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Thursday, 12 July 2018

Symphony From The Movies

As the temperature climbs back up into the summer heat, it's time for the other symphony in my "music to cool down by" series: the Sinfonia Antartica (# 7) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This work had a most unusual genesis, as the composer developed it out of a film score he had composed for the Ealing Pictures docudrama, Scott of the Antarctic.  This film presented a largely accurate portrayal of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition.  For those not familiar, a quick crash course:  British explorer Robert Scott was challenging Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole.  Scott's expedition depended heavily on using ponies, motor vehicles, and manpower to haul sleds loaded with supplies.  Amundsen reached the Pole first.  Scott arrived a month later, to find a tent, a Norwegian flag, and a message left for him by his rival.  On the return journey, blizzards delayed the explorers, their fuel and food ran out, and they eventually perished in a snowbound tent just 11 miles away from a major supply depot.

Creating a symphony out of film music in this way is an intriguing procedure, since symphonic argument and structure largely depend on themes of considerable scale and substance, while film music is more apt to consist of atmospheric fragments of sound with perhaps one or two larger melodic ideas to anchor an entire film score.

I think that many commentators have dismissed this symphony on the basis of nothing more than this basic dichotomy of styles.  Or perhaps the Great Experts have passed it by because it doesn't contain a sonata-form first movement.  Maybe it's the five-movement structure with the longest movement in the centre that puts them off (but hey, if Mahler could do it in his # 5...).  Or was it the introduction of an organ and singers into the work?

For me, though, Vaughan Williams definitely succeeded in developing a true symphony out of his film music.  The completed work is by turns powerful, playful, wistful, dogged, colourful, determined, pictorial, and (in the end) deeply tragic.  Of course, part of this emotional perception comes from being familiar with the history of the Scott expedition.  

Let's be honest, too -- the music is, by its nature, episodic in places, and it will not cohere into a symphonic unity unless the conductor has a firm grasp of the big picture and a good clear view of the through line binding the entire work together.

Although there's no real resemblance in the sounds, or in the structure, this always strikes me as an almost Brucknerian symphony -- partly due to the predominant slow tempi, but also because of the crescendo and climax in the third movement, which resembles in form and impact the climax of the slow movement in Bruckner's Seventh.

In the score, the composer prefaced each of the five movements with a title and a superscription.  There's no indication that these were meant to be spoken aloud as part of a performance, although that has sometimes been done (and that includes one or two recordings).  Personally, I prefer simply to read them and ponder the music in light of those words.

1:  Prelude.  Andante maestoso.

"To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,/ To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,/ To defy power which seems omnipotent,/ ... / Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:/ This ... is to be/ Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,/ This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.."
 -- Shelley, Prometheus Unbound.

The symphony begins as it means to go on, with a dogged, aspiring theme in moderate triple time.  This significant melody, rising stepwise in a series of sequences, keeps changing its harmonic dress in the most subtle yet significant way at each upward step, giving it great distinction.  After this theme has run its course, the scene shifts and we begin to hear the first of the composer's shimmering Antarctic sounds, arising from the combination of xylophone, vibraphone, celesta, and glockenspiel.  Two more significant sounds then follow.  First, to shivery string accompaniment, a wordless soprano solo sings a chilling cadenza, with a wordless female semi-chorus singing alternating chords like the keening of the women in RVW's operatic masterpiece, Riders to the Sea.  Then tolling deep bells alternate with heavy, off-beat, bass chords, followed by the women's voices together with a wind machine.  These various sounds, all representing implacable nature, stand in dramatic opposition to the human endeavour symbolized in the opening theme.  A fanfare sounds, and the human aspiration of the opening returns in a challenge to battle, ending in a triumphant assertion of will.

