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.

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