Saturday, 6 May 2017

Days 121 – 126

Day 121

1 May 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 3, 'The First of May' (1929)
I had to listen to this today, really, and as a consequence I decided to break the chronology of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies over the year (you might recall that the 7th featured on Day 104). The first of May has always been a significant date in the Russian calendar, having been declared a holiday in the 1880s. In writing a symphony seemingly to pander to the Soviet authorities that were later to become the bane of his life, many have viewed this as Shostakovich being the loyal patriot. However, this predates the Stalinist purges and the concept of Socialist Realism in the arts. The third symphony was written when Shostakovich was just 23 years old, and the mood in the country was still one of optimism for the new Soviet state.

The symphony is cast in a single movement divided into four sections, with the fourth being a choral setting of words by the poet Semyon Isaakovich Kirsanov. If I'm being brutally honest, it's not Dmitri's finest hour (or half-hour, or however long it takes to perform). Along with his similarly propagandist second 'To October', it represents a backward step, musically, from the prodigious brilliance of his first symphony. It has its moments, and certainly the form of the work is original, but it remains rarely performed for a reason.

Day 122

2 May 2017: Dora Pejačević – Symphony in F#m (1917)
Definitely the only female Croatian composer I'll be featuring this year, Dora Pejačević was of very noble blood. She was the daughter of a Croatian Count and a Hungarian Countess, and received private lessons in piano, violin and compositions. Although she wrote quite prolifically, her works were rarely played in her native Croatia and were often premiered in Germany, where she eventually settled.

This symphony was written during World War I, at a time when she was conscientiously doing her bit for the war effort by volunteering as a nurse in her home village. It is a really fine work; firmly in the Late-Romantic style but with occasional flashes of a more early-20th-century harmonic language. It showed far more promise than the first symphonic explorations of many more household names. Sadly, it was to be her only symphony, however, as she died at the tragically young age of 37, from kidney failure shortly after the birth of her first child. Pejačević was a unique voice in the history of music, who would surely have gone on to even greater things.

Day 123

3 May 2017: Ives – Symphony No. 4 (c.1924)
Oh my word, where do you start with this? Charles Ives's absolutely barmy fourth symphony was so far ahead of its time in almost every respect that it might have arrived in 1920s America via some wormhole in the space-time continuum. There are groups of musicians playing completely different music simultaneously, a feat that requires two (or sometimes three) conductors. There is a completely novel use of quarter-tones, utilizing a quarter-tone piano that had to be created specifically for this purpose. There's a subterranean percussion ensemble, a separate group given the name 'Star of Bethlehem' who are supposed to be suspended above the stage, and it's hard to think of another work before or since that makes quite so much use of quotation. Tunes as diverse as Yankee Doodle, Nearer My God To Thee, and JS Bach's Toccata in D minor all get thrown into a mind-blowing melting pot.

What Ives was doing here was creating a whole new genre of music, known broadly as American Experimental Music, which gave rise to a generation of composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Conlon Nancarrow, the minimalist school and a whole host of others who threw the classical rulebook out of the window. The sad thing is that the logistical difficulties of performing the work meant Ives never heard it played in its entirety. It didn't receive its full premiere until 1965, eleven years after Ives's death, although the first two movements were first performed in 1927, with the third being first heard six years later. The fact that the ideas Ives had took 40 years to be realised into a performable version goes to show how advanced they were. It is an extraordinary work, which takes several listens to absorb fully.

Day 124

4 May 2017: Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906)
Arnold Schoenberg is most famous for inventing the twelve-tone technique as a means of providing order to the complete breakdown of conventional tonality in music that he as much anyone instigated. In 1906, Schoenberg was still writing nominally tonal music, extending the already stretched notion of tonality espoused by his predecessors Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In this piece, however, the boundaries were pushed to the limits, with most of the thematic material making use of intervals of a fourth – something which wouldn't lend itself naturally to diatonic writing. The end result is music that sounds atonal for the most part whilst still conforming to many of the rules of tonality.

Certainly the audiences struggled with it when it first came to light, with early performances causing protests and riots. It is alleged that it was booed at its premiere in 1907, with no less a figure than Mahler taking issue with those of his fellow audience members responsible for the booing. It also featured in the infamous Skandalkonzert six years later, in which a concert of works by composers of the Second Viennese School was ended prematurely after the audience started throwing punches! Schoenberg's decision to write a Chamber Symphony for just 15 players was a clear indication that he did not wish to continue the tradition of gigantic symphonies passed on by Bruckner and Mahler. Yet within these much reduced forces there is a level of complexity that had never previously been achieved in Western music. It's a challenging piece, especially for the players, and it's fair to say Schoenberg wasn't out to make friends when he wrote this.

Day 125

5 May 2017: Boyce – Symphony No. 1 (c.1750)
It's worth taking a step back at this point and looking at the very genesis of the symphony as a form. In the Baroque period, the term 'symphony' was interchangeable with 'overture' and was usually reserved for the instrumental introduction to a larger work such as an oratorio. A typical example can be heard at the start of Handel's Messiah. William Boyce was an English composer born about 25 years after Handel, and he too wrote a number of overtures in the French or Italian style for other bigger, but now long-forgotten, pieces. However, in 1760, he took the unusual step of publishing eight of them as stand-alone three-movement symphonies. Although published in 1760, they had been composed at various times during the previous 20 years, so dating any of them is nearly impossible.

Symphony No.1 is in B flat major, and is a joyful work of barely five or six minutes' duration. In common with most Baroque music, the movements are mostly dance forms with the second being a Loure and the third a Gigue (although neither are named as such). In truth, this a case of a piece qualifying by my adherence to the rule of anything calling itself a symphony is a symphony. That said, it's not hard to see how the form evolved from these early explorations.

Day 126

6 May 2017: Rimsky Korsakov – Symphony No. 2 (1868)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a man who constantly changed his mind. The fact that this, his second symphony, predates what we now accept to be the definitive version of his first by about 16 years gives a clue as to the confused nature of his back catalogue. This work was published in 1868 as Symphony No. 2, but was revised repeatedly and also underwent a fundamental title change. At some point, probably after writing his third symphony, he decided to call this work Symphonic Suite, "Antar". Rimsky had apparently decided that the term symphony was unsuitable for a work that effectively told a story – an approach he also applied to his later masterpiece Scheherazade.

This piece in fact has many features in common with Scheherazade. Both are based on Arabian themes and subject matter, and having arrived at the term Symphonic Suite to describe Antar, he used it again for Scheherazade when it could be argued that it is a symphony in all but name. As one might expect from anything Rimsky committed to paper, the orchestration is brilliant, and it really comes into its own in the beautiful final movement culminating a form of Liebestod as the lovers ascend to heaven. Such a quiet ending, almost a fade-out, is certainly quite unsymphonic. This work is often recommended as a follow-up piece to people who like Scheherazade and want to explore more of Rimsky's oeuvre. It is a view I would subscribe to unreservedly.

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