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It is numerically unsatisfactory that this symphony predates Anton Bruckner's withdrawn-and-then-reinstated Symphony No. 0 that I featured last month.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.

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