Monday, 25 December 2017

Days 352 – 359

Day 352

18 December 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 11 (1979)
You're probably all bored with me droning on about how tragically undervalued Edmund Rubbra's symphonic canon is, so I shall resist my usual moan for this, his final symphony. At barely 15 minutes long, it vies with the tenth for the tag of his shortest symphony – depending upon the performer, there would only be seconds in it either way – and in this work Rubbra demonstrates his genius in distilling symphonic form into something that could almost be described as a miniature.

Unlike the tenth, which is in four distinct sections, this is a genuine single-movement work. As with many of earlier works, everything derives from the material heard at the opening, which in this case is a theme for horns, accompanied by harp chords. The music is, for the most part, quite sparsely scored and in the end it just seems to evaporate into thin air with no warning in one of the least symphonic endings I've ever heard. The question of whether the composer knew this would be his final symphony, or indeed, in Rubbra's case, his final orchestral score, is again open to debate. There is, however, no sense of a full stop in this work, more a feeling of music still carrying on but with the audience having left.

Day 353

19 December 2017: Glière – Symphony No. 3, 'Ilya Muromets' (1911)
Many countries seem to have laid claim to Reinhold Glière. I've seen him described as Russian, German–Polish, French, or even Belgian, when in fact he was born in Kiev in modern-day Ukraine. The latter pair of countries have no premise in fact beyond the spelling of his surname, which he changed from Glier to Glière, while German–Polish relates to his parentage. Whatever his nationality, he was a highly respected composer and teacher, whose pupils included Myaskovsky and a pre-pubescent Prokofiev. His works are less well-known than those of some of his contemporaries, however, with probably only this work, his Harp Concerto, and Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra in the public consciousness.

This is an epic masterpiece, and should really secure Glière's reputation as one of the great Russian composers. It is, however, very rarely performed as its 75-minute duration puts it into that category of symphonies that would occupy almost an entire programme by themselves – an honour usually conferred only upon the likes of Mahler or Bruckner. It depicts a legendary Russian folk hero, not well-known to the outside world, and tells a lurid tale of great battles, of his decapitation of a bandit who can kill with a whistle, and ultimately the demise of him and his army having been turned to stone by heavenly warriors. That final scene is one of the most extraordinary passages I've ever heard, as the gradual petrification of the army is indicated by a long-held pedal note in the orchestra that occupies almost the entire final ten minutes of the piece.

Day 354

20 December 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 7 (1952)
Sergei Prokofiev was, by the time he composed his seventh and final symphony, a proscribed and poverty-stricken composer. He was persuaded by Samuil Samosud, who conducted the premiere, to change its quiet and reflective ending to something more positive in order to try to win the Stalin Prize First Class, worth 100,000 rubles. The means by which he chose this was about as perfunctory as he could have conceived, simply tacking on a brief reprise of the opening music of the final movement. The knowledge that this was a cynical exercise to please a draconian regime has persuaded many record labels to add the false ending as a 20-second skippable fifth movement – if they include it at all. Indeed, Prokofiev himself reportedly told Rostropovich, "You will live much longer than I, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me."

I'm fairly sure that of all the 365 symphonies I'll have featured by the end of the year, this is the only I've actually played in, having been called upon to bolster the percussion section in a Keele Philharmonic performance back in 1992. That was, I think, the first time I'd ever heard the work, but it made an instant impact upon me and I consider this to be my favourite Prokofiev symphony. The ecstatic main theme of the opening movement is another product of an apparently endless stream of magnificent melodies from his pen. The final ironic twist of fate in Prokofiev's unfortunate life occurred the following year when he died on the same day as his nemesis, Stalin. We can only speculate as to the direction his music may have taken had he been able to compose during the subsequent Khrushchev thaw, but there are still plenty of wonderful pieces like this to celebrate, even if he wrote them in reduced circumstances.

Day 355

21 December 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 9 (1957)
The final symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams has, rather belatedly, had something of a renaissance in recent years. By all accounts, it received a lukewarm reception at its premiere back in 1958, just four months before he died. According to the by-then 86-year-old composer, the critics were just peeved that he was still around. Certainly it was out of step musically with developments elsewhere in the musical world, but it's still an absolutely wonderful work.

I've known it since the mid-Eighties but have to confess that I was completely oblivious to its associations with Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles until quite recently. In his sketches, Vaughan Williams actually gave specific designation to themes used in the second movement, such as 'Stonehenge theme', 'Barbaric march', and 'Tess theme', and there are eight bell-strokes that signify the hour of Tess's execution. It is perfectly possible to enjoy this work without knowledge of any of this, as indeed I did for at least twenty years. Despite the fact that Vaughan Williams was in his final months, having composed well into his eighties, this symphony actually makes one wish he'd lived longer as he seemed to be moving in an interesting direction. For his life's work to end with this poignant alliance with one of literature's most tragic figures is perfect in itself.

