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  • Writer's pictureQuinn Mason

Why do I write symphonies in the 21st century?

The great Gustav Mahler once said: "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything". This is a quote I've kept in mind my entire compositional career while creating a special focus as a symphonist. It was in 2007 when I was 11 that I decided most of my compositional efforts would be focusing on perfecting the complex art that is writing for the orchestra.

But even way back then I had huge stories to tell. The initial drafts of my first symphony date from 2006 to 2007. It was set in C Minor and was intended to be homage to Bruckner, whose second symphony I first heard around that time. It blew me away and I was determined to create something of that stature, even though I had not composed much at the time. Most of the drafts are now lost, but I remember them clearly. The work was intended to be in a late romantic style with a large orchestra and dark harmonic language. Remember, I was 11 so some of the works from this period sounded innocent and Mozartian. I also remember having an infatuation with the contrabassoon, which (sort of) continues to this day. I ended up completing Symphony No. 1 in 2014, utilizing some of the sketches from back then, and of course, it is completely different than what I had intended.

As I got older and I composed more symphonic works, I began to question exactly why I was writing them and what I was trying to say. Recently, I looked at some of the subjects these works were based on: homages to styles past, the thrill and disappointment of high school love, the struggle of the artist, dreams and the inner mind, and life from the point of view of a creator.

That's when it hit me: my symphonies are autobiographical. Here I was creating these works that vividly describe my life experience, that world put a listener in my shoes without ever having met me. That brought me back to the Mahler quote: most of my symphonies contain their own worlds, and everything is in these worlds.

That is exactly why I consider myself a symphonist in 21st century. To me, a symphony is the pinnacle of human creation, much like a novel is. There is the composer's true self, and their souls are contained in the very scores they create. It is also where one's knowledge of theory and orchestration is put to the real test. They're unique as well; one can tell a Bruckner symphony from a Mahler one, a Tchaikovsky symphony from a Glazunov and so on. I have one dear friend in the UK whose symphonies span from 1989 to recently. One can hear the gradual maturing of his style and eclecticism in subjects he chooses to write about. If one listens carefully, one can hear his entire life in his works.

As of the writing this blog post (June 2018), I have written 18 works from 2011 to 2018 that I have classified a 'Symphony', totaling over 10 hours of music. Each one contains a different world of its own. There are two sub-categories that I file these works into: Private and Public. Private symphonies were written for my own practice/enjoyment and public symphonies were intended to be heard by other people.

With most of them being written for my own enjoyment, they have not been performed live or heard by other people. One of them, a work called 'The Bridges of Dallas', was commissioned and is set to be premièred on June 24, 2018 by the New Texas Symphony Orchestra.

So let's look at each of these worlds I have created.

How NOT To Write a Symphony (2011)

This piece was completed in April 2011 and totals about 26 minutes. It was a exercise in classical period form and orchestration, but as the title suggests I was not satisfied with the outcome (except the 4th movement) and was renamed it from 'Symphony in D Major' to make an example of it.

Score page from the 4th movement. Notice the alberti bass in the bassoons, violas and celli.

Excerpt from the fourth movement.

Tragic Symphony in B Minor (2011)

This work, which dates from the same month as the work above, was written under the influence of the late romantic masters. Here I experimented with a slightly larger orchestra and a more romantic harmonic language. It is called 'Tragic', mostly because of the first movement.

First page of the full score. The influence of Tchaikovsky is seen, with the first theme being introduced in the clarinet.

Excerpt from the first movement

Excerpt from the second movement

Symphony in G Major 'Classical' (2011)

During June through August 2011, I decided to try my hand again at another classical symphony. This time around, I wasn't focused on strict form and orchestration (for example, I include three trombones in this work), but trying my hand at developing new and unique idioms and uses of limited resources while still looking back to the old times.

First page of the score.

Excerpt from the first movement

Loveless (2011)

In September 2011, I assigned myself a huge task: create an hour-long work for super large orchestra. The result of this was 'Loveless', a work about love from the point of view of a protagonist (in this work, called "The Composer") This may or may not be about myself. This beast has an extremely slim chance of being played during my lifetime, but it's interesting to look at how my orchestration has advanced since then. I was 15 when I created this work, and now that I think about it, I may have been crazy.

Last page of the score. Experimenting with as large an orchestra as possible.

Climax from the first movement

Symphonie Russe 'Russian Symphony' (2011)

Intended as a homage to early 20th century Russian symphonies, it doesn't sound very Russian now that I look back at it. But...I tried!

from the last movement

Coda from the last movement

Ethereal Dreams and Visions (2012)

This work was conceived in a dream in February 2012. From there, the work was written in about two days. In this work, I aimed for a new age type of feel with sustained chords for ambience and sparse use of the orchestration. I also experimented with voices and orchestra for the first time. The movements have titles such as 'Peace', 'Visions' and 'Dreams'.

from the second movement, called 'Peace'. Notice long, sustained chords and exposed solos.

from the last movement, called 'Dreams', featuring a wordless choir.

Romeo and Juliet Symphony (2012)

This symphony was written in May 2012 for my freshman high school project, which I ended up passing. It was a work that was composed quickly and in a Tchaikovskian style. I later reused this symphony for another project in my senior year of high school and passed that one as well.

