Friday, 31 March 2017

Days 87 – 90

Day 87

28 March 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No.6 (1939)
After the furore that surrounded Dmitri Shostakovich's fourth and fifth symphonies, the sixth, which followed two years later, was an almost welcome anti-climax. Having softened his harmonic language a little to avoid criticism from the authorities in the fifth symphony, he surely felt he was on safer ground in composing this work. It is also a lot lighter than its predecessors, with the composer attempting to convey 'spring, joy, and youth'.

Historically, the sixth has tended to be overlooked somewhat as a kind of interlude between the mighty fifth and the globally significant seventh symphony known as the 'Leningrad'. It has an odd structure, with only three movements. The long Largo first movement is much longer than the two quick movements that follow it combined, almost giving the impression that Shostakovich lost interest in the project and couldn't be bothered to finish it properly! It feels imbalanced, although musically it is highly enjoyable, with some really nice moments in the first movement in particular. Knowing what was to follow in his next two symphonies, however, he can certainly be forgiven this moment of relatively light relief.

Day 88

29 March 2017: JC Bach – Symphony Op.6 No.6 in G minor (c. 1762-69)
Johann Christian Bach was the youngest son of JS Bach – born when his old man was 50 – and he was a key figure in the Classical era. He is often referred to as the 'London' Bach, as he moved to England in 1762 and remained here until his death 20 years later. In 1764, an eight-year-old prodigy by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London, during which time he wrote his first symphony (see Day 23). While he was in London, Mozart met with JC Bach and they performed keyboard duets together. Mozart became a great admirer of Bach's and fell under his influence.

The choice of this symphony is deliberate as it dates from around that time (unfortunately the actual date of composition cannot be determined) and the key of G minor is the one Mozart was to develop something of an affinity with. For its time, this is really quite ground-breaking stuff. The slow movement, at around eight minutes, is unusually long and really quite sublime, almost like an extended orchestral aria. And there is a wilfully unresolved ending in the finale, which features a rapid decrescendo on a descending figure that must have bewildered the London audience in its day. It's an almost Sibelian gesture that seems to have come from a different time. There's an air of experimentation in this symphony, which the young Mozart must surely have breathed.

Day 89

30 March 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.2, 'Little Russian' (1872)
As with his first symphony (see Day 28), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky drew upon folk music for much of the thematic material for this, his second. This time it was the folk music of Ukraine that he featured, which is where the symphony's nickname is derived from  – Ukraine at the time was referred to as 'Little Russia'. The first tune is heard right at the outset, with a solo horn playing Down by Mother Volga, and another folk song The Crane features in the finale.

Its folk themes meant that the work was praised by 'The Five' or 'Mighty Handful', whose ethos of a Russian art form separated from Germanic influence was otherwise generally at odds with Tchaikovsky's aesthetics. The first three of his symphonies contain little of the fire and brimstone that characterised the remaining three (or four if one includes Manfred), and this is certainly a very easy-on-the-ear work. Despite the fact that the themes are borrowed rather than his own, it remains recognisably Tchaikovsky.

Day 90

31 March 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 2, 'Cambridge' (1883)
Hubert Parry began working on his second symphony almost immediately after he'd returned from a trip to Bayreuth to attend the first three performances of Wagner's opera Parsifal. Parry had met Wagner five years earlier in London, and while Parry hugely admired him – referring to Parsifal as 'the very highest point of mastery' – any search for Wagnerian influences in this symphony would be in vain.

The clearer influences are Brahms and Mendelssohn, and as Parry was still concerned with developing an English symphonic tradition it is in many ways commendable that he stuck to his guns despite the overwhelming effect Parsifal had clearly made on the composer. The elegiac quality that permeates Parry's work, and that of his successor, Elgar, comes through most strongly in the quieter sections of the third movement Andante, where Teutonic tradition could not have been dispelled further. As for the title? The symphony was merely first performed in Cambridge; there is no other connection to the city at all in the music.

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