Day 356

22 December 2017: Mozart – Symphony no. 41, 'Jupiter' (1788)
And so we come to the end of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's significant contribution to the symphonic repertoire. Again, it's doubtful that Mozart would have known that this was his last symphony, but the fact that his last is also his longest, and, some would argue, his greatest symphony is quite fitting. As seems to be the case more often than not, he had nothing to do with the symphony's name, 'Jupiter', which originates from the finale's borrowing of a theme from Carl Ditters's Der Sturz Phaëtons –  Phaëton being the ancient Greek name for the planet Jupiter.

While the impetus for Mozart's writing of his final three symphonies in an intense six week burst remains a mystery, there is no doubt that the reverence in which this work, and the other two in the trilogy, is held has been sustained for the 230 years since its composition. Brahms considered them the most important symphonies ever written, and the first of countless recordings of the work dates from over 100 years ago. Mozart doesn't break much new ground in this work, but in the finale he achieves a level of complexity never previously heard in music, culminating in an astonishing five-part fugato. The symphony is packed full of some of his most glorious tunes and will probably be just as popular in another 230 years.

Day 357

23 December 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 9, 'From the New World' (1893)
Some symphonies are so well-known it seems rather superfluous to write anything about them, and I think we can put Antonin Dvořák's New World Symphony in that category. If anyone has any statistics on which works are the most frequently performed in a calendar year worldwide, I'd be surprised if this wasn't in the top five. Quite often familiarity breeds a small amount of contempt, with much pointing out that some of his other late symphonies are equally as good, if not better. Be that as it may, I can't think of many symphonies with as many memorable tunes as this one.

The Czech composer was, by this stage of his life, director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. In that post, he was reportedly introduced to African-American spirituals by a student of his called Harry T. Burleigh. And while there is no direct quotation of any particular spiritual here, the influence of the genre is clearly discernible, especially in the first two movements. The slow movement Largo features, of course, the most famous melody Dvořák ever wrote, and for a generation of British people it will, sadly, be forever associated with a particular brand of bread! Neil Armstrong listened to this in Apollo 11 on his way to the Moon; a new world rather different to the one Dvořák conceived, but indicative of the spirit of adventure this symphony evokes.

Day 358

24 December 2017: Hely-Hutchinson – Carol Symphony (1929)
Well, we needed something suitably festive for Christmas Eve, and although there a few symphonies around with a Christmas theme, including Alan Hovhannes's Christmas Symphony (AKA Symphony No. 49) and William Henry Fry's Santa Claus Symphony, this seems to fit the bill quite well. It is just about the only piece the South African-born British composer is known for, although he did briefly serve as Director of Music at the BBC before his death. He died tragically young, at the age of just 45, during the appalling winter of 1947, having contracted pneumonia seemingly as a result of refusing to switch on his office radiators in Arctic temperatures.

Each movement is based on a popular carol. The first features O Come All Ye Faithful, in which the carol theme is heard in the manner of a Chorale, while busy strings scurry around it. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen forms the basis for a second movement Scherzo. There is a lovely slow movement based on the Coventry Carol, but with a central section built on The First Nowell. This central section has, incidentally, acted as theme music for two separate BBC programmes down the years. Here We Come A-Wassailing features in the fugal finale, which ends with a reprise of O Come All Ye Faithful – complete with bells. I think this an absolutely charming piece of music; perfect for sipping mulled wine in front of log fire!

Day 359

25 December 2017: Penderecki – Symphony No. 2, 'Christmas' (1980)
The second of my Christmas specials, with Krzysztof Penderecki's second symphony being a fine way to mark Christmas Day. This has long been a personal favourite of mine, even though it drove me mad for a while. At some time in the Early-Nineties I must have recorded a performance of this from the radio, and then inadvertently recorded something else over the first 20 minutes or so. Consequently, I was left with the closing ten minutes as an unidentified piece that I didn't know well enough to identify. In those pre=Shazam days, I recall playing it to a number of people who, naturally enough, couldn't identify it either, and it was several years before I eventually heard the symphony somewhere else to have my light bulb moment of recognition.

I was unaware of the 'Christmas' moniker applied retrospectively to it – which doesn't appear on the score – and the Silent Night motif from which it derives its name had managed to slip past me unnoticed. Quite why the quotations are there is something of a mystery. The celebration of Christmas was important to Penderecki, but no explanation has ever been proffered as to why this carol is quoted at various points throughout this symphony. Furthermore, it's not as though they're elaborated upon or woven into the fabric of the piece. None of this detracts from the work though, which is a spectacular example of Penderecki's neo-Late-Romanticism. The overall theme is dark, and not especially festive, but there are moments of almost epiphanal brightness.

No comments:

Post a Comment