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!

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