Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Days 28 – 31

Day 28

28 January 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1 (1866)
Starting today, and for the next seven days, I'm listening to a week of First Symphonies. Because I'm covering all composers' works in chronological order – save for a few date-specific exceptions – it is, inevitably, mostly first symphonies I'm listening to at the moment. I thought I would consciously group a few together though, to explore how different composers have tackled their first venture into symphonic territory.

Of all the 'giants' of classical music, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the one who tends to be the most sneered at. Probably because he was never pushing boundaries or innovating, he is, justly I suppose, viewed as quite conservative. He certainly formed no part of my music degree for that very reason, but I could happily be cast away on a desert island with his complete works. If it's possible to have a guilty pleasure in classical music, then Tchaikovsky is mine.

Tchaikovsky's first, which carries the name 'Winter Daydreams' is by no means his best-known symphony. Although not exactly obscure, it's the fourth, fifth and especially sixth that have become concert hall standards. It apparently caused him more physical and mental anguish than any piece he ever wrote, although this doesn't manifest itself in the music, which is light and graceful, and makes use of Russian folk-song. Above all, as with all of Tchaikovsky's music, it's absolutely dripping with wonderful tunes.

Day 29

29 January 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 1 (1922)
Arnold Bax is a composer I've had the greatest fondness for ever since my student days. His symphonic poems Tintagel, Garden of Fand and November Woods were almost as much the soundtrack to my twenties as U2. His symphonies were a later discovery for me, and while they lack the clear visual imagery of the poems, they're still a great body of work. You would, however, go a long way before you found an orchestra playing one in a concert hall.

The first symphony, which Bax started to write three years after the Great War, is seen by many as a reaction to that conflict. Its opening militaristic theme in the brass and percussion evolves into a triumphal march in the final movement, which lends weight to this argument. In reality, that almost certainly wasn't the case, with Charles Grove asserting that it was more likely the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland – a place Bax regarded as his spiritual home, even though he wasn't Irish – that provided the inspiration. Either way, it's well worth a listen.

Day 30

30 January 2017: Rautavaara – Symphony No. 1 (1955)
Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died only last year, is not exactly a household name outside of his native Finland. If you were really paying attention, you'll recall that he was a pupil of Roger Sessions, who I featured three days ago. Incidentally, Rautavaara's opportunity to study with Sessions at the Juilliard School in New York came when Sibelius, in honour of his 90th birthday, was asked to nominate a young Finnish composer to attend. It's clear that the directions master and pupil took after their time together were markedly different, as this work, which actually predates Sessions' first symphony by two years, is poles apart from the serialist piece produced by his teacher.

Rautavaara's style went through a variety of phases, and he also had a tendency to radically revise works, meaning no definitive version ever really exists. This symphony was written in 1955 (the linked video is of this version), but he revised it in 1988, and then in 2003 he added an entirely new central movement. I would normally regard such a substantial later change as an incongruous addition, but it's so completely beautiful that I just can't hold that view. It's an almost transcendental symphony, and the lush writing for strings grabs your attention right from the off.

Day 31

31 January 2017: Glass – Symphony No. 1 'Low' (1992)
Philip Glass had moved away from the hardcore minimalism for which he had become famous when he decided to write his first symphony. As anyone who has ever tried to listen to all four-and-a-half hours of his opera Einstein On The Beach will testify, stretching repetitive figures over a large-scale work becomes pretty hard going. By the late-eighties though, Glass's music had become far more accessible, and with his breakthrough piece The Light – his first for a symphony orchestra – he paved the way for the first of what is now ten symphonies, with an eleventh on the way.

