Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Days 57 – 59

Day 57

26 February 2017: Gould – Symphony No. 4 "West Point" (1952)
As has already been demonstrated by Widor's Organ Symphony No. 5, or Adams's Chamber Symphony, there is no restriction on the forces for which a symphony can be written. American composer Morton Gould took a different approach again when it came to composing his fourth symphony, choosing to employ a concert band. The piece was written for the 150th anniversary of the West Point US Military Academy, to be performed by the Academy band, and military marches form the backbone of the piece. 

Although the second movement is entitled 'Marches', the first movement – 'Epitaphs' – features an extraordinary slow-building march theme, and uses a 'marching machine' This is an unusual percussion instrument consisting of a frame containing wooden blocks connected by strings which produces a fairly authentic sound of a marching troop. It's certainly a unique sonority, and with some wonderful wind writing going on around it, the effect is stunning. Needless to say I'd never heard this symphony before today, but I did rather enjoy it.

Day 58

27 February 2017: Bizet – Symphony No. 1 in C major (1855)
Georges Bizet is, of course, best-known for his hit opera Carmen. Unfortunately, he died in the year it was first performed at the age of just 36. In common with other composers who died in their 30s, such as Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert, he happened to be a child prodigy so he did manage to produce a reasonable body of work in his short life. One of the first of which is this symphony, written when he was a student at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Bizet was just 17 when he wrote this. It was a student assignment, and consequently something he himself regarded as juvenilia. Bizet never heard the work performed in his lifetime, and he actually re-used some of its material in later pieces. The symphony was eventually rediscovered in 1933, over 50 years after his death, and given its first public performance by the great Felix Weingartner. Bizet appears to have been paying a tribute to his teacher, the composer Charles Gounod, in the work and even quotes from Gounod's own Symphony in D (a piece I'll be featuring later in the year). The Symphony in C was instantly recognised as a masterpiece and is now a concert staple, but the person most likely to be surprised by the success it has gone on to achieve would be Bizet himself.

Day 59

28 February 2017: Copland – Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924)
Aaron Copland first orchestral score was the culmination of his three years' study with the famed composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. The idea of a work for organ and orchestra was apparently the idea of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the first performance with Boulanger herself playing the organ. Despite Copland's reservations over writing for unfamiliar forces, the work was a success. Copland did later re-score the piece, removing the organ and replacing it with brass and saxophone and calling it Symphony No. 1, but I've always loved the sound of an organ so that's the version I'm going with.

As with any symphony that features a solo instrument, the question arises over whether it is in fact a concerto. The answer is probably as banal as saying that isn't because Copland called it a symphony, but the organ doesn't dominate the piece the way it would in a concerto and the solo passages aren't especially virtuosic. In fact, its role in the jazz-influenced second movement is really to keep a constant rhythm going throughout. The hugely impressive third movement is where Copland really comes to the fore, and there are clear echoes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in the ostinati, dissonances and sharp contrasts of dynamics that run through it. This symphony made Copland’s name as a composer, and rightly so.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Days 54 – 56

Day 54

23 February 2017: Beach – Symphony in E Minor, 'Gaelic Symphony' (1896)
Amy Beach's Symphony in E Minor is a quite extraordinary document. Nineteenth-century symphonies by American composers are rare enough things, so for one written by that even rarer thing, a female American composer, to have stood the test of time is truly remarkable. In common with her countryman Charles Ives, whose own first symphony didn't materialise until about six years after this, Beach drew inspiration from Dvořák. The Czech composer moved to the USA in 1892, and his influence on American music was quite substantial. And while Dvořák drew on Native American and African-American spirituals for thematic material for his New World Symphony, Beach looked to the other side of the Atlantic and made use of folk melodies from England, Ireland and Scotland – hence the title Gaelic Symphony.

Its opening is very unusual with a swirling, disorientating chromatic passage fading in as if from nowhere, which seems to anticipate similar writing by Sibelius in Tapiola about 30 years later. Eventually it settles down into a lusciously orchestrated work, typical of the period. The folk melodies are used to exquisite effect in the beautifully melodic third movement, while the fourth movement sounds folk-influenced but is in fact all Beach. Ultimately, it is purely academic distinction to establish whether the themes are borrowed or Beach's own, as the symphony is assuredly written and clearly the product of a brilliant mind.

