Powerful Symphonies

As most of you know, I spend lots of my time working with choirs and immersing myself in choral music. I’ve usually got a rehearsal to prepare or a concert to plan. But today, I’d love to share with you two of my favourite orchestral pieces. Actually I’ve got many favourites, so this is just two of them.

Sibelius: Symphony No.2
When I was studying A level music, my main set work was Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 (1937), and I absolutely love that. I remember one of my lecturers was a viola player, Stephen Williams, and he introduced us to a number of other symphonies written just prior to our set work. He played us the 1st movement of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony (1902) and I remember being rather outspoken about it after he’d played it, telling him that I thought it didn’t have a very satisfying shape or climax. Luckily for me, he encouraged me to give it a second chance and lent me the LP (remember those?). Needless to say, I handed it back the next week having completely transformed my opinion.
Sibelius writes music that develops organically. He presents various ideas/themes in a rather disjointed manner, and then proceeds to knit them together towards a climax. In this 1st movement, the climax itself is a bit disjointed as the brass section swell and fade when we get there, and I guess that’s what I didn’t really grasp on my first hearing.
I love the power of the pulsating rhythms that accompany many of the melodies. And you will also hear especially at the beginning of the middle section a Sibelius trait – his themes often feature a long held note ending with a flourish: the oboe tune at 4mins is also accompanied by bustling quavers simmering away underneath the tranquil melody.
This YouTube recording is really good. And if you’re enjoying it, do listen to the other movements. Well worth it. Sibelius Symphony No.2

William Walton: Symphony No.1
William Walton wrote the first of his two symphonies in 1933, 4 years before Shostakovich wrote his famous 5th. And I didn’t meet this piece until I went to Bristol University. One of my lecturers was the composer Derek Bourgeois, and I remember he gave us one of the themes from this symphony as an aural dictation exercise one week. Needless to say, most of us made a pig’s ear of it. In my 2nd year he conducted the University Symphony Orchestra and we got to play some amazing pieces including this symphony. I played 2nd Timpani, and we made a lot of noise! Apart from the 3rd Slow movement, this piece is pure energy. From the very start, the 2nd violins have a quiet twitchy ostinato, accompanying a Sibelius-like melody on the oboe. The 1st movement of most symphonies is composed in Sonata Form: Exposition – Development- Recapitulation. And here is a very clear example of a composer developing his ideas in the central section, building towards a climax which leads into the restatement of the opening ideas at the end. This performance is definitely the one I would recommend. Andre Previn conducting the LSO in 1966. Some of the ensemble is a bit relaxed in the first section, but it all pulls together excitingly as it develops. Walton: Symphony No.1 1st movement

I aught to add, that I conducted this piece myself once. I was MD of the Downland Chorale, based in Coulsdon, and we were planning to perform Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast. We made this symphony the first half of the concert and to my delight, I found fixing the orchestra a breeze – everyone wanted to play Walton 1st Symphony!

Personally, I generally can’t have music on in the background – I find it destracting. Both these pieces demand your undivided. Don’t try to read at the same time, and if you try to do the washing up while listening, don’t be surprised if you break a few of the more fragile items.

Before I leave you, here’s a couple of photos of my Dahlias! I’m a Dahlia virgin. I put these tubers in about 6 weeks ago, probably earlier than I should, but I’m delighted to see them coming through this week. If you’re wondering why I’ve put a metal grid over them, it’s to stop the cats and foxes from digging them up. My next challenge is to protect them from the slugs.

Have a great week and enjoy the sunshine if you can.



  1. Hi Nick, thanks, especially for the William Walton. He is one of my special composers because he lived in the same road I grew up in (Werneth Hall Road, Oldham, Lancs) and we also shared a birthday. I remember he caught my little brother climbing up a tree in his garden trying to get a look at a bird’s nest and was very nice about it. i haven’t listened to this symphony for years so thanks very much for the reminder

    1. Author

      Hi Loretta. Yes I think this symphony is very good. No.2 is atmospheric and lovely, but I prefer No.1. Derek Bourgeois (my lecturer) reckoned he was a personal friend of WW and often went to Walton’s home on Ischia to be with Walton and his wife. He also told us that he was trying to help Walton commit to score a 3rd Symphony, but I can’t see any evidence of that appearing. Nick

  2. Hi Nick,
    Thank you for the ideas for music to listen to as ever. I am most impressed with your dahlias! After an initial few years of doing well with them we haven’t had much success recently, I think mainly because we leave them in over winter and they are not keen on damp and cold conditions. If you are not into slug pellets you can get slug traps, although that would have to be online at present and may take a while. The next hazard as they grow will be earwigs that like to get into the flowers. You need to distract them by putting a flowerpot or two upside down on a stick so that they crawl into those instead. Happy gardening. Liz

    1. Author

      Hi Liz. thanks for the dahlia advice. By all accounts, I’m going to have to be vigilant and have a bit of luck as well. Normally, we are host to many slugs. Best wishes. Nick

  3. Hi Nick
    This brought to mind when I was on a teaching exchange to a university in Finland, when I had a couple of nights in Helsinki before returning home. The lovely spring weather was suddenly replaced by heavy snow and a white out. I trudged through the snow from the city centre to the Sibelius monument. At the time I would have preferred the spring sunshine, but in retrospect seeing the monument in the snowy isolation and silence of Helsinki was far more atmospheric! Whenever I hear his music I remember that time!

    I’m impressed with your dahlias! Mine show no inclination to shoot thus far – must be the tropical Eastbourne climate. Beer trap to the fore – sacrifice a can / bottle for the greater good! Whatever you do don’t wait for the need to become evident!

    I’m enjoying the Self Isolation Choir Messiah. Concert on YouTube at the end of May!

    Keep well

  4. Author

    Hi Penny. It’s nice to hear of your Finlish experience – sounds very atmospheric and memorable. And I’m glad you’re enjoying the SIC – is that with Gareth M? Let me know when the concert is, and we can let people know on this blog. And I’ll keep you posted on Dahlia development. Six of the nine I planted have shown their heads – 3 to go. I wonder if my wire mesh is currently keeping the slugs off, but we’ve already opened the slug-pubs in other areas of the garden and have had many customers! Best wishes. Nick

  5. Hi Nick,
    When I was studying Music A-Level, Sibelius’ 2nd was my main set work! Not sure that I was really mature enough at the time to appreciate it fully, but I remember loving the light and space in his writing, especially as we were studying in a dark little attic room at the top of the school! And I loved the seriousness of it that made me feel very grown-up – pictured myself as a real scholar haha!! Since then I have come to really love it – funny how the works that we study when young, can occupy a permanent place amongst our favourites. Must be something sentimental. I do think this might make my Desert Island Discs list though!
    I’m really enjoying your blog, Nick – thank you!


  6. Hello Nick.
    Thanks for the recommendations re Walton and Sibelius. Will listen to them this week in between D-I-Y projects. Interesting to hear you say about the Previn LSO version. Shostakovic 5 was first played to me at College and absolutely one of my favourite Symphonies ever since. Probably a sentimental attachment that you never throw off in life.as Sarah said earlier. But Previn was the master at pulling out the power and
    emotion of a large string section such as the LSO. (You want to listen to his Enigma variations sometime). Suppose that’s why I love Vaughan Williams too. Loads to listen to. Keep safe everybody and lotsa smiling!!
    Ray Williams

Leave a Reply