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.

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