Day 55

24 February 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 2 (1865)
It's quite appropriate that we should feature Antonin Dvořák the day after Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony, which was heavily influenced by the Czech – although more likely his later symphonies. This one would have escaped most people's attention at the time, having passed from the composer's possession almost immediately. To lose one symphony in a year is unfortunate; to lose two looks like carelessness – as Oscar Wilde might have said to Antonin Dvořák in 1865. Having already recounted (on Day 16) how Dvořák's submitted his first symphony for a competition and then never saw it again, it is incredible that, a few months later, Dvořák should write a second symphony, only to then see it kept by a friend who retained it as security having lent Dvořák money to have the score bound. Thankfully, unlike his first, Dvořák was eventually reunited with this symphony, although it didn't receive its first performance until over 20 years later.

Rather like the first, this is a huge sprawling work that paid no attention to anything that might resemble form. The harmonic language is recognisably Dvořák, but it does have a stream of consciousness feel about it, and could safely lose about 10 of its 50 minutes' duration. The Poco adagio second movement has a delicate charm to it and is certainly the redeeming feature of the symphony. On the whole though, it is not among Dvořák's greatest works.

Day 56

25 February 2017: Walton – Symphony No. 1 (1935)
I first encountered William Walton's barnstorming first symphony when my university orchestra played it back in 1990. I'd been in the choir for the first half (Howells' Hymnus Paradisi – equally wonderful) so was able to sit in the audience after the interval. With the brilliant Stephen Banfield conducting, it was an absolutely blistering performance, and the Stoke Evening Sentinel reviewed it with the headline 'Not pretty, but powerful!' It has remained one of my favourite symphonies ever since.

With Belshazzar's Feast already under his belt, Walton was well established at the forefront of British music by the mid-1930s. He struggled with this symphony though, and after taking two years to write the first three movements he decided to allow it to be performed three times in that incomplete state in 1933-34. When the final movement completed the work the following year, it was ecstatically received and continues to be revered to this day. Walton acknowledged the influence of Sibelius in the piece, especially in the first movement with its driving rhythms over long pedal basses. It's searingly brilliant symphony, and I was pleased to have an excuse to listen to it today.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Days 51 – 53

Day 51

20 February 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 2 (1802)
With Ludwig van Beethoven, sometimes it is hard to reconcile the music with the man. He was capable of writing the most beautiful and spiritually uplifting music at times when he was in the darkest of despair. His second symphony is a typical case in point. He wrote this majestic symphony during his stay at Heiligenstadt in the outskirts of Vienna, at a time when he was coming to terms with his increasing deafness. His depression was such that he wrote the now famous Heiligenstadt Testament (a letter to his brothers detailing his malady, in which he contemplates suicide) just a few months after writing this symphony. That anyone could write such confident and bright music at a time like that is truly amazing.

Beethoven's second tends to be overlooked somewhat, which is hardly surprising given that his third, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth would all be serious contenders for the greatest symphony ever written. There are some wonderful moments in this work though, with the second movement in particular being especially sublime. It is one of Beethoven's major-key slow movements, and rather like its closely related counterpart in the ninth symphony, it somehow seems to conjure up a utopian vision of a better place. And that's what Beethoven was all about – creating a musical world that was happier than the one he lived in.

Day 52

21 February 2017: Szymanowski – Symphony No. 2 (1909)
I'm jumping straight to Karol Szymanowski's second symphony as his first is very much the runt of his symphonic litter. Composers are a self-critical bunch, on the whole, and I've already featured symphonies that were later withdrawn or revised beyond recognition. Szymanowski's first symphony, however, was hated by the composer even while he was writing it, saying 'it will turn out to be some sort of contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster'. It was performed once and then withdrawn, and although it has been recorded, I share Szymanowski's view of it. There are plenty of other composers I could feature instead of including it for the sake of completion, so the second it is.

