`The symphony - all bits and pieces... No one would understand... no one... no one... Don't let anyone tinker with it...' And, for over 60 years, no one did.

But now Elgar's deathbed wishes have been disobeyed, the sketches for his final symphony have been completed and the result, says Stephen Johnson, is a work that signals a new direction for classical music.

We had just reached the end of the private premiere of "Elgar's Third Symphony". Audience and orchestra had at last stopped applauding. A young composer (who may prefer to remain nameless) bent towards my ear and muttered: "All right, how many first performances have you come out of recently humming the tunes?" Of course it's a trite question, and composer X's carefully ironic tone didn't make it any less so. We've moved on from themes and development these days, haven't we? Composers of all persuasions are trying to find new ways of cultivating the lyrical impulse. But four months after X cautiously posed his question, I am still finding it hard to think of a single new piece from the past 10 years that has made me feel like opening my throat and singing - except, strikingly, this symphony.

Well, if nothing else, the first performance of the sketches for Elgar's Third Symphony, as elaborated by Anthony Payne, gave one old piece of received wisdom the thorough drubbing it deserved. For years we have been told that the surviving material for Elgar's last symphony is a sad testimony to the old composer's declining powers; not only is the original material pretty feeble, we've been informed, but there's actually very little of it. The rest is old ideas recycled, or skeletal scraps of ideas, undecipherable to anyone but the composer himself. The whole thing, it's said, has the look of a doomed project. After all, it was 20 years since Elgar had last written a symphony and almost as long since he had written anything substantial at all. By the end, surely even Elgar must have realised that he was stalling for time.

Wrong. Gloriously wrong. You don't have to look any further than the opening bars of the Third Symphony - brazen octaves and fifths, grinding in contrary motion - to realise that something special is happening here. Granted, the basic idea may derive from a sketch for the unfinished oratorio The Last Judgement, but then Elgar often refreshed himself creatively by reaching into his bottom drawer. And anyway the whole motif is transformed: an odd, distinctly un-Elgarian-looking figure becomes a theme that fairly erupts with potential energy, capable of setting a huge, sweeping musical paragraph in motion. A little later, after Elgar's own beautifully engineered transition (is the equivalent passage in the Second Symphony quite as effective?), comes the "Second Subject": tender, lilting, in Elgar's best "feminine" vein - and completely original this time. Apparently this is another Elgarian love theme, inspired by a young admirer, the violinist Vera Hockman (the initials "VH" stand next to the theme in one sketch). This long melody still haunts my memory - partly, I admit, because I had to play the sketch at the piano during the pre-concert talk I hosted with Anthony Payne; but also because it's so extraordinarily lovely. Feeble?! Now, just remember, count to 10...

It would be easy to go on listing glorious tunes, striking motifs or developments which Anthony Payne has derived from those evidently far from undecipherable sketches. All four movements seem crammed to bursting with memorable music. But there's a nagging question. Well, it doesn't exactly "nag" me, but I admit it's hard to answer. Whose symphony is this? To give a reasonably straightforward answer, some of it is pure Elgar, some of it is Elgar orchestrated or fleshed out, some of it is Elgar "guessed" - or, more charitably, inferred - and some of it is pure Anthony Payne.

It would be wrong to call the Symphony "Elgar", and not just for moral reasons: there are passages where some of the pleasure derives from how like Elgar a development or a piece of orchestral colour is. But, confusingly, I feel that sensation just as strongly in the development theme of the first movement (which Payne has merely orchestrated) as in the coda of the finale (which he has completely composed). And, even knowing more or less bar-by-bar who did what, I honestly can't say that I experience the Symphony as the product of two minds, however well married. Putting that question to conductor Andrew Davis, who directed that memorable first run-through, I found his impression was exactly the same. This is very much "a work", even if you can't always say exactly whose work it is.

So is there an answer? For me, the clue comes in Payne's ending of the finale: a massive crescendo and diminuendo based on the finale's main theme - an idea that came to Payne quite spontaneously (during a sleepless night in an American hotel), but which he soon realised was roughly analogous to that vividly pictorial movement "The Wagon Passes" from The Nursery Suite. In the Symphony, as the music dies away, there's a flickering reference to the first movement's opening theme, then the final sound is a quiet stroke from gong and low harp, reverberating into nothing. Not everybody likes that final touch. "More like Mahler than Elgar" was one comment. For me, it's like Tony Payne's signature - the aural equivalent of the Laus Deo ("Praise be to God") that Haydn used to write at the end of his scores. It's certainly in keeping with Payne's vision of what the piece is about - and without that vision, of course, there would be no "Third Symphony", only those much-misunderstood sketches.

"Vision" is truly the word. So much so that it makes me wonder if Payne isn't being a little over-modest in calling the Symphony simply an "elaboration" of Elgar's sketches. It is quite different from what, say, Deryck Cooke did with the sketch score of Mahler's 10th Symphony, or from Professor Brian Newbould's painstaking filling-out of the fragments of Schubert's numerous unfinished symphonies.

Payne is, after all, a composer - a composer saturated in 20th-century English romantic music. As his 1985 Proms commission The Spirit's Harvest showed, the works of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and their contemporaries were among the sounds that first inspired him to compose. His earliest efforts were, he says, "pure English romantic". It is as a composer - not merely a musical detective - that he has "elaborated" the sketches for Elgar's Third Symphony. This is a genuinely creative exercise, full of that "nature's fire" demanded by Robbie Burns; it couldn't be less like pastiche.

In the interview we conducted before that first, private performance last October, Payne described his mounting excitement as he realised that Elgar's material had a life of its own - that it was fully capable of suggesting its own developments. It was possible to take the ideas and transplant them, like seedlings, and watch them grow. That the process was as organic as that metaphor suggests is, I believe, reflected in the "work", the Elgar/Payne Symphony.

So, if this is a genuinely creative musical work, how does it fit into Anthony Payne's already extensive output? In my more fanciful moments, I have caught myself wondering if this wasn't what Payne was put on earth to do. But let's not write his epitaph just yet. As he said in that pre- concert talk, the experience of putting the Third Symphony together has made him think hard about the way he, and others, compose today. Perhaps we spend so much time and energy devising structures, processes, because we are incapable of creating basic material with the "life of its own" that Payne found among Elgar's sketches. If, in helping to create Elgar's Third Symphony, Anthony Payne has found the beginnings of a way back to classical Western thematic composition, it will be fascinating to see what he turns up. Until then, there's always this stirring - and eminently hummable - Symphony.


The first public performance of the Elgar/Payne Symphony No 3 will be given by the BBC SO, under Andrew Davis, on Sun 15 Feb at 7.30pm in the RFH, SBC, London SE1 (tel 0171 960 4242). It will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm on Mon 16 Feb.

A recording of the first private performance, preceded by a conversation between Anthony Payne, Andrew Davis and Stephen Johnson, will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 9.35pm on Tue 17 Feb.

The premiere recording of the work, together with a documentary disc featuring a commentary by Anthony Payne and performances of the original sketches, will be released by NMC Recordings (distributed by the Complete Record Co) on 15 Feb (NMC D053 and NMC D052 respectively).