Humphrey Searle

Last night, I had a bit of a listen to Searle’s Symphony No. 1. I’ve heard it described as grim and dour, but I found it rather engaging – what does that say about me, I wonder?

Anyway, Searle seems to have occupied a very difficult position in UK musical life, in the beginning too “advanced” for the conservative elements and eventually too “traditional” for the avant-garde ones.

But is there a case for reconsidering Searle’s music in the 21st century, I wonder?

I have to admit I don’t find Searle’s music has lasted as well as I thought it would when I was about 20. I used to admire the First Symphony, especially in Boult’s fine Decca recording, but I don’t often listen to his music today.

An interesting feature of the First Symphony is that he deliberately used the same series that Webern used in his Op. 28 Quartet, to show that music of very different character could be composed using the same 12-note row. At the time there were ill-informed criticisms that 12-tone music was limited in scope.

I should like to hear again his opera Hamlet which I thought better than some which have been less neglected.

Searle stated that his First Symphony bears the marks of having been written during (what we can now regard as) the early years of the cold war, hence the atmosphere of foreboding. It’s not what you’d call awash with colour, that’s true, but neither is Sibelius. I think he was just afraid that everyone would get blown to bits in a nuclear war between East and West, as many people were at that time.


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