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!

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