This hugely opulent work was his first to be widely performed outside of his native Poland, and although clearly influenced by Richard Strauss (and, some have argued, Max Reger) it breaks a few symphonic moulds along the way. In a highly unusual move, it opens with a solo violin in the manner of a concerto. Also unique for the time was the fact that it has just two movements, with the larger second movement being a theme and variations, culminating in a highly complex fugue. With its dense contrapuntal texture and meandering tonality, it isn't the easiest symphony to get a handle on, so to speak. It does, however, reward repeated listening.

Day 53

22 February 2017: Schubert – Symphony No.2 (1815)
I'm conscious of the fact that for a lot of these Classical period composers' early symphonies I've become a bit fixated on the age they were when they wrote them. It is, however, hard not to be impressed by the fact that Franz Schubert wrote this when he was just 17. Even in the year or so since he'd written his first symphony, his progression is clearly discernible. The lightness of touch in the string writing in the first movement, with flurries of notes whizzing around inside naturally flowing, but quite daring for the time, harmonic shifts is just wonderful.

The slow movement – a theme and variations – is a respectful nod to Mozart, and is a graceful moment of repose in a symphony that, for the most part, fairly rattles along. The piece as a whole is energetic and full of youthful exuberance, and despite clocking in at about 35 minutes it seems to just fly by.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Days 46 – 50

Day 46

15 February 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 1 (1866)
It is numerically unsatisfactory that this symphony predates Anton Bruckner's withdrawn-and-then-reinstated Symphony No. 0 that I featured last month. And while not going so far as to withdraw this one too, he appeared to be almost as unhappy with it, as he revised it constantly. The so-called 'Vienna version' dates from 1891, a full 25 years after it was first composed. For no adequately explained reason, he nicknamed this symphony 'das kecke Beserl', which is not directly translatable, but either means 'saucy maid', 'cheeky devil' or 'fresh brat' depending on which source you read.

Unusually for Bruckner, the symphony opens with a march theme, instead of a gradually emerging opening chord that he tended to prefer. The slow movement is rather more trademark Bruckner; a beautiful Adagio that was apparently an expression of love for his local butcher's daughter! The nickname probably stems from the lively Scherzo, while the fortissimo opening to the final movement is again atypical for Bruckner. It's a good symphony, but one indicative of a composer still finding his voice, and possibly due to the uncertainty over which version of is definitive, it remains the least well-known of Bruckner's nine numbered symphonies.

Day 47

16 February 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 15 (1772)
Having started writing symphonies when he was just eight years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was very much the old hand when he set about writing his 15th at the age of 16. Admittedly most of his childhood symphonies were quite short, and a couple were almost certainly not written by him at all, but even so, his talent was such that his 'Salzburg Symphonies' (of which this was the second) are considered mature works. He wrote these 'Salzburg Symphonies' – all 17 of them – in a period of just over three years when he was employed by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg as a court composer.

The Symphony No. 15 is a brisk piece of work, running to a mere 13 or 14 minutes. It certainly pays not to over-analyse it as it is about as straightforward a symphony as he ever wrote. In common with many of the works he composed for the Salzburg court it would have been written quickly for a specific occasion, and then probably never performed there again. It certainly wasn't published in Mozart's lifetime. The highlight of the symphony is the finale, which would have been a crowd-pleaser, with its fake ending no doubt raising a guffaw or two. Well, that's what passed for comedy in those days.

Day 48

17 February 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 1, 'Classical' (1917)
This is one of those pieces of music that I first encountered when I was quite young, without actually knowing what it was until much later. In the late-sixties and early-seventies, there was a long-forgotten children's TV series – on Sunday evenings on ITV as I recall – called The Flaxton Boys, and it employed the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Classical Symphony as its theme music. It was probably about 15 years before I discovered what the music actually was.

It was a clever choice for a historical drama, as the symphony itself was a modern interpretation of an old style, namely the Classical-period symphonies of Mozart and especially Haydn. The Classical Symphony is widely regarded as starting the vogue for neoclassicism in music in the 1920s, which was a reaction to the atonality and serialism that marked the start of the 20th century. It is probably fair to say though that Prokofiev wasn't aware that he was starting a vogue for anything when he wrote it. It's a joyous 15 minutes or so that is classical in form and style, but musically unmistakably Prokofiev.

