Sunday, 31 December 2017

Days 360 – 365

Day 360

26 December 2017: Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3, 'Organ Symphony' (1886)
Another personal favourite. Actually, they all are from here on in, as I've deliberately saved the best until last. Camille Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony was one of the very first symphonies I ever studied back in my youth. I borrowed the miniature score from Newcastle Library, and found that it had been copiously notated by an anonymous previous owner, helpfully pointing out fugues entries, variations on the main theme when they appeared, and so on. Basically, all stuff that as an A level music student learning my craft I found incredibly useful.

I think I can cite this symphony was one of the reasons why I embarked upon the Symphony A Day project. I know this work inside out, but not his other two numbered symphonies, nor the two unnumbered ones that I wasn't even aware of this time last year. It was as much as anything the desire to hear these other works, and other less familiar symphonies by well-known composers that got me started. In Saint-Saëns case, all it did was make me aware of just how big a gulf in quality there is between this and the other four, although they are all certainly worth hearing.

There is an effortless brilliance about this symphony, a shimmering vitality that sets it apart from other contemporaneous works from a period that could tend toward stodginess. The fact that its cyclic form is based upon one of the more memorable themes ever written certainly helps. Fans of the film Babe will certainly recognise it, as its theme song If I Had Words (also a hit for Yvonne Keeley and Scott Fitzgerald in 1978) is based on this tune. The novel prominent use of an organ and two pianos in the score is another selling point, and the gratuitous organ chord that opens the 'fourth' movement (although technically part two of the second movement) is a magical moment. And while the organ-driven finale certainly grabs the headlines, the 'second' movement (part two of the first movement) Poco adagio is absolutely beautiful. I will never tire of hearing this symphony.

Day 361

27 December 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 9, 'The Great C Major' (1826)
It's hard to believe that Franz Schubert's final completed symphony lay neglected and unperformed for more than a decade after his death. It was eventually published in 1840 – confusingly, as Symphony No. 7 in C major – having received a first public performance only the previous year. It was, for a long time, considered too long and complex for both audiences and orchestras; in fact, it remains challenging to play even now. It may not have seen the light of day at all had it not been for some devoted championing from first Mendelssohn and then Schumann.

Schubert is thought to have attended the premiere of Beethoven's ninth symphony the year before he started work on this piece, and no doubt felt that the boundaries of symphonic form had been shifted by that masterwork. The fact that both this and his huge String Quintet – also in C major – run to nearly an hour of music can probably be attributed to the fact that they were written after he had encountered the Beethoven. The forward-looking approach to tonality is another outstanding feature, with modulations to the mediant and submediant throwing listeners off balance. There is even a brief quotation of the Ode To Joy from Beethoven's ninth in the final movement, again as if to acknowledge the influence of the master. In this symphony, it is possible to get a feel for how the unfinished eighth (see Day 310) might have turned out. And having moved up a gear with these late works, the greater the sadness that he should have died tragically young at the age of 31, two years after completing this symphony, having never heard this performed.

Day 362

28 December 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6, 'Pathétique' (1893)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's final symphony has become known by its French title of Pathétique despite the fact that it is an incorrect translation of the Russian word Pateticheskaya, meaning passionate. Quite possibly, the reason it stuck was because of the tragic circumstances surrounding it. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of this just nine days before he died of cholera, an event that scholars have been exercised over for years in trying to establish whether it was a tragic accident or suicide. Although this has always been one of my favourite symphonies, it does occasionally bring me out in a cold sweat listening to it. This is attributable to the fact that, as a budding conductor at university, I took part in a conducting masterclass given by Elgar Howarth, which involved working on the first movement of this. It was one of the most nerve-racking things I ever did, although incredibly rewarding.

Tchaikovsky conceded to Rimsky-Korsakov that it was in fact a programme symphony, although the programme was never divulged, and it clearly went to his grave with him. The form is certainly non-standard for a symphony, with a dark opening movement followed by a waltz-like scherzo in the unusual time signature of 5/4. The third movement has all the feeling of a finale, ending in such a triumphal manner that audiences for over a century have burst into spontaneous applause at the end it, assuming the symphony to be over. What follows, however, is a heart-wrenching, desolate final movement in which Tchaikovsky appears to stare his own mortality in the face, providing fuel for those who maintain that his death just weeks later was at his own hand. Whatever the background to the composition, it is a devastating document.

