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.

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