Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Days 193 – 199

Day 193

12 July 2017: Mathias – Symphony No. 1 (1965)
Along with James MacMillan (see Day 75), William Mathias is the only other composer I'm featuring this year who I've actually met. Back in the mid-80s, when I was planning to do my music degree, I went for an interview at Bangor University. Mathias was Professor of Composition at Bangor the time, as he was up until four years before his untimely death in 1992, and he did a very good job of trying to persuade me to go there. In the end, I opted for Keele, but he certainly made a very big impression and I developed something of an interest in his work as a result.

His first symphony is a fairly early work, written when he was just 30, and his influences are fairly clearly discernible in it. There are strong echoes of early Tippett in the piece, and also of his composition teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Lennox Berkeley. What there also is though, is an innate sense of compositional balance, and, in the cleverly paced slow movement, no shortage of damn-good-tune writing. It's fair to say that Mathias will probably never be held in the same regard as some of his more illustrious contemporaries, such as Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies. Hopefully, he won't slide into total obscurity either.

Day 194

13 July 2017: Webern – Symphony, Op 21 (1928)
Anton Webern didn't write a whole lot of music. There are only 31 opus numbers, many of which – like this symphony – are effectively miniatures. As a consequence, Pierre Boulez's recordings of Webern's entire body of work fit on just 6 CDs. The impact that this music had, however is immense. Together with his contemporaries Arnold Schoenberg and his colleague Alban Berg they were the engine room of the Second Viennese School, and pretty much changed the face of music in the 20th century. Of the three, Webern was probably the most hardcore in his approach to twelve-tone theory, ultimately using the ideas to organise not just pitch but rhythm and dynamics too.

Nothing highlights the problem I sometimes have with serialism more than the fact that many of the learned pieces that have been written analysing this symphony take considerably longer to read than the work itself takes to listen to. It does feel at times that it's about 90% academic exercise and 10% inspiration. I am quite prepared to accept, however, that this is a miniature masterpiece. Every single note has a purpose, and there is nothing in it that cannot be justified. It is music pared down to the barest essentials. Furthermore, it opened doors for composers that followed, and while the stark theory of serialism soon found its limitations, Webern and his ilk created a tool with which composers could build the music of the avant garde.

Day 195

14 July 2017: Elsa Barraine – Symphony No. 2 (1938)
I doubt if there are many out there who are familiar with the work of Elsa Barraine. I know I wasn't, but one of the many goals I set myself this year was to not only discover unfamiliar repertoire generally, but to make a conscious effort to explore the music of some of the more neglected female composers. Sadly, there are many, and as is to prove the point about how much digging has to be done to hear them, the reason I've chosen Symphony No. 2 is because, to the best of my knowledge, there is no recording of No. 1.

Barraine won the Prix de Rome in 1929, and while that was by no means a gateway to instant fame (the two previous winners are decidedly obscure names ... Edmond Gaujac and Raymond Loucheur, anyone?) she did enjoy a great degree of success in her native France prior to World War II. The war rather curtailed her composing; in fact, she pretty much abandoned music and became heavily involved with the French Resistance. She worked mostly in education after the war, but carried on composing well into her twilight years. Very little of her music is heard today, which is a shame because if this is anything to go by there's a lot to like about it. Musically, it's not obvious to spot any links to any of her contemporaries, and although the influence of the previous generation of composers such as Les Six may be in the mix somewhere, Barraine clearly forged a path of her own. The highlight for me was the taut string writing in the central Marche Funèbre movement. I'd like to hear more of her music, but it could take some finding.

Day 196

15 July 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 6 (1954)
I don't think I can get through any kind of write-up of an Edmund Rubbra symphony without using the word 'neglected', so I'm going to get it in early. This is an absolutely fabulous symphony, and the fact that is utterly neglected and has been since the mid-1950s is nothing short of criminal. I've got no facts to back this up, but I'd be reasonably sure that, as a result of separate releases in the 1990s conducted by Norman Del Mar and Richard Hickox, this has been recorded more times in the last 60 years than it has been publicly performed.

I suppose that, just as the arrival of punk in the mid-70s rendered a lot of its rock music predecessors moribund, so the coming of the avant garde and the Darmstadt School in the mid-50s did for composers like Rubbra. Certainly the BBC played their part at the time by turning away from music they felt was embarrassingly traditional. Anyway, surely enough water has passed under the bridge by now for Rubbra to be listened to with fresh ears. I'd recommend any new listeners to start here because the glorious lyricism on display here is almost beyond compare in post-war British music. And as for the beautiful Canto: Largo e sereno second movement, that really is peak Rubbra in my view. The great thing about his music is that each new hearing seems to reveal something you missed last time. I can never tire of it.

Day 197

16 July 2017: Elgar – Symphony No. 2 (1911)
I had, more or less, assembled my listening schedule for this Symphony A Day project by the middle of January. So when the 2017 BBC Proms programme was announced in April, I thought it might be a nice idea to shuffle it around a bit so that I could marry up my symphony-listening task with a performance of said symphony at that day's Prom. The first such opportunity arose today in Prom 4, which saw Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin perform Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony. It turned out to be an inspired decision, as I can honestly say that I've never heard this particular work performed better.

It is probably Elgar's most misunderstood work. It was dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, who died the previous year, and had been intended as a loyal tribute to the King, who was still alive when Elgar began composing it. Any thought that this might be some form of patriotic tub-thumping, however, is dispelled within about two minutes of what is clearly a deeply personal score. The first movement starts nobly enough with a theme known as "Spirit of Delight", but it soon takes a more sombre turn, and by the time the heart-wrenching Larghetto second movement takes hold, there's not a dry eye in the house. Quite what inspired such overt soul-baring has been the subject of much speculation. Not many buy the tribute to the sovereign line, and other recently departed acquaintances such as Alfred E. Rodewald have been put forward. Likeliest is his alleged romantic liaison with Alice Stuart Wortley over the previous couple of years. It's not essential to know, in any event, the 'why' of this symphony. The combination of this score in the hands of this conductor demonstrates amply the emotional power of music.

Day 198

17 July 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10 (1953)
As coincidence would have it, the opportunity for another Proms tie-in arose with tonight's BBC National Orchestra of Wales performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's tenth symphony. After his ninth had been condemned by critics and authorities alike, essentially for being too glib, it would be eight years before Shostakovich would write No. 10. It's an undeniable fact of chronology that this symphony was first performed just a few months after the death of Stalin, leading many to conclude that the two events were intrinsically connected.  As it is though, the exact date of composition is unclear, with the suggestion that it was written a year or two earlier.