2.  Scherzo.  Moderato.

"There go the ships, and there is that leviathan whom thou has made to take his pastime therein ."  
-- Psalm 104

The most specifically programmatic of the five movements begins with horns and swirling figures giving a distinct sea sound, as the ships of the expedition set sail.  Deep brasses intone slowly, in music plainly meant to be suggestive of an encounter with great whales.  The central part of the movement is cheeky, perky music originally written to accompany footage of penguins.  The movement ends quietly, with a brief reminiscence of the sea music opening.

3:  Landscape.  Lento.

"Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain —/ Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!"
-- Coleridge, Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni.


This long, slow movement opens with one of the chilliest sounds I've ever heard in an orchestra -- a chord of a major second which then shifts to a minor second, aptly described by Michael Kennedy as "two flutes freezing together."  This is repeated a number of times as a horn intones a slow, wandering melody laden with similar uncomfortable intervals.  A more sweeping theme intervenes, accompanied with slow arpeggios.  We then hear a quiet theme, played in bare octaves, full of steps of the minor second and augmented fourth.  This is succeeded by a quiet, almost hymn-like theme in block chords.  After some more glittering Antarctic sounds, the octave theme returns and is now worked up into a towering climax.  At the peak, the block chords are thundered out fff by the organ -- one of the most stupendous uses of that instrument in all of music.  (The organ entry originally accompanied the film footage of the immense icefall in the Beardmore Glacier -- see the superscription for this movement).  The music dwindles away on a final uneasy recollection of the freezing flutes and horn and leads without a break directly into the fourth movement.

4:  Intermezzo. Andante sostenuto.

"Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time."
-- Donne, The Sun Rising

Warm chords for the harp and strings accompany an oboe melody which introduces a human note into the deadly chill left by the third movement.  An interruption in the middle brings back the deep bells and off-beat chords from the first movement, and when the oboe resumes it takes on a note of sorrow and regret as a result.

5: Epilogue.  Alla Marcia moderato (non troppo allegro).

"I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint."
-- Captain Scott's Last Journal

A lengthy fanfare for the brass leads into a powerful and quick march theme, which is a loose and faster variation of the aspiring opening theme of the entire symphony.  This march develops a good head of steam for several minutes, but then breaks off suddenly, and the deep bells and off-beat bass chords return, followed by the women's voices and the wind machine.  And now that original opening melody appears once more, but with a significant change.  At the third phrase, where the orchestra formerly aspired upwards, the music now droops downwards into a lower octave, in token of defeat.  I vividly recall hearing this symphony played live, with Sir Andrew Davis conducting.  His inspired performance first made me realize that this recall of the opening, with its tempo slower than the march, now takes on the role of an elegy for the dead.  As that sombre threnody finishes its course, the keening voices and wind machine return to take the music slowly into silence.  Never has the direction niente ("nothing") on a score had so much meaning beyond the purely musical.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Icebox Symphony

Given the recent heat wave we in eastern North America have been enduring, I can certainly see some value in considering a symphony that sits firmly in the dead cold of winter.

There are two works of music which inevitably make me feel the icy chill of perpetual winter whenever I hear them.  One, not surprisingly, is Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica (his seventh symphony).  The other is Shostakovich's monumental Symphony # 11 in G Minor, Op. 103 "The Year 1905."  

This huge work in four movements, lasting over an hour in performance, was scorned as a socialist potboiler by many Western critics when it first appeared in 1957.  That reaction undoubtedly owed much to the still-powerful memories of the Joseph McCarthy period.  Today, it's possible to look at it in a more detached light, relatively free from political interference.  

As so often with this composer's works, the Eleventh Symphony likely conceals multiple layers of meaning.  Outwardly, it commemorates the January 1905 massacre outside the Tsar's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, an event which set in motion the forces that eventually led to the successful Communist revolutions of 1917, the overthrow of the royal family, and the formal creation of the world's first ostensibly Communist country.

But is that the music's only meaning?  It has been suggested, not without strong supporting evidence, that it may also have been intended as a requiem for the composer's own generation of the Russian people, who had suffered through not just two world wars, but also two violent revolutions and the Stalinist purges.  Or perhaps it represented Shostakovich's revulsion at the invasion and crushing of Hungary the year before the symphony's completion.

