Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Days 265 – 269

Day 265

22 September 2017: Copland – Symphony No. 3 (1946)
Aaron Copland's third symphony, and therefore the third time this year that I ask myself why I don't listen to more Copland. As soon as hear that expansive harmonic language that makes his music so instantly identifiable, I am hooked. Copland composed this in the aftermath of the Second World War and sought to capture, in his words, 'the euphoric spirit of the country'. He composed it on a suitably grand scale, and at around 45 minutes in length, it is longest of his three symphonies (or four if you count his early Dance Symphony, which I haven't).

The symphony is most famous for the fact that he makes use of his own Fanfare for the Common Man, written four years earlier. It is hinted at in the sublime first movement, where his trademark spacious music is to the fore throughout. There are echoes of his ballet Rodeo in the spritely second-movement Scherzo, while the uncharacteristically dark Andantino moves almost imperceptibly into the final movement, where the Fanfare is initially heard quietly in a woodwind duet. The Fanfare then emerges in a blaze of glory, subtly changed from the stand-alone version, and it forms the thematic material for the grandest of finales. It's long been my favourite American symphony, and although I've heard many other worthy contenders this year, my view still stands.

Day 266

23 September 2017: Carter – Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1995)
Staying in the US of A, here we have the quite extraordinary figure of Elliott Carter. He's almost certainly the only composer I've featured this year to have lived beyond the age of 100, and he made full use of his longevity by continuing to compose right up to his final year. This work was written when he was in his late-eighties, he went on to publish another 40-plus pieces in his nineties, and his final composition – a piano trio – was completed in August 2012, three months before he died.

The title comes from a poem by the 17th century English poet Richard Crashaw, and translates as 'I am the prize of flowing hope'. It is a substantial three-movement work of around 45 minutes in length and is widely regarded as Carter's finest work. The first movement is an uncompromising Partita; a constantly evolving capricious landscape that never allows the listener to settle. The second Adagio Tenebroso movement is a slow-moving elegy of unfolding melodic lines, while the third movement – marked Allegro Scorrevole – displays a lightness of touch before disappearing into the ether. This is a remarkable symphony, regardless of the age of its composer, but it really is a marvel for an octogenarian. A life well lived.

Day 267

24 September 2017: Liszt – Dante Symphony (1856)
Not a work that is performed very often – I'm fairly sure I'd never heard this before today – but Franz Liszt's Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy was a very enjoyable way to spend 45 minutes on a Sunday morning. It is less a symphony and rather more two symphonic poems followed by a choral finale, setting of lines from the Magnificat, but it's still a great work. It may be that the requirements of a boys' or female choir for the finale proves to be a hindrance to performance, but it does mean that it qualifies for today's Choral Symphony Sunday slot. Reading Dante's Divine Comedy clearly had a profound effect upon Liszt. Not only did it inspire him to write this piece, but it also provided the spark for one of his more famous piano pieces: Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata. The first two movements depict the first two canticas of the Divine ComedyInferno and Purgatorio – although in place of the third (Paradiso) Liszt opted for the short choral movement, which nonetheless portrays paradise effectively enough.

Those first two movements, which each work as stand-alone symphonic poems, are very contrasting. The first is turbulent and at times very chromatic, and opens with themes announced by the brass section declaiming (without words) the opening lines of the poem. There is a calmer central section, which depicts Francesca di Rimini, and again Liszt employs the device of setting her words to music and then removing the words! The more solemn Purgatorio movement forms a stark contrast to the brutality of the first, however the real magic occurs in the heavenly final Magnificat movement. There is some beautiful writing for the celestial, and invisible-to-the-audience, choir, and it's not difficult to hear where his son-in-law Richard Wagner might have allowed himself to be influenced in years to come.

Day 268

25 September 2017: Barber – Symphony No. 2 (1943)
There have been a few symphonies I've featured this year that have only survived to the present day thanks to a degree of serendipity. This is one such work, as Samuel Barber had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that this would never see the light of day. Barber wrote his Symphony No. 2 to a commission from that well-known benefactor of the arts, the United States Air Force, during World War Two, and consequently it is occasionally known as the 'Flight Symphony'. Barber, it seems, was pleased with the work at first, but by 1964 he had grown to dislike it to such an extent that he ordered his publishers G Schirmer to destroy the manuscript, as well any copies of the score they possessed. Thankfully, in 1984, three years after the composer's death, a copy turned up in a warehouse in England and the symphony was re-published.