There is one very clear pointer as to the nature of this work though, and that is the prominent place given to his own musical monogram – the letters DSCH, which in German notation equate to the notes D, E flat, C and B. Shostakovich used this in many other works, usually those of a deeply personal nature such as the Violin and Cello Concertos, and his String Quartet No. 8. Thus the symphony is at least in some part autobiographical. It begins with another of Shostakovich's massive first movements, accounting for almost half the symphony's entire length and drawing clear parallels to the similarly scaled equivalent movements in Symphonies 5 and 8. If the Stalinist connection is to be believed, then this might be interpreted as a depiction of his nightmarish regime, and the fact that the DSCH theme emerges triumphantly at the end of the finale might tell us all we need to know about the composer's intention. Nothing is ever as simple as that with old Dmitri, though, and the fact that another monogram has been identified in the score – E-La-Mi-Re-A, associated with a female pupil of his by the name of Elmira Nazirova – leads me to think it's time to stop digging and start listening!

Day 199

18 July 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 4 (1911)
The big-hitters are coming thick and fast at the moment, and after a couple of emotionally saturated works from Elgar and Shostakovich, here we have probably the bleakest symphony of Jean Sibelius's output. Completed in 1911, coincidentally the same year as the Elgar, this is a very dark symphony from a dark period in the composer's life. Two years before beginning this work, Sibelius had undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his throat, and it was said that for some time afterwards he feared the disease's return. Again, some composer-as-visionary fruitcakes have said that there are portents of World War I in the music, as if the composer's cancer wasn't reason enough for the music to be as gloomy as it is.

It's hard to think of a darker opening to any symphony than the deep growl of the cellos, double basses and bassoons. The mood scarcely lifts at any point, although the second movement does have something approaching a jaunty tune at times, with occasional brightness from a glockenspiel. It's a brief respite though, and the music eventually descends into something approaching despair. The ending is particularly bereft of hope with stark A minor chords marked mezzo-forte; probably the only symphony in the conventional repertoire to end in the mid-dynamic range, which has left many an audience wondering whether the work has actually finished. I first heard this in the early-90s I think and just didn't 'get it' at all. It's now one of my favourites, although it can be a tough journey sometimes.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Days 190 – 192

Day 190

9 July 2017: Szymanowski – Symphony No. 3, "The Song of the Night" (1916)
The thing I find about Karol Szymanowski is that when he's good, he's very, very good. I was proofreading a book about him a while ago, and decided to listen to his music almost exclusively while I was doing it. Some if it left me a bit cold, to be truthful, but a lot of it really hit the spot, and chief among those works was this gloriously opulent symphony. And as it features a choir, then that means it's Choral Symphony Sunday again!

The text is a 13th Century Persian poem that a friend of his had recently translated into Polish, in which the poet implores a friend not to sleep but to contemplate the beauty and stillness of the night. It's a suitably nocturnal, and for the most part slow-moving score, with a ravishing harmonic language influenced by Scriabin, Debussy and Tristan-era Wagner. I think if I was given the task of picking one work I'd like to hear performed live then this would be quite near the top of the list, as even on record it comes over as riot of orchestral colour with some epic choral writing. Sadly, its demands on singers and performers, and the small matter of it being in Polish, means it's a rarely heard work in this country. I'll have weigh up whether it's worth a trip to Poland to hear it.

Day 191

10 July 2017: Borodin – Symphony No. 2 (1876)
I seem to recall gorging on Alexander Borodin when I was student. He was BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week at some point during my first year and I played the tape recordings I made to death. I still have a soft spot for him to this day, and this symphony is a particular favourite. It was a work that actually took Borodin best part of seven years to complete, as he kept breaking off to work on other projects – notably his opera Prince Igor, and ballet Mlada – as well as his other career as a notable chemist.

The wait was worth it, however, as it has become one of Borodin's best-known works and certainly his greatest symphony. Its mighty opening theme appears on his grave in St Petersburg, and was also used (along with many of his other popular tunes) in the Tony Award-winning musical Kismet. The first movement does tend to dominate the work a little, but a lively little Scherzo in the very unusual time signature of 1/1, and a wonderful Andante, in which a serene opening melody passes between the horn and clarinet, are hardly let-downs. In fact, the delicate coda at the end of the Andante is just about my favourite part of the whole work. The sense of foreboding of the first movement is completely dispelled by a lively Slavic-dance finale that could have come straight from his Polovtsian Dances, written around the same time. A truly great symphony, in my humble opinion.

Day 192

11 July 2017: Bizet – Roma Symphony (1871)
Georges Bizet wrote two symphonies in his sadly short life. The first, his Symphony in C (see Day 58), was written as a 17-year-old student but was published and became popular long after his death. This, the second, was a rather more laboured affair that took him 12 years to write, and is as rarely heard now as it was in his lifetime. The story of its composition is long and involved, but in a nutshell, after winning the Prix de Rome, Bizet lived in Italy for a few years and planned to write a symphony in which each movement depicted a different Italian city. Only the Scherzo was ever written though – ironically, given the work's final title, a movement written about Florence. The remaining three movements were added at various points later, and the symphony was frequently revised before Bizet, to all intents and purposes gave up on it.

Some people regard the work as unfinished, some regard it as a suite rather than a symphony, some question exactly how much it has to do with Rome – the title appears to have been added later to distinguish the symphony from his first, as this is also in C. From what I'd read about it, the only thing people seem to agree on is that it was, at best, uneven. I find this criticism baffling as I rather enjoyed it. The orchestration is marvellous, and the main theme from the Andante molto third movement is absolutely gorgeous. I'll definitely be coming to this work at some point in the future.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Days 183 – 189

Day 183

2 July 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 6 (1904)
I've always been a little wary of terms like 'visionary' being bandied about when discussing composers. Far too often, events that occurred after a work was written have been retrospectively associated with the piece, with the implication that the composer had somehow anticipated them in their work. All stuff and nonsense, obviously, but there is, to be fair to the tin-foil hat wearers, seemingly something in the assertion when it comes to Gustav's Mahler's sixth symphony. Often titled as his 'Tragic' symphony, although not, as if to accentuate the earlier point, by Mahler himself, this is an almost unrelentingly sombre piece. And yet it was written at a time when Mahler, on the face of it, ought to have been at his happiest. He had married Alma Schindler the year before starting work on it, his second child was born during its composition, and he held the highly prestigious post of director of the Vienna Court Opera.