Whatever the truth of Shostakovich's intentions, the music has a remarkable directness and almost cinematic vividness that -- to more than one critic -- have suggested film music blown up to symphonic proportions.  That is certainly a part of the music's remarkable attraction, but only a part.

As so often with this composer, there's a great deal more to the story.  Just as important is the inclusion in the score of no less than nine genuine revolutionary and prison songs.  The texts of these songs (not sung here) frequently condemn dictatorial oppression, a clear signal of the possible hidden agenda behind the work.  As we would expect, these songs adhere to simple tonal frameworks, and lend the symphony as a whole a much more conventional tonal landscape than found in many of the composer's major works.  This fact alone serves to make the music one of his most approachable symphonies.  But do not confuse "approachable" with "unsophisticated." 

The symphony has four movements, directed to be played without pause or interruption.  The music's chilling character is very much to the fore in the long, quiet first movement, depicting "The Palace Square" -- the scene of the violence to come.  The strings play long, sustained notes with occasional shifts to different chords.  Ominous drum rhythms are heard as if in the distance.  Flutes play a melody of a song which may originally have been sprightly, but in this context sounds sad to the point of being funereal.  This ice-cold opening section will be repeated at several points during the symphony, the entire opening passage thus serving as a unifying motto for the work as a whole.

The second movement is the most "cinematic" of the entire score, a multi-section depiction of the actual events of January 1905.  It begins with rapid, restless figures in the lower strings over which an equally restless melody depicts the assembling crowd in the square.  As the music gains volume and intensity, the restlessness turns to anger and twice builds to a raucous climax.  Snare drums and a sudden shift in tempo to allegro herald the arrival of the soldiers.  The rapid tattoo of the snare drums and the panic-stricken wind and brass fanfares all too clearly depict the fusillade unleashed on the terrified crowd.  The abrupt breaking off of the drumbeats reveals the chilly winter music of the symphony's opening once again, and the movement ends in a landscape of frozen terror.

The third movement, titled In Memoriam, uses the melody of a song written shortly after the massacre in tribute to the victims.  It opens with what seem random plucked notes on the low strings, but these gradually assemble themselves into a bass pattern under the sombre melody -- the whole then taking on the character of a funeral march.  A new and even more funereal theme is heard on the low brasses, and from this emerges a slow crescendo in which the entire orchestra joins.  The music erupts into a thunderous climax with beating drums marking out all but the first beat of each bar.  Massive chords recall a fanfare-like figure heard during the massacre.  Slowly the music dies down again, and the memorial song is heard once more, bringing the movement to an end in the same character as it began, with a pensive, elegiac air.

The finale rudely interrupts that reflective ending with an explosive burst of energy which soon transforms into a kind of fast march driven by a moto perpetuo of stamping bass notes in unvarying time values.  Within that march are embedded phrases from several of the folk songs.  The opening explosions repeat several times, punctuating the march.  The climax is marked by the loudest repetitions of the movement's opening phrases, now played over long held notes on cymbal and side drums, until the music pulls up short and collapses one last time into the wintry opening bars of the symphony.

When the music rouses itself again, we reach -- in the final coda -- the real reason this movement is called The Tocsin ("alarm bell").  Deep strokes on bass drum and tamtam underlie the sound, an obsessive galloping rhythm sounds repeatedly on the snare drum, and brazen fanfare chords are accompanied by a repeated three-note figure on the tubular bells.

Here, more than anywhere else in the symphony, I feel that Shostakovich's underlying thought diverged sharply from his outward, ostensible programme for the symphony.  What alarm exactly was the composer sounding with his tocsin?  And how relevant is it today?