I'll be honest, I heard this symphony before I heard the Bowie album, and without that context it did sound to me, at the time, just like an extended-form version of The Light. The symphony's outer movements are based on the tracks Subterraneans and Warszawa from side two of the album (or what would have been side two in the days when albums had sides), and are pretty much direct quotes at the outset. These quotes essentially become musical cells that Glass uses to grow organically using his well-established minimalist techniques. The central movement is based on the track Some Are, which wasn't featured on the album, and to this day I've never heard it. In many ways, this movement is closer to old-school Glass with far more emphasis on rhythmic repetition. Glass would return to Bowie four years with his Heroes Symphony – I’ve got that scheduled in for some time in December. But for the time being ... Happy 80th Birthday, Philip!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Days 24 – 27

Day 24

24 January 2017: Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Stravinsky was already 48 years old when he decided to have a stab at writing a choral symphony. By that time, the one-time enfant terrible had rowed back on his percussive and dissonant early style and had embraced neo-classicism. This work sets Psalms 39, 40 & 150, and while being mostly diatonic – his publisher had requested something ‘popular’ – it actually makes use from time to time of an octatonic scale (eight notes instead of the usual seven) of alternate tones and semitones. It's an excellent work, with the choral writing – not something Stravinsky was especially well-known for – being particularly fine in the second movement setting of Psalm 40.

A small bit of trivia arising from this piece: Prokofiev selected random words from the chosen psalms when looking for a Latin text for his own cantata Alexander Nevsky. The resulting lines were, Peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis, which (very) roughly translates as, ‘The Crusaders waited, my feet with cymbals’. Well, quite.

Day 25

25 January 2017: Strauss – Symphonia Domestica (1904)
I have heard this symphony exactly once before. It was in the Royal Festival Hall in late-1993 as part of a BBC Symphony Orchestra season of works by Strauss and yesterday's featured composer Stravinsky. The juxtaposition of these two largely unlike composers was seemingly driven by no other reason than that they usually appear next to each other in an alphabetical list of composers. I don't recall being particularly inspired by it then, and it passed me by again today.

I do like Strauss: Metamorphosen, Tod und Verklärung, and Four Last Songs are all played regularly in this house. In the Symphonia Domestica though, it feels like the subject matter doesn't deserve the overblown treatment it's getting from the 110-strong orchestra (including eight horns and five saxophones). There are big, lusciously scored tunes – each representing a different member of the family – and there is a programme to follow should you feel so inclined. The painfully literal depiction of some of these events, however, such as a clock striking seven, or a baby crying, are just unsymphonic. It might be another 23 years before I give this another blast.

Day 26

26 January 2017: Farrenc – Symphony No. 1 (1842)
It's hard to write anything about any of the female composers I'm featuring in this series without using the word ‘neglected’. In Louise Farrenc's case, however, it's a simply unavoidable word. There is absolutely no reason on God's earth why this piece, or indeed any of her three symphonies, shouldn't be as well-known as, say, those of Mendelssohn or Schumann. There's no drop in quality, just a lack of familiarity.

Farrenc already had a substantial body of piano music and chamber works under her belt before she branched out into orchestral writing. This symphony dates from 1842, the same year that she was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory. She remained in this most prestigious of posts for thirty years, and was, naturally, a gifted pianist in her own right. It is a pity that her qualities as a composer weren't given equal value to those she acquired as a performer and teacher. This is a beautifully structured symphony, with energetic writing throughout and no shortage of fine tunes.

Day 27

27 January 2017: Sessions – Symphony no. 3 (1957)
To the best of my knowledge, I've never previously heard anything by Roger Sessions. Apart from being a very respected composer, Sessions has an impressive track record as a teacher of composition. He taught at Berkeley, Harvard and the Juilliard, and his students include such luminaries as Peter Maxwell Davies, John Adams, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (all of whom will feature this year, or, in Adams' case, have already featured) plus Elmer Bernstein, Conlon Nancarrow and Milton Babbitt.