Day 49

18 February 2017: Balakirev – Symphony No. 1 (1897)
Staying in Russia, here we have the first symphony by Mily Balakirev. For me, Balakirev is bracketed with the likes of Cui, Auric and Durey – composers every music student learned about for being members of The Five or Les Six, but whose music remained blissfully unheard. With the possible exception of his piano piece Islamey, I have not knowingly heard any Balakirev, but this is exactly what Symphony A Day is all about – exploring the darker corners of the repertoire.

The Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) were hugely important figures in Russian music, helping to establish a symphonic tradition independent of its Austro-German counterpart. Balakirev's symphonies are therefore quite significant, although hardly well-known, and this one in particular had an odd life. Balakirev began working on it in 1864, but after two years he abandoned it. He eventually finished it 30 years later by adding a finale based on three Russian folk songs, remarkably managing to retain the symphony's integrity despite the three-decade gap.  I have to say it is a really good piece, and there are clear echoes of Rimsky's Scheherazade in its use of orchestral colour. By the time Balakirev had finished it though, he was 60, and his protégé Tchaikovsky had already been and gone, so any impact this particular work may have had was lost.

Day 50

19 February 2017: Brian – Symphony No. 1, 'The Gothic' (1927)
If Sundays are becoming Huge Choral Symphony Day, then we might as well pile in today with daddy of them all – Havergal Brian's gargantuan 'Gothic Symphony'. It's a suitably massive work to mark the half century of A Symphony A Day. At roughly 110 minutes, it's one of the longest ever written. There are longer symphonies, although absurdities like Dimitrie Cuclin's six-hour-long 12th symphony have never been performed, and probably never will be. What in particular makes this such a challenge is that it requires the population of a small town to play it. An orchestra of about 150 players, plus a further 40 brass players formed into four brass orchestras, four vocal soloists, a children's choir and four adult choirs totalling about 400-500 singers, in fact. The practical difficulties of assembling that many musicians to rehearse and perform a piece of that length mean that this symphony has only ever been publicly performed seven times, and recorded once.

The brutal reality is that while you can get away with that level of ostentatiousness if you're Gustav Mahler, it's harder to justify if you're a relatively obscure amateur from Stoke-on-Trent (nothing against Stoke, by the way, being a Keele grad). It is difficult to devote that much time and effort to music that is, frankly, second-rate, and having heard this symphony several times in my life, I've always found it a wholly unrewarding experience. Today was no different. I can't think of any work that is so much less than the sum of its parts. I would argue that this is two over-orchestrated three-movement symphonies glued together anyway. Part I is a 40-minute work for orchestra alone. Part II is a 70-minute choral setting of the Te Deum. Maybe had they been separated at birth and treated as stand-alone works I might have viewed them differently. Ironically, the best bit of the whole piece is the unaccompanied choral setting of Judex that opens the fifth movement, when the massive orchestra aren't actually playing. I want to like this symphony, as I'm generally all in favour of supporting neglected composers. If they choose to make their music as wilfully un-performable as this, however, then I have little sympathy.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Days 43 – 45

Day 43

12 February 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 2, 'Resurrection' (1895)
Sundays are becoming Huge Choral Symphony Day. It's out of necessity I suppose, given that Sunday is the only day I can more or less guarantee I'll be able to set aside over an hour to listen to them. In today's case, the requirement is over 80 minutes to give Gustav Mahler's 'Resurrection Symphony' a full airing. And it's not even his longest!

