Monday, 27 March 2017

Days 83 – 86

Day 83

24 March 2017: Brahms – Symphony No. 2 (1877)
You might recall that Johannes Brahms kicked off the Symphony A Day shenanigans back on 1 January with his first symphony, one that he had agonised over for about 20 years. His second was a far less stressful affair, written over the course of the summer following the premiere of his first, and it really is a completely different beast. This is a more reflective and tranquil work, although Brahms himself, jokingly, considered it to be melancholic and tinged with sadness.

The opening movement features a melody based on his famous Lullaby, effectively as the second subject of a fairly loose sonata form. At over 20 minutes in length it is almost as long as the other three movements combined, but its generally pastoral mood never allows it to drag. The slow movement that follows features some of the darkest music Brahms ever wrote with trombones and tuba prominent. A very lightweight scherzo leads into a joyous Allegro con spirito finale to round off a delightful work, one which demonstrates his growing confidence as a symphonist.

Day 84

25 March 2017: John Joubert – Symphony No. 1 (1955)
South African-born composer John Joubert celebrated his 90th birthday last Monday, so it's only appropriate I should mark the occasion by giving one of his two symphonies a blast. His first was written when he was just 28, by which time he had moved to the UK and was lecturing in music at the University of Hull. His popular carols Torches and There is No Rose of Such Virtue has already made his name as a composer when he turned his mind to this symphony.

It is a very accessible work, with the first and third movements in particular practically bouncing with rhythmic vitality. The final movement contains some really lovely music during its extended slow introduction, before eventually ending on a positive note. The work certainly has more in common with the more conventional English composers of the time, than with the burgeoning avant garde in Europe, but for an early work it shows a great amount of confidence and no little skill.

Day 85

26 March 2017: Liszt – A Faust Symphony (1857)
Predominantly known for his often bewilderingly difficult piano music, Franz Liszt did also produce two significant symphonies that tend to be rather overlooked. This one in particular probably suffers from being just too big. At around an hour-and-a-quarter in length, it finds itself in the Mahler–Bruckner category of symphonies that pretty much take up a whole programme. Add in the requirement for a male chorus for the final movement and it really becomes a significant undertaking, one which few concert programmers take the risk on. I believe it's only ever been performed at the Proms once, for example. The choir in the finale does mean, however, that it takes this week's Huge Choral Symphony Sunday slot!

I really like this piece, and along with Dvorak, Liszt is a composer that I've developed an increasing admiration for as I've got older, for some reason. It could be argued that this is actually three independent symphonic poems each based on characters in Faust (Faust himself, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles) but they are clearly thematically linked and do make a satisfying symphony. The recurring motif across the piece is a theme that uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and is widely accepted to be the first instance of a tone row – although clearly it wasn't put to the same atonal use as that developed by the New Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg 60 years later. The appearance of an organ for the finale was also quite novel for the time, and the concept of using music to portray characters was something that hugely influenced his future son-in-law – a certain Richard Wagner. All of which makes the relative neglect of this symphony all the more baffling.

Day 86

27 March 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 25, 'Little G minor' (1773)
To be honest, most of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's early symphonies are fairly insignificant works, save for the constant wonder of just how old he was when he wrote them. This, his 25th symphony, for example, was composed when he still only 17, starting work on it just two days after completing No. 24. I think it's fair to say that this is the first of Mozart's more well-known symphonies, with the first movement becoming familiar to the world at large having been used over the opening titles of Miloš Forman's film Amadeus.

It is known as the 'Little G minor' to distinguish it from his other G minor symphony, the similarly famous No. 40. These are the only of his numbered symphonies to be written in any minor key, and there are many learned articles on Mozart and his affinity with the key of G minor. It instantly distinguishes the work from any of its predecessors, and the effect of the syncopated first theme in this minor key creates an unsettled mood, although this turns on a dime when the second subject burst out in a blaze of B flat major. Throughout the work there a passion indicative of the Strum und Drang vogue of the time, which added an extra dimension to his work. In this symphony, Mozart distinctly shifted up a gear as a composer and he would go on to take the form into whole new areas.

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