The one ray of sunshine in the work is the second subject of the first movement, which Mahler stated represented Alma. And while that soaring melody provides an element of light in an otherwise dark work, there is nothing but utter despair about the final movement. It runs to almost half-an-hour in length and is famous for a number of hammer blows (literally – they are marked in the score as "hammer") that shatter any gathering positivity in the music. There were originally three such blows, although Mahler later edited out the third one. The view among conductors seems to be divided over its reinstatement, with some recordings going against Mahler's wishes and putting it back in. There is also, as it happens, some dispute over the ordering of the inner movements. Mahler again having had second thoughts after some early performances, eventually deciding the Andante should come second. The greater enigma though surrounds the meaning of the hammer blows, and this is where things start to get spooky. Within a year of the symphony's completion, Mahler's eldest daughter died, he was forced to resign his post at the Vienna Court Opera, and he was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition from which he would die in 1911. Three hammer blows. Coincidence maybe, but all grist to mill for the Mahler-as-visionary believers. When I was acquiring all of Mahler's symphonies on LP back in my youth, this was the one I bought last for some reason. It is thus the one I know least well, and it doesn't grab as much attention as the fifth or the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand' (No. 8). It is a punishing journey and unlike his earlier symphonies this tunnel only ends with a brick wall. I can't think of many other pieces that hollow out one's soul in quite the way that this does.

Day 184

3 July 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 1, 'Music on Open Strings' (1973)
When I scheduled Gloria Coates's fourth symphony into my listening scheduled earlier in the year (see Day 67), it was the only work of hers I intended to feature at that stage. However, I loved it so much that I've found room to squeeze in another couple. Coates wrote her first symphony at the age of 35, and four years after she'd moved from her native Wisconsin to Munich. This is arguably her best-known work, and one that helped establish her reputation in Europe.

The symphony is written for string orchestra and, as the title implies, much of the work is played on open strings, unusually tuned to provide a wider range of notes. It is a similar principle to that employed by Louis Andriessen in his Symphony for open strings, which he composed five years later (see Day 9). The difference here is that Coates punctuates the music with her trademark glissandi and various percussive techniques. The most striking feature of the third and final movement is a scordatura technique, in which the players retune their instruments in performance back to standard tuning. I discovered when reading about Coates recently that she formed a connection with the post-war Polish avant garde school (which regular readers might recall was the subject of my music degree dissertation), and in particular Penderecki and Lutosławski. In fact, this symphony was first performed at the 1978 Warsaw Autumn Festival. That might explain why her music seems to have triggered something within me.

Day 185

4 July 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 92, 'Oxford' (1789)
So many of the symphonies I've listened to this year are also known by a name. Some were provided by the composer, but many weren't and in some cases the nickname isn't terribly helpful. In this case, Symphony No. 92 was one of three Josef Haydn wrote when he was living in Vienna, to a commission from the French Count d'Ogny, for performance in Paris. So naturally it ended being called the 'Oxford' symphony! It acquired the name because, two years later, Haydn supposedly conducted it at a ceremony at Oxford University at which he was awarded an honorary doctorate. Again though, no one seems certain that this was the actual symphony he conducted at the ceremony.

In essence, all the name does is help identify this among the 104 (or more) that he wrote. It's a very fine work, with a slow introduction that is truly exquisite, from which emerges a trademark sonata form first movement where it is easy to detect the features that Beethoven would use in his early symphonies. The Adagio cantabile slow movement features a lovely theme that is at times hesitant, as if it were an aria from an unwritten opera. There are a few musical jokes in the light-hearted scherzo, and a brisk finale rounds off proceedings on a suitable high.

Day 186

5 July 2017: Saint-Saëns – Symphony in F, 'Urbs Roma' (1856)
Camille Saint-Saëns' symphonic output is, shall we say, patchy. There are three numbered symphonies, of which the third – his 'Organ Symphony' – is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever written. There are also two un-numbered symphonies, the first having been written when he was 15 and was scarcely more than a style-composition exercise. This is the other un-numbered symphony, written as an entry for a competition run by the Bordeaux Société Ste Cécile.

It appears that it won a prize, which surprises me given that Saint-Saëns virtually buried the work in his catalogue. It was unpublished in his lifetime, and it doesn't appear to be a piece the composer was especially proud of. That said, it's his longest symphony, and by no means a bad one. The first movement contains some memorable themes and is wonderfully orchestrated, with some nice, exposed brass sections. A brief and unremarkable scherzo is followed by a not-at-all brief and even less remarkable funereal slow movement. The last movement is very understated and not very finale-like, which means the 40-minute musical journey ends with a rather anti-climactic feel. What all of this has to do with the City of Rome of the title has been lost in time. There's no help from the generic movement titles and no programme was supplied for the work. As with all of his non-organ symphonies, I was unfamiliar with this work, and while I'm glad to have paid it a visit, I doubt I'll be back.

Day 187

6 July 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 5 (1816)
Franz Schubert had written so much music prior to this work that it's hard to believe that he was still only 19 when he wrote this brilliant Mozart-influenced work. It is known from Schubert's diaries that he had been immersing himself in Mozart's work at the time he was writing this symphony and many have observed similarities with Mozart, particularly his Symphony No. 40 in G minor. The instrumentation, for example, is the same.

I remember hearing this on the radio a couple of years ago. I recognised it instantly but assumed it was, in fact, Mozart. On discovering it was Schubert 5, I racked my brains trying to recall how it had become so embedded in my subconscious and concluded that its main theme is simply one of those once-heard-never-forgotten tunes that composers would sell their first-born to write. The other movements are on a par with the first, making this his most consistent symphony, I'd say. Every one is a gem, with tune after tune just gliding through ether. On listening to this today, I put it straight back on again and gave it a second blast. Wonderful.

Day 188

7 July 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 4, 'The Inextinguishable' (1916)
Written one hundred years after the Schubert, featured yesterday, here is a very different symphony from Carl Nielsen. It's one that I love just as much though. Just as exhilarating, but in a different way. In the composer's words, he is attempting to convey 'the elemental will of life', something he may have felt compelled to do, two years into the most devastating war mankind had ever inflicted upon itself.