It took Mahler about six years to write this, and it became arguably the most popular in his lifetime. It's certainly a massive statement, for forces that include ten horns, ten trumpets, an organ, church bells, a chorus, and (to quote the score), 'the largest possible contingent of strings'. It owes a lot to Beethoven's ninth, and Mahler was fully aware that he was inviting comparison by writing a choral final movement. As with the Beethoven it is the longest movement in the symphony, and also quotes from the earlier movements at its outset. The 'Resurrection' nickname comes from the fact that the final movement sets verses from Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). Indeed, the programme written by Mahler and later withdrawn explicitly states that the work addresses the question of life after death. I suppose it's fitting that such an issue is given over to a work of this scale. You might wonder if the vast resources and the inordinate amount of time it takes to perform this work are worth it, but the almost herculean effort required to reach the final five minutes or so of this symphony is what makes its conclusion all the more powerful. I cannot think of any music ever written that is as emotionally overwhelming as the closing moments of the 'Resurrection Symphony'. It's impossible not to be moved by it.

Day 44

13 February 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Elegiaca (1957)
Andrzej Panufnik's second symphony, which he entitled Sinfonia Elegiaca, actually started life as his Symphony of Peace, written eight years earlier. At that time, Panufnik was still living in Poland and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to conform to the strictures of Socialist Realism imposed by the Communist authorities. The Symphony of Peace was a choral symphony, written almost to an order from the regime, and while it was well-received by the public, the powers-that-be were less taken with it. It was awarded a State Prize, second class, which was roughly equivalent to damning it with faint praise, and it was criticised for being formalist and not 'ideologically pure’

Fast forward six years, and Panufnik had defected to the UK in a scene that could have been lifted straight from a John le Carré novel. Panufnik had by this point withdrawn the Symphony of Peace, and set about dismantling and rebuilding it as the Sinfonia Elegiaca. The choral sections of the original work were removed entirely and the sparser, more melancholic piece that emerged became an elegy to the victims of the Second World War. The dramatic revision of the Symphony of Peace was not driven by a commission or promise of a performance, but appears to have been a purely cathartic exercise as Panufnik attempted to rescue the work from the painful association with the regime it was originally written to please. It apparently came as a complete surprise to Panufnik that the work was given its first performance in 1957 in Houston, by the great Leopold Stokowski. Although withdrawn, a Polish radio broadcast of Symphony of Peace from 1954 still exists and it's very interesting to hear how this symphony evolved from that.

Day 45

14 February 2017: Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique (1830)
Valentine's Day – and what could be more romantic than a classic tale of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl spurns boy, boy takes opium to forget about girl, boy imagines killing girl, boy hallucinates his own execution and girl dancing as a witch to celebrate his death. OK, so it's not a conventional love story, but this is not a conventional symphony. Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is not completely without precedent: there are obvious parallels with Beethoven's sixth 'Pastoral' symphony, both in the number of movements (five) and its literal depiction of sounds from nature. It is, however, in almost every other respect, ground-breaking. The concept of a programme symphony, in which the music conforms to an accompanying written narrative, was completely new. As also was the symphony's idée fixe – a musical phrase associated with a particular person – which in this case represents 'the girl'. Other composers would pick up this particular ball and run with it, with Wagner especially making extensive use of leitmotiv (the German equivalent) throughout his operas.

The girl in question was an Irish actress by the name of Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz had seen in a production of Hamlet, but only actually only met two years after the symphony was composed. Harriet was, unsurprisingly, flattered that one of the greatest symphonies of the 19th century had been written about her, and they were married the following year, although the marriage was a disaster. This is a staggering piece of work. The vision and flair on display for its time is hard to comprehend, as rule after rule is simply tossed out of the window. Orchestral effects never heard before appear, there are moments of pure black comedy such as the fall of the guillotine in the fourth movement, there's a burlesque parody of the Dies Irae plainchant in the finale – it's all absolutely bonkers. Fantastique indeed.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Days 39 – 42

Day 39

8 February 2017: Gubaidulina – 'Stimmen ... Verstummen', Symphony in 12 movements (1986)
And now for something completely different. Sofia Gubaidulina is a Russian composer, now in her 86th year, and widely recognised as one of the greatest living composers. Gubaidulina is of mixed Tatar–Slavic ethnicity, and as a female composer of avant garde music in the former Soviet Union, she didn't exactly have a lot going for her at the start of her career. Despite repeatedly falling foul of the ruling Communist Party, Gubaidulina was encouraged by no less a figure than Shostakovich to be true to her ideals. If anyone could speak from experience on that front, it was old Dmitri.

