Thursday, 23 March 2017

Days 79 – 82

Day 79

20 March 2017: Saint-Georges – Symphony No. 1 in G major (1779)
The wonderfully named Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is one of the more fascinating characters in the history of music. The first classical composer of Afro-Caribbean descent, he was also a virtuoso violinist, a conductor, as well as an athlete and champion fencer. He was feted in royal and aristocratic circles, but those connections ultimately led to his imprisonment after the French Revolution, and his music was subsequently banned by Napoleon.

I'll come clean and say that I knew very little about Saint-Georges until his name cropped up on this year's BBC Ten Pieces list, where they assert that he was known by many as 'the black Mozart'. There is a suggestion that Mozart based the villainous character of Monostatos in his opera The Magic Flute on Saint-Georges, although the evidence in flimsy. The frustration is that he was only really active as a composer for about 20 years, and this is one of only two symphonies he wrote (although there are eight Symphonies concertantes too) so his output is rather dwarfed by Mozart's 41 and Haydn's 104. It's a very fine, if totally conventional work, and a reminder that there were some perfectly good classical-period works being written outside of Vienna.

Day 80

21 March 2017: Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony (1913)
I've been a great fan of Ralph Vaughan Williams's work for as long as I can remember, and listen to his symphonies regularly. For some reason though, this one doesn't get aired as often, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe I find it just a bit too cheesy at times, with the impressionistic references being just a little obvious. There are the Westminster chimes in the outer movements, the jingling of hansom cabs, a harmonica player in the Scherzo, and a flower seller singing Sweet Lavender. All very evocative of Edwardian London, but hardly subtle. The slow movement is genuinely beautiful, however, and epilogue depicting the Thames flowing out to the sea is a splendid piece of writing.

I decided to listen to the original 1913 version of this symphony today, which was only recorded for the first time in 2001, and I only became aware of it very recently. It's about 20 minutes longer than the 'definitive' version of 1933 and almost all of the music that was cut was a lot darker in tone, giving the piece a very different overall feel. Some very interesting music was removed, but I have no doubt that Vaughan Williams was right to cut it. I do like this symphony, it's just that I think the five that followed it were all much better.

Day 81

22 March 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 1 (1947)
One of the many things that still surprises me when listening to music is encountering an early work by an avant-garde composer and hearing just how conventional it is. Witold Lutosławski's first symphony is a far from tonal work, but it is an absolutely standard four-movement symphony with a slow movement and a scherzo which, compared to his later, aleatoric music, seems almost to have been written by another composer.

That is was written at all is an achievement in itself though. He started writing it in 1941, when his native Poland was under Nazi occupation and public gatherings – and thus, music performances – were prohibited. Lutosławski actually continued working on the symphony while hiding in an attic following the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Having completed it against all the odds, Symphony No. 1 was eventually given a successful premiere in 1948, only for it then to be condemned the following year as 'formalist' by the Communist-influenced Polish Composer’s Union, at the very same conference at which his friend Panufnik's Sinfonia Rustica (see Day 3) was similarly denounced. Thankfully, the symphony is now recognised as the important document it is, and while not typical of his work as a whole, it is a significant landmark in Lutosławski's career.

Day 82

23 March 2017: Scriabin – Symphony No. 1 (1900)
This is the first time I've heard this symphony, which is indicative of my relationship with Alexander Scriabin. I like pretty much everything I've ever heard by him, yet very rarely listen to his music. Today was another reminder to change all that, because this is a gorgeous work. The influence of Mahler is clearly discernible, especially regarding the work's structure. It mirrors Mahler's third symphony in having six movements – albeit on a smaller scale – and also the device of featuring soloists and a chorus in the last movement follows the model of Mahler's second.

The work was an immediate success, winning the Glinka Award in the year of its publication, although this was without the choral finale, which the publishers had declined to publish having decided (upon advice from a committee led by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Lyadov) was unperformable. Scriabin would go on to compose in a more atonal idiom later in his career, but this gem from the late-Romantic period is a glorious way to spend 50 minutes or so.

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