This symphony was begun in June, 1939, and finished in August, 1940. The first performance took place in a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on July 24th, 1942, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Alan Bush. This programme note was written by Alan Bush in 1942.
A Prologue ushers in the three main movements, allegro molto, largo, and allegro moderato a deciso.
In this Symphony, the composer's intention is to evoke the feelings of the men and women of Britain during the nineteen-thirties. There is no programme of events depicted; the three main movements are more in the nature of mood pictures, each an expression of the prevailing mental and emotional atmosphere of the social movement of the time. The visionary Prologue conjures up those feelings of desire for betterment, which have helped Man to persist in his search for greater happiness, peace and well-being.
Prologue: A faint opening of gently straining upwards-moving sounds, gradually gaining momentum leads to a half serene, half uneasy period of repose followed by a further development of the first motif. Then comes a lyrical melodic passage for the 1st Violins. Bass and tenor parts have the first motif in close canon, and in the alto part is heard in even note-values a twelve-tone series. After an intervening cadenza-like passage on the clarinet a balancing passage leads to a climax. With the hint of repose, the movement fades out with the upward rising motif.
Movement 1: The principal subject is of a clawing, overbearing, and tigrish character, pointed and angular. The rhythm and tempo is steady, with a perpetual movement in quavers, but with many cross accents. The key suggested is C minor. A bridge passage leads to the second subject, a hectic and sardonic jazz motif, which is followed by a return of the principal subject. A middle section (un poco meno mosso) expresses the bloodless but sanctimonious religion of the capitalists of all countries. This is succeeded by the Dance of Death to which their policy has brought the peoples of the world. A return of the choral melody is followed by the recapitulation and succeeded by the coda.
Despite the fact that a definite tonality is suggested throughout, the whole movement is built up on the twelve-tone series already sounded in the Prologue.
Movement 2: A slow and somewhat mysterious introduction leads to the main theme, a broad melody in simple triple time and in a modal scale of A minor. The base is built upon the twelve-tone series, which formed the whole material of the previous movement. The mood is one of heavy and weary sadness, interspersed with flashes of impotent, frustrated annoyance, and questionings of a fantastic character, leading finally to an impassioned outburst. This climax wanes and is succeeded by a recapitulation of the modal melody, in a very broken form and a coda, which starts like the introduction and finishes with a final raging gesticulation. Apart from the modal theme the music is again constructed from the twelve-tone series, while at the same time always suggesting some tonality or other.
Movement 3: The twelve-tone series is entirely abandoned, and the music takes on a direct, vigorous, challenging, varied, cheerful and yet aggressive character. The fighter for the liberation of humanity, never ceasing, never giving up hope, always varying his method with the varying situation yet never losing the end in view, the control by humanity of the forces of nature for the benefit of all, is here portrayed.
The form of this movement is derived from sonata form, but with many of its classical features altered in emphasis. An introduction leads to the principal subject and then a bridge leads to the second subject in the subdominant, when a leading back passage brings us to the coda. There is not development and no recapitulation. Or rather the exposition is the development and the coda the recapitulation. A last effort on the composer's part to express the never failing dynamic of such a type as this is the ending of the movement (and therefore of the symphony) on the fourth beat of a four four bar, the intention being to suggest a further and continuous progress forward into the future. The tonality of this movement is throughout most definite and is dominated by the key of C Major.
The whole symphony lasts 32 minutes.