Sunday, 22 October 2017

Days 289 – 294

Day 289

16 October 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 94, 'Surprise' (1791)
You're probably aware that, with one or two date-specific exceptions, I've been working through composers' works in chronological order. So you may be wondering why, after featuring Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 100 last month (see Day 247), I've suddenly jumped back to number 94. Well I'm afraid I can offer no more adequate explanation than the fact that I simply forgot about this one!

Haydn was very fond of the crowd-pleasing gimmick. Whether it was the musicians leaving the stage one-by-one in the 'Farewell' (see Day 62), a bagpipe drone effect in 'The Bear' (see Day 151), or Turkish percussion and trumpet fanfares in his 'Military' Symphony No. 100, the desire was always to get the crowd on their feet and give the reviewers something to write about. The 'Surprise' features probably the most famous device of them all. The slow movement begins very quietly with an almost nursery rhyme theme, then suddenly at the end of the first repeat there is a fortissimo chord that must have made the audience at the first performance collectively crap themselves. It has to be said that it's an otherwise forgettable symphony, that probably wouldn't be considered one of his greatest compositions. But as ever with Haydn, it was all about giving the punters what they want.

Day 290

17 October 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 6 (1923)
Sandwiched between his mighty fifth and sublime seventh symphonies, Jean Sibelius's sixth is by no means his most popular. It is nevertheless an enigmatic work many consider his best. All three symphonies were, in fact, worked upon almost simultaneously in the years after World War I. Sibelius references all three in a letter of 1918, although his ideas for this symphony and the seventh were far removed from how they eventually turned out. In the letter, he described this work as 'wild and impassioned in character' while the final product is rather more restrained. It is both traditional, in the sense of having a conventional four-movement structure, and yet breaks with tradition in its use of the Dorian mode – seemingly as a consequence of his developing interest in the music of Palestrina at the time.

Sibelius himself referred to the symphony as 'pure cold water', drawing attention to its contrast with the extravagances occurring elsewhere in the musical world at the time, notably in Vienna and St Petersburg. Possibly because he was concerned at all aspects of the world seeming to accelerate out of control, time seems to stand still in this piece, the tone having been set by the exquisite, clear as crystal opening with strings and woodwinds interweaving beautifully in modal lines. This may well have seemed like a palate-cleanser, with serialism and expressionism holding sway at the time. The ending is incredible with hesitant phrases eventually dwindling away to emptiness; not for nothing was Michael Tilson Thomas's 1988 TV essay about this symphony entitled Journey Into Silence. For a work of such clarity of purpose, it still takes a few listens to fully absorb its intricacies, and therein is the mark of great art.

Day 291

18 October 2017: Magnard – Symphony No. 3 (1896)
I bloody love this symphony. There have been many (far too many) works that I have featured this year whose neglect has dismayed me, but the fact that performances of this are as rare as hen's teeth actually angers me. It's a quite magnificent work, written, as it happens, in the same year as he was married, which may go some way to explaining the moments of sheer bliss that permeate throughout.

A sublime, slow-moving chorale opens the first movement, which probably contributes as much as anything to the lazy nickname he's acquired over the years of 'the French Bruckner'. This opens out into a glorious piece of Late-Romanticism, with wondrous sweeping melodies that at times are quite Mahlerian. After a lively scherzo featuring what sound like French country dance themes, there is an exquisite Pastorale that alone could ensure the work's immortality. The crowning glory is the closing section of the finale when the opening chorale returns fully orchestrated; an absolute masterstroke.

As for why he continues to be neglected, well he had the misfortune to be born in the same year as Sibelius, Nielsen, and Glazunov (1865), and this symphony dates from the same year as Mahler's mighty third. I've considered in these pages before that the late-nineteenth century produced so many magnificent composers that many perfectly good ones have ended up as B-listers. One doesn't need to scratch too far below the surface to discover more wonderful music from this period, and Magnard – and this symphony in particular – is worthy of higher ranking.

