National Concert Hall at 1.05pm on Tuesday. O’Connell can be heard in a pre-performance conversation with Evonne Ferguson at 12.30pm.

For information, samples of works and scores, see kevinnoconnell.com. For information, interviews and articles, see also cmc.ie