Ironically, after the early abuse heaped on this piece, the Eleventh has in the last decade become the most-performed Shostakovich symphony in Toronto.  This is mainly thanks to the National Ballet of Canada, which has now staged John Neumeier's ballet Nijinsky three times, each time for 5 or more performances.  Nijinsky ballet uses the symphony complete and uncut for its long second act.  In addition, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has programmed the work twice, as well as performing it on tour in Europe, and recording it for CD and online downloading.

Friday, 29 June 2018

A Seasonal Treat

This post looks back at another work which I covered, very briefly, in an early post to this blog.  I've now decided that it deserves much more detailed examination.

Tchaikovsky composed the three greatest landmarks in the history of ballet with his music for Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker.  These sweeping, symphonic scores with their mixture of romantic fervour, delicate beauty, and dramatic intensity have enchanted generations of music and dance lovers.  For decades afterwards, the art of composing music for the ballet was influenced by his work as decisively as the opera was influenced by Wagner.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ballet scores of a leading Russian composer of the next generation, Alexander Glazunov.  I always feel that Glazunov even managed to outdo Tchaikovsky for sheer melodic fecundity and beauty in his 1899 ballet, The Seasons.  His orchestration of the music is masterly too, with particularly intriguing and memorable writing for various combinations of woodwind instruments.

I have to admit that my love for this delightful score was heavily influenced by my father.  The Seasons was a perennial favourite of his, and the music was frequently heard in our house as we were growing up.

The ballet which was based on this music was a one-act allegorical work in four tableaux.  The scenario was filled with symbolic figures of all kinds; the set builders and costume department at the Imperial Ballet must have had a field day preparing for the 1900 premiere production.  That production was the first time Anna Pavlova, then 19 years old, had a role created for her.

The first tableau is Winter.  The short prelude opens on a strange descending chromatic progression spread out over several octaves and multiple instruments.  The tone of this introductory movement is wistful to begin with, then becomes more dramatic before a trilling solo flute leads on into the Winter scene proper.  There follow a series of short Variations (solo dances) for Frost (Pavlova's role), Ice, Hail, and Snow.  Frost is a spirited dance highlighted again by the flute.  Ice has a slower, elegant little dance marked by the harp and celesta.  Hail dances to a fast-moving melodic figure falling and rising against a background of chattering woodwinds.  Snow is depicted in a gentle waltz, a lyrical duet of oboe and horn with muted strings.  The music  of the prelude returns as gnomes enter and light a fire, banishing Winter and his attendants.

The Spring tableau is announced by horns and swirling harp arpeggios.  Roses dance to a waltz-like theme in the winds.  Spring herself enters to a gentle, slow theme in the winds with a beguiling string counterpoint.  A bouncy little triple-time melody ushers in the dances of Zephyr and the Birds.

Without pause, the music glides into the first movement of the Summer tableau, a bolder waltz theme employing most of the orchestra at once.  This builds to a grand climax which then gives place to the Waltz of the Cornflowers and Poppies, a charming movement with the melody carried alternately by winds and strings over an accompaniment of horn chords.  A gentler, nostalgic-sounding Barcarolle follows.  The Spirit of the Corn dances her Variation to a virtuoso clarinet solo.  The most dramatic movement yet is labelled simply as Coda, a name which belies the bewildering cross-rhythms infusing almost every bar.  This music, with its ominous drum-like beats, depicts a dramatic attempt by Satyrs and Fauns to abduct the Spirit of the Corn, an attempt clearly heard in the powerful crescendo of rising sequences balanced by a descending scale in the bass.  The Satyrs and Fauns are repulsed in the triumphant climax by Zephyr.

The fourth tableau, Autumn, contains the most well-known music in the ballet, the enormously energetic Bacchanale.  In the 1907 revival, Pavlova danced a major role as the lead Bacchante in this scene, and she then danced The Seasons all over the world in this signature role.  The Seasons was more popular in the early 20th century than now, and I suspect that was mostly due to Pavlova's advocacy -- even though her touring company presented the ballet in a truncated form.

