Saturday, 1 July 2017

Days 180 – 182

Day 180

29 June 2017: Arnold – Symphony No. 5 (1961)
If anything has emerged from the musical adventure I've been on this year, it is that my perception of Malcolm Arnold was way off the mark. Having fallen into the trap of dismissing him as a jovial composer of mostly light music, my discovery of the dark streak that ran through his art has led to me listening to his music with fresh ears. And discovering a work like this makes me wonder how the misconception of him could ever have come about.

At the time this symphony was written, Arnold had been going through marital difficulties caused mostly by his alcoholism and mental illness, and found his music constantly criticised in the music press. This turmoil was compounded by a succession of deaths of people close to him, such as the musician and humourist Gerard Hoffnung, and – most pertinently – his brother and sister-in-law in a suicide pact. This symphony thus became a memorial to those he had lost, and is probably his most personal work. The brilliantly orchestrated first movement sets up an exquisitely beautiful Andante con moto movement, which is the most stunning music I've heard from this composer. The quite remarkable third movement features Hollywood strings shimmering below the surface of woodwind and brass outbursts that sound for all the world like a Wurlitzer organ at times. The finale's climax, in which the slow movement's main theme returns in glorious Technicolor is at once cheesy and brilliant. Compared to what was going on elsewhere in the musical world at the time, this is hardly cutting-edge stuff, but that doesn't make this symphony any less great.

Day 181

30 June 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9 (1945)
From the fourth onwards, every Dmitri Shostakovich symphony had turned into some form of major crisis. As each subsequent work became increasingly politically charged and laden down by the events surrounding it, he had ultimately arrived at the depth of despair that was his Symphony No. 8 (see Day 158). His initial concept to "follow that", so to speak, was to compose a huge victory-celebrating choral symphony. Having spoken outwardly of taking this approach throughout 1943 and 1944, it was announced in April 1945 that the first movement was mostly complete and would be 'majestic in scale'. Whatever happened to the composition he was talking about we may never know, but the ninth symphony turned out to be a completely different beast altogether.

At around 25 minutes, it was the shortest he'd written since the third. It is viewed as a mostly light-hearted piece, yet the woodwind-driven Moderato second movement has a distinctly darker tone, and the fourth movement Largo features long and solemn passages for solo bassoon. Having made his name as a composer of heavy-duty symphonies, this perceived sudden turn of pace at this time dismayed many critics. In his home country, it was felt that Shostakovich had failed to 'reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union', while the New York Times declared that he 'should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner'. It was soon banned in his homeland and not rehabilitated until after Stalin's death. It's a perfectly fine symphony, really, but its failing, if it has one, that it was the wrong work at the wrong time.

Day 182

1 July 2017: Harry Somers – Symphony No. 1 (1951)
As it's Canada Day during the momentous 'Canada 150' celebrations to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation, it's appropriate that today I should feature the first symphony by Canadian composer Harry Somers. This was a completely new experience for me as not only had I not heard this symphony before, but I had also not knowingly heard any of Somers' music at all. I'm happy to report that this goes into the pleasant discovery category.

This is a relatively early work in his output, written when he was just 25 years old. Given that he only started studying music at the age of 14, this symphony really is a remarkable achievement. It was the first major work he composed after spending a year studying composition with Darius Milhaud, and there are some inevitable influences to be heard. Somers, however, seemed to have found his own voice quite quickly, and the opening Lento movement, scored mostly for strings alone, is a quite sublime piece of writing. Throughout the symphony there is an economy of means, which ensures a lean sound that echoes late-Sibelius at times. I would certainly recommend this work if you haven't heard the music of Somers before.

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