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.

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