The Bacchanale takes the form of a rondo.  Inserted episodes with music drawn from the earlier tableaux allow for a classic ballet finale, in which characters from all parts of the work return to participate in a celebratory full-company dance, here surrounded by the Bacchantes under a whirl of falling leaves.

This vigorous celebration is interrupted by the Petit Adagio.  This number pays tribute to the adagio movements of Tchaikovsky, always among the greatest and most emotional highlights in that master's ballet scores.  This one is "petit" in name only.  Its sweeping theme, filled with nostalgia and a sense of reminiscence, of looking back over a year or a lifetime, is fully the equal of anything that even Tchaikovsky composed.  A rapid Variation for the Satyr now follows.

The Bacchanale theme returns, translated into a fast, jiggy 6/8 tempo as the crowning final dance of the ballet.  This culminating raucous celebration dies away into the final coda, a brief Apotheosis giving a vision of stars and constellations shining down upon the earth to a gentler version of the Bacchanale theme.

Such riches of melody, such skillful orchestration, such unfailing musical interest, and all compressed into a short span of just 35 minutes -- Glazunov's The Seasons is truly an undervalued masterpiece.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Cello Beauties From Spain

Gaspar Cassadó was a noted Catalan cellist and composer during the first half of the twentieth century. His compositions include a number of musical hoaxes, but also some works of real distinction -- and it's a pity that his music has not achieved wider currency.

One work of real significance is his Suite per Violoncello, composed in 1926. The music contains brief quotations from two significant influences, Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello and the famous flute solo from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe. Loudest of all, though, is the sound of the traditional Spanish and Catalan dance forms which lie at the foundation of the work. Like Bach's famous suites for the same instrument, Cassadó has taken the dances as a point of departure to create music of real stature and subtlety which goes far beyond its dance roots.

This 17-minute work in three movements opens with a Preludio-Fantasia which -- as its name suggests -- opens with improvisatory material suggestive of a Bach prelude gone to the Mediterranean. This movement eventually merges into a zarabanda, a Spanish sarabande, and includes much lyrical writing on the lower strings. This is where the solo cello character of the music is most idiomatic; low writing such as this would be in danger of being swamped in a work for cello and piano.

The second movement is a Sardana, a duple-time Catalan dance with a merry, jovial character. The folk-like character of the dance is emphasized by the frequent use of double-stops, giving the music an earthy, rustic feeling. A contrasting middle section, a trio if you like, moves to a more lyrical melody for a few moments, before the dance resumes. The movement ends with a rapid flourish.

The third movement of the suite is entitled Intermezzo -- Danza finale and is effectively a double movement linked together. The Intermezzo proper is another exploratory section with (to my ears) a slightly sad, almost mournful feeling. The music then launches briskly into the Danza finale, a proud and lively jota in triple time, with inset slower cadenza sections. The build-up to the abrupt final chords is again earthed by double stops low in the instrument's range, and the last notes plunge unexpectedly downwards.

On a splendid new recording from the Canadian ensemble, the Cheng²Duo, this Suite is accompanied by a later work, Requiebros for cello and piano, written in the 1930s. The title can be translated into English as either "flirtations" or "compliments," probably with both meanings implied. It's wise not to read too much into the title -- the music is an entertaining, lively dance, of popular folk-like character, and does no more than hint at the atmosphere conjured by the title. It's the sort of piece made to order to serve as a lively encore at the end of a recital -- and may well have been written with that purpose in mind.

The recordings of these works, by the way, come as part of a spectacular, energetic anthology of Spanish music from the early years of the twentieth century. It's issued on the Audite label and can be downloaded from that source.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Organic Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt, the famous pianist/virtuoso/composer/teacher, was one of the most significant features in the 19th century musical landscape.  His roster of pupils reads like a "Who's Who" of late Romantic music, especially when joined to a list of the composers he supported and promoted.  His music for the piano stands alongside the works of Chopin, Schubert, and Brahms at the centre of the Romantic piano repertoire.