Sessions wrote nine symphonies, so in picking one, I took guidance from Mark Lehman's piece ‘The Great American Symphony’ who says of the third that it ‘remains the most moving and satisfying’. It seems like a fair judgement, having also listened to the fourth for comparison. It employs serialism (in which the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are ordered into a ‘tone row’ to provide a thematic basis) and normally that has me running for the hills. This, however, remains an engaging piece, and in the haunting third movement Sessions manages to imbue the music with a pathos and emotion that other composers who use this cold, academic method mostly fail to achieve.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Days 20 – 23

Day 20

20 January 2017: Adams  Chamber Symphony (1992)
Exactly 100 years after the Nielsen Symphony featured yesterday, we have this Chamber Symphony from the American minimalist John Adams. Written for a 15-piece ensemble that includes a synthesizer and drum kit, it was inspired by the unlikely combination of Arnold Schoenberg and Tom & Jerry cartoons! Apparently, while Adams was studying the score of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony (which is written for similar forces) his son was watching cartoons in the next room and Adams was struck by how much the two styles had in common.

It's certainly very different from any other John Adams work I've heard. Quite light-hearted with fast flurries of notes in sharp, angular rhythms; the first movement – named 'Mongrel Airs' – in particular is bordering on unplayable. Even the middle movement entitled 'Aria with Walking Bass', which features a long slow tune that starts on the French Horn, is soon disrupted by busy, energetic writing in the other parts. If you were listening to this for the first time with no knowledge of who had written it, you would struggle to guess the composer.

Day 21

21 January 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 1 (1882)
England was very much 'Das Land Ohne Musik' when Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry were penning their first symphonies six years apart in the late-19th century. There simply was no symphonic tradition in this country at that time, so these two trailblazers set about creating one. History has been a little unkind to them, as they tend to be viewed more as inspirers of the next generation of composers – most notably Elgar and Vaughan Williams – rather than valued as composers in their own right.

Parry's first symphony was the later of the two, and while they both looked to Europe for stimulus, it was Parry who somehow seemed to imbue his work more with a sense of Englishness. Certainly the influence of Schumann, Brahms and maybe Dvorák can be heard, but the heavier brass scoring and the pastoral nature of the tune writing makes it identifiably Parry. Sadly, after a couple of initial performances, it remained unpublished and unperformed for over 100 years, meaning it failed to have the influence it ought to have had. A disappointing fate for what was arguably the first truly great English symphony.

Day 22

22 January 2017: Sibelius – Kullervo (1892)
If you're going to announce your arrival as a symphonist, then you might as well do it with a gigantic choral work. Jean Sibelius was still in his twenties when he decided to set texts from the epic Finnish-language poem Kalevala to tell the story of the title character. This was a controversial move in itself, as setting Finnish text at a time when Finland was under Swedish rule led to him being called a traitor in some quarters.

Rather like yesterday's Parry, the symphony received just a handful of performances in its entirety in the composer's lifetime, although performances of individual movements were authorised. After that it was withdrawn and was only published after Sibelius's death, at the composer's instruction. It has to be said that the subject matter is rather unedifying, telling as it does the story of a character who kills himself after ravaging a woman he discovers to have been his own sister. In musical terms though, this is poles apart from the austere numbered symphonies that followed it. It's about 75 minutes long, so there's a very good reason why I've chosen to listen to it on a Sunday!

Day 23

23 January 2017: Mozart – Symphony no. 1 (1764)
This was written by an 8-year-old. OK, so Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was no ordinary 8-year-old, but the fact that he knocked out this symphony whilst on a Grand Tour of Europe demonstrating his Wunderkind abilities as a performer, at an age when many children can barely spell their own names, is bewildering. It was written at 180 Ebury Street, Belgravia, the family's base during their stay in London, which is now commemorated with a blue plaque.

