Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Days 57 – 59

Day 57

26 February 2017: Gould – Symphony No. 4 "West Point" (1952)
As has already been demonstrated by Widor's Organ Symphony No. 5, or Adams's Chamber Symphony, there is no restriction on the forces for which a symphony can be written. American composer Morton Gould took a different approach again when it came to composing his fourth symphony, choosing to employ a concert band. The piece was written for the 150th anniversary of the West Point US Military Academy, to be performed by the Academy band, and military marches form the backbone of the piece. 

Although the second movement is entitled 'Marches', the first movement – 'Epitaphs' – features an extraordinary slow-building march theme, and uses a 'marching machine' This is an unusual percussion instrument consisting of a frame containing wooden blocks connected by strings which produces a fairly authentic sound of a marching troop. It's certainly a unique sonority, and with some wonderful wind writing going on around it, the effect is stunning. Needless to say I'd never heard this symphony before today, but I did rather enjoy it.

Day 58

27 February 2017: Bizet – Symphony No. 1 in C major (1855)
Georges Bizet is, of course, best-known for his hit opera Carmen. Unfortunately, he died in the year it was first performed at the age of just 36. In common with other composers who died in their 30s, such as Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert, he happened to be a child prodigy so he did manage to produce a reasonable body of work in his short life. One of the first of which is this symphony, written when he was a student at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Bizet was just 17 when he wrote this. It was a student assignment, and consequently something he himself regarded as juvenilia. Bizet never heard the work performed in his lifetime, and he actually re-used some of its material in later pieces. The symphony was eventually rediscovered in 1933, over 50 years after his death, and given its first public performance by the great Felix Weingartner. Bizet appears to have been paying a tribute to his teacher, the composer Charles Gounod, in the work and even quotes from Gounod's own Symphony in D (a piece I'll be featuring later in the year). The Symphony in C was instantly recognised as a masterpiece and is now a concert staple, but the person most likely to be surprised by the success it has gone on to achieve would be Bizet himself.

Day 59

28 February 2017: Copland – Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924)
Aaron Copland first orchestral score was the culmination of his three years' study with the famed composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. The idea of a work for organ and orchestra was apparently the idea of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the first performance with Boulanger herself playing the organ. Despite Copland's reservations over writing for unfamiliar forces, the work was a success. Copland did later re-score the piece, removing the organ and replacing it with brass and saxophone and calling it Symphony No. 1, but I've always loved the sound of an organ so that's the version I'm going with.

As with any symphony that features a solo instrument, the question arises over whether it is in fact a concerto. The answer is probably as banal as saying that isn't because Copland called it a symphony, but the organ doesn't dominate the piece the way it would in a concerto and the solo passages aren't especially virtuosic. In fact, its role in the jazz-influenced second movement is really to keep a constant rhythm going throughout. The hugely impressive third movement is where Copland really comes to the fore, and there are clear echoes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in the ostinati, dissonances and sharp contrasts of dynamics that run through it. This symphony made Copland’s name as a composer, and rightly so.

No comments:

Post a Comment