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.

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