This is one of those symphonies that grabs you by the scruff of the neck from the very first bar. A quick flurry of notes, and then you're carried along by a relentless falling tritone figure towards a glorious, exultant tune based on a descending major scale. And that is just the first few minutes. That glorioso theme returns at the end of the first movement and seems to embody that inextinguishable life-force while all around is chaos. The final movement sees an actual battle emerge in the orchestra as two timpanists – instructed to be facing each other – compete to drown the other out. The combative percussionist, incidentally, is a theme he would revisit with even more dramatic consequences in his next symphony (look out for that in a couple of months’ time). The fourth symphony is around 30 minutes of some of the most intense symphonic writing ever heard at the time, and it remains one of his most popular and frequently performed works today.

Day 189

8 July 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 5 (1876)
To be honest with you, dear reader, I have something of an ambivalent relationship with Anton Bruckner. I don't doubt his greatness, and there are many days when I can happily luxuriate in music that seems almost heavenly in its conception. There are other times, however, when I've seen one of symphonies looming on the horizon in my pre-determined Symphony A Day listening schedule and there is an unmistakable sinking feeling that I'll be wading through 70–80 minutes of late-Romantic treacle.

I probably wouldn't have chosen to listen to this today, but having said all that, this is a perfectly good symphony that does have some distinguishing features that help it stand out from the crowd. Not least is the unusual fact that three of its four movements open quietly with plucked strings, which gives rise to its unofficial nickname, the 'Pizzicato' symphony. Yes, there were moments when I found myself thinking, 'this bit sounds remarkably similar to his "n"th symphony', and I was totally thrown when the fourth movement began and I thought my iPod had gone into shuffle mode and played the first movement again. Despite its near identical opening, it does, however, take a completely different turn and develop into the most wonderful fugue, ending in a blaze of glory with a brilliant brass finale. I just wonder why, for me, the prospect of Bruckner is often far less appealing than the actual experience.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Half-Way Point: The Story So Far

As Day 183 represents the exact mid-point of 2017, I though it would be a nice idea to summarise the symphonies featured so far. 182 symphonies by 104 different composers covering an almost-exactly 250-year period from 1757–2008. Here you are, list fans ...