That being so, it's always surprised me that Liszt's music for the organ is so little known.  In all, he composed about 20 works for the organ, but among them are three monumental pieces that have been cited by some experts as among the greatest organ works of the nineteenth century.

All three of these large-scale masterpieces are linked, in some way, back to the ultimate centre of any organist's repertoire, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Even so, they are harmonically very much of their time and even look forward to the yet more startling musical developments to come in the early years of the next century.  All three of the works I'm considering here were written during the 1850s and early 1860s.

Last one first.  Liszt composed his "Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen" in 1862.  The theme in question, from a Bach cantata, is recognizably set upon the same descending bass line as the "Crucifixus" of Bach's Mass in B Minor.  Liszt uses this descending bass line as the foundation of a set of variations of ever-increasing complexity.  His harmonic practice reaches far beyond Bach's own, yet the structural model of Bach's organ variations and partitas is unmistakable.  

Liszt took inspiration from the master of Leipzig in another way in his "Fantasia on B-A-C-H."  This chromatic musical motif is based on the German notation of the musical scale, where "B" represents B flat and "H" represents B natural.  The work opens with an arrhythmic cadenza in which the four-note motif is repeated over and over at steadily increasing speed.  The character of this little cell ensures that the complete work based on it is highly chromatic, intense, and powerful.  The style definitely harks back to the free-form fantasias for the organ composed by Bach.  Perhaps because of its flashy virtuoso character, this showpiece concert work is the most-played and most-recorded of Liszt's organ works.

While both these pieces are far from negligible, they (and almost all other organ music of the 19th century) stand in the shadow of the "Fantasia on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam."  The chorale theme of this work is not a genuine Lutheran chorale, but rather a theme taken from Meyerbeer's opera, "Le prophète."  Again, the harmonic features are very much of their time.  But the structure underlying the work is pure Bach, raised to the level of musical epic.  In three connected sections, it lasts for some 35 minutes in performance.

The opening fantasia section uses short motifs taken from the chorale theme to build long sequences of melody, rising and falling stepwise, with elaborate chordal and pedal accompaniments.  Quieter passages intervene, but the music remains technically elaborate.  Fanfare-like passages erupt and lead back into the fast-moving runs.  The dramatic intensity of the music is as unmistakable as the virtuoso skill needed to play it.

A cadenza in free rhythm eventually winds its way down into an intense silence, and now -- about 10 minutes into the work -- we hear the entire chorale theme complete for the first time, played very quietly at a slow tempo.  The continuing quiet slow movement at the centre of the work consists of several variations on the chorale, the theme always given complete, with short linking sections between them.  The last of these beautiful variations weaves a delicate filigree of arpeggios around the theme.

With a sudden eruption of fortissimo runs on the pedalboard, the peace and beauty of the slow movement vanishes utterly.  At first the texture reminds us of the opening section of the work, but very soon a cadence and pause is succeeded by a fugue subject, in which the chorale's first line is transformed by a dotted rhythmic pattern in 3/4 time.  This fugue unfolds along classical lines for several minutes, complete with episodes and stretto, before a series of fanfare figures bring in another free fantasia passage.  This is succeeded by a second, looser fugal exposition accompanied from its outset by endless running figures which generate tremendous momentum.

All of this headlong rush of energy erupts in a tremendous buildup over a sustained pedal point which leads us into the culminating page: a majestic, chordally harmonized rendition of the complete chorale theme on full organ, marked fortissississimo (ffff) which brings this monumental work to its overwhelming conclusion.

I've only heard the complete work played once, and the very dry acoustic of the church in which the organist was playing cruelly exposed his technical difficulties with this supremely challenging music.  To put it bluntly, he was in way over his head.

Back in the days of the LP, American organist Daniel Chorzempa recorded these three works, and several shorter ones, on two discs from Philips.  When the two were reissued as a box set, I bought it and listened to the records so often that I eventually wore them out.  Sadly, I have never yet found a replacement copy.  I have to say that because I have never heard any other recording in which the organist's selection of stops as clearly opened up and highlighted the composer's often dense textures.  Chorzempa laid down a magisterial performance that deserved far wider circulation.  

