Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Days 152 – 158

Day 152

1 June 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 4 (1874)
I know that I have heard all of Anton Bruckner's symphonies several times, but the only ones that I could readily identify from just a few bars are this one and his seventh. This is, without doubt, one of his finest works and its popularity in concert halls worldwide is testament to the fact that, arguably for the first time, Bruckner had composed a genuinely flawless symphony. It was given the name 'Romantic' by the composer himself, essentially to tie in with the programme he originally devised for the work relating to medieval knights and citadels.

Any assessment of this symphony cannot overlook the fact that, even by Brucknerian standards, this work had an extraordinarily prolonged compositional history. From its first sketches to the final known version of the work, it was revised, corrected, edited, changed, published and re-published countless times. More controversially, it is even thought that other composers were involved in the revision process. For the listener, it pays to extricate oneself from the scholarly web of its tortured genealogy and simply revel in the music. From the solo horn that opens the work – which was appropriated by Rautavaara to open his Symphony No. 3 (see Day 119) – through its gorgeous Adagio and typically boisterous, hunting-themed scherzo, to its powerful finale, Bruckner scarcely misses a step. His art of continuous refinement reaches its peak in this work.

Day 153

2 June 2017: Grace Williams – Symphony No. 1 (1943)
Or, to give it its full title, Symphony No. 1, in the form of Symphonic Impressions of the Glendower Scene in "Henry IV Part 1". Not exactly a title that trips off the tongue. Welsh-born composer Grace Williams is yet another mid-20th century British composer whose work has been largely neglected. It could be argued that she has gained popularity in recent years due to an increase in interest in female composers who had been hitherto ignored. If her gender is actually counting in her favour nowadays then this can only be a good thing, because I really loved this symphony.

Williams was a pupil of Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and she was the first British woman to write a film score (Blue Scar in 1949). Insofar as she has written a popular work, it is the symphonic poem Penillion, but even that is hardly ever performed. This is the first of two symphonies, and as its elongated title suggests, it takes its inspiration from The Bard. It's not a programme symphony, however, and follows a standard four-movement structure. The Andante solenne epilogue is a quite magnificent, passionate elegy to Owen Glendower. There is a grandiose beauty to the closing three or four minutes that I found totally captivating. 

Day 154

3 June 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 3 (1907)
Jean Sibelius met Gustav Mahler shortly after writing this symphony. At this meeting, the oft-reported exchange occurred between them, in which Sibelius, having expressed his preference for a severity of symphonic form, provoked Mahler's famous response, "The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing." So at the same time as Mahler was writing his epic 90-minute Symphony No. 8 'Symphony of a Thousand' for massive choir and orchestra, Sibelius produced this sparse and tightly argued work.

It is almost a miniature in symphonic terms. Light and neoclassical, this is Sibelius at his brightest and breeziest. And yet it is musically sparse, with the whole work drawing on a minimal amount of thematic material. This represented a shift from his earlier symphonic explorations, which were distinctly late-Romantic in feel, and as such set the tone for the rest of his career as a composer. The third occupies a unique position in Sibelius's output in that it allies a brightness of spirit to and an austere sensibility and the effect is quite wonderful. The repetitive figures lend themselves more readily to dynamic shaping, allowing Sibelius to concentrate on refining the form of the work to his own needs. It will probably never be the most popular of his symphonies, but it will always be appreciated by Sibelius purists.

Day 155

4 June 2017: Britten – Spring Symphony (1949)
OK so it's not spring any more, but the fact that Benjamin Britten set this, his second symphony, for orchestra, soloists, adult and boys' choirs means it's the return of Choral Symphony Sunday! The work is a setting of 12 poems, which on the face of it looks more like a song cycle than a genuine symphony. The piece is divided into four parts, however, giving it a more conventional symphonic structure. After a long slow introduction, poems 2–5 form an Allegro first movement, 6–8 a slow movement, 9–11 a scherzo, while the final poem London, to Thee I do Present provides a rousing Finale.

According to Britten, the poems are ordered in such a way as to represent 'the progress of Winter to Spring'. The choice of poems is interesting too, with all but one dating from the 17th century or earlier. The exception is no. 8: a setting of his friend WH Auden's Out on the lawn I Lie in bed that brings the slow movement to a close. It's debatable whether Britten's attempt to structure the texts into a symphonic form is a success, but there are some wonderful moments with the clear highlight being the finale. The various vocal forces finally come together with a spirited wordless chorus, which gives way to the boys’ choir's rendition of Sumer Is Icumen In. It's a passage very reminiscent of the climax of Act III Scene I of his opera Peter Grimes, written just four years earlier, albeit in a rather more celebratory mood!

