Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Days 193 – 199

Day 193

12 July 2017: Mathias – Symphony No. 1 (1965)
Along with James MacMillan (see Day 75), William Mathias is the only other composer I'm featuring this year who I've actually met. Back in the mid-80s, when I was planning to do my music degree, I went for an interview at Bangor University. Mathias was Professor of Composition at Bangor the time, as he was up until four years before his untimely death in 1992, and he did a very good job of trying to persuade me to go there. In the end, I opted for Keele, but he certainly made a very big impression and I developed something of an interest in his work as a result.

His first symphony is a fairly early work, written when he was just 30, and his influences are fairly clearly discernible in it. There are strong echoes of early Tippett in the piece, and also of his composition teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Lennox Berkeley. What there also is though, is an innate sense of compositional balance, and, in the cleverly paced slow movement, no shortage of damn-good-tune writing. It's fair to say that Mathias will probably never be held in the same regard as some of his more illustrious contemporaries, such as Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies. Hopefully, he won't slide into total obscurity either.

Day 194

13 July 2017: Webern – Symphony, Op 21 (1928)
Anton Webern didn't write a whole lot of music. There are only 31 opus numbers, many of which – like this symphony – are effectively miniatures. As a consequence, Pierre Boulez's recordings of Webern's entire body of work fit on just 6 CDs. The impact that this music had, however is immense. Together with his contemporaries Arnold Schoenberg and his colleague Alban Berg they were the engine room of the Second Viennese School, and pretty much changed the face of music in the 20th century. Of the three, Webern was probably the most hardcore in his approach to twelve-tone theory, ultimately using the ideas to organise not just pitch but rhythm and dynamics too.

Nothing highlights the problem I sometimes have with serialism more than the fact that many of the learned pieces that have been written analysing this symphony take considerably longer to read than the work itself takes to listen to. It does feel at times that it's about 90% academic exercise and 10% inspiration. I am quite prepared to accept, however, that this is a miniature masterpiece. Every single note has a purpose, and there is nothing in it that cannot be justified. It is music pared down to the barest essentials. Furthermore, it opened doors for composers that followed, and while the stark theory of serialism soon found its limitations, Webern and his ilk created a tool with which composers could build the music of the avant garde.

Day 195

14 July 2017: Elsa Barraine – Symphony No. 2 (1938)
I doubt if there are many out there who are familiar with the work of Elsa Barraine. I know I wasn't, but one of the many goals I set myself this year was to not only discover unfamiliar repertoire generally, but to make a conscious effort to explore the music of some of the more neglected female composers. Sadly, there are many, and as is to prove the point about how much digging has to be done to hear them, the reason I've chosen Symphony No. 2 is because, to the best of my knowledge, there is no recording of No. 1.

Barraine won the Prix de Rome in 1929, and while that was by no means a gateway to instant fame (the two previous winners are decidedly obscure names ... Edmond Gaujac and Raymond Loucheur, anyone?) she did enjoy a great degree of success in her native France prior to World War II. The war rather curtailed her composing; in fact, she pretty much abandoned music and became heavily involved with the French Resistance. She worked mostly in education after the war, but carried on composing well into her twilight years. Very little of her music is heard today, which is a shame because if this is anything to go by there's a lot to like about it. Musically, it's not obvious to spot any links to any of her contemporaries, and although the influence of the previous generation of composers such as Les Six may be in the mix somewhere, Barraine clearly forged a path of her own. The highlight for me was the taut string writing in the central Marche Funèbre movement. I'd like to hear more of her music, but it could take some finding.

Day 196

15 July 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 6 (1954)
I don't think I can get through any kind of write-up of an Edmund Rubbra symphony without using the word 'neglected', so I'm going to get it in early. This is an absolutely fabulous symphony, and the fact that is utterly neglected and has been since the mid-1950s is nothing short of criminal. I've got no facts to back this up, but I'd be reasonably sure that, as a result of separate releases in the 1990s conducted by Norman Del Mar and Richard Hickox, this has been recorded more times in the last 60 years than it has been publicly performed.

I suppose that, just as the arrival of punk in the mid-70s rendered a lot of its rock music predecessors moribund, so the coming of the avant garde and the Darmstadt School in the mid-50s did for composers like Rubbra. Certainly the BBC played their part at the time by turning away from music they felt was embarrassingly traditional. Anyway, surely enough water has passed under the bridge by now for Rubbra to be listened to with fresh ears. I'd recommend any new listeners to start here because the glorious lyricism on display here is almost beyond compare in post-war British music. And as for the beautiful Canto: Largo e sereno second movement, that really is peak Rubbra in my view. The great thing about his music is that each new hearing seems to reveal something you missed last time. I can never tire of it.

