Symphonic Overdrive?

Haydn wrote a hundred and four symphonies, but Beethoven, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams and Mahler only managed nine (though the latter was on his way to a tenth when he died). The British composer, Derek Bourgeois however has written forty four symphonies, more than any other contemporary composer.* With a sound musical training and positions of responsibility in the world of young people’s orchestras, he has composed many works for brass band, several of which have been employed as competition pieces. The symphonies, however, have hardly ever been performed, though you can get a flavour of them in synthesised form on the internet.

Living in Majorca for some years, Bourgeois now lives in New York and is shortly moving back to England. He was educated at Cambridge University, obtaining an honours degree and doctorate, and for two years studied composition with Herbert Howells and conducting under Sir Adrian Boult at the Royal College of Music. He lectured in music at Bristol University between 1970 and 1984.

His compositions include fourteen concertos and two operas.

Alan Rushbridger, editor of The Guardian, and himself a keen music lover has written an article about the composer this week. Bourgeois’s problem, he says, is that he writes tunes. Whilst brass bands warm to the ‘rich melodic inventions and romping humour of his compositions’ the critics are more ‘sniffy’. He enjoys inserting jokes into the usually very serious symphonic form, though Haydn and Mozart and even Beethoven could have fun with it, and certainly Malcolm Aarnold did. ‘One camp thought I was too old fashioned, the other camp thought I was far to avant garde… so eventually I decided I would be myself.’

Most of his symphonies have been composed in the last ten years during the illness and death of his first wife. Explaining his method to Rushbridger, he says he begins writing a symphony with an exact length of time in his mind, knowing how he intends to finish; all the way through aiming for that point.

He starts the next symphony on the day he finishes the previous one. Analysing his style, Rushbridger is reminded of Walton, Britten, Bernard Herrmann. Eric Coates, Stravinsky, Ives and Bartok.

I wonder if the enterprising Naxos label might record him, so that we can hear his music for ourselves, and could test his assertion that if we heard the symphonies they ‘would bring the house down’.

* Thanks to Kari for putting me right on this. I have only known Leif Segerstam as a larger than life conductor not as a mammoth composer. 215 symphonies!