Music for violin and piano


Duration: c. 9 minutes

1. Prelude

2. Hoquetus piangere

3. Canone rilassato

4. Cantabile instabile

5. Canone energico

6. In volo luminoso

Still the Light Burns is a sonata of interrelated movements dealing with music from my opera Climbing Toward Midnight. The title is taken from a line by the Expressionist poet Georg Trakl that forms the central dramatic panel in Act II of the opera. The musical phrase Kundry sings- “O how still the light burns”- forms the basis for all the movements’ variations whether sobbing, singing, flying or in various states of canon. 

The first movement is a prelude which launches the violin high, yet burns up very quickly. The ‘weeping hocket’ of the second movement sees the instruments completing each other’s drooping phrases while gradually gaining traction and momentum in knotted counterpoint. The two canons either side of the central slow movement are the identical in content, yet sharply contrasted in character. They summarise the work’s harmony as linear melody. The slow movement itself is a set of variations gradually revealing its latent origins in opera. The finale flies fast and canonic, pausing only to bring the first movement its long-awaited climax before a concluding headlong flourish. 

First performed 4 May 2013, The Rocks Windmill, Sydney by Doretta Balkizas & Jack Symonds

Listen to the complete work performed by Doretta Balkizas & Jack Symonds


Duration: c. 5 minutes

Designed as a companion piece to Still the Light Burns, these miniatures are reflections of some of the larger piece’s musical concerns and obsessions.
The first is high and immobile, suspended in the air before a single fall and ascent which will be a feature of all the movements. The second is two simple gestures- a quick dialogue and a rhythmic disintegration. The third is a palindrome around a phrase from Zemlinsky’s rapturous opera Der Traumgörge where the central character asks the meaning of artistic beauty from a mirror. The fourth movement is a tiny mensuration canon which prefigures the final barcarolle- a last tribute to Henze gathering in all the other postscripts. 

First performed 26 March, ANAM, Melbourne by Doretta Balkizas & Jack Symonds

Listen to the complete work performed by Doretta Balkizas & Jack Symonds

Ein Fremder im fremden Land

Cello Sonata No. 1 (2013 – 2014)

Duration: c. 20 minutes

1. Two Preludes

2. Dialogue de l’ombre single

3. Adagio in Zemlinskys gebrochenes Handschrift

4. Una galleria di sette scherzi

5. Poesia rappresentativo

The title of this five-movement cello suite- ‘A stranger in a strange land’ comes from the text of Alexander Zemlinsky’s rapturous Lyric Symphony. The odd- numbered movements are portraits of Zemlinsky, his music and his aesthetics. The first movement is made of two contrasting preludes, one freely glittering in the top register and the other growing organically from the bottom. 

The second movement sees the cello and piano frustratingly unable to sound anything at the same time, constantly and inescapably taking it in turns to find a way through an unstable labyrinth of gestures. The ‘single shadow’ of the title refers to my very un-Boulezian attempt to refrain from polyphony and maintain the illusion of just one highly eccentric line being performed. 

The third movement is an imaginary scene where all the major works of Zemlinsky’s prime period- from the Maeterlinck songs through the two Expressionist operas, second String Quartet and Lyric Symphony- are swirling around in his head. His ‘broken handwriting’ barely holds together this plangent cornucopia of ideas.

Next, the fourth movement is a ‘gallery’ of seven scherzi, each a variation on a single chord. They are miniaturised yet incomplete, always requiring the next scherzo to ‘finish’. Several are newly distorted versions of other music in the piece, though the floating final scherzo leads directly into the fifth movement. The heading on this finale is ‘My lamp to light your way’, the final line of the Lyric Symphony. Here I imagine the cello’s continuous song finding repose and possibly the smallest comfort after the difficulties of the rest of the piece. 

Commissioned by Timo-Veikko Valve

Listen to the complete work performed by Timo-Veikko Valve & Jack Symonds

Score samples here

thick with garbage and the dust of stars

Trakl-Pictures for String Quartet (2013)

Duration: c. 14 minutes

The four unequal movements of this string quartet are snapshots from the lurid poetry of Austrian Expressionist Georg Trakl.

The first two movements are fragments; question marks. The first is a slow swirl of uncertainty, the second a warped descent. The third movement is fast, and obsesses over hard scraps of theme with the gears constantly shifting. The fourth movement is a numbed night-vision which looks up at a cold sky and sees the rest of the piece disappear out of sight.

Commissioned by Carriageworks

First performance: 17 August 2013, Carriageworks, Sydney by the JACK Quartet

Listen to the premiere performance by the JACK Quartet

View the complete score here

2 Rilke Lieder

for soprano, viola/viola d’amore & clarinet (2014)

Duration: c. 9 minutes

Rilke’s Die Engel and Lösch mir die Augen aus are two poems which display his visionary conception of the spiritual and of love.

