The Largest Symphony Ever Written according to Guinness Book of World Records

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Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic" (1919-1927)

Havergal Brian
 Havergal Brian

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Gothic Symphony is the largest symphony ever written - larger even than Mahler's Eighth (Symphony of a Thousand). It is the first symphony by British composer William "Havergal" Brian (1876-1972), a contemporary of Granville Bantock, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. Over the course of his long life, Brian composed 32 symphonies - 8 of them while he was in his nineties. For most of his life, Brian's music was neglected and fell into obscurity, apart from two fruitful periods when he received wider recognition: before the First World War, when Thomas Beecham championed Brian's music, and for a short time in the 1960's when his many symphonies were rediscovered. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that much of his oeuvre has slipped back into obscurity since then.

The Gothic Symphony lasts just under two hours and requires extravagant forces:

- Woodwind: 2 piccolos, 6 flutes (1 doubling alto flute), 6 oboes (1 doubling oboe d'amore 1 doubling bass oboe), 2 cors anglais, clarinet in E-flat, 5 clarinets in B-flat (1 doubling 2nd E-flat clarinet), 2 basset horns, 2 bass clarinets in B-flat, contrabass clarinet in B-flat, 3 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons

- Orchestral brass: 8 horns in F, 8 trumpets (2 doubling cornets in E-flat), bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone (doubling 2nd contrabass trombone), contrabass trombone, 2 euphoniums, 2 tubas

- Percussion: 2 sets of timpani, 2 bass drums, 2 (preferably 3) snare drums, African long drum, 2 tambourines, 2 triangles, 6 pairs of large cymbals, gong, bird scare, thunder machine, small chains, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, chimes in E-flat

- Keyboards: celesta, organ

- Voices: solo quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), 4 mixed choirs, children's choir

- Four offstage brass bands—used only in the fifth and sixth movements and each comprising: 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, 2 tubas, 1 set of timpani

- Strings: 2 harps (preferably more ad lib.), 20 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 14 cellos, 12 double basses

The first part of the symphony is purely orchestral, while the second involves multiple choirs in a setting of the Latin hymn "Te Deum." Brian worked on the symphony for eight years and submitted it to the Columbia Gramaphone Competition in 1928, but it lost the top prize to Kurt Atterberg's Sixth Symphony. The first movement of Part I is in extended sonata form, with a lively figure in D minor as the first theme, and a calm violin melody in D flat major as the second theme. Following the development section, there is no formal recapitulation, but rather a final coda. The second movement is a solemn march, almost funerary in character. The third movement is built up from a Brucknerian recurring ostinato, introduced by the horn section, and it leads up to a xylophone cadenza culminating in a march that brings the tonality back to the key of D minor. Part I ends with a D major chord. Part II of the Gothic is notable for its use of Renaissance polyphony, polytonality, dissonance and medieval compositional techniques. The orchestra is expanded and the choirs and brass bands are brought in. In the three movements of Part II, the text of the Te Deum is treated sometimes tenderly, sometimes raucously, sometimes homophonically, sometimes polyphonically and with many other creative approaches. In the end, the choir closes the work softly in the key of E major.

Performers -

Soprano: Eva Jenisová
Alto: Dagmar Pecková
Bass: Vladimir Doležal
Tenor: Peter Mikuláš
Chorus-master: Pavol Procházka
Conductor: Ondrej Lenard
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava
Slovak Opera Chorus
Folk Ensemble Chorus
Lucnica Chorus
Bratislava City Choir
Bratislava Children's Choir
Youth Echo Choir