The Dorian Passacaglia and Fugue for Orchestra was written in 1959 and first performed in a BBC 3rd Programme broadcast on 11 June 1961. The first concert performance took place during the Cheltenham Festival in July, the same year. In it, Alan Bush had the intention in composing it of trying to develop the English national style in a thematic and contrapuntal direction, while at the same time maintaining clear harmonic relations throughout even in the most intricate passages of the quadruple fugue.
'Dorian Passacaglia and Fugue' as a title exactly describes the form of this work. After a short introduction there follow sixteen variations, and the work ends with a quadruple fugue in six voices. The theme is in the Dorian mode, in which so much English music of the 16th and 20th centuries has been written; this is the scale of such famous ballads as 'Henry Martin' and 'The Spermwhale Fishery'.
The scoring is straightforward. There are contrasts between the massive scoring and the use of solo string and woodwind instruments, but there are no highly coloured orchestral effects; no gongs or vibraphones; percussion is given a subordinate role.
Alan Bush says of this work: "The variations start in a mood of challenging optimism and pass through questioning, impassioned and idyllic phases. The Fugue, after its meditative opening, gathers energy and swiftness and culminates in a strong and positive ending."
On the occasion of its first public performance at the Cheltenham Festival in 1961, the music critic in the Yorkshire Post, 14 July 1961, described it as "the best new piece we have heard this week. Bush, like his almost exact contemporary, Rubbra, is one of our best writers for orchestra, also one with a natural gift for handling the larger musical forms... The theme in the Dorian Mode, which is the subject of the Passacaglia, is one of beauty. Of the 16 following variations the first eight are in the same mode, the others modulate into other keys. The last leads to a quadruple fugue in six voices - four expositions, each with its own subject and episodes, culminating in a final peroration with all the four subjects sounding simultaneously. This brief technical description, by the composer himself, takes no account, however, of the mastery of the contrapuntal writing, the fine sense of dynamic balance and the glory (it is hardly less) of the ending".
The reviewer in the Musical Opinion, August 1962 wrote: "It could become the most popular of this composer's orchestra works, for its vitality, breadth and brilliance are sure to have a wide appeal. The theme is striking, and the variations are handled superbly from the point of view of contrast and growth. A lovely variation in which a solo violin plays a prominent part ushers in the fugue subject, from which the powerful final movement progresses to a massive climax. The richness of the composer's fund of ideas is matched by his wonderful control and splendid craftsmanship".