Day 197

16 July 2017: Elgar – Symphony No. 2 (1911)
I had, more or less, assembled my listening schedule for this Symphony A Day project by the middle of January. So when the 2017 BBC Proms programme was announced in April, I thought it might be a nice idea to shuffle it around a bit so that I could marry up my symphony-listening task with a performance of said symphony at that day's Prom. The first such opportunity arose today in Prom 4, which saw Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin perform Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony. It turned out to be an inspired decision, as I can honestly say that I've never heard this particular work performed better.

It is probably Elgar's most misunderstood work. It was dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, who died the previous year, and had been intended as a loyal tribute to the King, who was still alive when Elgar began composing it. Any thought that this might be some form of patriotic tub-thumping, however, is dispelled within about two minutes of what is clearly a deeply personal score. The first movement starts nobly enough with a theme known as "Spirit of Delight", but it soon takes a more sombre turn, and by the time the heart-wrenching Larghetto second movement takes hold, there's not a dry eye in the house. Quite what inspired such overt soul-baring has been the subject of much speculation. Not many buy the tribute to the sovereign line, and other recently departed acquaintances such as Alfred E. Rodewald have been put forward. Likeliest is his alleged romantic liaison with Alice Stuart Wortley over the previous couple of years. It's not essential to know, in any event, the 'why' of this symphony. The combination of this score in the hands of this conductor demonstrates amply the emotional power of music.

Day 198

17 July 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10 (1953)
As coincidence would have it, the opportunity for another Proms tie-in arose with tonight's BBC National Orchestra of Wales performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's tenth symphony. After his ninth had been condemned by critics and authorities alike, essentially for being too glib, it would be eight years before Shostakovich would write No. 10. It's an undeniable fact of chronology that this symphony was first performed just a few months after the death of Stalin, leading many to conclude that the two events were intrinsically connected.  As it is though, the exact date of composition is unclear, with the suggestion that it was written a year or two earlier.

There is one very clear pointer as to the nature of this work though, and that is the prominent place given to his own musical monogram – the letters DSCH, which in German notation equate to the notes D, E flat, C and B. Shostakovich used this in many other works, usually those of a deeply personal nature such as the Violin and Cello Concertos, and his String Quartet No. 8. Thus the symphony is at least in some part autobiographical. It begins with another of Shostakovich's massive first movements, accounting for almost half the symphony's entire length and drawing clear parallels to the similarly scaled equivalent movements in Symphonies 5 and 8. If the Stalinist connection is to be believed, then this might be interpreted as a depiction of his nightmarish regime, and the fact that the DSCH theme emerges triumphantly at the end of the finale might tell us all we need to know about the composer's intention. Nothing is ever as simple as that with old Dmitri, though, and the fact that another monogram has been identified in the score – E-La-Mi-Re-A, associated with a female pupil of his by the name of Elmira Nazirova – leads me to think it's time to stop digging and start listening!

Day 199

18 July 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 4 (1911)
The big-hitters are coming thick and fast at the moment, and after a couple of emotionally saturated works from Elgar and Shostakovich, here we have probably the bleakest symphony of Jean Sibelius's output. Completed in 1911, coincidentally the same year as the Elgar, this is a very dark symphony from a dark period in the composer's life. Two years before beginning this work, Sibelius had undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his throat, and it was said that for some time afterwards he feared the disease's return. Again, some composer-as-visionary fruitcakes have said that there are portents of World War I in the music, as if the composer's cancer wasn't reason enough for the music to be as gloomy as it is.

It's hard to think of a darker opening to any symphony than the deep growl of the cellos, double basses and bassoons. The mood scarcely lifts at any point, although the second movement does have something approaching a jaunty tune at times, with occasional brightness from a glockenspiel. It's a brief respite though, and the music eventually descends into something approaching despair. The ending is particularly bereft of hope with stark A minor chords marked mezzo-forte; probably the only symphony in the conventional repertoire to end in the mid-dynamic range, which has left many an audience wondering whether the work has actually finished. I first heard this in the early-90s I think and just didn't 'get it' at all. It's now one of my favourites, although it can be a tough journey sometimes.

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