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Gerhard: Symphony No. 3 (Collages)

Listening exercise – Roberto Gerhard's Symphony No. 3 (Collages)

Listening exercise

Here’s something to contrast the previous example, Roberto Gerhard’s ‘Symphony No. 3 (Collages)’ for orchestra and magnetic tape.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

‘Symphony No. 3 (Collages)’ was premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Rudolph Schwartz, at the Royal Festival Hall, London in February 1961. In it, Roberto Gerhard sought to achieve a “counterpoint of textures”, creating a mosaic from the sounds of a conventional orchestra alongside electronic noises of indeterminate pitch. The inspiration for Gerhard’s ‘Symphony No. 3’ came when, during a morning flight from America to the Irish Coast, Gerhard saw the sun rise “like the blast of 10,000 trumpets” at a height of 30,000 feet.

‘Symphony No. 3’ is one example of many pieces, composed within a five-year period, that reflected an aspiration by composers in Europe to blend electronic music with live, large ensemble instrumentation, following on from Xenakis’s ‘Analogique A + B’ (1958-59), Berio’s ‘Differences’ (1958-60), and Stockhausen’s ‘Kontakte (1959-60), amongst many others. What makes Gerhard’s ‘Symphony No. 3’ unique however, is his emphasis on sound layering. The symphony prioritises electronic materials that are comparatively long in duration and rich in detail, resulting in a complexity of sound in the tape materials not seen in contemporary works of a similar instrumentation.

For his ‘Symphony No. 3’, Gerhard created 10 ‘bands’ – the term Gerhard used to refer to each unique tape cue in the work – that were performed live on a tape machine in accompaniment with the orchestra. The bands were constructed from a wide range of different materials, and we can see here Gerhard’s fondness for sound materials that originate in audio recordings. Gerhard utilised snare drum rolls, timpani glissandi, castanets, piano and harpsichord samples, as well as a range of everyday household objects.

The listener can also hear a number of sounds borrowed from his earlier compositions ‘Asylum Diary’ and ‘Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter’. Some synthesis is also used, in the forms of filtered white noise and oscillator glissandi, likely either provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop or from one of Gerhard’s recordings of electronic sound catalogues, obtained through French and German electroacoustic music publications, such as ‘Gravesaner Blätter’. In selecting materials, Gerhard wrote: “any sort of sound-behaviour that could as well have been produced by the orchestra is, necessarily, avoided by the tape.”

‘Symphony No. 3’ is perhaps Gerhard’s most clear exploration of “sound-behaviour”, a term he used to describe the freedom electronics presented for tonal movement, rhythmic configuration and textural weaving in the construction of a work. The sound-behaviour of the electronic materials for ‘Symphony No. 3’ differed from the orchestra in two key ways, firstly tending towards an undetermined or fluctuating pitch, and secondly to a more rhythmically free (rather than metrically bound) motion. As such, the electronics operate as a kind of soloist, weaving through the orchestra, exploding and contracting across seven sections in a single long movement. When considering the organisation of these sound-behaviours, Gerhard conceptualised the form of the work in terms of “shape”:

I care enormously about shape, a telling shape, an apprehensible shape, a shape you could almost remember as shape, not the first time, to be sure, but after a time, after a number of times of listening to the piece, almost as you can remember a spatial sky-line, of town or hill – or mountain – range once you’ve become familiar with it; there is such a thing as a temporal sky-line, I believe, that’s what I mean when I say shape, only a temporal shape has got to be performed.’
Fittingly, ‘Symphony No. 3’ features some of the most dynamic shapes in Gerhard’s catalogue, highly profiled, the integrated rises and falls reflect his simultaneous conception and composition of the orchestral and electronic elements.
Pairing acoustic instruments with music concrète in this way presented something new for both the audience and the performers. Dick Mills, engineer at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and tape operator for the live performances of the work, spoke about the orchestra’s first encounter with ‘Symphony No. 3’:
…I think it was the second or third piece we played in. It’s a bit ‘bed-springy’, there’s a lot of ‘booing’… The orchestra just collapsed. They all knew who I was, because the Workshop was just upstairs and we all saw each other in the canteen at lunchtime. So Rudolph [Schwarz] comes over and says, ‘I must apologise for our unprofessionalism, but I have never heard anything like that before in my life!’ We thought, ‘No, nor has anybody else, that’s the whole point’. Then they started to take it seriously and we did the rehearsal.

Mills’ role as tape operator for the premiere of ‘Symphony No. 3’ was decided upon on the day. “I said, ‘Roberto, who’s going to play this tape?’ So he said, ‘Well I cannot, I am the composer, I have to sit down at the front and look important. And you are the only person who knows this tape as well as I do.’ I said ‘All right!’”

Despite a successful premiere, the first realisation of ‘Symphony No. 3’ was not perfect. The sound system was less powerful than was needed to effectively blend the tape and orchestra, and the proposed loudspeaker setup presented a challenge for the technical staff at the Royal Festival Hall.

A subsequent performance in 1967, under conductor Frederik Prausnitz, at a Promenade Concert was more favourable. For this performance, some tape cues were re-recorded, edited or reworked, each band was converted from mono to stereo, and the dynamics, previously having been performed live, were fixed to tape. The venue too was far better suited to the work, with the Royal Albert Hall’s cinema-style sound system providing far better projection than the Royal Festival Hall had six years earlier.

Over to you

What are your thoughts on the combination of orchestral forces and electronic sound? How do you think the ‘live’ aspect of this piece affects the listeners response to the music?


Gillies, S. (2022) “Symphony No. 3 (Collages)”.

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