It's not exactly clear why Barber was so down on the piece. It may be that the terms of the commission, which stated that the Armed Forces would receive all of the royalties from any broadcast or performance, led to a degree of resentment. Barber hinted that he had come to view it as a propaganda piece, and concluded that it was 'not a good work.' Far be it from me to disagree with the composer, but it absolutely is a good work. The tension-laden first movement with its angular themes is splendid, however it is the central movement that marks the symphony out as truly great. Even after ordering the work's destruction, Barber reprieved this movement and published it as the tone poem Night Flight. Initially the movement contained a part for an electronic tone-generator, which was part of the original brief to include 'modern devices', although this part is now usually performed by a clarinet. I would urge anyone only familiar with his Adagio for Strings or his Violin Concerto to seek out a recording of this superb symphony. 

Day 269

26 September 2017: Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 2 (1859)
Another lesser-known example from Camille Saint-Saëns' somewhat imbalanced symphonic output. Although labelled Symphony No. 2, this is actually his fourth, all of which were composed before he'd reached his 25th birthday. None of those four were performed very often, if at all, leading him to conclude, with some justification, that he wasn't a symphonist. Then, 27 years later, he had one final go at the form and produced the now famous 'Organ' Symphony, which probably receives more performances worldwide in any given month than the other four combined have managed since they were written. I've got no stats to back this up, by the way, but I do know I've never seen any of the others on a programme in my 40-odd years of concert-going.

I suppose this has the strongest case to be programmed in place of the ubiquitous No. 3. At around 23 minutes, it's relatively short and shows the sureness of footing that Saint-Saëns had even at this early stage in his career. The first movement gets under way, after a slow recitative-like introduction, with a splendid fugue – unusual for a symphonic opening, but unsurprising for the unashamed fan of JS Bach that he was. A very brief and classical Adagio, with a hesitant theme, is followed by a boisterous Scherzo. The symphony concludes with an unremarkable Prestissimo finale, but there is a lot to like in the work. It's not really fair to compare this with its mighty successor when the two works were separated in time by over a quarter of a century, but it is fair to say that Saint-Saëns was a much better composer in his fifties than his twenties.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Days 256 – 264

Day 256

13 September 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 5 (1922)
I'm in the midst of another of those runs of personal favourites that my schedule seems to throw up from time to time, and listening to Carl Nielsen's spectacular fifth symphony this evening was one of the less onerous tasks I'll have this year. This is one of many works I discovered in my student years, hearing a particularly memorable performance in Victoria Hall, Hanley in about October 1989 (although not so memorable that I can remember the orchestra that played it, probably the Hallé or the BBC Phil).

It is a quite extraordinary work, and one in which Nielsen moves up a gear a composer. Everything starts innocently enough, with flurries of strings and woodwinds fluttering away in the background while an other-wordly melody winds its way rather aimlessly. Then out of nowhere a snare drum initiates a militaristic march that eventually loses out to the returning woodwind flurries. This tension between these two opposing forces sets up the central core of the piece. Beginning in a conventional B major, the music darkens in tone when an insistent woodwind theme is repeated over and over again, at which point the snare drum re-enters the fray. Never has a snare drum been put to better use in a symphony. With the instruction to improvise 'as if he wants to stop the orchestra at all costs" a full-on war develops between the drummer and the orchestra, in which the latter ultimately triumphs. And that's just Part One! The second, shorter half of the symphony doesn't quite match up to the drama of the first, but it does feature some brilliant fugal writing and the work ends in a truly uplifting blaze of glory.

