Sunday, 12 March 2017

Days 68 – 71

Day 68

9 March 2017: Rimsky-Korsakov – Symphony No. 1 In E Minor (1884)
It's hard to conceive of a symphony that had a more protracted journey to reach its finished state than this one. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, another child prodigy, started composing this symphony at the age of just 15. Rimsky continued working on it for another two years under the guidance of his mentor Mily Balakirev, whose own first symphony I featured on 18 February, and by 1861 three of its four movements had been written. At that point, Rimsky was conscripted into the Russian Navy for three years. Far from letting this minor inconvenience handicap his progress, he managed to complete the one remaining movement – the second, Andante tranquillo – during shore leave in England. That was far from the end of the symphony's story though, as once Rimsky's spell as naval cadet was over, he carried out a degree of rework on it, before it was eventually premiered in 1865, six years after it was started. Then, nineteen years later, it was thoroughly revised, with the most fundamental change being that of the key, which shifted up a semitone from E flat to E. This is the version that is now accepted as the definitive one.

Balakirev's influence is strong. As the founder of The Five, or The Mighty Handful, that Rimsky-Korsakov would become a member of, he was concerned with the creation of a truly Russian school of music, fully detached from Germanic influences. It was claimed by contemporary Russian critics that this symphony was the "First Russian Symphony", although Rimsky acknowledged the influence of Schumann and, specifically in orchestration, Berlioz. It does make extensive use of Russian folk music, which was certainly a first, and ironically inspired Balakirev who began his own first symphony at around the time. A rare case of a pupil influencing his master.

Day 69

10 March 2017: Vasks – Symphony No. 1 for strings, 'Stimmen' (1991)
The Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks is a relatively new discovery for me. I first heard his Cello Concerto No. 2 just over a year ago and had one of those uplifting experiences that occurs when you discover a new voice. His first symphony is cut from the same cloth as the cello concerto, and contains some glorious string writing. It dates from 1991, when his native Latvia was freeing itself from the former USSR, and is symbolic of that struggle in the face of the failed Soviet clampdown. The contrast of quiet, glacial writing with dissonant, aggressive music is very much his trademark. By turns, minimalist and avant garde, and always intensely passionate.

Three voices (Stimmen) are heard over the course of the piece. The first movement, 'Voices of Silence', is beautiful and elegiac, echoing to some extent the music of Arvo Pärt, although there is far more going on than static minimalism. The central 'Voices of Life' movement begins in the same expansive tone, with bursts of birdsong emerging from tremolando strings. The mood soon becomes disturbing and dark, and reaches its climax in a swirling dissonance that eventually emerges into an almost hymn-like third movement, entitled 'Voices of Conscience'. It is an absolutely magnificent piece of work, and I commend it in the highest possible terms!

Day 70

11 March 2017: Herschel – Symphony No. 8 (1761)
If ever there was a life well-lived it was that of William Herschel. Born in Hanover, Herschel moved to England at the age of 19 following the path trodden by Handel 40 years earlier. Herschel held a variety of musical posts, including leader of an orchestra in Newcastle and organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath. And it was while he was based in the North East, specifically Sunderland, that he wrote this symphony, which is a really marvellous work that seems to be at once Baroque and Classical. He went on to write 24 symphonies, 14 concerti, and a substantial body of work that would be enough to cement his reputation as a great composer.

That wasn't enough for young William, however, because by his mid-30s, Herschel had begun to develop an interest in astronomy and began building his own telescopes. As well as his work observing double stars, there was the small matter of discovering the planet Uranus in 1781! He also discovered two moons of Saturn, infrared radiation in sunlight, and even dabbled in biology. An extraordinary man, and in many ways his substantial contribution to the world of science has, sadly, rather belittled his work as a composer.

Day 71

12 March 2017: Davies – Symphony No. 8. 'Antarctic Symphony' (2001)
The first symphony from the 21st Century featured so far, Peter Maxwell Davies's Antarctic Symphony effectively brought him out of retirement as a symphonist. Having been commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey to write a work effectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica – the symphony he fashioned from his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic – Max was able to draw on his own experience of having attended an early performance of the Vaughan Williams work in 1953.

Davies was required by terms of the commission to visit the Antarctic, and it was from these two sources – the Antarctic itself, and Vaughan Williams' symphony based upon it – that he drew his inspiration. It's a work for very large orchestra, which features a huge battery of unconventional percussion instruments, including tuned brandy glasses, a football rattle, a biscuit tin filled with broken glass, and three lengths of metal scaffolding. Quite often these are used to depict very specific events from the journey, such as the sound of cracking ice clattering against the hull of the ship on its journey through the frozen South Atlantic. It is a single-movement work of around 40 minutes’ duration, and is by no means an easy listen. The depiction of the icy landscape with sporadic features of interest is at times captivating, as is picking out the occasional oblique reference to the Vaughan Williams work. In this symphony, Max manages to make the forbidding landscape seem inviting.

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