97. Symphony Nr. 1, “The Viennese Legacy”

Whitwell, Symphony No. 1
  1. Chaconne
  2. Adagio

All musicians experience many lonely hours of practice improving their profession.  Their greatest reward for all this work is an occasional peak performance, some rare musical experience.  All musicians also spend many hours in public service, performing often without pay and in many cases with the feeling that no one is listening to them perform.  But these services are the base that make possible the peak experiences at the top.

One such service performance I shall always remember was shortly after I became the associate principal horn in the USAF Band and Orchestra in Washington, DC in 1959.  There was an annual service we performed to provide background music for the famous Alfalfa Dinner, a very popular event attended by the very top members of the government.  Held in the ballroom of a large hotel, we, a chamber orchestra, were seated in the balcony, hidden behind a low curtain so the people in attendance could hear the music, but not see the players.  Nevertheless, I could see over the curtain and as a young man in town it was exciting to see in person all these famous people.  I remember in particular watching President Kennedy sitting and conversing with former President Truman.

We performed only Strauss Waltzes; the orchestra had a book of them, which we played, one after another, non-stop with no prior rehearsal.  The principal hornist took the night off and left this job for me.  It was a tremendous challenge, first because Strauss Waltzes have many internal tempi changes but also for me the fact that here and there were very exposed horn solos.  I would turn a page and see suddenly an important solo which I had to perform with no prior experience or rehearsal at all.  The other members of the orchestra had done this many times and so paid little attention to me as just another musician doing his duty.  This lack of recognition from them, not to mention the audience below, left me feeling I had managed a difficult performance that no one heard.

With this background, the reader will understand how touched I was one very cold night in Vienna when I saw, late at night, a solitary horn player, poorly dressed for the weather, struggling in the face of the strong wind with his horn case on his back.  This poor musician had no doubt been performing some festive music at the Hofburg, helping provide entertainment music for the aristocrats of Vienna who were now riding home in their chauffeured limousines.  Seeing this poor fellow slowly making his way home touched me deeply.  The thought immediately occurred to me that this was the unseen dark side of those happy waltzes, the unrecognized individual players.  It was thinking of him that brought this music to the surface; the “dark side” of the Viennese waltz. The two movements are a continuous development of a single theme.

Toward the end of the second movement I wrote a little chorale first in minor and then repeated in major.  I think it was the first time I had become functionally aware how many minor chords there are in a major tonality and how many major chords there are in a minor tonality.  And yet, how different is the emotion between the two, because the melody is so different in major than in minor.

In the first version this symphony had a third movement, a brief March.  But after some reflection I decided this movement was not in the appropriate character to follow the first two movements, so I destroyed it.

As this was my first composition, my Opus One, I sent out a few tape copies of the premiere performance and received the following kind reactions:

I have listened to your Symphony several times – Congratulations David!!

I like it very much indeed.  As I have told you several times – I consider you the most talented student I ever had.  But I did not know of your talent as a composer.

William D. Revelli, Ann Arbor, MI, Nov. 8, 1987, University of Michigan


Thanks for sharing your performance of your own “OPUS ONE” with me.

To me it was first class all the way — in concept, in execution and in listening.  How on earth have you kept your talent as a composer under a bushel for so long!! Congratulations!

Mark Hindsley, Urbana, IL, Nov. 11, 1987, University of Illinois

I certainly enjoyed hearing your symphony.  The trouble is that I like the work; the first movement is especially good.  Now what do I do with a “Post-Brahmsian” composition written in 1987?

I hope you don’t mind my “joshing” a little.  The symphony, especially as an Opus One, is really very good.  It fills a void in the wind band repertoire and therefore is a very valuable work for student organizations.

Leon Bly, Stuttgart, Germany, Nov. 12, 1987

I have given your “Opus 1” at least a dozen hearings.  I’ve played it in the morning, in the evening, driving to and from.  I really like it.  It is outstanding.  Being a work of traditional content doesn’t detract a bit.  I find myself drawn to the work more every time I hear it.  You have a wealth of ideas in the Chaconne.  And the order of their succession is perfect.  I’ve played it for several friends and they all agree on the unique quality of the work as a whole.  No one failed to notice the depth of feeling in the chorale-portion of the Adagio.  The lyricism is absolutely heart-warming!

Robert Bailey (professional trombonist), Minneapolis, MN, Oct. 19, 1988

Thanks for the tape of your Symphony.  I enjoyed listening to it, even so you say it sounds like old music; but it is written so perfectly well for a combination of wind instruments, so it really sounds! My sincere congratulations.

Karel Husa, Ithaca, New York, April 12, 1989

My Symphony Nr. 1 is available through the amazing catalog by Maxime’s Music at concertbandmusicstore.com.