Day 257

14 September 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 36, 'Linzer' (1783)
The story of the composition of this symphony may be exaggerated, but I hope it's true. Knowing the many feats attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I have no reason to doubt it anyway. Mozart had married Constanza Weber the previous year, much to the disapproval of his family. In order to bring about a reconciliation, the Mozarts travelled back from their home in Vienna to visit his father Leopold's home in Salzburg. En route, they decided to accept the invitation of Count Thun-Hohenstein to stay with him in Linz for a few days. So the tale goes, the Count promptly announced that there would be a grand concert to mark the occasion, featuring a symphony by the great Mozart. The only problem was that Mozart hadn't brought one with him.

Well what else could the most prodigious composer who ever lived do under the circumstances, but write a new one in four days flat, of course! It really doesn't sound like something composed in hurry though, in fact it is just about the most assured symphony he'd written up to that point in his life. Unusually for Mozart, it starts with a slow introduction, before letting rip into an occasionally fast and furious Allegro. The sublime second movement could easily have been given words used as an aria in one of his operas, although the mood is darkened somewhat by the use of trumpets and timpani. The scherzo includes a trio that features an elegant duet for oboe and bassoon, while the as-Presto-as-possible finale ends the work on a suitable high. Vintage Mozart.

Day 258

15 September 2017: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3: 'Jesus Messiah, Save Us!' (1983)
The female Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya was a quite formidable figure. A pupil of Shostakovich, she forged her own path musically, saying quite proudly that 'there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.' She had a point, as her style is totally unique and characterised by solid blocks of sound, completely bereft of melody. Her penchant for unorthodox combinations of instruments also marks out her individuality. This symphony, for example, is scored for five oboes, five trumpets, five double basses, three tubas, piano, trombone, percussion, and a solo voice who recites 11th century liturgical texts.

I first encountered her music just last year, when this symphony was featured in one of the more memorable Proms performances of recent times. This falls into the 'symphony only because the composer says it is' category, as there is pretty much nothing symphonic about this work at all. It's a single movement piece of about 15 minutes in length, in which the repeated wall of block chords are the only thematic material. It is nevertheless an extremely striking composition, with the pleading voice appealing for salvation coming from a sound world of despair. It's a work of almost brutalist simplicity, but the effect is devastating.

Day 259

16 September 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 (1883)
Anton Bruckner's finest hour (and a bit), in my opinion. It says something for how well this symphony was received, and how happy the notoriously self-critical composer was with it, that he only felt the need to revise it once! The influence of his idol Richard Wagner is at its strongest in this work, with the second movement being a moving tribute to him written at a time when Wagner's death was anticipated. It is suggested that the cymbal clash at the climax of the second movement was written by Bruckner at the point when news of Wagner's demise reached him.

I fell in love with this work when I was a student, after buying a copy of the famous 1989 Karajan performance that turned out to be his final recording. It was as if Karajan knew of the recording's finality as he poured every last drop of his blood into it. For it to have been such a profound work as this was entirely fitting. It is an absolutely magnificent symphony. The opening theme for horns and cellos emerges from a trademark Bruckner primordial soup of hushed strings, but despite its length, the first movement maintains its focus throughout. The sublime second movement is the most moving music he ever wrote, starting with the first symphonic use of the Wagner tuba (four of them), a simple, rising three note theme is taken to extraordinary heights, and if the cymbal clash does represent Wagner's death then it is marked with a cry of praise to the heavens for his life. After a splendid scherzo, there is a slight feeling of anti-climax about the finale, if only for the fact that it fails to balance the gigantic opening two movements. It's a minor quibble, however, as they would have been difficult movements for any composer to follow.

Day 260

17 September 2017: Berlioz – Roméo et Juliette (1839)
For rather different reasons to the Ustvolskaya featured a couple of days ago, this also falls into the 'symphony only because the composer says it is' category. Hector Berlioz called it a symphonie dramatique, although there are some who argue that it's more of a 'concert opera'. Whatever it is, this monumental slab of words, music, and drama is one of the grandest occupants of the Choral Symphony Sunday slot. Only the infamous Gothic Symphony of Havergal Brian (see Day 50) and Mahler's third symphony (see Day 78) have been longer.