At roughly nine minutes long, it's probably the shortest symphony I'm going to listen to this year, and quite a marked contrast to yesterday's Sibelius. We'll probably never be able to establish just how much 'help' young Wolfgang may have had from his father Leopold, but his subsequent achievements suggest it might not have been that much. Whichever way you cut it, this is one of the most astonishing documents in all music history.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Days 15 – 19

Day 15

15 January 2017: Witt – Symphony in C major, "Jena" (1793?)
Friedrich Jeremias Witt is not a name familiar to many, and indeed he may well have slipped into total obscurity were it not for an academic slip-up just over 100 years ago. The manuscript for this symphony was found by Fritz Stein in the German city of Jena (hence the name) in 1909 and he immediately deduced that it was the work of Beethoven. When others agreed, it was actually published by Breitkopf und Härtel two years later as "Jenaer Symphonie" by L. van Beethoven. It was only when another copy of the score was discovered, this time with the author's name on it, that the mistake was realised.

That his work was mistaken for Beethoven ought to be a measure of the piece's worth, although some critics immediately sought to distance themselves from ever having thought it of that calibre. Yes, it is derivative of Haydn – seemingly modelled in his Symphony No. 97 – but it's a fine work. He was actually born in the same year as Beethoven (1770) and was a highly respected composer in his day. Sadly, history has not been kind to him, and it is unfortunate that his brief moment in the sun came when his music was mistaken for that of his contemporary.

Day 16

16 January 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 1, "The Bells of Zlonice" (1865) 
I do like a piece with an interesting history, and today's choice has one more fascinating than most. The 23-year-old Antonin Dvorák submitted this substantial work for a competition in Germany, and regrettably he never saw it again. Having assumed it was lost forever, he catalogued it as an early work that he had destroyed.

Unknown to him, however, a Dr Rudolf Dvorák (no relation) wandered into a second-hand book shop in Leipzig some 17 years later and found the score of a symphony by a composer who shared his name. Obviously drawn by this fact, he bought it. The by-then 40-year-old Antonin Dvorák was scarcely any better known in Germany than he had been in 1865 when his lost symphony was written, so the academic who now owned it remained oblivious to the worth of the treasure in his possession. Fast forward to 1920: Dr Rudolf Dvorák dies and his son inherits the score. The by-then dead-for-16-years Antonin Dvorák's reputation as one of Europe's greatest composers is secure. Nevertheless, it would be three more years before the German doctor's son brought the score to the attention of the musical world, who then took an astonishing 13 more years to get round to giving it a first public performance.

While it was certainly a significant discovery, it also has to be said that it is rather a sprawling work. Then again, given that Dvorák never heard it played nor did he have the chance to edit it, it might retrospectively be viewed as a first draft. It's an intriguing piece, but not as interesting as its past.

Day 17

17 January 2017: Maconchy – Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1953)
The first female composer so far, Elizabeth Maconchy is an almost exact contemporary of Michael Tippett, with whom she shares some stylistic similarities. The opening movement of this symphony certainly bears a passing resemblance to Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra – not just in the forces used, but in the rhythmic contrapuntal writing. The final movement Passacaglia is a really wonderful piece of writing that makes you wonder why this isn't a more familiar piece. Then you remember the gender of the composer and realise why. The tragic neglect of female composers is something that shames the world of music, and only in very recent times has the issue been addressed, although there's still a long way to go.

Much as I would like to feature Dame Elizabeth more, this will be her sole contribution. Of the four symphonies she wrote, two have been withdrawn (by the composer) and to the best of my knowledge no recording exists of the Little Symphony. That is such a shame, because this is great.

Day 18

18 January 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 1 (1800)
The first of Beethoven's nine symphonies, which are, in my humble opinion, the greatest body of work produced by any artist in any field. And while this symphony sounds quite unspectacular to modern ears, or even compared with the more famous of his own symphonies, it was a bold statement at the start of a new century.

Its first performance was in a showcase concert in Vienna that also featured his second piano concerto, and was programmed alongside works by the mighty musical ancestors who cast a shadow over the young Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. It made an instant impression, with its strange opening chord sequence that doesn't establish the home key of C major until bar 13. The third movement is possibly the first example of a scherzo. Even though it's marked as a minuet, its allegro molto tempo was totally novel. Beethoven made it clear from the off that experimentation was the name of the game from now on, and as a consequence the symphony as an art form progressed at a staggering rate through the 19th century.

