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.

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