It's difficult to know where to start with such a vast, programmatic piece. Although obviously based on the Shakespeare play, the plot has been altered slightly in that Juliet awakes from her sleep prior to Romeo's death, and far more is made of the reconciliation between the two families at the end. That is turned into a grand choral finale that owes a nod of gratitude to the finale of Beethoven's ninth, written just 15 years earlier. The highlight of the symphony is without question the 20-minute Scène d'amour of Part II; an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing that it is, to my mind, the best music Berlioz ever composed. Overall, it's a daunting listen, but a fully rewarding one.

Day 261

18 September 2017: Glass – Symphony No. 3, for strings (1995)
I've enjoyed the vast majority of the symphonies I've listened to this year, but if I was putting together a bottom five, then Philip Glass's second symphony would be in it. As I said at the time, it was the work of a composer with a very limited musical vocabulary, and what ideas there were ended up being spread very thinly over its 45-minute length. This, thankfully, is a more concise work and a considerably better listen as a consequence.

It was commissioned for, and premiered by, the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1995. The first movement features an off-beat melody against an insistent pounding bass line, while the short, lively and rhythmically complex second movement forms a satisfying contrast. The third movement is trademark Glass. With its three-against-four cross-rhythms underpinning a solo violin melody, it occupies much the same sound world as Pruit Igoe from his Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. It feels as though many of the pretensions towards grandeur that plagued his second symphony have been abandoned here and he's gone back to what he does best, and the symphony is all the better for it.

Day 262

19 September 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 3 (1983)
My love of Polish music began with Witold Lutosławski. I first encountered him when his Musique Funèbre was performed at the Proms in August 1988. As it turned out, that early work was not really very typical of his output, but it encouraged me to delve deeper and I've been a huge fan ever since. This symphony comes from the other end of his career, completed as it was when he was 70 (although he had started working on it ten years earlier). By this point, he had refined his technique of 'limited aleatorism' for which this symphony is a brilliant showcase. This involved Lutosławski interweaving ad libitum sections, where the players have a degree of freedom of the tempo in which they play their designated material so that they are intentionally not together, and ad battuta passages, which are under the control of the conductor.

Much has been made of the fact that during the work's composition period, his native Poland had suppressed the burgeoning trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity). This work has been interpreted as a protest against this, just as Panufnik had reacted to the situation with his Sinfonia Votiva (see Day 248) two years earlier. If that was the Lutosławski's intention, he never expressly stated it. The percussive four-note unison E that begins, ends, and periodically interrupts the music certainly gives the impression of trying to beat the freedom inherent in the music into submission. Whatever the interpretation, it is an absolute masterpiece. Lutosławski's brilliance stems from his ability to write at-times uncompromising music within readily identifiable formal structures, which enables him to make a connection with his audience that many of his contemporaries fail to achieve.

Day 263

20 September 2017: Hans Gál – Symphony No. 1 (1927)
Given that the Austrian-born Jewish émigré Hans Gál spent nearly 50 years in the UK, and was even awarded an OBE for his services to music, I find it quite baffling that I was completely unaware of his existence up until about six or seven months ago. This is the first of his four symphonies, and the only one he wrote when he was still living in his native Austria. At that time, he was a highly regarded composer and teacher, holding posts at the University of Vienna and then Mainz Conservatory.

This work was entered by Gál into the famous International Columbia Graphophone Competition of 1928, which was won by Kurt Atterberg's Symphony No. 6 (see Day 217) beating off competition not only from this piece, but also other notable symphonies by Havergal Brian, Czesław Marek, and Franz Schmidt. This piece effectively won its regional final, although at time it was entitled Sinfonietta. By 1933, however, the Nazis had risen to power and Gál was dismissed from his post and his music banned on account of his Judaism. He fled to London immediately after the Anschluss of 1938, and soon afterwards he moved to Edinburgh where he remained until his death in 1987.

This symphony is a very enjoyable listen, with its feet firmly planted in the Germanic symphonic tradition. The melodic lines are especially strong, flirting as they do between atonality and the straightforward diatonic. Had I discovered him earlier, I might well have found room in my schedule for the other three.