This symphony dates from 1986 and is a breathtaking work. The title translates as 'Voices ... Silence' and the contrast that marks the work is initialised in the first movement, in which a D major triad is established rather like the opening of a late-romantic period symphony, only to be rudely destroyed by the brass section. This recurring theme of moments of calm disrupted by brutal aggression occurs throughout the work's twelve movements. Some movements are quite short – four are less than a minute in length – while the pivotal eighth movement accounts for nearly a third of the symphony's entire length. There are some startling extended techniques employed, especially for the brass, and there is even a 'conductor solo', in which the conductor performs rhythmic gestures in front of a silent orchestra. I'll concede that contemporary music isn't to everyone's taste, but I'd also say that this symphony is about as approachable as it gets.

Day 40

9 February 2017: Barber – Symphony in One Movement (1936)
After yesterday's symphony in 12 movements, here we have Samuel Barber doing it in one. If I was being really picky, I'd argue that this is just a conventional four-movement symphony with the clearly demarcated sections segued together. That said, the symphony as a whole is an extended sonata form, with the second and third movements acting as a development section of sorts, and the final movement a recapitulation. It's clever stuff, by a composer whose oeuvre tends to be overshadowed by his ubiquitous Adagio for Strings.

Barber wasn't the first composer to attempt to condense symphonic form into a single movement work; that honour goes to Sibelius, who did so in his sublime seventh symphony, which predates this by 12 years. In fact, Barber modelled this work on Sibelius's seventh, and there are some clear echoes of the Finn's masterpiece in the Andante tranquillo slow section. Coming in at under 20 minutes, it's one the shortest symphonies featured so far, yet it feels as if it says all it needs to say without a note being wasted. Small, but perfectly formed.

Day 41

10 February 2017: Penderecki – Symphony No. 3 (1995)
In drawing up the list of 365 symphonies to feature this year, I had to make a judgment call on whether to include all of the symphonies of some composers or just a selection. While composers such as Mozart and Haydn just wrote too many to contemplate including them all, others, such as Krzysztof Penderecki, were borderline cases. He wrote eight, but I've chosen four. My particular favourite is his second symphony, but as it is known as the Christmas Symphony, I'll be airing that in December. So I'm jumping in at the third.

Penderecki had two very distinct phases as a composer. His early work is extremely avant garde, making using of extended techniques and non-standard notation to produce sonorically challenging pieces. This music certainly caught the imagination of film producers, and extracts from several of his early-period works were used in the films The Exorcist and The Shining. In common with many other composers from that period he later abandoned this style and went in completely the opposite direction. While some of those contemporaries, such as Górecki and Pärt, opted for so-called 'holy minimalism' (more of that later when their turn comes), Penderecki drew on the late-romantic period, specifically Bruckner and Mahler, and he sought to carry on that tradition but from a modern perspective. This symphony is a perfect case in point. It's almost as if he's trying to imagine what Bruckner would be writing if he were still alive today. The result is, in my opinion, quite incredible.

Day 42

11 February 2017: Elgar – Symphony No. 1 (1908)
As it's my birthday, I had to pick a personal favourite listen to today, and what better than the magnificent first symphony by Sir Edward Elgar. Like Brahms, who kicked off this whole series, Elgar agonised over writing his first symphony for many years. So long, in fact, that he was into his fifties by the time it was premiered. It was well worth the wait though, being incredibly well-received, and subsequently performed over 100 times around the world within a year. As such, it became the first English symphony to make its mark overseas, and remains extremely popular to this day.

There is scarcely a moment of this work that isn't absolutely glorious. From the 'great beautiful tune' that opens proceedings, through the scherzo and slow movements that remarkably share the same thematic motif played at completely different tempi, to the opening tune fighting to re-establish itself at the end – the hits just keep on coming. The last three of four minutes of the third movement Adagio is, however, the real heart and soul of this piece. Rather than the searing passion typical of late-romantic symphonies, there's a very English elegiac quality, which somehow has a greater capacity to soften the stiffest of upper lips. This symphony can rightly claim to have put English music on the map.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Days 35 – 38

Day 35

4 February 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 44, 'Trauer' (1772)
Josef Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, which justifiably earned him the epithet 'Father of the Symphony'. So, it's hard not to feel I've been a bit dismissive in skipping over the first 43. I'm sure some of them are good, I know some of them are very dull, but life's certainly too short to listen to them all and no one would thank me for devoting nearly a third of this entire series to one composer. I have to start somewhere, so No. 44 it is.