In Die Engel, the five movements of the composition cut across Rilke’s text overlaying a new structure on his mystical evocation of a terrifying angel. The ‘Alpha-and-Omega’ quality of this figure is here represented by palindromes both exact and inexact. The outer movements are exact palindromes, the second and fourth fast movements are gestural palindromic variations, and the central slow movement contains palindromic interval shapes.

In contrast, Liebeslied fanatically dissects Rilke’s extraordinary nine-line evocation of a love so powerful it can transcend the body into a nine-part form made of collections of genre pieces, each colouring a single line. First come a series of four variations on a chord, widening the expressive extreme until almost breaking. Next is a pair of Hommages- the first is to Salvatore Sciarrino, where the ‘breaking’ is here achieved with his characteristic splintered quietude. Next is a genuflection to Hans Werner Henze- describing hands and hearts-, which strings together tiny splinters from some of his most rapturous passages. Finally, three quick canons all run together, contorting themselves in increasingly complex contrapuntal formations until a canon at the unison ties an open-ended knot. 

Commissioned by Jane Sheldon for performance at her first Symbiosis Concert, 18 July 2014

Die Engel

Performed by Jane Sheldon (soprano), James Wannan (viola/ viola d’amore) and Jason Noble (clarinet)

Score sample here

Decadent Purity

for viola d’amore and ensemble (11 players)

Duration: c. 28 minutes

“Could this have been love? Grant it to be one form of love, for even though at first glance it seemed to retain its pristine form forever, simply repeating that form over and over again, it too had its own unique sort of debasement and decay. And it was a debasement more evil than that of any normal kind of love. Indeed, of all the kinds of decay in this world, decadent purity is the most malignant.”
Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask

The seven movements of this concerto explore the shifting weights of fanatical obsession and desire. The first and sixth simply investigate how we hear the sacred construction of a scale, the second, fourth and seventh deal with the accrual and dispersal of unstable energy and the third and fifth are interior slow movements reaching back to a curdled and disappeared romanticism.
The centre, mostly hidden, is the solo viola d’amore’s tuning of its 7 strings to a chord of D minor. Every other process tries to disrupt and desecrate the natural harmonic construction of this ancient instrument. The ensemble acts like a modern mirror, offering the viola d’amore an at-times unkind reflection of its material. The soloist’s relationship with the surrounding ensemble isn’t combative: they often amplify and extend the feelings and thoughts of the soloist, and occasionally present an entirely opposite direction and alternative path. 

First performance: Bendigo International Festival of Experimental Music, James Wannan (viola d’amore), Argonaut Ensemble conducted by Jack Symonds

Listen to the recording of the world premiere

View the complete score here

Guardare, meravigliarsi…

Five nocturnes for solo piano (2021)

Duration: c. 17.5 minutes (2’30” + 4’30” + 3’30” + 3’30” + 3’30”)

Guardare, meravigliarsi… is a collection of five nocturnes, each of which attempts to create the illusion of a multiplicity of layers within a single instrument. The title is from a recurring libretto line and musical figure in Luigi Dallapiccola’s major opera Ulisse: “Guardare, meravigliarsi, e tornar a guardare” (‘to gaze, to marvel, and to return to gazing”), representing the questing, visionary spirit of Ulysses, as well as being a metaphor for the process of composition itself. 

1. Notturno sospeso: a rising figure separates the registers of the keyboard into something like a ‘sky’ and a ‘sea’, with a ‘suspended’ melody poised to dip downwards at any moment. 

2. Notturno in riflessione: one single melody is ‘reflected’ softly into the middle register; a world of mirrors where every figure is sometimes exactly imitated and at others distorted.

3. Notturno ghiacciato: A slow, 3-part canon ‘freezes’ into a landscape of widely-spaced chords from which tendrils of the opening almost succeed in escaping.

4. Notturno in ommagio: The opening bar of Gabriel Fauré’s mysterious final Nocturne slips into a hommage-commentary on Fauré’s own pianistic world, before atomising into a wild middle section of keyboard extremes. The return of the Fauré material extinguishes into silence.

5. Notturno corrente: ‘Flowing’ from one idea to the next, this nocturne takes the material of the other four and creates continuity. Its final slow section is a commentary on the phrase from Dallapiccola, finding an uneasy repose somewhere between his harmonic practice and my own.

These nocturnes may be played individually or in any combination/ shorter sequence, however if Nocturne No. 5 is performed, it must always be played last.

Some suggested alternative orders:

2, 4, 5
4, 1, 5
3, 5
1, 4, 2
1, 3, 4, 5

Listen to Jack Symonds perform the complete work

Score samples here


for flute and five musicians (2019 – 2020)

Duration: c. 19 minutes

This flute concerto burrows into the processes of remembering. How can music ‘remember’ – other people, other notes? The first movement is a decayed memory of the opening of Allan Pettersson’s Thirteenth Symphony, a work of extreme instability and energetic violence seen from afar, after time has perhaps erased much of its anger – what is left?

