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 Sadly, after a couple of initial performances, it remained unpublished and unperformed for over 100 years, meaning it failed to have the influence it ought to have had.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.

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