RTC-70: 1990 Third Symphony

Commission: Canada Council / WSO – for the occasion of Turner’s 70th Birthday Celebrations
Length: 28 min.
Completion: 30 October 1989 – 30 March 1990
Premiere: 1990-09-21/22, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (cond.)
Publication: CMC
Recording: Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (cond.), Canadian Composers Portraits:Robert Turner, Centrediscs CMCCD 9704 (2004)

The Third Symphony was awarded “Outstanding Classical Composition” at the Western
Canada Music Awards, Calgary, October 2004
Juno Nomination for “Classical Composition of the Year,” March 2005

Robert Turner writes:

“The Third Symphony was completed in March, 1990. It was commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra with a grant from the Canada Council.

Its three movements (fast – slow – fast) are in traditional classical forms: Sonata, Three-Part (ABA) form, and Rondo, respectively, each centering on a particular tonality – f-sharp minor, D-Flat Major, and b-flat minor/Major. However, the music regularly veers into other tonal centres, unconventional progressions and textures. Most of the tonal shifts are by a semitone rather than the usual 3rd, 4th, or 5th. The large complement of percussion instruments lends the work a somewhat exotic flavour. Some listeners may interpret the work literally as a serious contemporary working of classical (neo-classical?) tenets, others as a parody of these gestures. For the composer, the Third Symphony comprises both, merging through a strong sense of irony which of course can embody both humorous and tragic overtones.

The first movement is built on two main thematic groups – the first fast and sprightly, the second slow and expressive. Following their development, the first group only is recapitulated a semi-tone higher in g minor, and the movement emds with an intense march-like Coda, combining three of the main themes.

The slow movement begins with a melody for solo bassoon over a plucked bass playing a mysterious and rhythmically altered version of the second movement theme from Beethoven’s last String Quartet (Op. 135). The bassoon melody is developed by the strings and returns in a varied form played by several wind instruments. A transition leads into more agitated, astringent material, leading to a dramatic climax for full orchestra, during which the Beethoven theme is heard on bass trombone and tuba. The previous music returns in a reverse order, ending quietly with a distant reference to the principal motif of the composer’s 1955 Opening Night Overture.

The vivacious refrain of the last movement, which is in two contrasting sections (in the second of which there is a rude intrusion of the main theme from the first movement), alternates with two episodes – the first played by solo flute and solo trumpet is the Maritime folk song “Early Spring” and the second is a fugato for woodwinds and then for strings, each with percussion accompaniment. A Coda, based on various motivic figures heard earlier, brings the symphony to a grandiose conclusion.”