This dates from Haydn's Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period, which echoed a broader movement in the German arts for greater emotional content. It is subtitled Trauer (Mourning); understandably then, it's rather more earnest than the more lightweight works that preceded it. In fact, it is much a darker work than one would normally associate with Haydn. An intense Adagio – unusually for the time placed as the third movement – is preceded by a stately Menuetto, also in a minor key. This gives the suitably mournful impression that the symphony has two slow movements. The Trauer was probably the first Haydn symphony I genuinely liked, so it seems an appropriate place to start.

Day 36

5 February 2017: Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony (1910)
I was on Mastermind once. I actually wanted to have Ralph Vaughan Williams as my specialist subject, but wasn't allowed to, as someone else had chosen it within the previous five years. As it happened though, this symphony was one of the questions that came up in the general knowledge round, which I thought was quite serendipitous. If I'd got it wrong, I would have probably walked straight out of the studio and jumped into the nearby River Irwell.

Rather like Sibelius 20 years earlier, Vaughan Williams decided to make his first foray into symphonic territory a choral one. In both cases, it turned out to be their longest symphony and the only one they ever wrote that employed a choir (save the for wordless female chorus used briefly in RVW's Sinfonia Antartica). It sets texts from Leaves of Grass by the American poet Walt Whitman, and was an immediate success. A Sea Symphony, along with Elgar's 1st Symphony, which preceded it by a year or two, became the first English symphonies to establish themselves in the standard concert repertory. Although clearly owing a lot to his teacher Stanford, Vaughan Williams had actually been studying orchestration with Ravel while he was writing this work, and as such his development was set on a course towards more impressionistic writing than the more pervading Germanic influence that runs through Elgar. It made Vaughan Williams's name as a composer, although it turned out to be rather unrepresentative of the music to come.

Day 37

6 February 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4 (1936)
I'm skipping over Dmitri Shostakovich's second and third symphonies for the time being, which are entitled To October and The First of May respectively, and thus scheduled in for October and 1 May. Which brings us to his rather contentious fourth symphony. It's hard to comprehend from a modern perspective just how dangerous it was to be an artist in Stalinist Russia in 1936, but countless poets, writers and even musicians were sent to the Gulags or executed during the Great Purge of the 1930s for 'counter-revolutionary activities'. Shostakovich was in the process of writing this Mahler-influenced symphony when an article appeared in Pravda – seemingly on Stalin's orders – condemning his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Aware that this symphony was cut from the same cloth, musically, Shostakovich took the decision – or, according to another narrative, the decision was taken for him – to withdraw it. It was a judgement that might well have saved Shostakovich's life, although it did mean that this work went unheard 25 years.

It is something of anomaly in his symphonic canon, as it represented a significant departure from its three predecessors, but was written in a style swiftly abandoned in a quite reasonable attempt to avoid being sent to a forced labour camp. The mighty fifth that followed it is rightly lauded as a masterpiece, but it clearly has its roots in this work. The sheer power of the massive forces wielded in this symphony are used to press home a pessimistic tone, and in many ways the fifth is its optimistic counterpart. The ending is quite extraordinary, with a powerful brass-led finale subsiding to a four-minute pianissimo coda over a constant C minor chord in the strings. I think it's a magnificent work, but it is still performed nowhere near as regularly as the more popular fifth or seventh (Leningrad). But for Stalin's intervention, who knows where this path would have taken him.

Day 38

7 February 2017: Schumann – Symphony No. 1, 'Spring' (1841)
After spending almost his entire career as a composer writing piano music and songs, Robert Schumann was pushed by his wife Clara in the direction of writing for orchestra. His first symphony, written the year after he and Clara were married, was his first serious attempt at orchestral writing, but is nevertheless quite an assured work. The title 'Spring' comes from the fact that each movement of the symphony originally had its own title – 1. The Beginning of Spring, 2. Evening, 3. Merry Playmates, 4. Spring in Full Bloom. These were withdrawn before publication, but the symphony is still routinely referred to as the Spring Symphony.