Day 1 (Sunday 1 Jan)  Brahms – Symphony No. 1
Day 2 (Monday 2 Jan)  Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie
Day 3 (Tuesday 3 Jan)  Panufnik – Sinfonia Rustica
Day 4 (Wednesday 4 Jan)  Bliss – A Colour Symphony
Day 5 (Thursday 5 Jan)  Britten – Simple Symphony
Day 6 (Friday 6 Jan)  Schubert – Symphony No. 1
Day 7 (Saturday 7 Jan)  Korngold – Symphony in F-sharp major
Day 8 (Sunday 8 Jan)  Mahler – Symphony No. 1
Day 9 (Monday 9 Jan)  Andriessen – Symphony for open strings
Day 10 (Tuesday 10 Jan)  Spohr – Symphony No. 7
Day 11 (Wednesday 11 Jan)  Widor – Symphony for Organ No. 5
Day 12 (Thursday 12 Jan)  Bruckner – Symphony No.0
Day 13 (Friday 13 Jan)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 1
Day 14 (Saturday 14 Jan)  Holst – Cotswold Symphony
Day 15 (Sunday 15 Jan)  Witt – Jena Symphony
Day 16 (Monday 16 Jan)  Dvorák – Symphony No. 1 (The Bells of Zlonice)
Day 17 (Tuesday 17 Jan)  Maconchy – Symphony for Double String Orchestra
Day 18 (Wednesday 18 Jan)  Beethoven – Symphony No. 1
Day 19 (Thursday 19 Jan)  Nielsen – Symphony No. 1
Day 20 (Friday 20 Jan)  Adams – Chamber Symphony
Day 21 (Saturday 21 Jan)  Parry – Symphony No. 1
Day 22 (Sunday 22 Jan)  Sibelius – Kullervo Symphony
Day 23 (Monday 23 Jan)  Mozart – Symphony no. 1
Day 24 (Tuesday 24 Jan)  Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms
Day 25 (Wednesday 25 Jan)  Strauss – Symphonia Domestica (Domestic Symphony)
Day 26 (Thursday 26 Jan)  Farrenc – Symphony No. 1
Day 27 (Friday 27 Jan)  Sessions – Symphony No. 3
Day 28 (Saturday 28 Jan)  Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1
Day 29 (Sunday 29 Jan)  Bax – Symphony No. 1
Day 30 (Monday 30 Jan)  Rautavaara – Symphony No. 1
Day 31 (Tuesday 31 Jan)  Glass – Symphony No. 1 (Low)
Day 32 (Wednesday 1 Feb)  Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 1
Day 33 (Thursday 2 Feb)  Rubbra – Symphony No. 1
Day 34 (Friday 3 Feb)  Tippett – Symphony No. 1
Day 35 (Saturday 4 Feb)  Haydn – Symphony No. 44 in E minor, Trauer
Day 36 (Sunday 5 Feb)  Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony
Day 37 (Monday 6 Feb)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4
Day 38 (Tuesday 7 Feb)  Schumann – Symphony No. 1 "Spring"
Day 39 (Wednesday 8 Feb)  Gubaidulina – Stimmen...Verstummen, Symphony in 12 movements
Day 40 (Thursday 9 Feb)  Barber – Symphony in One Movement
Day 41 (Friday 10 Feb)  Penderecki – Symphony No. 3
Day 42 (Saturday 11 Feb)  Elgar – Symphony No. 1
Day 43 (Sunday 12 Feb)  Mahler – Symphony No. 2, 'Resurrection'
Day 44 (Monday 13 Feb)  Panufnik – Sinfonia Elegiaca
Day 45 (Tuesday 14 Feb)  Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique
Day 46 (Wednesday 15 Feb)  Bruckner – Symphony No. 1
Day 47 (Thursday 16 Feb)  Mozart – Symphony no. 15
Day 48 (Friday 17 Feb)  Prokofiev – Symphony No. 1
Day 49 (Saturday 18 Feb)  Balakirev – Symphony No. 1
Day 50 (Sunday 19 Feb)  Brian – Symphony No. 1 "The Gothic"
Day 51 (Monday 20 Feb)  Beethoven – Symphony No. 2
Day 52 (Tuesday 21 Feb)  Szymanowski – Symphony No. 2 in B♭ major
Day 53 (Wednesday 22 Feb)  Schubert – Symphony No. 2
Day 54 (Thursday 23 Feb)  Beach – Gaelic Symphony
Day 55 (Friday 24 Feb)  Dvorák – Symphony No. 2
Day 56 (Saturday 25 Feb)  Walton – Symphony No. 1
Day 57 (Sunday 26 Feb)  Gould – Symphony No. 4 "West Point"
Day 58 (Monday 27 Feb)  Bizet – Symphony in C
Day 59 (Tuesday 28 Feb)  Copland – Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (Symphony No. 1)
Day 60 (Wednesday 1 Mar)  Rubbra – Symphony No. 2
Day 61 (Thursday 2 Mar)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5
Day 62 (Friday 3 Mar)  Haydn – Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, Farewell
Day 63 (Saturday 4 Mar)  Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem
Day 64 (Sunday 5 Mar)  Myaskovsky – Symphony No. 10
Day 65 (Monday 6 Mar)  Sibelius – Symphony No. 1
Day 66 (Tuesday 7 Mar)  Nielsen – Symphony No. 2 (The Four Temperaments)
Day 67 (Wednesday 8 Mar)  Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 4, 'Chiaroscuro'
Day 68 (Thursday 9 Mar)  Rimsky Korsakov – Symphony No. 1 In E Minor
Day 69 (Friday 10 Mar)  Vasks – Symphony No. 1 for strings, 'Stimmen'
Day 70 (Saturday 11 Mar)  Herschel – Symphony No. 8
Day 71 (Sunday 12 Mar)  Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 8 (Antarctic Symphony)
Day 72 (Monday 13 Mar)  Bruckner – Symphony No. 2
Day 73 (Tuesday 14 Mar)  Milhaud – Symphony No. 3 "Te Deum"
Day 74 (Wednesday 15 Mar)  Borodin – Symphony No. 1
Day 75 (Thursday 16 Mar)  Macmillan – Symphony: Vigil
Day 76 (Friday 17 Mar)  Alfvén – Symphony No. 3
Day 77 (Saturday 18 Mar)  Panufnik – Sinfonia Sacra
Day 78 (Sunday 19 Mar)  Mahler – Symphony No. 3
Day 79 (Monday 20 Mar)  Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges – Symphony No. 1 in G major
Day 80 (Tuesday 21 Mar)  Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony
Day 81 (Wednesday 22 Mar)  Lutosławski – Symphony No. 1
Day 82 (Thursday 23 Mar)  Scriabin – Symphony No. 1
Day 83 (Friday 24 Mar)  Brahms – Symphony No. 2
Day 84 (Saturday 25 Mar)  Joubert – Symphony No. 1
Day 85 (Sunday 26 Mar)  Liszt – Faust Symphony
Day 86 (Monday 27 Mar)  Mozart – Symphony no. 25, "Little G minor"
Day 87 (Tuesday 28 Mar)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 6
Day 88 (Wednesday 29 Mar)  JC Bach – Symphony Op. 6 No. 6 in G minor
Day 89 (Thursday 30 Mar)  Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 2, 'Little Russian'
Day 90 (Friday 31 Mar)  Parry – Symphony No. 2, 'Cambridge'
Day 91 (Saturday 1 Apr)  Tippett – Symphony No. 2
Day 92 (Sunday 2 Apr)  Beethoven – Symphony No. 3
Day 93 (Monday 3 Apr)  Alwyn – Symphony No. 3
Day 94 (Tuesday 4 Apr)  Dvorák – Symphony No. 3
Day 95 (Wednesday 5 Apr)  Leiviskä – Symphony No. 3
Day 96 (Thursday 6 Apr)  Schubert – Symphony No. 3
Day 97 (Friday 7 Apr)  Magnard – Symphony No. 1
Day 98 (Saturday 8 Apr)  Bax – Symphony No. 2
Day 99 (Sunday 9 Apr)  Mendelssohn – Lobgesang (Symphony No. 2 in B flat major)
Day 100 (Monday 10 Apr)  Atterberg – Symphony No. 3, 'West Coast Pictures'
Day 101 (Tuesday 11 Apr)  Prokofiev – Symphony No. 2
Day 102 (Wednesday 12 Apr)  Casella – Symphony No. 1
Day 103 (Thursday 13 Apr)  Arnold – Symphony No. 3
Day 104 (Friday 14 Apr)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 7, 'Leningrad'
Day 105 (Saturday 15 Apr)  Bruch – Symphony No. 3
Day 106 (Sunday 16 Apr)  Henze – Symphony No. 7
Day 107 (Monday 17 Apr)  Haydn – Symphony No. 49 in F minor, La passione
Day 108 (Tuesday 18 Apr)  Panufnik – Sinfonia Concertante
Day 109 (Wednesday 19 Apr)  Glazunov – Symphony No. 4
Day 110 (Thursday 20 Apr)  Sibelius – Symphony No. 2
Day 111 (Friday 21 Apr)  Górecki – Symphony No. 1 '1959'
Day 112 (Saturday 22 Apr)  Villa-Lobos – Symphony No. 3 "War"
Day 113 (Sunday 23 Apr)  Mahler – Symphony No. 4
Day 114 (Monday 24 Apr)  Pärt – Symphony No. 3
Day 115 (Tuesday 25 Apr)  Bruckner – Symphony No. 3
Day 116 (Wednesday 26 Apr)  Pettersson – Symphony No. 7
Day 117 (Thursday 27 Apr)  Saint-Saens – Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major
Day 118 (Friday 28 Apr)  Mozart – Symphony no. 29
Day 119 (Saturday 29 Apr)  Rautavaara – Symphony No. 3
Day 120 (Sunday 30 Apr)  Vaughan Williams – A Pastoral Symphony
Day 121 (Monday 1 May)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 3, 'The First of May'
Day 122 (Tuesday 2 May)  Pejačević – Symphony in F#m
Day 123 (Wednesday 3 May)  Ives – Symphony No. 4
Day 124 (Thursday 4 May)  Schoenberg – Chamber symphony No. 1
Day 125 (Friday 5 May)  Boyce – Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major
Day 126 (Saturday 6 May)  Rimsky Korsakov – Symphony No. 2 (Symphonic Suite)  "Antar"
Day 127 (Sunday 7 May)  Beethoven – Symphony No. 4
Day 128 (Monday 8 May)  Honegger – Symphony No. 2, for trumpet and strings
Day 129 (Tuesday 9 May)  Nielsen – Sinfonia espansiva (No. 3)
Day 130 (Wednesday 10 May)  Bantock – Hebridean Symphony
Day 131 (Thursday 11 May)  Hindemith – Symphony: Mathis der Maler
Day 132 (Friday 12 May)  Schumann – Symphony No. 2
Day 133 (Saturday 13 May)  Koechlin – The Seven Stars' Symphony
Day 134 (Sunday 14 May)  Berlioz – Harold en Italie
Day 135 (Monday 15 May)  Brian – Symphony No. 18
Day 136 (Tuesday 16 May)  Dvorák – Symphony No. 4
Day 137 (Wednesday 17 May)  Branca – Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City)  for 100 Guitars
Day 138 (Thursday 18 May)  Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 1
Day 139 (Friday 19 May)  Farrenc – Symphony No. 2
Day 140 (Saturday 20 May)  Silvestrov – Symphony No. 4
Day 141 (Sunday 21 May)  Mozart – Symphony no. 31, "Paris"
Day 142 (Monday 22 May)  Rubbra – Symphony No. 4
Day 143 (Tuesday 23 May)  Schubert – Symphony No. 4
Day 144 (Wednesday 24 May)  Panufnik – Sinfonia di Sfere
Day 145 (Thursday 25 May)  Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 3
Day 146 (Friday 26 May)  Adams – Doctor Atomic Symphony
Day 147 (Saturday 27 May)  D'Indy – Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (Symphonie cévenole)  for piano and orchestra
Day 148 (Sunday 28 May)  Mahler – Symphony No. 5
Day 149 (Monday 29 May)  Khachaturian – Symphony No. 1
Day 150 (Tuesday 30 May)  Bax – Symphony No. 3
Day 151 (Wednesday 31 May)  Haydn – Symphony No. 82 in C major, The Bear
Day 152 (Thursday 1 Jun)  Bruckner – Symphony No. 4
Day 153 (Friday 2 Jun)  Grace Williams – Symphony No. 1
Day 154 (Saturday 3 Jun)  Sibelius – Symphony No. 3
Day 155 (Sunday 4 Jun)  Britten – Spring Symphony
Day 156 (Monday 5 Jun)  Martinů – Symphony No. 4
Day 157 (Tuesday 6 Jun)  CPE Bach – Symphony in E flat major (Wq 179)
Day 158 (Wednesday 7 Jun)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 8
Day 159 (Thursday 8 Jun)  Parry – Symphony No. 3 ('English')
Day 160 (Friday 9 Jun)  Prokofiev – Symphony No. 3
Day 161 (Saturday 10 Jun)  Glass – Symphony No. 2
Day 162 (Sunday 11 Jun)  Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 4
Day 163 (Monday 12 Jun)  Knussen – Symphony No. 3
Day 164 (Tuesday 13 Jun)  Beethoven – Symphony No. 5
Day 165 (Wednesday 14 Jun)  Ruders – Symphony No. 4
Day 166 (Thursday 15 Jun)  Dutilleux – Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double'
Day 167 (Friday 16 Jun)  Mozart – Symphony no. 33
Day 168 (Saturday 17 Jun)  Stravinsky – Symphony in C
Day 169 (Sunday 18 Jun)  Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony)
Day 170 (Monday 19 Jun)  Gounod – Symphony No. 1 in D
Day 171 (Tuesday 20 Jun)  Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3, "Scottish"
Day 172 (Wednesday 21 Jun)  Borisova-Ollas – Symphony No. 1, the Triumph of Heaven
Day 173 (Thursday 22 Jun)  Smetana – Festive Symphony
Day 174 (Friday 23 Jun)  Copland – Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2)
Day 175 (Saturday 24 Jun)  Tippett – Symphony No. 3
Day 176 (Sunday 25 Jun)  Dvorák – Symphony No. 5
Day 177 (Monday 26 Jun)  Lutosławski – Symphony No. 2
Day 178 (Tuesday 27 Jun)  Brahms – Symphony No. 3
Day 179 (Wednesday 28 Jun)  Panufnik – Sinfonia Mistica
Day 180 (Thursday 29 Jun)  Arnold – Symphony No. 5
Day 181 (Friday 30 Jun)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9
Day 182 (Saturday 1 Jul)  Somers – Symphony No. 1

