Thursday, 31 August 2017

Days 241 – 243

Day 241

29 August 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4, 'Italian' (1833)
Felix Mendelssohn's enduringly popular fourth symphony was actually the third he composed, but was published four years after his death as Symphony No. 4. The young Mendelssohn had toured Italy a couple of years earlier, and began composing the work while he was still in the country. It was hugely successful at its premiere and has remained a concert favourite ever since, with its joyous and breezy nature endearing itself to audiences for nearly 200 years. Even as he was writing it, Mendelssohn remarked that it would "be the jolliest piece I have ever done". And yet it was a work that he was, by all accounts, unhappy with when he completed it, causing him to revise the piece at least once and withhold it from publication in his lifetime.

The first movement is one of the most instantly recognisable in the symphonic canon, featuring a lively and bouncy first subject for violins that, once heard, is never forgotten. The serene slow movement, probably depicting a Neapolitan religious procession he observed, is followed by a graceful minuet where one might have expected a scherzo. Unusually, for a symphony in major key, the final movement is in the tonic minor and depicts the folk dances of southern Italy, specifically the saltarello and the tarantella. It happens to be my daughter's favourite symphony, probably due to its extensive use in a favourite DVD from her childhood, Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses!

Day 242

30 August 2017: Honegger – Symphony No. 3, 'Symphonie Liturgique' (1946)
For a work that isn't exactly a regular on the concert platform, a surprisingly high number of people I know regard Arthur Honegger's third symphony as one of their favourite pieces. It's certainly one of mine, and I wish it were better known than it is. It was written immediately after World War II, and was Honegger's direct response to the horrors of the conflict. It's interesting to compare this with another third symphony written a fellow-member of Les Six in the same year – Milhaud's 'Te Deum' Symphony (see Day73). Whereas Milhaud's choral symphony is a stirring victory song, Honegger aims to depict the brutality and aggression of war culminating in a far more reflective conclusion. And just as Milhaud turned to liturgical texts, so did Honegger, although he merely used them as movement titles for a purely orchestral work, rather in the same way that Britten had done for his earlier Sinfonia da Requiem (see Day 63).

Honegger went to the trouble of describing the meaning of each movement. The opening Dies Irae is "human terror" in the form of a "rapid succession of violent themes", while the central movement De profundis clamavi depicts "the painful meditation of man forsaken by divinity". The finale, Dona nobis pacem, is in two parts: initially a heavy-footed march leading to "rebellion dawning in the ranks of the victims" before "a song of peace soars above the symphony as the dove soared in the old days above the immensity of the ocean." That soaring song of peace, which occupies the last three minutes or so of the composition is, to my mind, one of the finest symphonic endings I've heard, especially after the tempestuous nature of all that has gone before.

Day 243

31 August 2017: Tchaikovsky – Manfred Symphony (1885)
Sitting between his fourth and fifth symphonies, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky produced this unnumbered, programmatic symphony based on Lord Byron's poem Manfred. At nearly an hour in length, it is comfortably his longest, and this fact probably contributes more than anything to its comparative rarity as a concert piece. That said, it has featured in the four of the last eight Proms seasons, and in the latest of my series of Proms tie-ins, I decided to listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra's performance of this at this evening's Prom.

Tonight's conductor, Semyon Bychkov, described this as 'an opera without words', which I thought was a very apt description. Programme symphonies are difficult to pull off, as when the form is dictated by the narrative of the text rather than established musical structures, it can lead to imbalanced or episodic music that is decidedly un-symphonic. Generally, they work best when they are an adaptation of a mood or scene, and that is true of the inner movements of this symphony. The second movement scherzo has nothing more to describe than an Alpine fairy appearing from the spray of a waterfall, and the music is suitably spritely and skittish. The third movement Andante con moto, a depiction of the simple life of the mountain folk, is particularly gorgeous and certainly benefits from being free of any programmatic considerations. The same cannot be said of the rather aimless, twenty-minute-long final movement, however. Tchaikovsky's innate ability as a tunesmith sustains the interest throughout though, with the symphony's idée fixe – a device taken from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, this work's clearest model – being especially strong. I think it's a good, but a great, symphony.

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