Opus number: 23

Title: Sacred Symphonies

Instrumentation: 1-1-1-1; 1-1-0-0; 2 perc. pf, hp; strings

Date written: 1985, Boston; Bellagio, Italy

Length: 25 minutes

Commissioner and dedicatee: Verio Piroddi

Premiere performance:  Seattle Symphony, Christopher Kendall, conductor, February 10, 1987, Seattle, Washington

Important subsequent performances: Boston Conservatory Orchestra, Ronald Feldman, conductor, February 15, 1989; Symphony Pro Musica, Mark Churchill, conductor, May 1992, Hudson, MA; Da Capo Orchestra, Mark Hodgkinson, conductor, Christchurch, New Zealand, June 1996.

Recording:  Radio Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, Szymon  Kawalla, conductor, Radio Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Modern Masters #3016; tape of Feldman performance at The Boston Conservatory

Program notes:  The Sacred Symphonies was commissioned by and is dedicated to the composer’s Italian friend Verio Piroddi. Signor Piroddi had requested a religious work, therefore the composer drew from his own religious experience as a Southerner whose family was raised in the Pentecostal Holiness church. The title Sacred Symphonies is an Anglicization of the titles of the Schütz and Gabrieli works.

To prepare for the orchestral work Bell composed Four Sacred Songs for soprano and piano. Each song is a setting of a familiar hymn tune text, however the music is new and makes no reference to the original hymn tunes. The four movements of the Sacred  Symphonies correspond, Mahler-like, to the four songs: “There is a Fountain,” “Take the Name of Jesus with you,” “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus,” and “Spirit of God Descend upon my Heart.” Each represents a religious state: atonement, evangelism, suffering, and humility.

Sacred Symphonies  has a double texture throughout: The symphonic development of the themes of the songs coexists simultaneously with a slow-moving version of the songs in a distant tonality. The sequence of movements suggests a sense of spiritual progress–a coming to terms with the conflicts of the past.


Reviews: [recording] “ . . . a bittersweet, sophisticated, and half-ghostly simulacrum–the depth and simplicity of homespun religious sentiment.”

                                                                                                                    Mark Lehman-American Record Guide

Sacred Symphonies, (1985) by erstwhile North Carolina-native and Juilliard-graduate Larry Bell (b. 1952), is of more serious intent. In somewhat Ivesian fashion, the four movements of Sacred Symphonies are transformations of hymnlike music, settings originally created by Bell for his Four Sacred Songs . The difference between Bell and Ives is that the tunes themselves are his own, although clearly his music draws on the tradition of vernacular church music. The symphonic expansion of these tunes involves the parallel presentation of the hymn tune and its development along with a much slower version of the tune (although this isn’t always clear to me). This divided exposition amplifies the resemblance to Ives, particularly in the third movement. A few clichés—the cadence of the second movement, for example—slightly mar the appeal, but overall this is a substantive and moving work.

Performance and recording are not at the highest level, but are sufficient, I think, to indicate the potential of these works, which seems to be the point of the Music from Six Continents series. Partly due to the faulty, too-eclectic program, this will be of less-than-average interest except to the very curious, but I think the Silsbee and Bell pieces merit further exposure. This disc is available from, an interesting distributor of new music recordings.

Robert Kirzinger-Fanfare Magazine

 This article originally appeared in Issue 28:5 (May/June 2005) of Fanfare Magazine.

Review: [performance] “Conductor Mark Hodgkinson’s skill with the acquired art of programme building was shown in the final piece, ‘Sacred Symphonies’ by one Larry Bell.

“This contemporary American composer is new to me, and his music had plenty to arrest and stimulate an audience, with nothing to alarm the wary listener. Bright orchestral colours, dancing rhythms, and melodies recotnisable as such made a winning formula.

“ . . with soloists and programmes as rewarding as thes, ‘Da Capo’ concerts remain very much work watching out


–Timothy Jones The Press  New Zealand (June 24, 1996)