Day 264

21 September 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 12, 'The Year 1917' (1961)
Following on from his 11th symphony, which marked the year 1905, this work commemorates another significant year in Soviet history: that of the year of the Russian Revolution. The revolution led to the Communist Party seizing power under its leader Vladimir Lenin, and Shostakovich dedicated this symphony to Lenin's memory. Shostakovich was, by this time, a member of the Communist Party – undoubtedly after a degree of coercion – but his decision to compose such a patriotic piece seems odd when he was under far less pressure to toe the party line now that Kruschev was in power and carrying out a process of de-Stalinization.

It is the considered opinion of many music writers that this is one of the runts of Shostakovich's considerable symphonic litter. There is no disputing the fact that it is a far less weighty piece than its predecessor. Indeed, given the significance of Lenin and the year 1917 to the Russian authorities at the time, and even to this day, its treatment here seems almost half-arsed. I find it a perfectly agreeable work, but there's little doubt it does pale into insignificance alongside his symphonies of the previous twenty years or so. The second movement, Razliv, which actually quotes the 11th symphony, is very profound, but the triumphant finale is less convincing than similar episodes in his symphonic past and has the feel of composing by numbers. It isn’t as bad as some have painted it, however.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Days 251 – 255

Day 251

8 September 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 (1812)
Ludwig van Beethoven was recovering from a series of health problems when he produced this brilliant symphony. He considered it one of his best; an opinion probably influenced by the fact that its immediate commercial success resolved financial issues that had also previously dogged him. The work was first performed at a benefit concert for injured Viennese soldiers, and with Vienna itself surfacing from years of Napoleonic occupation there was a wave of triumphalism that Beethoven was happy to ride. It's appropriate, therefore, that this evening's Prom performance, with which this entry coincides, was by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is a great symphony, yet it's also slightly odd for the fact that the movement for which it is best known is completely at odds with the bacchanalian energy of the two that close the work. Both the scherzo and finale are wild and exhilarating dances, making this for the most part Beethoven's most joyous symphony. And yet the highly original second movement, based on an insistent and funereal A minor theme, is the one that received an immediate encore at its premiere. This truly extraordinary movement was, for a time afterwards, played as a stand-alone piece. The symphony's huge popularity undoubtedly derives from the fact that it is so 'instant' and easily accessible. The contemporary opinion of Friedrich Weick that it was 'the work of a drunkard' hasn't really stood the test of time!

Day 252

9 September 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 5 (1932)
Every winter between 1928 and 1940, Arnold Bax took himself off to the west of Scotland and holed up in the tiny village of Morar for weeks on end. It takes a particular type of gumption to choose to spend so long in some of the country's starkest surroundings, in the worst weather, and feel compelled to do so year after year. His devotion to duty in living in such surroundings to experience nature in its wildest, unbridled form as musical inspiration is admirable.

Bax referred to the compositions produced during this period as his 'craggy, northern works'. This symphony in particular seems almost completely bereft of sunlight, with its brooding opening for clarinets over a solemn drum beat setting a dark tone from the off. The work is dedicated to, and in a small way modelled upon, the work of another north country composer, Jean Sibelius. Depending on who you believe, there are echoes Sibelius's first, fourth, or fifth symphony in Bax's music, but there is a distinct relationship in mood, if not in harmonic language, with the Finn's music. None of Bax's symphonies have titles, which may contribute in some way to their continual neglect, but I'd support a move to append the nickname 'Nordic Symphony' to this piece. Anything to help get it performed somewhere. Anywhere.

Day 253

10 September 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 8 (1906)
Choral Symphony Sunday again, and this really is the mother of all such works. Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony is widely known as 'Symphony of a Thousand': an exaggeration of the number of people required to perform it. Mahler himself objected to the nickname, but it has kind of stuck. It may not require a thousand performers, but the forces employed are still mightily impressive. In addition to a massive orchestra to include an organ, four harps, a harmonium, a mandolin, quadruple woodwind, and an additional off-stage brass ensemble, there is also the small matter of two adult choirs, a children's choir, and an unprecedented eight soloists. The long-awaited premiere in 1910 was attended by an 'A' list that included the composers Strauss, Saint-Saëns and Webern, as well a young Leopold Stokowski and the writer Thomas Mann. It was a phenomenal success, and its masterpiece status has never been in dispute.