Day 292

19 October 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 6 (1935)
As with his fifth symphony (see Day 252), Arnold Bax composed this in his remote retreat in Morar on the west coast of Scotland. It is dedicated to Sir Adrian Boult, and it was the legendary conductor who imparted an indirect influence over the direction this composition took. Boult had long championed Bax's music, but occasionally criticised its lack of formal discipline. Bax thus set about producing a more structurally controlled, and ultimately very satisfying, piece. Of his seven symphonies, this was reportedly Bax's personal favourite. And although I'm also a fan of his third symphony, I'm inclined to agree with his assessment.

I've always tended to view Bax as an English Sibelius, and there are a number of parallels between the two composers. Apart from the coincidental fact that they both composed seven symphonies, they both had an interest in depicting the environment around them in music, Bax dedicated his fifth symphony to Sibelius, and in this work Bax even went so far as to quote Sibelius. At around the mid-point of the lengthy final movement the strings quote a theme from Sibelius's Tapiola – a work that reduced Bax to tears on first hearing – and the theme evolves constantly towards a triumphant climax. This then subsides into a beautiful, peaceful epilogue that features a part for solo horn that seems closely related to the trumpet solo in the slow movement of Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony. I’d argue this is Bax’s finest symphonic movement, and as a whole I find it the most sharply focussed of his symphonies

Day 293

20 October 2017: Hindemith – Symphony in B flat for concert band (1951)
Paul Hindemith's contribution to the symphonic canon is significant, if largely ignored. Depending on how you count them, there are between six and eight, comprising six works called symphonies (my definition for the purposes of this diversion) plus a set of Symphonic Dances, and his famous Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The first of those was his Symphony: Mathis der Maler, which I featured earlier in the year (see Day 131), which was an ambitious work based on music from his opera of the same name. Eighteen years later Hindemith took a very different approach to the concept of a symphony with this work written for concert band (one made up entirely of woodwind, brass and percussion).

In the intervening years since Mathis der Maler, Hindemith had been driven out of his native Germany by the Nazis and had taken up permanent residence in the US. Indeed, Symphony in B flat was written for the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own", and Hindemith's genius for understanding the characteristics of the groups of instruments he was composing for shines through. This cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, features a distinct jazz influence undoubtedly drawn from his adopted home, especially when the saxophones are prominent early in the middle movement Andantino grazioso. The final movement makes use of the rather more conventional device of a fugue, or rather a double fugue, which drives the piece to a raucous conclusion.

Day 294

21 October 2017: Górecki – Symphony No 3 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' (1976)
Way back in the mid-Seventies, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki – a composer little-known outside his native Poland – began writing his third symphony, as he continued to set his career along a simpler harmonic path, having turned his back on the avant-garde style for which he had become known. It was universally panned. According to one story reportedly emanating from the composer himself, one early performance was attended by Pierre Boulez who loudly exclaimed 'Merde!', as the final chords faded out. Fast forward a decade and a half, and in 1992 (incidentally, the same year that, as a student at Keele University, I wrote my graduate dissertation on contemporary Polish Music featuring Górecki as something of a bit-part player alongside his more famous compatriots Lutosławski and Penderecki) Elektra-Nonesuch released a recording of the 16-year-old symphony, capitalising upon the fact that it had found its way onto the regular playlist of the then-recently launched Classic FM. That recording has, to date, now sold over one million copies.

The biggest-selling record of a symphony of all-time? Almost certainly. The greatest symphony of all-time? Absolutely not. It was a phenomenon that went to the very heart of what is good and what is popular. This music clearly struck a chord with huge numbers of people, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a critically mauled work of art found its way into the hearts of its intended audience. I will confess to having some disdain for the work's popularity at the time, and recall attending a performance at the South Bank in about 1994 where I was bewildered by the thunderous ovation the (to my ears) thoroughly mediocre piece was receiving. In listening to it today, I did so for the first time in about 10 years. There's no denying that it has a hypnotic beauty I underestimated at the time, and I can certainly appreciate what others see in the symphony. Still prefer his early work though!

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