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Days 180 – 182

Day 180

29 June 2017: Arnold – Symphony No. 5 (1961)
If anything has emerged from the musical adventure I've been on this year, it is that my perception of Malcolm Arnold was way off the mark. Having fallen into the trap of dismissing him as a jovial composer of mostly light music, my discovery of the dark streak that ran through his art has led to me listening to his music with fresh ears. And discovering a work like this makes me wonder how the misconception of him could ever have come about.

At the time this symphony was written, Arnold had been going through marital difficulties caused mostly by his alcoholism and mental illness, and found his music constantly criticised in the music press. This turmoil was compounded by a succession of deaths of people close to him, such as the musician and humourist Gerard Hoffnung, and – most pertinently – his brother and sister-in-law in a suicide pact. This symphony thus became a memorial to those he had lost, and is probably his most personal work. The brilliantly orchestrated first movement sets up an exquisitely beautiful Andante con moto movement, which is the most stunning music I've heard from this composer. The quite remarkable third movement features Hollywood strings shimmering below the surface of woodwind and brass outbursts that sound for all the world like a Wurlitzer organ at times. The finale's climax, in which the slow movement's main theme returns in glorious Technicolor is at once cheesy and brilliant. Compared to what was going on elsewhere in the musical world at the time, this is hardly cutting-edge stuff, but that doesn't make this symphony any less great.

Day 181

30 June 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9 (1945)
From the fourth onwards, every Dmitri Shostakovich symphony had turned into some form of major crisis. As each subsequent work became increasingly politically charged and laden down by the events surrounding it, he had ultimately arrived at the depth of despair that was his Symphony No. 8 (see Day 158). His initial concept to "follow that", so to speak, was to compose a huge victory-celebrating choral symphony. Having spoken outwardly of taking this approach throughout 1943 and 1944, it was announced in April 1945 that the first movement was mostly complete and would be 'majestic in scale'. Whatever happened to the composition he was talking about we may never know, but the ninth symphony turned out to be a completely different beast altogether.

At around 25 minutes, it was the shortest he'd written since the third. It is viewed as a mostly light-hearted piece, yet the woodwind-driven Moderato second movement has a distinctly darker tone, and the fourth movement Largo features long and solemn passages for solo bassoon. Having made his name as a composer of heavy-duty symphonies, this perceived sudden turn of pace at this time dismayed many critics. In his home country, it was felt that Shostakovich had failed to 'reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union', while the New York Times declared that he 'should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner'. It was soon banned in his homeland and not rehabilitated until after Stalin's death. It's a perfectly fine symphony, really, but its failing, if it has one, that it was the wrong work at the wrong time.