The symphony is two parts. The first is a setting of the Veni, Creator Spiritus, and as symphonic openings go, they don't come much better than this. An all-stops-out organ chord tees up a declamation of the opening line from the chorus before the full orchestral forces are unleashed. The second part is a setting of the closing section of Goethe's dramatic poem Faust, and while this may seem an incongruous pairing with the ninth-century Latin hymn that precedes it, the unifying theme is that of redemption. Mahler's famous quote that a symphony should contain the world is embodied in this work, which is grandiose in scale and conception. I have an abiding memory of listening to this symphony on a Sony Walkman while travelling around the Austrian Tyrol in 1988, and I've always been unwilling to break the association with those magnificent surroundings.

Day 254

11 September 2017: Kilar – Symphony No 3, 'September Symphony' (2003)
You probably formed the impression some time ago that I'm a big fan of all things Polish, and you'd be right. One of the many composers to have featured in my dissertation on post-war Polish music, written when I was a student at Keele University, was Wojciech Kilar. Kilar's career followed a very similar trajectory to that of his near-exact contemporary Henryk Mikołaj Górecki. Both made their names as leading lights in the avant garde New Polish School in the early-sixties. By the nineties, however, they were achieving commercial success as purveyors of the style rather sniffily described as holy minimalism. Kilar's success route came through his involvement in film music, with his score for Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula receiving critical acclaim.

Despite the lucrative nature of his film music, Kilar continued to write concert works, and this is the third of five symphonies he composed. It was a response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, which happened 16 years ago today. Kilar had developed what he described as an 'incurable, uncritical and unthinking' fondness for America. He uses the song America, the Beautiful as the basis for the work's thematic material, sometimes just a fragment or an interval, and on other occasions a more recognisable quotation. The slow-moving first movement is a kind of funeral service for the victims of the attacks, but this is contrasted by a vigorous Allegro which is the most clearly minimalist section of the work, based as it is around a repeated single minor triad. The highlight of the symphony for me is the elegiac slow movement. The first use of anything clearly identifiable as a melody coming nearly 20 minutes into the work accentuated the effect of its soaring, beautiful line. This injection of much needed quality into what was in danger of becoming a rather bland symphony elevates it to the level where it is worthy of its aims. It's one of Kilar's finest moments.

Day 255

12 September 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 7 (1885)
Antonin Dvořák's seventh symphony is regarded by many as his greatest, which is praise indeed given that he went on to write his famous 'New World' symphony eight years later. It was without doubt the composition that made his name as a symphonist and one that held great personal significance for him. I've seen (very) occasional references to this being known as the 'London Symphony', primarily because it was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and received its first performance in the city. The work is profoundly Czech, however, and was the composer's attempt to draw attention to his compatriots' struggle for a Czech homeland.

In addition to the patriotic element, the symphony also contained music that drew upon his own personal tragedies. In the period leading up to the work, Dvořák lost both his mother and his eldest child, and the mournful second movement reflects this sense of loss. There is no doubt that this music came from Dvořák's heart, with the second movement suffixed by the footnote, 'From the sad years' – an acknowledgment of his recent bereavements – and the score also carries the patriotic proclamation, 'God, Love and Country'. The triumphant ending asserts Dvořák's hope for the future of his nation and his personal defiance in the face of tragedy. A composer's most personal work is usually their best, and it's a view seldom truer than in this case.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Days 244 – 250

Day 244

1 September 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 (1915)
The fifth symphony of Jean Sibelius is probably his most popular, and was effectively written for his own 50th birthday to a commission from the Finnish government. It's an absolute barnstormer of a work, so memorable for its soul-affirming finale, that it's often easy to forget just how dark sections of the first movement are. Although originally composed in 1915, the version universally known today is the 1919 revision of the work. When the late-nineties recording of the original 1915 version emerged, it came as something of a shock to the system for those of us who've known and loved the work for many years. It differs so much from the original that at times it is scarcely recognisable, especially in the bitonal passages where faintly familiar music seems somehow out of focus. It's certainly interesting to see just how different the piece could have been had Sibelius decided to leave it be.

