Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Days 91 – 94

Day 91

1 April 2017: Tippett – Symphony No. 2 (1957)
Sir Michael Tippett's music passed from exuberant lyricism to at times impenetrable complexity in a relatively short space of time. This symphony catches him on the cusp, when he was still writing in a form of extended tonality, but experimenting with new forms and ideas. I regard this as his golden period, during which time he produced his opera The Midsummer Marriage, the Piano Concerto, the sublime Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and this symphony.

It is probably the most accessible and rewarding of his four symphonies. The opening gesture of pounding bass Cs, which apparently came from his listening to a Vivaldi concerto, immediately gives the listener something to ground themselves upon while flights of string passages take off all around. The form of the second movement is novel but perfectly lucid – four distinct thematic groups are stated in turn and then gradually fragment as the movement progresses, eventually giving way to a new sonority in a coda for four horns. After a lively, syncopated scherzo and a finale that features a set of variations over a ground bass, the opening pounding Cs return to round off a wonderful symphonic journey.

Day 92

2 April 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 3, 'Eroica' (1804)
In survey of leading conductors by BBC Music magazine last year, this symphony was voted the greatest of all time. I have no reason to quarrel with that outcome, although my personal taste is such that if there were a poll for the greatest THIRD symphony of all time, this wouldn't even make my top three*. Its importance, however, is beyond dispute. In one fell stroke, Beethoven took the symphony and elevated it as an art form to heights never previously imagined.

For a start, the Eroica is almost twice as long as any symphony ever written to that point, but it's not just its scale that is impressive. This marks the beginning of the concept of the symphony as high art rather than as court entertainment. The technical challenges, the complexity of its structure, the ingenious use of a funeral march as a slow movement, even the harmonic curve ball of the C sharp at the end of the initial theme – which has no business in a symphony in E flat major – all combine to make this a piece something to be reckoned with. The story of the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte being vigorously scratched out from the manuscript after he had declared himself Emperor just adds to the mythology of the work. Inevitably, the Eroica was lost on its audience when it was first performed, who just found it long and perplexing. As with all great art though, it took time to be fully appreciated, and it has rightly become one of the best-loved pieces of music ever written.

* For the record: Panufnik, Saint-Saens, Vaughan Williams.

Day 93

3 April 2017: Alwyn – Symphony No. 3 (1956)
Northampton-born William Alwyn was a really quite extraordinary figure. He was a poet, an artist, and a musician, as well as serving on, or in some cases founding, various professional bodies such as the Performing Right Society. He wrote five symphonies, numerous concertos and operas, but he is probably best-known (if he is known at all) for the 70+ film scores he wrote between 1941–1963. Many great post-war films were scored by Alwyn including Carve Her Name with Pride, Geordie, Odd Man Out, and the Disney film Swiss Family Robinson.

And yet he remains a neglected figure, seen by many of those who may be aware of his work as a conservative and backward-looking figure. True, in this work there are echoes of Walton and Holst, and especially the fourth and sixth symphonies of Vaughan Williams. The skill on display in this work, however, is quite remarkable. The first movement makes use of just eight notes of the chromatic scale, while the chilling second movement employs, almost unbelievably, only the other four. It's a quite brilliant technical achievement from a composer who deserves a greater audience.

Day 94

4 April 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 3 (1872)
After two symphonies that he had managed to lose almost immediately after writing, the third symphony by Antonin Dvořák is in many ways the first 'proper' one. He could have been justified for following Bruckner's example and saying that the earlier efforts 'did not count'. He never heard them performed and consequently never had a chance to edit or revise music that otherwise only existed in his head. Symphony No. 3 was written about seven years after its predecessors, and was premiered in 1874. This afforded Dvořák the luxury of being able to revise the work, which he did in the late 1880s.

It is far more concise than the earlier examples, and in fact only has three movements – the only one of symphonies that does. The first movement is Dvořák at his most gloriously lyrical, while the unusually long central slow movement is as good as any he wrote, and is really quite bright in tone in its middle section, where the orchestral writing in particular is quite redolent of Wagner. Sadly, despite its strength as a piece, it is rarely performed today, being overshadowed by the far more popular late symphonies. A familiar fate for earlier works of many of the great composers I've been featuring.

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