Day 19

19 January 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 1 (1892)
Carl Nielsen's first venture into symphonic territory, taken when he was 27 years old. While it is not uncommon for composers to conduct the première of a new piece, Nielsen took the rather unusual step of actually playing in the orchestra at its first performance. Quite how it would have sounded from the second fiddles where he was employed is hard to say, but it is a highly assured work, even if it demonstrates few of the orchestral fireworks he saved for his later symphonies.

Nielsen's most significant innovation to the symphony was the introduction of progressive tonality. That is to say it ends in a totally different key to the one it started in. The composer Robert Simpson argues that this was first symphony to do so – ending as it does in C major, having opened in G minor. It was something that was soon taken for granted, of course, before the concept of a key signature was abandoned altogether. Few would have considered it a Danish invention, though.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Days 10 – 14

Day 10

10 January 2017: Spohr - Symphony No. 7 in C major, “lrdisches und Gottliches im Menschenleben" (1841)
Another Louis, but from a very different era. Louis Spohr was born in Germany 14 years after Beethoven, and, like his elder compatriot, he is seen as a pivotal composer bridging the Classical and Romantic periods. Unlike Beethoven though, he fell out of fashion almost immediately after his death, and it is only in the last 50 years or so that there has been a revival of interest in Spohr. He actually wrote ten symphonies, but I don't plan to listen to all of them  primarily because I don't think they've all been recorded  hence the reason for diving straight into his seventh, which is probably the most interesting of the lot.

The title translates as The Earthly and Divine in Human Life, and the work is programmatic with each of its three movements prefaced by a four-line verse motto, written by his wife Marianne. The first movement is entitled 'The World of Childhood', the second 'The Age of Passion', and the third 'Final Triumph of the Heavenly'. Apparently inspired by a holiday in Switzerland, it is a very unconventional symphony for the time. Not only by having three movements instead of the usual four, but there is no slow movement, no scherzo, and is written for two orchestras. The idea for a double orchestra also came from his wife  who probably deserves a co-writing credit  on the return journey to Germany from Switzerland. The two orchestras are used to great colouristic effect, with one orchestra representing the earthly and the other divine. It's a very fine work and well worth a listen.

Day 11

11 January 2017: Widor - Symphony for Organ No. 5 (1879)
There are a number of works that are dominated by one movement. Barber's String Quartet, for example – everyone knows the Adagio, but few have heard the whole thing. Similarly, the Sabre Dance from Khachaturian's Gayaneh might be the only movement most people have heard from that ballet suite. This, however, must be the most extreme example. Anyone who has ever attended a church wedding in this country will almost certainly have heard organists of varying degrees of competence fumble their way through Charles-Marie Widor's Toccata, which is the fifth and final movement of this, his fifth Organ Symphony. The rest of the symphony remains quite obscure.

Hearing something so familiar after about 30 minutes of quite impressionistic organ writing is still jarring no matter how well you get to know this piece. It almost sounds like it was written by a different composer altogether. Nevertheless, it is the major key culmination of a symphony designated as being in F minor, and the symphony as a whole was clearly intended as a recital piece rather than for use in a liturgical setting. It is interesting that he, and others of the French organ school such as Vierne and Dupré called these pieces 'symphonies' as opposed to sonatas or suites, due to the use of organ voicings to imitate orchestral colours, rather than an adherence to symphonic form. It's certainly interesting to hear a different take on the concept of the symphony.

Day 12

12 January 2017: Bruckner - Symphony No. 0 (1869)
This is something of an oddity. Anton Bruckner wrote this three years after his first symphony, and it was initially designated "Symphony No. 2". Seemingly stung, however, by the conductor Otto Dessoff's questioning, at its first rehearsal, of where the main theme was, Bruckner decided to withdraw the work until the last year of his life. His later symphonies were renumbered accordingly, and of this work, all he would say was it "does not count" and that it was "only an attempt."

