Saturday, 4 March 2017

Days 60 – 63

Day 60

1 March 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 2 (1937)
Having been something of a late starter as a symphonist, writing his first at the age of 35, Edmund Rubbra produced his second symphony within a year of its predecessor. His first four symphonies were composed in a six-year period, and are considered to be connected – each apparently a reaction to the previous one. This work is a huge exercise in counterpoint and interweaving melodic lines: something that always fascinated Rubbra. There are no chords as such, other than those that occur as a result of the orchestral lines coinciding at any point in time, and the tonality is underpinned by pedal basses. 

Rubbra's undoubted skill as a composer is laid bare for all to see in this symphony, and it was this that led him to be revered in his own lifetime. As an indication of the esteem in which he, and this work in particular, was held, the great conductor Sir Adrian Boult chose this symphony as one of his Desert Island Discs when he appeared on the show in 1979 to mark his 90th birthday. That it should now be virtually unknown is a travesty, and once again I find myself wondering how a composer can drop off the radar so quickly after his death. 

Day 61

2 March 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 (1937)
Written in the same year as Rubbra's second symphony, featured yesterday, Dmitri Shostakovich's fifth symphony is a very different beast. This is one of the giants of the symphonic repertoire, not just for its music, which is truly magnificent, but also for its historic and cultural significance. As mentioned on 6 February when I featured it, Shostakovich was forced to withdraw his fourth symphony in the face of mounting criticism from the Stalinist regime. His response was this symphony, referred to in an article allegedly written by Shostakovich a few days before the premiere as 'a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism'.

It is an extraordinary achievement. With the very real threat of being sent to a Gulag labour camp hanging over him, Shostakovich could have played safe and written some ultra-patriotic hymn in praise of Socialism. Instead he changed very little. The themes are more tonal, the piece as a whole avoids the extreme dissonance of the fourth, and the triumphal ending provides an unmistakable tone of optimism. It is, however, a 'response' on the composer's terms, which satisfied both the ruling party and his own sense of integrity. The positive ending can be taken two ways: it is, superficially, a rejoicing climax, but a quote attributed to Shostakovich is more telling – 'The rejoicing is forced ... it's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing", and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing"'. It received a 30-minute ovation at its first performance, and is rightly considered one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century.

Day 62

3 March 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 45, 'Farewell' (1772)
Having written 104 symphonies, it's a small blessing that Josef Haydn chose to give many of them nicknames, drawing attention to their USP, as it were. Number 45 is probably the outstanding example, thanks to an ingenious idea that turns a regular classical period symphony into a piece of music theatre. During an extended coda appended to the end of the finale, the members of the orchestra are instructed to leave the stage and snuff out the candle on their music stand – or, nowadays, switch of their desk light. I doubt modern Health & Safety regulations would sanction a stage full of candles in such close proximity to paper scores. The order of departure is specified in the score – first oboe, second horn, bassoon, second oboe etc. – until at the end only two violins remain.

The idea apparently came during a stay at Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy's summer palace, during which the musicians had been required to stay longer than they'd expected. With the orchestra pleading to return to their families, Haydn decided to convey this message to the Prince via the symphony. Gimmicks aside, it is a very fine work, and like its predecessor the Trauer symphony, featured on 4 February, it dates from Haydn's Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period. In some ways, having such a light-hearted ending to an otherwise quite serious symphony is a tiny bit incongruous. Would it be quite so well-known without it, however?

Day 63

4 March 2017: Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem (1940)
Sinfonia da Requiem is the most conventional of Benjamin Britten's four symphonies, and certainly the most frequently performed. It also helped make Britten's name as one of the country's leading composers as it led directly to the commissioning of his opera Peter Grimes. It did, however, have a quite inauspicious genesis. The Japanese government commissioned the work to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Empire of Japan. The details of the commission were late in arriving, leaving Britten with little choice but to submit the piece he was working on at the time. When the Japanese received it, they took exception to the symphony's use of movement titles taken from Christian liturgy, and felt the work was too gloomy for a celebratory occasion. Britten was accused by the brother of the Japanese prime minister of 'insulting a friendly power'.

Although Britten, with the help of his friend WH Auden, replied in carefully worded terms to defend his work, Japan soon afterwards became an enemy power following the attack on Pearl Harbour. The diplomatic incident the work nearly caused has long been consigned to history and the symphony is now well-established. It's a great piece, and one of my personal favourites. It also must have been a favourite of the 70s rock band ELO, who used the first movement as an intro to their Out Of The Blue tour shows in 1978, accompanying their impressive-for-the-time spaceship stage taking off and landing. I find the passage of darkness to light, from the ominous rising figure that opens the work to the soaring strings in the major key ending, to be genuinely uplifting.

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