I'll be frank, Schumann is a composer I hardly ever listen to, save for his sublime A minor Piano Concerto. No matter often I listen to his music, it just doesn't 'stick'. This is a pleasant enough listen for a cold, grey day in February though, when the arrival of spring and its ensuing warmth and colour seems a long way off.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Days 32 – 34

Day 32

1 February 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 1 (1824)
We've already had Mozart's first symphony, written when he was eight, and Schubert's first symphony, written when he was 16, and today it's another child prodigy – Felix Mendelssohn. The fact that this symphony was completed just eight weeks after his 15th birthday but is listed as Op.11 gives an indication of just how early young Felix began composing. The list of other compositions, to which no opus numbers were given, that Mendelssohn wrote prior to this symphony (including twelve string symphonies, a violin concerto, a piano concerto, and two concertos for two pianos) is absolutely mind-boggling. They certainly started 'em young in those days.

Mendelssohn was thus hardly a novice when he produced this symphony, and there is nothing immature about it at all. True, it is clearly modelled on Mozart's Symphony No. 40; indeed, the similarity between the theme that opens the fourth movement and its counterpart in the Mozart sails perilously close to plagiarism. In addition, the stormy opening sounds distinctly Beethovenian, but Mendelssohn's own voice is far from lost amidst the stylistic influences. This is best heard in the use of a double fugue in the final movement, a skill evolved from his early string symphonies. There is something a bit contrived about the C major coda it ends with, but we'll put that down to youthful exuberance.

Day 33

2 February 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 1 (1937)
By contrast to yesterday's precocious teenager Mendelssohn, Edmund Rubbra was 36 when he began his symphonic career. He went on to write 11, and up until about a year ago I hadn't heard any of them. Rubbra is a very recent discovery for me, and I did despair at how I could have lived on this earth for over half a century, listening to far more 20th century music than most, and yet his music had always eluded me. In many ways, my discovery of him may have subconsciously triggered this whole Symphony A Day thing, and encouraged me to seek out other composers I knew only by name.

Rubbra reminds me of Herbert Howells, another composer I'm a big fan of, in that I can't quite figure out how his music 'works'. It seems unstructured and almost meandering but somehow always engaging. The melodic line appears to come first for Rubbra, develops organically and then the harmonies and counter-melodies just emerge around it. Formal considerations are secondary, if they exist at all. This symphony is a masterful work. After a powerful opening movement and a short scherzo based on the French dance Perigourdine, the symphony ends with a near-20-minute Lento of increasing intensity and drive that eventually subsides into a deathly pianissimo, before building again towards a mighty conclusion. His is a genuinely awe-inspiring voice, and I’m enjoying discovering his work.

Day 34

3 February 2017: Tippett – Symphony No. 1 (1945)
The very first piece in the very first classical music concert that I paid money to attend was the Concerto for Double String Orchestra by a composer I had never heard of at the time – Sir Michael Tippett. It was the aural equivalent of love at first sight, and I've remained a devotee ever since. His first symphony was written about five years after that Concerto, and occupies the same musical sound world of additive rhythms (syncopation) and mostly diatonic counterpoint. Tippett's music became increasingly complex and dissonant as his career progressed, but his early works, of which this is a great example, are quite easy on the ear.

Tippett apparently started conceiving this symphony while he was in prison in 1943, where was detained for refusing to carry out war-related duties while claiming to be a conscientious objector. It follows the conventional four-movement form; the first is lively and rhythmic, while the second is a profound Adagio built on a ground bass in a clear tribute to one of his own musical gods – Purcell. The third movement scherzo contains a central trio for strings that is a very close relation to his Little Music for Strings, written the following year. The finale employs two contrasting fugues which are interrupted by the appearance of the bass drum towards the end and the music fragments into nothingness. It is a bold and confident piece by a composer on an upward trajectory.