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Spectacular Hymn of Jesus

Back in the very early days of this blog, I used to sometimes write about groups of works in a single post.  That's how I originally covered this piece, but I've now decided to give it a post of its own.

English composer Gustav Holst had a decided gift for digging into corners and byways of belief that other composers blithely ignored.  He studied Indian literature, setting to music his own English translations from the Sanskrit of Hymns from the Rig-Veda.  His interest in astrology and horoscopes was the motivating cause of his famous orchestral suite, The Planets.  He was one of the rare people who took the time and effort to read the non-canonical books of the Apocrypha -- and it was there that he found the text for The Hymn of Jesus.

He prepared his own English translation from the Greek original, with assistance from others, and set to work in 1917 on the Hymn, a work which shattered traditional English ideas of choral music so thoroughly that other works indebted to it would not appear for several more decades.  Reactions to the first performance certainly summed up the epoch-making nature of this remarkable piece.  Something of the work's intoxicating, ecstatic power can be gained from the words of Holst's lifelong friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who said that the music made him "want to get up and embrace everybody and then get drunk."  More to the point, another comment:  "The words seemed to shine in the light and depth of a vast atmosphere created by the music."

Holst's choice of text was avowedly influenced by his own personal adoption of some Hindu beliefs.  The poem follows an extraordinary pattern, alternating active and passive modes at almost every line, as for example:

Fain would I be saved: And fain would I save.
Fain would I be released: And fain would I release.
Fain would I be pierced: And fain would I pierce.
Fain would I be borne: And fain would I bear.

Holst set this unique poem to music for large double chorus and large orchestra, and the result (although barely 20 minutes long) is both exhilarating and intensely powerful, with much of the power deriving from Holst's unique way of manipulating diatonic chordal passages of music.


The work opens with a prelude.  The trombones play a plainchant melody, Pange lingua gloriosi, in free unbarred rhythm.  After a cadence of four chords, each one orchestrated differently, the plainchant is repeated on oboe, with accompanying string chords in the manner of the recitatives of the Christus in Bach's St. Matthew Passion.  The orchestra lands on a figure of two chords which alternate slowly back and forth as the female chorus sings another plainchant, Vexilla regis prodeunt, in free time against this background.  The similarity to the final pages of The Planets, written only a year earlier, is unmistakable.  The men's voices then sing the Pange lingua, and the prelude ends with the two alternating chords swaying back and forth quietly.

The opening of the Hymn proper is sung, fortissimo, by the full choirs in unison.  "Glory to thee, Father."  At the word "Father," the music suddenly blossoms into an 8-part chord with full-throttle orchestral accompaniment -- a hair-raising moment indeed.  Descending scales in the bass resemble the incessant tolling of bells.  The second line, "Glory to thee, Word," is set in exactly the same manner but even higher and more exultantly.  When the composer reaches "Glory to thee, Holy Spirit," the words are not sung but spoken by the different parts of the chorus, part by part in turn, creating a sound like the rushing of the mighty wind on Pentecost.  Each line is answered by an "Amen" from a female semi-chorus.  These Amens will be heard repeatedly throughout the work.

The music then moves on to the lines quoted above, with the refrains of Amen repeating regularly.  The singing grows until the line, "Fain would I be known."  Here, the orchestra leaps into an ecstatic dance in Holst's signature 5-to-the-bar rhythm, leading to a heartily energetic climax after the line, "All things join in the dance!"

The dance is followed by a kind of litany in four lines, in which one chorus sings steadily on a single chord while the other moves, word by word, away from that chord by steps of a semitone with each movement.

The singers then join in the first of several reiterations of the plainchants from the prelude, a chanted Pange lingua followed closely by a wordless Vexilla regis in women's voices, accompanied by militant drum rhythms.