Day 156

5 June 2017: Martinů – Symphony No. 4 (1945)
Czech-born Bohuslav Martinů fled to the USA from his home in Paris in 1941 following the Nazi invasion of France. He was 51 at the time, and despite being a quite prolific composer, he hadn't to that point composed a symphony. It was therefore quite remarkable that he promptly set about writing five symphonies in as many years, with a sixth following in 1953.

This symphony, his fourth, coincides with the end of World War II, having been written between April and June 1945. While some commentators have sought to associate the work with world events, it seems unlikely that Martinů was responding to developments on the other side of the Atlantic. His chief concern is with its organic method of composition, noting in his diary 'how ingeniously the whole symphony grows out of one motif'. There is a mood of positivity around the work, and an abundance of vibrant rhythmic vitality, especially in the outer movements. The heart of the piece is the third movement Largo, which is scored mostly for strings, and features some gloriously impassioned lyrical writing. I have to be honest and say Martinů has, for the most part, passed me by as a composer, but this symphony went a long way towards opening my eyes to him.

Day 157

6 June 2017: CPE Bach – Symphony in E flat major, Wq 179 (1757)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the fifth of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20 children. Many of them carried on the family tradition, but CPE and Johann Christian Bach (see Day 88) are probably the best-known as composers in their own right. Like his brother JC, he is known to have influenced Mozart. Indeed, Mozart once said of CPE Bach that he 'is the father, we are the children'.

His most popular works are his symphonies, with the nine that he wrote in Berlin in 1750s and 1760s – collectively known as the 'Berlin Symphonies' – being the most enduring. This was catalogued as the seventh of the nine although there is no evidence that the ordering is chronological. It is only a shade over ten minutes long, but the frantic writing in the outer movements means a lot of detail is crammed into its short duration. Although thought of as a Baroque–Classical transitional composer, this feels a lot more the latter than the former, with contrapuntal passages seldom found. The slow movement is lovely yet hesitant in feel, with melodic lines breaking off as if mid-thought. It's not hard to understand why Mozart thought so highly of him.

Day 158

7 June 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 8 (1943)
Without really planning it, I seem to have grouped together a cluster of symphonies written during World War II. This was written in 1943, the same year as the Grace Williams symphony featured last Friday, and two years before the Martinů from a couple of days ago. Those works were largely bereft of direct associations with the war, but, as with almost all of Shostakovich's work, it is impossible to separate this from the events surrounding it. And while the seventh symphony – the Leningrad (see Day 104) – struck a note of defiant optimism, here the mood is overwhelmingly tragic. It is an uncompromising and at times desolate work, written at a time when Russian losses were being measured in the millions, and although Russia were on their way to winning the war, Shostakovich found little to celebrate in the cost of the anticipated victory.

In many ways this is the much darker twin brother of the fifth symphony. The vast first movement's opening theme is very closely related to that of the fifth, and the movement evolves in a similar fashion. It is heartbreakingly moving, with shrill cries of anguish succeeding only in the deepening the morass of pain. Two macabre scherzos hardly lighten the mood; the second features a brutal moto perpetuo theme which passes around the orchestra while hollow screams ring out over it from the other instruments. After building to an agonised crescendo, this then crashes into the most tragic music Shostakovich ever wrote. The fourth movement Passacaglia, which follows without a break, paints a picture so desolate that it has no equal in any other composition I've heard. Across its twelve repetitions, the Passacaglia theme in the bass is accompanied only by slow moving muted string chords and solo instruments that seem lost in a wasteland. It is absolutely devastating. Eventually, after around twelve minutes, it shifts almost apologetically into a major key, setting up another of Shostakovich's enigmatic finales. This has an almost pastoral feel at first, giving an impression of people trying to rebuild their lives after the tragedies that have passed, but this is again shattered as the drum roll and accompanying cry of anguish from the first movement returns. It's hard to know what to make of the sparsely orchestrated coda that concludes the symphony. It seems to convey relief at survival, rather than any mood of celebration, and that is the overriding feeling that the audience is left with. It's a gruelling listen, and there is precious little salvation at the end, but not all art is pretty flowers.

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