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 Indeed, the programme written by Mahler and later withdrawn explicitly states that the work addresses the question of life after death.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.

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