The thing is, it's really not that bad. It has been recorded countless times under the batons of some of the greatest conductors  Solti, Barenboim, Haitink and Chailly spring to mind  and there is no tangible drop in quality from the two numbered symphonies that flank it chronologically. The finale contains an early example of his trademark Gesangperiod (song period), a transitional section often marked by pizzicato strings, and the hymn-like theme in the first movement is, again, typical Bruckner. As it's also, by a distance, the shortest of his symphonies, it represents a very good entry point to his Mahlerian-scale body of work.

Day 13

13 January 2017: Shostakovich - Symphony No. 1 (1925)
The 19-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich wrote this as a graduation piece at Petrograd Conservatoire. I presume he passed.

As first symphonies go, this is quite brilliant. I remember studying this for A level, when I was about the same age as he was when he wrote it, and as a budding composer myself it made quite an impression. The first movement's clarity of form is particularly striking, with its three very different themes returning in reverse order at the end. There are some bold compositional devices, such as the huge exposed piano chords at the climax of the scherzo, and the solo timpani at a similar point in the last movement. Such an assured piece of writing would have earned him a place among the great symphonists even if he'd written nothing else. As it turned out, it was only the first step on an extraordinary symphonic journey.

Day 14

14 January 2017: Holst - Symphony in F, 'The Cotswolds' (1900)
I will go to my grave insisting that the first four movements of The Planets would make a perfectly good symphony. However, I can't cherry pick in that way, and thankfully Gustav Holst did actually write two bona fide symphonies to ensure his inclusion.

This was the first, written in his mid-twenties, and was at the time the most ambitious work in his burgeoning career. At 23 minutes, it's short by symphonic standards and, to be brutally honest, a bit lightweight. The first movement in particular, after its promising opening fanfare, sounds like the kind of thing Stanford might have discarded. The shining beacon of this piece, however, is the second movement  an elegy to the Socialist William Morris, who died in 1896. There are hints of what was to come in the crunching harmonies, and the signature brass writing that would come to inhabit the Saturn movement of the Planets. I hadn't heard this piece before today, and once again it's a pleasing discovery.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Days 7 – 9

Day 7

7 January 2017: Korngold - Symphony in F sharp major (1952)
Today's piece is another symphony that turned out to be the only one written by its composer. Although born in Austria, Erich Korngold moved to the US following Hitler's rise to power, and became one of the greatest-ever composers of film music, winning Oscars for his scores for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Sadly, his reputation as a composer suffered for his association with Hollywood and it was only after his death that works like the sublime Violin Concerto (which itself made use of themes from his film scores) and this tragically neglected symphony started to be appreciated. Apart from a single performance for radio, this wasn't actually performed in a concert hall until 1972 – 20 years after it was written. The epic slow movement – a memorial to its dedicatee, Franklin D. Roosevelt – is absolutely magnificent. This really should be better known than it is.

Day 8

8 January 2017: Mahler - Symphony No.1 (1889)
Any debate over the greatest symphonist will inevitably involve Gustav Mahler. Having died at the age of 50, he was only really active as a composer for about 30 years and he spent almost all of that time working on one or other of his 11 symphonies. They were his life's work, and every one is a monument.

The first symphony, by Mahlerian standards, is concise and accessible. It is only about 55 minutes long (the fourth is the only other of his symphonies to come in under the hour mark) and the musical language is direct. The first movement depicts daybreak with twinkles of sunlight and birdsong, the second features a folk-like Ländler tune, while the third – memorably – is a funeral march on the tune Frère Jacques (or Bruder Jakob, as Mahler would have known it). Many of Mahler's symphonies are, admittedly, daunting; the third in particular is downright off-putting. This, however, is an easy in to Mahler's erudite sound world. It certainly was for me, anyway.

