by Alan Bush (1973)
My third Symphony, the Byron Symphony, was composed in 1961. A work for orchestra or for choir and orchestra had been commissioned from me in 1958 by the Radio of the German Democratic Republic. The Byron Symphony was the result, and its first performance took place at a concert at the Kongress-Halle, Leipzig, in 1962. It was performed on that occasion by the Symphony Orchestra and Choir of the Leipzig Radio Station, conducted by Herbert Kegel.
What made me chose Byron as the content of a symphony? During the season of 1957 to 1958 I read nearly all his works, including not only such well-known poems as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan but also his poetic dramas. Some of these, for example, Cain and Marino Faliero, I discovered to be extremely fine. Yet it is not primarily Byron the poet whom I have tried to portray in this symphony, but Byron the fighter against tyrannical government in the Britain of his day and elsewhere, Byron the lover, and finally Byron the practical organiser of the first international brigade for freedom, since Spartacus in 71 BC led a multi-racial army of slaves against the slave-owners of Imperial Rome.
Each of the four movements of the Symphony bears as its title a place-name. The first, the allegro with its questioning introduction, is called Newstead Abbey, where Byron lived from 1798 till, at the age of 28, he left England in 1816 never to return. The movement is turbulent and impassioned and evokes at times feelings of disillusion, such as are expressed in one of the stanzas of the Third Canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which reads:
"I have not loved the world, nor the world me -
But let us part fair foes; I do believe,
Though I have found them not, that there may be
Words which are things, hopes which will not deceive,
And virtues which are merciful, nor weave
Snares for the failing; I would also deem
O'er others' griefs that some sincerely grieve;
That two, or one, are almost what they seem,
That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream."
It should be understood that "the world" referred to here is the world of fashion and high society in London, not the planet earth in which Byron delighted.
The second movement, the scherzo of the symphony in the form of a theme and three variations, is entitled Westminster. On February 27th, 1812, Byron spoke in the House of Lords against a Bill which was to introduce the death penalty for frame-breaking, the destruction by the workers of machines. These machines, while throwing thousands of framework knitters out of work, produced such inferior goods that they could only be sold to the impoverished inhabitants of the British colonies. This second movement evokes the atmosphere of the House of Lords of that day, with its undercurrents of petty intrigue, and its policy of cruelty and oppression towards the common people. The last of the variations represents Byron's oration, during which occasional interruptions are to be heard from his listeners.
From 1810 till his departure for Greece in 1823, Byron enjoyed the one happy love of his life; this was with Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, whose father and brother were active leaders of the Italian resistance movement against the Austrian occupation of Italy. The slow third movement of the symphony is named after the Countess's residence in Bologna, Il Palazzo Savioli. About half-way through this movement there is an agitated fugato episode, suggesting the conspiratorial activities of her lover, who stored in the cellars of his own mansion arms for the Italian patriots, as they gathered strength to drive out their Austrian overlords. Byron, by so doing, risked his own death at the hands of the Austrian authorities.
In 1823, he parted from his deeply loved mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, to embark for Greece, in order to take part in the war of the Greeks for their liberation from the Turks. The Symphony's last movement is called Missolonghi, where Byron died of an illness on April 19th, 1823. The text of this last movement is taken from the "Ode to the Death of Lord Byron", written in that same year by the Greek poet, Dionysos Solomos. At times we hear the lamentations of the Greek people, at other times the hero himself addresses them. The vocal parts, for baritone solo and mixed chorus, were composed in the first instance to the original Greek text, but later an English translation was made by my wife, Nancy Bush.
In conclusion, I would like to explain that, although each of the four movements of the Symphony is directly inspired by aspects of Byron's personality which manifested themselves in connection with events of real life, the Symphony is not pictorial, but is intended to embody his feelings as he faced those events. There are details which are included in order to evoke a particular atmosphere more precisely, as for example, in the fourth movement, the trumpet call of the Greeks, heard from afar, which attracts Byron's attention, or the interruptions to his oration in the second movement; but such details are secondary to the basic expressive intention of the work.
© 2001 Alan Bush Music Trust