Monday, 28 August 2017

Days 233 – 240

Day 233

21 August 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 7 (1957)
It's no good. Much as I would like to try to get through an item on an Edmund Rubbra symphony without resorting to the words 'scandalously neglected', it is simply unavoidable in this case. I am at a complete loss to explain why this is as rarely heard as it unquestionably is. Its premiere in 1957 was conducted by no less a figure than Andrzej Panufnik, who was musical director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the time. For their 1956-57 season, the CBSO had commissioned new works from Tippett, who produced his brilliant Piano Concerto, Bliss, who wrote his Meditation on a Theme of John Blow, and Rubbra, who delivered this masterpiece. It's fair to say the good folk of Birmingham got their money's worth!

The third movement – a Passacaglia and Fugue – is exquisite, and while there is much to love in Rubbra's symphonic output, this particular movement is the gleaming diamond in his musical crown. My old music lecturer at Keele, Stephen Banfield, asserted in his book on Gerald Finzi that this movement was Rubbra's tribute to his close friend and fellow-composer who died while he was composing the symphony. It's hard to conceive of a more moving response. I listened to this today and, as the music ended, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to personally visit the musical directors of our great orchestras and interrogate them as to why this music seemingly never even enters their minds when considering programmes.

Day 234

22 August 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 6 (1818)
There is a convention of sorts when composers write two symphonies in the same key to refer to the smaller (and usually earlier) of the two works as the 'Little "n" major/minor'. So we have Mozart's 'Little G minor' (see Day 86), Dvorak's 'Little D minor' (see Day 136), and this, Franz Peter Schubert's 'Little C major'. This is unquestionably the little brother to the 'Great C major', his ninth symphony, which is nearly twice the length of this one.

Many commentators have detected an Italian influence in this symphony. The finale takes a theme from his own Two Overtures in the Italian Style, the second movement Andante seems to have the feel of a tarantella, while the use of musical themes associated with street festivals has been attributed to the influence of Rossini. There's a general lightness of feel throughout, which actually reminded me of Mendelssohn's fourth 'Italian' symphony composed some ten years later. Sadly, Schubert never heard this in his lifetime. The irony is that this brightest of symphonies only received its first performance at a concert to commemorate Schubert's death in 1828.

Day 235

23 August 2017: Louise Farrenc – Symphony No. 3 (1847)
Even in today's more enlightened times, there is still an element of sexism within the music business, as can be evidenced by the relatively small presence of female composers in many orchestra's programmes. One can only imagine, therefore, what it was like in Louise Farrenc's time. Here was a significant figure in mid-nineteenth-century French music; Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire for fully 30 years, a gifted performer, and a highly talented composer. Nonetheless, her abilities as a composer were not taken seriously, and the logistical difficulties of assembling an orchestra to perform her works meant they went largely unheard in her own lifetime.

I featured Farrenc's second symphony a few months ago (see Day 139) and had to admit that I didn't really enjoy it, due to it being simply too derivative of earlier composers. I have no such qualms with this her final, and arguably best, symphony. From the mysterious woodwind opening, it is clear that there's a more self-confident composer at work, and it soon develops into a robust and beautifully orchestrated Allegro. There is, it has to be said, a Beethovenian feel to the Adagio cantabile slow movement, but it is no less wonderful for that, and the fast and furious Scherzo is a display of effortless brilliance. Unfortunately, concert tickets are usually sold on the basis of the names of the composers on the programme, and until Farrenc breaks that particular barrier, she is sadly likely to remain obscure.

Day 236

24 August 2017: Weill – Symphony No. 2 (1934)
Kurt Weill is so well known for his music for the stage that many people will perhaps be unaware of his credentials as a composer of more conventional classical music. He studied composition first with Engelbert Humperdinck (no, not that one) and then Ferruccio Busoni, and included the likes of Stravinsky and Berg among his admirers. The year before Weill wrote this symphony, he had fled to Paris following the rise to power of the Nazis in his native Germany, and had seen his most famous work, The Threepenny Opera, premiered on Broadway. Although that closed after just 13 performances, it was clear that Weill saw his future in musical theatre and his second symphony turned out to be his last orchestral work before he concentrated on writing for the stage

I was one of the many unaware of this period of his career and I'd go so far as to say that if I'd been played this blind and asked to guess the composer, Kurt Weill would have been about guess number 572. It does have a connection to his earlier stage work Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, in that one of its numbers, Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man, is the model of the first movement's lyrical second subject – albeit rather more symphonically treated. It's clear from this that Weill was a perfectly good symphonist, but he soon realised it doesn't pay the rent.

