Symphonies without end

Symphonies without end


norman lebrecht

February 10, 2009

The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has written a tender-hearted feature about his former schoolteacher, Derek Bourgeois, a composer who claims a British national record for writing the most symphonies.

With 44 in his folder, Bourgeois is well ahead of the unstoppable William Havergal Brian, who composed 32 symphonies, two-thirds of them between the ages of 78 and 96. One of Brian’s works, the Gothic, drew a twitter of attention when it was taken up by a member of the Grateful Dead – I once discussed structure and tempo with Phil Lesh – but for the most part these mass-production outpourings seem destined to remain unheard.

Bourgeois, who had an early symphony performed by Adrian Boult, ascribes his neglect to the ‘avant-garde’, which seems unfair. He is a versatile composer with a solid career. A soundtrack for the BBC’s dramatisation of Mansfield Park lingers in my ear and there’s a trombone concerto on my shelf, recorded by Christian Lindberg. Does it not occur to him that, as he piles symphony upon symphony, musicians will shy away from sheer volume and give the whole lot a miss?

He is by no means the only man who cannot stop writing symphonies. The Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, a full-bearded master of orchestras, has composed 215 symphonies, ten of them in the month of August 2008 alone. Segerstam is an exceptionally skilled interpreter, able to pull together a last-mi nute performance with a minimum of fuss. What is it that makes him carry on writing symphonies, and listing them at the Finnish Music Information Centre? Does he not appreciate that a snowball would stand greater chance of success and longevity in Dante’s Inferno? 

Myself, I blame Papa Haydn. The format he invented for the symphony is so inviting that, like a cake mould, anyone with the right technique feels obliged to fill it. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, certainly too many. ‘He was the father of us all,’ said Mozart. And so say Derek Bourgeois, Leif Segerstam, William Havergal Brian and all.


  • My first experience of performing anything by a living composer was a choral piece by Derek. It was fantastic, and my schoolfriends thought so too.
    He also wrote the studies for solo instruments that I believe are used as part of the NYO’s audition process… so probably a love/hate relationship from that generation.
    best wishes
    Philip S