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.

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