Day 237

25 August 2017: Walton – Symphony No. 2 (1960)
The William Walton who presented his second symphony to the world as a 58-year-old elder statesman of English music was a rather different creature to the enfant terrible of 25 years earlier, when he composed his first. While the earlier work was considered quite cutting-edge and modernist, this symphony was very harshly treated by the critics of the day, who tended to view him as rather old-fashioned at a time when the burgeoning Manchester School of composers – Goehr, Maxwell Davies, and Birtwistle – were changing the country's musical landscape.

The criticism was unfair of course, and as a consequence the symphony has been viewed for a long time as a poor relation to the first, rather in the same way Elgar's second used to be perceived. Just as the Elgar has started to be appreciated anew in recent years, so the Walton is long overdue a re-appraisal. It's a more sophisticated work than its predecessor, certainly better orchestrated, although it lacks the sheer brute force of the first. The final movement is a brilliant set of variations on a twelve-note tone row, although it is by no means a serialist work. Had Walton written this within a few years of his first symphony it would probably have been much better received. The prejudices that coloured its reception nearly sixty years ought not to permanently damage its legacy.

Day 238

26 August 2017: Britten – Cello Symphony (1963)
Benjamin Britten is a permanent fixture in my top five composers of all-time. He wrote for so many different genres that his contribution to the symphonic repertoire is often overlooked, but I find it fascinating. He wrote four, none of them numbered, and all very different from each other. His Simple Symphony, Sinfonia Da Requiem, and Spring Symphony I have already featured, and this was the final work to which he attributed the name 'symphony'. And while the first three were a work for string orchestra based on juvenilia themes, a conventional orchestral piece in three movements, and a choral symphony respectively, here Britten experiments with the form again by writing a symphony with a prominent part for a solo cello. It was composed for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work.

Britten decided to call this piece a symphony rather than a concerto (having also considered the title Sinfonia Concertante) as he believed the solo and orchestral parts to be of equal weight. Certainly the structure is conventionally symphonic, with a sonata form opening movement, followed by a Scherzo and an Adagio, although the cadenza with which the latter concludes is the one flaw in the symphony argument. The final movement is the crowning glory of the work. Britten did like a Passacaglia; there are fine examples in his Violin Concerto, in the opera Peter Grimes, and his Nocturnal for guitar, among others. The use of this traditional Renaissance construct here is a perfect way to conclude a work that plays with one's preconceptions of traditional forms.

Day 239

27 August 2017: Silvestrov – Symphony No. 5 (1982)
Of all the new composers I've discovered this year as part of my Symphony A Day venture, I think Valentin Silvestrov is probably my favourite. Still going strong and approaching his 80th birthday, Silvestrov has written eight symphonies, the most recent of which emerged four years ago. In common with many late-twentieth-century composers, Silvestrov started out writing music of a modernist nature although his change to a more consonant approach was originally out of necessity following criticism from the Soviet authorities. The style he developed, largely in private having withdrawn public life, was a neo-Romantic idiom of flowing, delicate lyricism.

He was awarded Ukraine's Shevchenko National Prize for Music in 1995, and this symphony, which by then was thirteen years old, was one of three pieces cited. It really is a lovely piece. For the most part, it moves at serene, glacial speed. There are echoes of Mahler's ninth and tenth symphonies in the string writing at the beginning and end of the work, as if their music has been refracted through a late twentieth-century prism. Silvestrov is possibly unique in that he wears his influences so visibly, yet produces work of great uniqueness. It would be nice to hear his work more often in this country.

Day 240

28 August 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 6 (1947)
Fewer things could indicate just how popular Ralph Vaughan Williams was at this point in his career than the astonishing fact that this work received over 100 performances worldwide within two years of its premiere. It is probably his most misunderstood symphony, even more so than the enigmatic Pastoral Symphony (see Day 120). The fact that it was written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, its discordant musical language, and its desolate final movement led many critics to assume – quite wrongly – that it was RVW's reaction to the conflict. Vaughan Williams refuted this, memorably replying, 'It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.'

The first movement sees a return to the abrasive language of his fourth symphony, although the contrasting, lyrical second subject is more akin to his folk-tinged earlier works. Incidentally, this tune was used as the theme music for the 1970s ITV series A Family At War. The extraordinary second movement features a five-note rhythm that is repeated insistently, as many as 90 times, building to a quite terrifying crescendo, while the third movement, with its sleazy saxophone solo, appears to mock dance-hall music of the time. Eventually, however, this collapses into the cold and bleak Epilogue, marked pianissimo throughout, that is quite unlike any movement in British music to that point. What makes this highly original, and in many ways groundbreaking symphony all the more remarkable, is that Vaughan Williams was 74 years old when he wrote this. There was clearly life in the old dog yet.

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