Day 9

9 January 2017: Louis Andriessen - Symphony for open strings (1978)
This is the first symphony featured so far written by a living composer, namely Dutchman Louis Andriessen. He has written for just about every combination of instruments conceivable, except for a conventional symphony orchestra, for which he always refused to write. The only work in his substantial canon calling itself a symphony is this work for 12 solo strings.

It's a cleverly conceived piece, in that, as the title suggests, the players play only the open strings of their instruments, although they're all tuned differently so that the composer has a four-octave range of notes to work with. The result is a strange, expressionless sound, with vibrato physically impossible. And yet it evolves like a conventional symphony, with melodic themes (including one that sounds suspiciously like Blue Moon) having to be passed around the instruments, rather in the manner of a group of hand-bell players. It's certainly a stark contrast to yesterday's Mahler!

Friday, 6 January 2017

Days 1 - 6

Day 1

1 January 2017: Brahms - Symphony No. 1 (1876)
There wasn't a lot of logic behind picking this to open the batting, as the decision to listen to it preceded (by about five minutes) the decision to take on this project. It's a suitable opener though. Being a 19th century work, it's mid-period and is an almost definitive example of the form.

Depending on which source you believe, Brahms took between 14 and 21 years to write this, knowing that whatever he produced would be compared, probably unfavourably, to Beethoven. And sure enough, similarities were drawn between the rhythmic 'fate' motto of the first movement and that of Beethoven's fifth, and the melody of the finale strongly resembles the 'Ode To Joy' theme from the Beethoven's ninth. As a consequence, the work has attracted the derogatory tag 'Beethoven's tenth', although the world seems to have moved on from that lazy moniker.

Among this work's many fans is Neil Kinnock, who adopted the theme from the finale as his campaign music during Labour's ill-fated 1992 General Election hustings. If it can survive association with that, it can survive anything.

Day 2

2 January 2017: Messiaen - Turangalîla-Symphonie (1949)
OK, let's get the obvious out of the way early. It's virtually impossible to write anything about Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie without using the words 'ondes' and 'Martenot'. The use of this prototype synthesiser throughout is Turangalîla's USP. It was an inspired move by Messiaen, as its other-worldly sound adds an extra dimension to an already rich and exotic score. Taking the myth of Tristan and Isolde as a broad theme, the symphony explores romantic love and death through Indian eroticism - using rhythms from Indian classical music - and by employing a huge orchestra with a vast array of percussion instruments.

I decided to listen to this one today, a Bank Holiday, as its running time of about 80 minutes requires a degree of commitment. It has to be said that its length is probably the main reason why I haven't listened to it as often as I'd like. It is an absolutely ravishing piece and already, by giving me an excuse to give it a spin, the Symphony A Day exercise has proved worthwhile.

Day 3

3 January 2017: Panufnik - Sinfonia Rustica (1948)
I studied music at Keele University, and the dissertation I submitted for my degree was on post-war Polish music. My interest in this subject stemmed from my discovery of the music of Sir Andrzej Panufnik. Panufnik had a more interesting life than most. Originally from Poland, he lost his entire body of early work towards the end of World War II during the Warsaw Uprising. Then in post-war communist Poland, the restrictions placed upon him by the Socialist Realism doctrine ultimately led to him defecting to Britain, in circumstances so dramatic they could have come from a John le Carré novel.

The treatment of his first numbered symphony, the Sinfonia Rustica, played a major part in Panufnik's decision to flee. Having originally been well-received, and even awarded the Chopin Composition Prize, it was subsequently condemned as 'alien to the Socialist era’, with Secretary of Culture Wlodzimierz Sokorski declaring that, ‘Sinfonia Rustica has ceased to exist!' Five years later, Panufnik was a British citizen, and denounced as a traitor in his homeland.

