Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Days 131 – 136

Day 131

11 May 2017: Hindemith – Symphony: Mathis der Maler (1934)
I've listened to a lot of Hindemith's music in my life. As a result of having composed chamber music for just about every instrument ever invented, Hindemith has become the staple of the lunchtime concert. As my old university lecturer George Nicholson once observed in one of our composition classes, if you're looking for a piece of music for ocarina and bagpipes, then chances are Hindemith wrote one. Despite his prolific output, few of his orchestral works are concert regulars – arguably only this and his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber are well-known.

This symphony attained a degree of notoriety in his native Germany, where his music had been denounced by the Nazis as 'degenerate'. It was fashioned out of music that he was composing for an opera of the same name, and although the opera was completed the following year, it could not be performed in Germany due to its themes of artistic freedom being at odds with Nazi ideology. The painter of the title is 16th century German artist Matthias Grünewald, and the symphony is specifically inspired by his Isenheim Altarpiece, which is an elaborate structure of folding panels revealing different tableaux. Each of the three movements is based one of the altarpiece's panels, with the contrasting outer movements surrounding a serene portrayal of Christ's entombment – depicted at the base of the altarpiece. It's a quite original work that seems to embrace Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk ethos, with its stimulus coming from the visual arts and its ultimate destination being opera.

Day 132

12 May 2017: Schumann – Symphony No. 2 (1847)
Robert Schumann's second symphony – or third if you count them in order of actual composition – is a quite remarkable piece of art. At the time he wrote it, he was suffering from a debilitating array of ailments, such as nausea and insomnia, and was generally in constant pain. His incapacitation was compounded by a constant ringing in the ears we can probably now attribute to tinnitus, all of which left him suffering from depression. The fact that he was able to sit down and write such an uplifting symphony as this is astonishing.

His illness and depression almost certainly contributed to his taking a different approach to the composition of this symphony. He inevitably worked slowly on it, which was at odds with his more standard approach as that of a miniaturist, writing almost spontaneously. The result is a finely crafted work, conceived on a much grander scale than its rather more piecemeal predecessor.

By the way, if you rewind the YouTube video linked below back to the beginning, you can see that Katie Derham's faux pas in telling the watching Proms audience that Schumann wrote nine symphonies has been recorded for posterity!

Day 133

13 May 2017: Koechlin – The Seven Stars' Symphony (1933)
French composer Charles Koechlin's tribute to the movie stars of the day was the second composition to which he gave the title 'Symphony', although his next example of the genre was given the title Symphony No. 2. And to be honest this isn't really a symphony, rather more a suite, with each of its seven movements being based on a specific actor or actress. Specifically, they are, in turn, Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin.

In some ways, it is reminiscent of Elgar's Enigma Variations in the way that the music conveys individual characters. So for the Emil Jannings movement, its full title is 'Choral for the repose of the soul of Professor Rath in The Blue Angel', and attempts tell the film's story in music form, rather in the way Elgar would paint a specific incident in the lives of his subjects. It is an absolutely charming work, with the final movement, Charlie Chaplin (variations on the theme of the letters of his name), which occupies about a third of the symphony's length, being the real highlight. The symphony also features a rare outing for the Ondes Martenot, most famously used in Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Day 134

14 May 2017: Berlioz – Harold en Italie (1834)
Hector Berlioz's symphonic follow-up to his Symphonie fantastique is this rather more sober work. Part-concerto and part-symphonic poem, it is certainly no more conventional than its predecessor, but the scale and ambition of the piece has definitely been toned down a little. That it ended up being part-concerto is quite a tale in itself. So the story goes, Nicolo Paganini had acquired a new Stradivarius viola and approached Berlioz to write a work to showcase it. Rather than write a straight concerto, Berlioz instead decided to write a more orchestral work that featured a viola obbligato. When Paganini saw the work and realised that the viola wasn't going to be quite the star of the show he'd anticipated, he rejected it out of hand. The two were eventually reconciled some years later when Paganini went to hear it performed, with the famed violinist kissing Berlioz's hand on stage and subsequently (and belatedly) paying the composer 20,000 francs for the work he had effectively commissioned.

The work was inspired by Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with the viola playing the part of Harold. The four movements each depict a scene from the poem, with the first movement referring to Harold in the mountains, and the second, a slow movement, sees Harold accompanying a group of Pilgrims. Rather like the Symphonie fantastique, there is a wild finale – in this case an Orgy of Brigands – but it has to be said that having pulled out all the stops in the earlier work there's already a feeling of Berlioz having nowhere left to go in this symphony. It remains a popular piece though, not least among violists who aren't exactly blessed when it comes to solo repertoire written for them.

Day 135

15 May 2017: Brian – Symphony No. 18 (1961)
Although nearly 35 years had passed since Havergal Brian wrote his infamous Gothic Symphony (see Day 50), his Symphony No. 18 was actually written in the year of the Gothic's premiere. The monumental effort required to stage a work requiring several hundred performers did not go unrecognised by the composer, as Brian wrote this symphony as an act of gratitude to Bryan Fairfax, the conductor of the 1961 premiere in Central Hall, Westminster.

Brian was already 85 years old when he wrote this symphony, and incredibly he would go on to write another 14 in the remaining 11 years of his life. The excesses of the Gothic had long been cast aside by this stage of his life, and with a total running time of around 15 minutes, it is barely one-eighth of the length of that first symphonic adventure. The musical language and forces employed are, understandably, far more conventional. Even so, it's unlikely that this was ever performed in his lifetime. The dedicatee conducted a performance two years after Brian's death, a recording of which was pirated and released by the Aries label who attributed the performance to the fictional 'Wales Symphony Orchestra, conductor Colin Wilson' (an error perpetuated in the YouTube link below). In common with virtually all of Brian's output, this symphony is very rarely heard, but it's still an impressive effort for a gentleman of advanced years.

Day 136

16 May 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 4 (1874)
Antonin Dvorák's fourth symphony shares a key – D minor – with his seventh, and as a consequence the pair are sometimes referred to as the 'Little' and the 'Great'. It's not entirely obvious why, given that both symphonies are about the same length, and in terms of orchestration the only additional forces required for the seventh are a triangle and a harp!

After a rather uncertain start his symphonic career, Dvorák was on rather more secure footing when he wrote this. Ironically, having laboured to find his own voice in his earlier somewhat derivative works, this symphony carries very clear Wagnerian influences – another reason why the 'Little' tag is quite inappropriate. There are clear echoes of Tannhäuser in the slow movement, which is a set of variations on a theme seemingly lifted from the Wagner opera. The scherzo is also particularly strong, having previous existed as a standalone piece. In fact, it's a symphony that as a whole suffers by comparison to Dvorák's later and more popular ones, and not through any lack of quality.

No comments:

Post a Comment