Day 182

1 July 2017: Harry Somers – Symphony No. 1 (1951)
As it's Canada Day during the momentous 'Canada 150' celebrations to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation, it's appropriate that today I should feature the first symphony by Canadian composer Harry Somers. This was a completely new experience for me as not only had I not heard this symphony before, but I had also not knowingly heard any of Somers' music at all. I'm happy to report that this goes into the pleasant discovery category.

This is a relatively early work in his output, written when he was just 25 years old. Given that he only started studying music at the age of 14, this symphony really is a remarkable achievement. It was the first major work he composed after spending a year studying composition with Darius Milhaud, and there are some inevitable influences to be heard. Somers, however, seemed to have found his own voice quite quickly, and the opening Lento movement, scored mostly for strings alone, is a quite sublime piece of writing. Throughout the symphony there is an economy of means, which ensures a lean sound that echoes late-Sibelius at times. I would certainly recommend this work if you haven't heard the music of Somers before.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Days 176 – 179

Day 176

25 June 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 5 (1875)
It took Antonin Dvořák a little while to master the art of the symphony. His first couple of attempts had been unedited sprawls that were lost almost as soon as he'd written them. They were followed by another two that were more worthy, but somewhat derivative. In this symphony, however, he absolutely nailed it, and consequently this is regarded as the first of his mature symphonies.

In many ways, this is Dvořák's 'Pastoral Symphony' with delicate woodwind themes floating in an out of the texture in the first movement, not unlike Beethoven. The thematic material is distinctly Slavic though, especially its rhythmic quality. The darker second movement has a nocturnal feel, and this moves with the slightest of breaks into a recitative-like passage that introduces a particularly deft scherzo. Only the rather more forceful finale betrays the lightness of feel conveyed by the earlier movements, but again, it is unmistakably Dvořák. This symphony is hardly better known than the first four, but deserves to sit alongside the more famous seventh or ninth in the composer's canon.

Day 177

26 June 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 2 (1967)
The difference between this and Witold Lutosławski's first symphony (see Day 81) is, in terms of time, twenty years. In every other respect, however, it almost immeasurable. I'd struggle to come up with another two consecutive symphonies by the same composer that differ so much. While the earlier work is a conventional, four-movement, Bartok-influenced symphony, this is one of his earliest experiments with aleatoricism – the use of elements of chance in composition.

In the intervening 20 years, the communist doctrine of Socialist Realism, which Lutosławski had previously been forced to operate under, had been and gone, and Poland in particular had swung wildly in the other direction. With the advent of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1957, Polish composers now found themselves state-sponsored and actively encouraged to write music at the forefront of the avant garde. Lutosławski had been influenced by a performance of John Cage's Piano Concerto to take a more chance-led approach to composition, and this manifests itself in sections where the notes are notated but the performers are given a degree of freedom over how, or even when, they play them. The symphony is divided into two contrasting sections called Hesitant and Direct, and while the first movement sounds rather chaotic, the effect of the aleatoric writing on the first few minutes of the second is breathtaking, and one that almost certainly couldn't be achieved by precise notation. Make no mistake, this is an unremittingly modernist piece, and the composer hadn't fully refined some of the techniques he employs, but in this work, Lutosławski points towards a path that many subsequent composers would follow.

Day 178

27 June 2017: Brahms – Symphony No. 3 (1883)
"Racket? That's Brahms! Brahms' Third Racket!" And thanks to that outburst from Basil Fawlty over 40 years ago, I find myself only ever able to refer to this as "Brahms' Third Racket" to this day. It is the shortest of his four rackets – sorry, symphonies – and was written in a sudden burst of creativity in the summer of 1883. The twelve weeks he took to compose it compares favourably with the twenty years it took him to produce his first.

It is a grand and stately work containing some of Brahms' best music. What is particularly interesting, and it contributes to the overall effect of it being an understated symphony despite its powerful opening, is that all four movements end quietly. Also, the work doesn't have a light-hearted scherzo as such, instead there's an almost elegiac Poco Allegretto movement. I've always regarded this as the most beautiful of Brahms' symphonies, one in which the constant struggle between major and minor is one that is resolved through peaceful negotiation. The one thing it isn't, is a racket!

Day 179

28 June 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Mistica (1977)
Just as he had in his Sinfonia di Sfere (see Day 144), which preceded this symphony by two years, Andrzej Panufnik continued to evolve his musical language through an exploration of geometric forms. Being his sixth symphony, the music is infused by his fascination with the mathematical properties of the number six. It has six sections, and is in 6/4 time. The thematic material is based on six triads, with six melodic patterns and six melodic combinations. I suppose it's appropriate that I've found myself listening to it in the sixth month.

Panufnik’s choice to relate his music to geometric symbols was an attempt to provide, in his words, a ‘spiritual, not a cerebral experience’. While no doubt aesthetically pleasing to the composer, it has to be said that Sinfonia di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica do rather lack the emotional power of his earlier works. This fact was not lost on Panufnik, who confessed that, as he sat in Middlesbrough Town Hall listening to the Northern Sinfonia giving Sinfonia Mistica its first performance, he felt he had gone too far in allowing intellect to outstrip intuition. It's taken me around twenty years to fully appreciate this symphony, but I'd accept that music ought not to require such effort.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Days 169 – 175

Day 169

18 June 2017: Strauss – An Alpine Symphony (1915)
Ah, Richard Strauss's mighty Alpine Symphony. Given that the first test pressing of the then-new CD format in 1980 was of a recording of this symphony played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, it's hardly an obscure work. The huge forces required to play it (an orchestra of around 125, usually) inhibit the frequency of its performances, however, and it tends not to crop up in debates over the greatest symphonies of all time. I love it, though, and was looking forward to listening to it today when it loomed on the horizon in my schedule.

It tells the story of a day spent climbing an Alpine mountain through some of the most stunning impressionistic writing I've heard. There is a natural perfect arc to the music which starts at the foot of the mountain at sunrise, rises to the summit by the middle of the day and then journeys back down the mountain to sunset. There are some lovely pastoral moments, if at times over-literal with the use of cowbells in the orchestra during the section entitled On the Alpine Pasture. The climactic central section On the Summit is pure ecstasy in music, while the lovely Elegy that features during the descent forms a contrasting moment of calm reflection. Listening to this in the garden on one of the hottest June days for decades, it's hard to imagine a more blissful experience.

