This is a dynamic, tightly organized, and muscular work. It is not quite a concerto for timpani, but does have a taxing and prominent leading role for that instrument.
It is the work that propelled the Armenian composer (born in 1921 in Gori, Soviet Georgia, but brought up in Yerevan, Armenia and educated primarily in the Conservatory there) to fame both throughout the Soviet Union and abroad. The great Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich hailed it on its premiere as a great achievement in Armenian music, and later acknowledged that it had an influence on him.
Mirzoyan himself was influenced by Shostakovich as well as Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, Sergey Prokofiev, and his fellow Armenian Aram Khachaturian, though in this work he forgoes the color and direct melodic appeal of the last-named of those composers in favor of a tightly symphonic structure.
The symphony is in four movements, totaling about 30 minutes. The string writing is rarely lush, but instead takes on the lean, acerbic character that is often a feature of twentieth century string orchestra writing. The timpani do more than just punctuate and mark rhythms; they often play an important melodic role.
The first movement begins with an Andante patetico introduction in which strings in a chorale and timpani strokes establish a tense, dramatic atmosphere. The main theme emerges from this on cellos and basses and is said to be based on an Armenian folk theme, though it does not have the exotic flavor associated with such music. The movement ranges far in mood, from a driving continuation of tension to a sad, high, and slow violin solo theme. The main body of the movement is a double fugue, though it does not have the academic quality that one might expect. The movement comes to an abrupt end.
The second movement, Allegretto ma non troppo, stands in the position of a scherzo. Timpani and plucked basses establish a rhythm of a processional march or a slow dance, and here the melodies do take on the color and exoticism of Armenian music, including a tendency to trills on repeated notes. There is a lovely moment of innocence, but then the mood grows uncertain; an eerie passage in harmonics and the continuation of the nearly unceasing treading rhythm lead to a conclusion that is, once again, unresolved in character.
The sad slow movement, Adagio; Andante doloroso; Allegro risoluto, begins with the chorale idea of the introduction to the first movement. A second idea, sad but lyrical, appears on violas. Mirzoyan reserves the timpani in this movement, bringing them in at the high point of a fast section led off by the violas. This emotional outburst exhausts itself, but reappears briefly to end the movement.
The finale, Allegro vivo; Andante; Allegro starts off with an arresting series of repeated notes. Aside from the contrasting central slow section, the movement whirls in predominantly positive terms, treating the main melodic material of prior sections in a forceful statement of positive determination.