The most famous passage is the finale's memorable theme for the French horns, and one of the more remarkable things about this symphony is how frequently that theme has been borrowed. At least three top 30 singles have nicked it (for the record, Beach Baby by The First Class in 1974, Since Yesterday by Strawberry Switchblade in 1984, and I Don't Believe In Miracles by Sinitta in 1988). Philip Glass made use of it in Floe off his Glassworks album, and Leonard Bernstein appropriated it in On The Town. With the possible exception of Pachelbel's Canon, it must be the most stolen theme in classical music. It's hardly surprising as it is difficult to listen to this music and not feel uplifted.

Day 245

2 September 2017: Grażyna Bacewicz – Symphony No. 4 (1953)
I seem to have featured a lot of Polish music this year, and here's another new name for the list. Grażyna Bacewicz was a former composition pupil of Nadia Boulanger, and as well as being a prodigious violinist, she became one of the first female composers to make a name for herself in Poland. Bacewicz wrote four numbered symphonies, and another, unnumbered, early Symphony for Strings, all composed within an eight-year period. This was the final one of the five, and it won the Polish Ministry of Culture Prize in 1955.

It is sadly in keeping with how poorly served female composers are, even in this day and age, that the only recording of this I could source was a fairly rank-quality one uploaded to YouTube. I was, however, glad of its existence at all. This is a very assured work, with a rather bombastic opening suddenly giving way after about four minutes to angular, jaunty music that seems to act as a counterbalance to what has gone before. I particularly loved the ethereal slow movement that I found reminiscent of Bartok at times. There is some extraordinary string writing, especially in the first movement, which wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from the next generation of more avant garde Poles such as Penderecki and Lutosławski. The language here is still largely conventional though, a style she was soon to abandon as the political thaw in Poland and the emergence of the Warsaw Autumn Festival led to her exploration of new orchestral sonorities and extended techniques.

Day 246

3 September 2017: Holst – Choral Symphony (1924)
In today's Choral Symphony Sunday slot is the only work I'm featuring this year actually called Choral Symphony! I can't remember exactly when I discovered Holst's Planets, probably in my teens, but I do recall going on a bit of a wild goose chase in the mid-eighties trying to find some other works by the composer of a similar standard. I concluded, sadly, that it was a fruitless search and had to concede that while he has written many perfectly good works, the Planets is the only piece still performed globally for a reason. One of the works I hoovered up back then was this symphony. I bought the LP, and I think when I dug it out again to listen to today it was probably getting only its second playing.

Holst actually gave this work the title First Choral Symphony, although there never was to be a second. This may have been because it received a disastrous London premiere a few months after its first performance at the 1925 Leeds Festival, and he felt unwilling to repeat the exercise. A second choral symphony was sketched but soon abandoned. This symphony is a setting of poems by John Keats, and that in itself drew criticism with the sublime Ode on a Grecian Urn sitting uncomfortably next to such doggerel as Fancy and Folly's Song. Musically, it is interesting, and fairly typical of early twentieth-century English choral music. It has an at-times modal feel and as such occupies a similar sound world to his friend Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony (see Day 36), with Holst employing the Phrygian mode in the first movement. I was pleased to be re-acquainted with the work today, and have to concede that it wasn't as poor as I'd remembered it. It may be a while before this particular piece of vinyl sees the light of day again though.

Day 247

4 September 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 100, 'Military' (1794)
Josef Haydn clocked up the century with this symphony, although for reasons too long and boring and go into, this almost certainly wasn't the 100th symphony he wrote. What we do know is that it was the eighth of twelve symphonies he composed during his time in London between 1791 and 1795. The symphony was originally called Grand Overture with the Militaire Movement; the movement in question being the second and it is from this that the work derives its nickname.

After a slow introduction there is a spirited Allegro, which merely acts as a precursor to the more famous 'military' movement. It features a collection of 'Turkish' percussion instruments – triangle, cymbals, and bass drum – all highly unusual in a symphonic context in the late eighteenth century. Eventually, the movement culminates in a trumpet fanfare that must have sounded quite startling at the time. It was another Haydn masterstroke that the critics of the time absolutely lapped up, with the contemporary Morning Chronicle declaring, after an encore performance a week after its premiere, that 'others can conceive, he alone can execute.' He really was quite the crowd-pleaser.