Excerpt from the second movement

Excerpt from the first movement, which very clearly shows the influence of Tchaikovsky

Little Symphony in A Major (2012)

In June 2012, I had an idea. What if an entire symphony had the string section playing entirely pizzicato? Pizzicato strings are usually associated with lightheartedness, so the work is set in three very fun movements. The focus is on the winds and extremely limited brass, which is why I didn't call the work 'Pizzicato Symphony'.

First page from the score. The strings play pizzicato throughout the entire work.

excerpt from the 3rd movement

Symphony in A-Flat Major 'The Quiet Girl' (2012-2013)

In my sophomore year of high school, I fell for a girl who probably had no idea I existed. I don't write love letters. So what did I do? I wrote this work. At the time, intended this to be my 'Symphonie Fantastique', without the drug trip. The resulting work took about a year to write (and by then the girl had transferred) and ended up being an hour long. I was and still am proud of this effort and I've made it available online to listen to in full here.

Symphony No. 1 'The Struggle' (2006-2007/2014)

The first of my public symphonies, this was the result of many years of struggling to write an official first symphony, one that marked my emergence of my own unique The title comes from my experiences as an composer of color from the inner city and the struggle growing up. It is the first of many autobiographical works.

Excerpts are available here.

First page of the score. The dedication reads 'To everyone who knows the struggle is real'.

Sinfonietta in C Major (2015)

A work written casually in early 2015, it's not a symphony in name but in stature. The work employs a regular size orchestra and 5 movements instead of 4. The movements have whimsical titles such as 'Overture Comique' and 'Gavotte or not?'

First page of the score

Coda from the first movement 'Overture Comique'

excerpt from the 4th movement 'Gavotte or not?'

Minimalist Symphony (2016)

This work was a challenge to myself to write something in the style of Philip Glass' symphonies after studying a few of his scores. The seemingly easy orchestration of repetitive ideas proved to be the real challenge, as well as cleverly utilizing each of the instrumental families It was an attempt to get inside the mind of Glass. I can say that I have greater respect for him now that I've tried to compose like him.

excerpt from the third movement. Notice the glass-like triplet arpeggios.

excerpt from the 2nd movement

Symphony No. 2 (2015-2016)

My second official public symphony, the further culmination of a reach toward an individual style. The first movement was written under the influence of Sibelius, while the second contains minimalist elements. In this symphony, I look to past styles I've written in as well as styles I'm still experimenting with.

Excerpts are available here.

Symphony in B Minor 'Introspective' (2016)

This symphony is an intensely personal document and was written in September 2016 while I was in a pensive mood. Of all the works I have written up to this point, this work represents me the most. The movements are meditations on a subject, the first being 'In Memoriam - Remembrance', the second 'The Forgotten', the third 'World at War' and the final 'Beautiful Last Days'. It is dedicated to my friend Grahame Gordon Innes, a fellow symphonist in the UK.

first page of the score

excerpt from the first movement

Emoji Symphony (2016)

A attempt to be different, this is just another classical symphony that was written casually. It contains all the quirks and whims of my comical side. The movements are based on three commonly used emoticons (now called emojis for some reason).

Instrumentation page (BALLOONS?!?!)

Coda from the first movement

excerpt from the third movement

Symphony 'Fifths' (2017)

I decided to write this symphony while thinking about my early education in composition and how fifths were forbidden in four voice counterpoint. I thought, 'What if I were to base a whole work around chords and motifs made of fifths?' The first movement of this work recently won a major composition contest.

last measures of the 2nd movement, with a chord made up of all fifths.

coda from the second movement, which features a chord made up of all fifths.

Symphony No. 3 'The Bridges of Dallas' (2017)

My third official public symphony was commissioned by the New Texas Symphony Orchestra and will be premiered on June 24, 2018. In this symphony, I had to write about an entirely different world: the world of places. While I had previously written about internal feelings and emotions and historical subjects, I had never wrote a work about landmarks. I had to focus on the evocation of these bridges and to do that, I had to visit them multiple times and look at several pictures of them, in addition to conversing with people involved in the origin behind these landmarks.

Devotional Symphony (2017)

Despite the name, this work is not really religious but spiritual. The entire work is based around the classic 'A mighty fortress is our god' chorale tune, which I've grown to love throughout the year. While the symphony does not make a reference to a higher power or any kind, the work can be seen a tribute to those who value spirituality.

excerpt from the third movement 'Arise/Risen'

excerpt from the third movement 'Arise/Risen'

Nena Symphony (Suite?) (2018)

My most recent work, based on a ballet that doesn't exist yet (of the same name). My friend Will White pointed out that this might actually be more of a suite of dances than a symphony. Now that I think about it, when I write the ballet I will most likely reuse these movements in the full work. When the full work can't be staged, one can perform the dances as suite instead! Aha!

from the last movement, 'Orgiastic Dance'.

Coda from the last movement 'Orgiastic Dance'

I am only 22 at the time of writing this, so the journey continues. I continue to find new sounds and combinations and new ways to utilize the orchestra. The possibilities are truly endless, and as I move on in life and find more subjects to write about, there's not doubt that I will continue to create new worlds.

I've been writing symphonies for a long time and a lot of people would say I'm wasting my efforts but there's a reason for this: It's simply what I was meant to write.

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