Day 170

19 June 2017: Gounod – Symphony No. 1 (1855)
Forever associated with his setting of the Ave Maria, Charles-François Gounod is rather less well-known for his symphonies. He completed two full-scale symphonies, both of which were written in 1855, with a Petite symphonie following much later. If it is known at all, and performances are few, it is for the fact that it inspired a much more famous work. At the time Gounod wrote this, he was teaching at the Paris Conservatoire and had a 17-year-old pupil by the name of Georges Bizet who allowed himself to be influenced by Gounod's work when writing his own student assignment – a piece that became known as his Symphony in C (see Day 58).

Gounod was actually contemplating giving up his career as a musician in favour of entering the priesthood in the early 1850s, but after writing a two-movement work provisionally entitled Solace, he decided to add another two movements to it and this became his first symphony. Musically, it owes more to the influence of his friend Mendelssohn – more of him tomorrow – and their shared love of Bach. The result is a distinctly un-French work, but one that is filled with a classical gaiety.

Day 171

20 June 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3, 'Scottish' (1842)
Felix Mendelssohn came to visit Britain in 1829, and as part of the trip, he ventured north of the border on a walking tour. It was a holiday that was to have a profound effect, as not only did a boat journey to the island of Staffa inspire his famous Hebrides Overture, but he also started to compose this symphony. The actual genesis of the piece was a visit to the ruined chapel at Holyrood Palace, after which he wrote, 'I think I have found there the beginning of my "Scottish" Symphony.'

Work on the symphony was abandoned on his return to Germany, and not revisited for another twelve years. It's fair to say that by this time his memories of Scotland had probably faded somewhat. Nevertheless, there is a distinct Scottish flavour to the material with Scotch snaps aplenty. Mendelssohn also manages to maintain a unity throughout the piece despite the decade-long gap in its composition by continually transforming the theme composed at Holyrood. Also, unusually for the time, the four movements are to be performed without a break. It was clear from the responses to my posting of this on twitter that there is a lot of love for this symphony – and rightly so.

Day 172

21 June 2017: Victoria Borisova-Ollas – Symphony No. 1, 'The Triumph of Heaven' (2001)
Victoria Borisova-Ollas was born in Vladivostok in the far east of Russia, but has lived in Sweden since 1992. A graduate from the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, she studied composition in Malmö and the Royal College of Music before eventually settling in Sweden. Also, as she was born in 1969, she also has the honour of being the first composer featured so far this year who's younger than me!

Her 1998 piece, Wings of the Wind, made Borisova-Ollas's name when it won second prize in the Masterprize, a prestigious international competition for composers. This, her first symphony, which followed three years later, further established her reputation as an emerging voice in the 21st century. The title, The Triumph of Heaven, comes from a 1907 painting by Russian artist Kazmir Malevich, but the link between the painting – which features a Christ figure in a yellow cloud – and the music – purportedly depicting 20th century St Petersburg – is less than obvious. It's not an altogether relevant point though, as it's a marvellous post-modernist work. After an almost hesitant, quiet opening, the work bursts into life with rhythmic vitality and melodic lines that have a far Eastern accent. This gives way to a dark-hued central movement, which is a brilliantly orchestrated act of silent mourning. The initially lighter final movement seems to develop a life of its own as it accelerates towards a stunningly powerful climax. I hope to hear a lot more of Victoria Borisova-Ollas in the coming years.

Day 173

22 June 2017: Smetana – Festive Symphony (1854)
Czech composer Bedřich Smetana is probably best-known for his set of six symphonic poems Má vlast (My Homeland), and in particular the first movement Vltava, which is often played in isolation. This is his only symphony, and it predates Má vlast by about 20 years. It was intended to be dedicated to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (permission from the Emperor was not granted) and was originally called Triumphal Symphony. Its rejection by the Emperor, and its subsequent failure when it was finally premiered at the composer's own expense meant that it was abandoned for a time.

Eventually, Smetana revised the work in the early 1880s, and under its new name of Festive Symphony, it was more favourably received. The most notable feature of the work is its quotation of Haydn's Emperor's Hymn – now better known as the German national anthem – which appears briefly in the first two movements, and then emerges con tutta forza in the closing minutes of the piece. It's a suitably triumphal ending to a work which is, to be honest, overly long and quite hard work for the most part.

Day 174

23 June 2017: Copland – Symphony No. 2, 'Short Symphony' (1933)
I don't think I've ever heard a piece of Aaron Copland I don't like, and yet for some reason, if asked to name my favourite composers, he probably wouldn't make the first ten names I came up with. I can't really reconcile this; he just seems to slip under my radar somehow. This was another typical case. I'd never heard this symphony before, but it made an immediate impact. Concise, to-the-point, and wonderful.

This work was one of the composer's own personal favourites. Indeed, he was so concerned that it wasn't receiving as many performances as he thought it deserved, that he later recast it as a Sextet (clarinet, piano, and string quartet) to improve its performance prospects. The angular melodic lines and constantly changing rhythms of the outer movements make it a difficult piece to perform, which is probably the main reason why it remained neglected for many years, and not due its quality, which is undeniable. Its successor, the third symphony, overshadows it to such an extent that this remains rarely played, but it should be a very pleasant discovery for those unfamiliar with it.

Day 175

24 June 2017: Tippett – Symphony No. 3 (1972)
Michael Tippett's most ambitious symphony covers an awful lot of ground. At nigh on an hour in length, it is comfortably his longest, and the only one to feature the human voice. The first part is concerned with two contrasting musical ideas he calls 'Arrest' and 'Movement'. So the story goes, Tippett had been listening to some Boulez and was struck by how static the music was. The decision to contrast that sort of material with fast-moving music was the starting point for this symphony. The second main idea was to incorporate the blues into the finale, which in itself is a critical response to the Ode To Joy from Beethoven's ninth. Tippett felt that Schiller's concept of the brotherhood of man no longer applied in a century that had seen unspeakable horrors.

The opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven's ninth is quoted directly on several occasions, which in the midst of an uncompromising and atonal work is a quite jarring effect. The second part features a set of four songs, described as either 'slow blues' or 'fast blues', for soprano to words written by Tippett himself, which challenge Schiller's idealism. It's an ambitious project, but one that sometimes misses the target. I'm a big fan of Tippett, but I find this heavy going at times. There are some delicate moments in the Lento in Part I, but it's a work I probably wouldn't have listened to out of choice today.