Day 248

5 September 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Votiva (1981)
After a mid-career dip in form while he evolved his own unique musical language, Andrzej Panufnik was very much back in full flow when started working on this his eighth symphony. Following his Sinfonia Sacra (see Day 77), which was based on an old Polish hymn the Bogurodzica, Panufnik had made a conscious decision to turn away from Polish themes for musical impetus. By 1980 though, his works were being performed in Poland again following his post-defection ban by the Communist party. This may well have turned his mind back towards his country of birth, but Poland was also very much in the news at the time as the shipbuilders at Gdańsk Shipyard defied a ban on industrial action and went on strike, leading to the formation of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union, and the subsequent imposition by the Polish government of martial law to crush the disorder. Panufnik noted that the striking workers wore on their lapels the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – a sacred symbol of independent Poland – and he decided that his next symphony would be his own votive offering to the Black Madonna, hence its title: Sinfonia Votiva.

The work is in two sections: the first, marked Con devozione, is a slow and impassioned prayer of devotion, while the second, Con passione, is turbulent and aggressive, ending with what Panufnik described as ‘a shout of sheer protest’ against the lack of full independence in Poland. The fact that he chose metal percussion instruments for the tumultuous climax of the work was taken by many to be a direct depiction of the clanging of metal in the shipyard. Panufnik insisted, however, that the idea had simply not occurred to him. As I seem to say every time I come to a Panufnik symphony, it is very rarely heard. It's a particular shame in this case, because, as a heartfelt cry against the treatment of his erstwhile countrymen, it carries great weight.

Day 249

6 September 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 11, 'The Year 1905' (1957)
Dmitri Shostakovich's 11th Symphony is his most underrated, in my view. Yes, the fifth and the seventh are mighty pieces of art that rightly take their place among the greatest symphonies ever written. This, however, as an absolute masterpiece and one which I've always held in the highest regard. The symphony, as the title suggests, depicts the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, which culminated in the Red Sunday massacre at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. In another BBC Proms tie-in, I re-arranged my listening order to coincide with its performance at this evening's London Philharmonic Orchestra prom.

The deathly first movement, with its slow moving divided strings, represents the Palace Square in winter, and this music recurs in later movements following more violent episodes. The massive twenty-minute second movement refers to the events of the 9th of January – the day of the Winter Palace massacre – and is a savage, militaristic movement in which all music is eventually smothered by an oppressive percussion onslaught. After a third movement lament entitled Eternal Memory, the symphony summons up another march theme in the finale. The quiet opening music then returns before all hell breaks loose at the end. The final couple of minutes of this symphony is one of most spectacular climaxes you'll ever hear. I've always meant to check the published score to see if there is actually a part for the kitchen sink, because Shostakovich certainly threw pretty much everything else at it. The sound of the orchestra competing against a battery of bells, gongs, cymbals and drums, all playing at 'God's balls' volume, is truly overwhelming. Epic stuff!

Day 250

7 September 2017: Martin – Petite symphonie concertante (1946)
How have I never heard this before? I really do have some glaring gaps in my symphonic knowledge. Anyway, this remarkable work by Swiss composer Frank Martin is a fine way to bring up the 250 in my Symphony A Day journey. It is scored for the unusual – and probably unique – combination of strings, harp, harpsichord, and piano, and it was a joyous discovery today. It's a highly interesting juxtaposition of neo-classical sensibilities and 12-tone serialist techniques. Martin uses a tone row as a theme but then treats it in an entirely conventional way harmonically and rhythmically. The result is a very individual sound that made me want to go out and listen to more of his work.

The sonorities created by the combination of instruments is also worthy of mention. The three interlopers into the string orchestra – the harp, harpsichord, and piano – are usually to be found buried within a conventional orchestra, but here they are elevated to the role of soloist, giving rise to the concertante in the title. The music is very cleverly written so that the strings complement whichever of the soloists is playing at any given time, for example playing pizzicato when up against the quieter and similarly plucked harp or harpsichord. One to add to the pleasant discovery pile.