The central movement creates a representation of ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ – a purging from society’s collective memory, or a rewriting of history. A series of variations progressively have their musical ‘identities’ erased by a repeating gesture that attempts to extinguish the soloist – here cast as an antagonist to be purged from the landscape.

The final movement considers the Hapax – something that only occurs once in a work. Would we recognise and remember if it we heard it? Curlicues of bass flute melody infold themselves in a hall of mirrors where all events are reflected and repeated except one – the key to unlocking the piece. 

Memory was commissioned by Ensemble Offspring

First performance: 28 October 2021, Sydney Opera House Utzon Room by Lamorna Nightingale (flutes) with Ensemble Offspring (Jason Noble, Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba, Chris Pidcock, Ben Kopp & Claire Edwardes) conducted by Jack Symonds

Movement I
Movement II
Movement III

Listen to the work performed by Lamorna Nightingale, Ensemble Offspring cond. Jack Symonds

View the complete score here


for soprano, piano and string sextet (2020 – 2021)

Duration: c. 12 minutes

This song cycle is a portrait of the German fin-de-siècle poet Richard Dehmel. Lines and stanzas from five of Dehmel’s poems are woven together to give glimpses of a world vision which trembles on the brink of Expressionism, seeped through with an mystical, weary Romanticism. I have attempted to create a continuity of image from the storms of desire (Ansturm) through the haunted, nocturnal ‘blossoming’ of death-soaked flowers (Maiblumen blühten überall), a gnomic vision of a lonely, inhuman place (Aufblick) leading to a chilling apparition (Erwartung) and finally, the ambiguous horror of true recognition (Die stille Stadt). 

Blühen is commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of Arts and the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide as recipient of the John Bishop Memorial Commission 2020.

First performance: 5 March, 2021 UKARIA, Adelaide Festival by Jessica Aszodi (soprano), Jack Symonds (piano), Australian String Quartet, James Wannan & Blair Harris

Listen to Blühen performed by Jessica Aszodi (soprano), Jack Symonds (piano), Australian String Quartet, James Wannan & Blair Harris

View the complete score here

À la recherche d’Eden perdu

Cello Sonata No. 2 (2021)

Duration: c. 17 mins

  1. Eau vivante
  2. Intermède (Purgatoire)
  3. Entre les jardins du paradis et de l’enfer

This sonata attempts a détente with the artistic world of Paris, circa WWI.  The first movement deals with Gabriel Fauré’s late song Eau vivante from La chanson d’Ève: a miracle of unstable continuity. In Fauré, a constantly refreshed single line weaves through the piano beneath an unbroken surface of delicate harmony: a perfected vision of water in the Garden of Eden.

Eau vivante is an attempt to analyse, synthesise and dip into this spring of harmony, yet is in a process of constant failure. I find it fascinating when a series of musical events which achieve a harmonious result in Fauré can be run aground, taken to extremes and led into impossible dead-ends. I have tried, more than a century later, to reconstruct the rarefied atmosphere conjured by the isolated, near-deaf Fauré at the turn of the 20th Century. Can we really dream of an untrammelled natural world in 2021?

If this movement is a thwarted, unreachable heaven, the second movement is a short, paralysed Purgatory, effortfully going nowhere.

The last movement attempts a more Proustian synthesis between remembered images of heaven and hell, initially presented strictly in alternation but the one continually bleeding into the other to form an unholy, messy reality. Bacchanals, bells and an unexpected berceuse transform dying embers of Fauré-memory and purgatorial inertia into an uneasy repose.

The complete work is commissioned by Kim Williams AM for Blair Harris.

Eau vivante is commissioned by the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) as part The ANAM Set (2021), written for Oliver Russell and given its world premiere on 30 October 2021 at the Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne. The ANAM Set was funded by the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund – an Australian Government Initiative.

Listen to the first movement, Eau vivante recorded at ANAM by Oliver Russell and Leigh Harrold

The Shape of the Earth

for male voice, piano and electronics (45′)

text by Pierce Wilcox



premiered 1 September 2018 at Resonant Bodies Festival, Carriageworks Sydney by Mitchell Riley (voice), Jack Symonds (piano), Benjamin Carey (electronics), Alexander Berlage (direction and design)

My new staged song cycle takes as its inspiration Patrick White’s iconic novel Voss and reimagines it completely. Pierce Wilcox and I were concerned not to emulate the epic, heroic tone of the novel (already a Grand Opera by Richard Meale), but rather interrogate its ideas in 21 quizzical miniature songs, reflecting shards of a complex, broken persona. This Voss is an idealist thrown into a world he longs to understand, yet remains always out of reach. The five parts of this work trace a journey from comic disbelief to flayed loneliness, with White’s indelible creation hovering just in the background.

To make this kind of work in Australia in 2018 requires a loving scepticism of the idea of Romantic, European ambition and an unflinching desire to try to understand how it became a dominant force in 19th and 20th century culture.

photo: Zan Wimberley