And yet this is, ostensibly, a quite harmless and uncontroversial work, in strictly musical terms. Being based on themes from northern Polish peasant music, its use of folk melodies would, on the face of it, have fulfilled the Soviet brief of being ‘simple and understandable to the broad masses’. The elusive nature of Soviet Realism, however, meant that many works like Sinfonia Rustica still manage to fall foul of the authorities. There was, apparently, Polish joke of the time about Soviet Realism: 'It is like a mosquito; everyone knows it has a prick, but no-one has seen it'. It probably loses something in translation, but you get the gist of it.

Day 4

4 January 2017: Bliss - A Colour Symphony (1922)
I've heard a lot of music in my life, but inevitably, given the task of listening to 365 different symphonies in a year, I'm going to pull out a few I've never heard before. And this is one such example.

I've heard of it, of course. A common theme for music essays is, 'What is meant by colour in music?', and brownie points could usually be obtained by dropping this as an example. In fact, this has less to with colour per se and more to do with the symbolic meanings associated with certain colours in heraldry. So, for example, purple (the colour of the first movement) is related to pageantry, royalty and death, with the music thus being suitably stately and ceremonial.

Bliss wrote this while he was studying composition with Vaughan Williams, and it isn't hard to hear the influence of his teacher in this wonderful work. I will definitely be listening to A Colour Symphony again, although it's a shame that this was Bliss's only symphony, so he won't be featuring in this project again.

Day 5

5 January 2017: Britten - Simple Symphony (1933)
It's fair to say that this is one of the more lightweight pieces I'll be featuring. Simple Symphony was written by a 20-year-old Benjamin Britten, using themes he had composed when he was in his early teens. I was mostly playing Subbuteo when I was 13 ...

It has a feel of juvenilia about it, and yet the treatment of the relatively simple thematic material by the more mature composer gives the work an air of sophistication. The second movement - Playful Pizzicato - is probably the best-known, with a tune not unlike the theme music for the Archers!

Day 6

6 January 2017: Schubert - Symphony No.1 (1813)
Following on from yesterday's Simple Symphony by a 20-year-old Britten, today's work is the 1st Symphony by Franz Schubert, written when he was just 16 years of age. It's an incredibly assured piece of writing for one so young; a fully fledged symphony for the full orchestral forces available at the time, and running to nearly 30 minutes in length.

It's a little derivative of Haydn, it has to be said, but that is hardly surprising given that he was still at school when he wrote this, and Haydn and Mozart would have played a significant part in his musical education. Seeing it performed in a concert hall is something I find quite amusing, with an orchestra of vastly experienced musicians, usually directed by a elderly conductor, all playing music written by someone probably the same age as their paper boy.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A Symphony A Day ... why?

On the morning of 1 January 2017, I decided to listen to Brahms' First Symphony. I don't know whether it was listening to a first symphony on the first day of the year that triggered it, but I suddenly had a mad idea to try to carry this practice on throughout the whole year. I thus resolved to listen to a symphony a day for the whole of 2017.

This apparently straightforward resolution instantly became more of a challenge than I had first envisaged. For a start, finding 365 different symphonies to listen to is no mean task in itself. Yes, I could be lazy and rattle through all 104 Haydn symphonies and the 120-plus attributed to Dittersdorf (assuming recordings of them all exist) and I'd be two-thirds of the way there - but where would be the fun in that? Well, none whatsoever if it involved listening to that much Haydn. No, I was determined to spread the load a bit and cover all symphonic bases, so to speak.

I haven't imposed too many rules upon myself, but not overly favouring one composer or time period was one. A maximum of 15 symphonies by any given composer seemed fair, as this would allow all of Shostakovich's output while permitting me to be more selective from the oeuvre of more prolific composers such as Mozart or JC Bach. Anything calling itself a symphony qualifies: so the organ symphonies of Widor, or Glenn Branca's insane compositions for mass orchestras of electric guitars are all valid. By the end of the year, I should have produced a cross-section the entire history of the symphony - even if that involves listening to music I don't actually like very much.

So, on with the show.