Day 363

29 December 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 7 (1924)
Jean Sibelius's seventh symphony is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the title of greatest symphony ever written. His lifelong mission as a composer had been to pare down his art to say the maximum amount with the minimum of material, and it reached its zenith in this work. In it, he condensed symphonic form into a single movement of around 22 minutes in length. I certainly can't think of many other pieces as tightly-wrought and intense, where every single note has a purpose and nothing is wasted.

So unique was the work that Sibelius himself wasn't even sure if he could call it a symphony. In fact, when it was premiered it carried the title Fantasia Sinfonica No. 1, and not designated as Symphony No. 7 until its publication the following year. A symphony it most certainly is though, with its unifying features being a logical extension of cyclic form. It's as if the four movements are playing simultaneously and Sibelius is operating a remote control to flick between them, and yet the composition works as if the events are happening seamlessly. There is recurring horn theme, which is identified in the sketches as 'Aino' (the composer's wife) and struck me on first hearing as bearing a striking resemblance to a similar passage in Brahms's first symphony. This acts as a totemic symbol at key points throughout the work, providing further unity. The final four bars comprise one of the most breathtaking symphonic endings ever written, a prolonged cadence in which sections of the orchestra all resolve on to a final C major chord one by one. Given that barely a week goes by when I DON’T listen to this symphony, I listened to it twice today!

Day 364

30 December 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 10 (1910)
There are, I believe, Gustav Mahler purists who to this day still refuse to accept any completions of his final masterpiece, believing the sketches that remained incomplete at his death to be only of interest to scholars. And while I am generally somewhat wary of some well-meaning attempts to finished incomplete works (notably Elgar's third symphony, which he'd barely started) Mahler's tenth was tantalisingly close to being fully conceived. Two movements – the opening Andante–Adagio and the short, central Purgatorio movement – were, to all intents and purposes, complete and orchestrated. The remaining movements were fully written out in draft form on short score (four staves), and it was the realisation that the entire work had been conceived and notated that encouraged scholars to flesh out the bones of the skeleton.

After initially withholding the score, Mahler's widow Alma eventually sent the manuscripts to various composers (reportedly Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and Britten) who declined to take on the task, although various musicologists have made attempts at completing the work. The 'performing version' that is now widely recognised as the definitive version was produced by the genius that was Deryck Cooke. I strongly recommend watching the YouTube video I've linked here, which matches a performance of the symphony to the handwritten score that Mahler left. It is fascinating to see just how much (or how little) intervention was required to pad out what at times was little more than an unharmonised melody for an unspecified instrument, and yet at all times sound authentically Mahlerian. I will be forever grateful to Cooke for his work, if nothing else because it meant the world gets to hear the impassioned 'Almschi!' ending. Yes, Mahler may well have orchestrated it differently, and would undoubtedly have cut or revised some sections, but as a means of presenting the work in the state it was when Mahler died, it is an astonishing achievement. Mr Cooke, I salute you!

Day 365

31 December 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 9, 'Choral' (1824)
And finally ... I had to finish with Ludwig van Beethoven's magnum opus. The last occupant of Choral Symphony Sunday is the greatest of them all, and with it I have brought my Symphony A Day journey full circle. Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days ago I (inadvertently) started with Brahms's Symphony No. 1, a work that he agonised over for about 20 years, conscious of the fact that it would be compared unfavourably with Beethoven's ninth. It is hard to appreciate just how immense an achievement this was at the time. It was the longest symphony ever written to date (surpassing his own Eroica by about 15 minutes) and the first to feature a choir and soloists. Unsurprisingly, few composers felt the urge to match or surpass its scale for decades afterwards.

While the choral finale is the stand-out feature of the piece, it cannot be overlooked that the other three movements are breathtakingly good. The first movement's opening inspired Bruckner to such an extent that he virtually copied the template for every symphony he wrote. The scherzo is conceived on a Mahlerian scale some 40 years before Mahler was even born. The sublime slow movement, placed third in one of many masterstrokes Beethoven pulls in this work, would have elevated this to a higher plane in itself. However, three of the greatest symphonic movements ever written are merely a preface to the choral finale that must have been jaw-dropping for the Viennese public of the 1820s. That it should be built upon a tune of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity is astonishing, with some observing that it is actually a symphony within a symphony, with a discernible four sub-movement structure. It is a breathtakingly brilliant work, in the view of many the greatest symphony ever written, and an absolutely fitting way to complete the year.

Thank you for reading!

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