Monday, 24 April 2017

Days 112 – 114

Day 112

22 April 2017: Villa-Lobos – Symphony No.3, 'War' (1919)
The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is probably best-known for his Bachianas Brasileiras, a number of suites written in the style of JS Bach. For me, as a guitarist, it is the works he wrote for that instrument that I got to know first. His Five Preludes and Twelve Studies are all pieces I've had a stab at playing even though, for the most part, they remain tantalisingly beyond my capabilities. The twelve symphonies he wrote are not well known unfortunately, certainly not outside of Brazil.

This work was the first of an intended trilogy of symphonies written to celebrate the end of World War I. At this point I will confess that I was previously unaware of Brazil's involvement in the conflict (on the Allies' side, in response to the sinking of a number of merchant ships in the Atlantic). In the end, only two of the symphonies are known to have been written. This was followed by his fourth symphony, entitled 'Victory', but the fifth, provisionally entitled 'Peace' is either lost or was never actually composed. When this work was first performed it comprised only three movements, with the profound third movement being added many years later, possibly as late as 1955. Given that this movement is almost as long as the other three combined it changed the nature of the work as a whole entirely. Villa-Lobos's tradmark use of ostinati gives this symphony a unity that would otherwise be missing from its thematically incoherent structure. The audacious finale which has the Brazilian and French national anthems playing simultaneously is something Charles Ives would have been proud of. It's a very interesting piece, but not a great one.

Day 113

23 April 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 4 (1900)
I would find the prospect of choosing just one of Gustav Mahler's symphonies too difficult to call, as, with maybe only a couple of exceptions, I could make a case for any of them. This would have a stronger claim than most though, as I remember listening to it a lot when I first bought a copy in the mid-eighties. It's just about the most 'instant' of Mahler's symphonies, with tunes that could almost be called 'catchy' at every turn. It's relatively short, at around 55 minutes, and uses a more or less standard orchestra, meaning it's one of the frequently performed of his works.

The symphony is based on one of Mahler's own songs, Das himmlische Leben, which is set, mostly unchanged, for solo soprano as the final movement, but also provides the basis for the thematic material of the earlier movements. The slow movement is one of Mahler's most beautiful, and its theme and variations form draws parallels with Beethoven's ninth. Towards the end of the movement though, comes one of Mahler's most inspired passages. Just as the movement appears to be fading away to nothing, the string section signals an orchestral tutti with prominent brass and mighty timpani strikes. It is the child's vision of heaven, described in song in the last movement. A magical moment in a symphony that is an absolute joy from start to finish.

Day 114

24 April 2017: Pärt – Symphony No.3 (1971)
Rather like Górecki, who I featured a few days ago, Arvo Pärt had something of a road to Damascus moment in his compositional life. Both began their careers as modernists, exploring serialism and every avant garde technique that was in vogue in the middle of the last century. They both then abandoned this in favour of what is occasionally referred to as Holy Minimalism, which was obviously more palatable and brought them popularity with a much wider audience.

Pärt's crisis point came in the late-sixties when he found that he nothing left to say and felt unable to compose at all. Seeking inspiration for his third symphony, he decided to immerse himself in early music and Gregorian chant. Having stumbled on this new means of expression, Pärt then wrote no music for six years while he developed his tintinnabuli system (more of that when I come to his fourth symphony later in the year). This work then represents the exact transition point between the two styles, and part of me wishes he'd written more music at this time rather than embark on his long silence. When he was merely incorporating early music sensibilities into his earlier approach to composition, the end results were far more interesting than the mostly dull music he then went on to write. As a consequence, I find this rare transitional work one of the most satisfying of his orchestral output.

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