Sunday, 30 April 2017

Days 118 – 120

Day 118

28 April 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 29 (1774)
After yesterday's early symphony by Saint-Saëns, here we have, for the second day in a row, a work written by an 18-year-old. But while the Saint-Saëns was his second stab at the symphonic form, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had already knocked out a couple of dozen. The numbering of these Mozart symphonies, by the way, is more an act of cataloguing than of strict chronology as this one probably followed No. 25 (see Day 86) in order of composition.

Mozart's 29th also sits alongside No. 25 in terms of popularity among his early symphonies. The first theme is announced quietly, and then when it is repeated forte it is in a canon, with the violas and cellos playing the theme two beats after the fiddles. Thus before we get off the first page, Mozart has begun experimenting with classical sonata form. The elegant slow movement is scored, unusually, for muted strings, and again Mozart is ahead of the curve in employing practice that wouldn't become widespread for some decades yet. The finale is breathless 6/8 gallop that could only really have come from the pen of Mozart, and the symphony as a whole is the work of an old head on young shoulders.

Day 119

29 April 2017: Rautavaara – Symphony No. 3 (1961)
It is very hard to pin down Einojuhani Rautavaara's style. His composing life-cycle passed through phases of serialism, neo-classicism, and a form of minimalism. Also, his habit of revising a work written in one idiom at a time when he was more influenced by another confuses matters further. His third symphony provides an interesting collision of sensibilities, however. It employs serial methods, but he harmonises the tone-rows diatonically. Furthermore, the structure of the symphony is firmly planted in the late-romantic era.

The overriding influence here is Bruckner, especially his fourth symphony, the 'Romantic'.  It has a conventional four-movement layout, with the movements given German titles (Langsam, breit, ruhig etc). Indeed, the opening horn theme begins in exactly the same way as the Bruckner before evolving into a subtle variation. All the while though, unrelated flurries from other instruments are throwing you off the scent, as it were. In its approach of taking music of a late-romantic style and reflecting it through a modernist prism, it is redolent of Penderecki's later style. I find works of this ilk, pieces that take the best of a variety of styles and successfully marry them together into something greater, thoroughly captivating.

Day 120

30 April 2017: Vaughan Williams – A Pastoral Symphony (1922)
The first music I ever heard by Ralph Vaughan Williams was his Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, which featured in a televised concert from Orkney in 1986 that included the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Violin Concerto. Understandably, I was completely bowled over by it, and later that week I went into JG Windows in Newcastle and took a punt on a couple of RVW's symphonies – this and the fourth. I recall being rather nonplussed on first hearing, but it very quickly got under my skin and remains one of my favourite symphonies. In fact, one of my A level compositions was a piece for flute and guitar based on the main theme from its fourth movement!

This is probably one of the most misunderstood symphonies ever written. The title 'Pastoral' has led to it being held up as an example of 'English cow-pat music'. The composer Peter Warlock allegedly described it as 'like a cow looking over a gate', and even Vaughan Williams himself was concerned about how it would be received, describing it as having, 'four movements, all of them slow'. Many now recognise the composer's intention was to depict not an English landscape, but a French one – specifically the battlefields of World War I. Vaughan Williams served as ambulance driver during that conflict, no doubt witnessing unimaginable horrors, and observing the rolling fields of Northern France ravaged by war. It is a genuinely moving elegy for the dead, with the solo trumpet in the second movement playing a cadenza reminiscent of the Last Post. The wordless soprano solo that bookends the final movement provides a quite ethereal moment, while the steadily rising optimistic theme of the finale is one of Vaughan Williams's greatest melodies. One of the good things to come out of the upsurge in the composer's popularity in the last 20 years or so is that this work has been freed from its misconceptions and is now starting to be appreciated as one of the great English symphonies.

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