The choir then sings, unaccompanied, these lines:

Ye could not know at all what thing ye endure,
Had not the Father sent me to you as a Word.

This engenders a crescendo to a vast climax on "Learn how to suffer, and ye shall overcome."  The tolling bell scales then resume in the bass, leading us back to the point where the spectacular opening "Glory to thee, Father" is repeated, leading to a slow gentle conclusion on the final lines of the hymn, with the bell scales the last sound to fade away.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Dancing to Death and Destruction

Sergei Rachmaninoff ended his compositional career with his Op. 45, the Symphonic Dances.  I've just been to a concert performance of this amazing work, and have been forcefully reminded that it truly baffles many music lovers.  I've no doubt that many people came to yesterday's concert expecting something easily relatable to the most popular of Rachmaninoff's works, the second and third piano concertos.

Well, you can forget that idea right away.  Symphonic Dances bears some resemblance to the fourth piano concerto (the least-often heard), but far less that ties it to the composer's earlier, lusher, more romantic style of music.

Instead, what we get is the classic Rachmaninoff world heavily infiltrated -- or even invaded -- by the harmonic and especially the rhythmic innovations of Stravinsky found in The Rite of Spring and Petrouchka.

No doubt in my mind, though -- Symphonic Dances ranks as one of Rachmaninoff's finest and most powerful achievements, a work which deserves the widest currency.  In a way, I'm surprised that he chose not to call it a "symphony."  I suspect many other composers would have done just that, both because of the scale and scope of the music (it lasts about 35 minutes in performance) and because of its weight and degree of thematic integration.

I've been fortunate in one respect.  Since I first fell in love with Symphonic Dances, I've managed to hear it performed live three times by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for whom this challenging and complex work has become a definite calling card.  Even better, one of those performances was preserved in a fine live-to-disc recording, paired with The Rite of Spring, and this CD is a firm favourite in my collection.

The first movement opens with a persistent rhythmic figure which sounds for all the world like the ringing of sleigh bells, although no bells are in use.  A series of emphatic staccato chords launches the main theme.  If this indeed is a dance, then it's a weighty and ponderous one, with its obsessive descending triad figure rapidly played over and over.  Much of the music is written in the low registers, especially for the strings, which increases the sense of heaviness.  The central section of the music brings relief in a lyrical melody for alto saxophone, a melody which begins with a rising triad figure.  The opening then returns and the dance is repeated fortissimo before dying down into a slow coda of celestial-sounding chords and melody high up in the registers of the instruments.  A few last reminiscences of the main theme quietly end the movement.

The second movement is an undoubted dance, but plainly (to me, at least), a dance of death.  A series of thematic fragments form an introduction, and out of this gradually emerges a waltz.  The waltz theme is made up of numerous wide leaps from high to low notes (or vice versa); the leaps give the music a disjointed and uneasy character.  As the movement progresses, the waltz is accompanied or elaborated with a series of wildly skirling counterpoints on various wind instruments.  It all seems to me to be the perfect illustration of a haunted ballroom full of spectral ghosts swirling about.  At the end, the waltz speeds up, the rhythms fall apart, and the last wisps of music vanish into thin air.

The three-part finale opens with an emphatic full chord, followed by a series of descending minor thirds.  At once, the outline of a rapid movement in 9/8 time emerges, with tolling bells.  Very soon, we hear the descending outline of the Gregorian plainchant Dies irae, a musical motif of great emotional power in several of Rachmaninoff's works.  The dance that now emerges is a frantic whirlwind of a scherzo, with descending lines full of dotted rhythms and much use of the percussion, all driven onwards by the fast tempo.  A frantically energetic coda ends with a sudden silence. 

The music then relaxes into a middle section with the last, and perhaps greatest, of Rachmaninoff's lush, slow melodies.  Then the dance returns, punctuated frequently by the Dies irae motif.  But now another theme begins to emerge in snippets.  An Easter hymn of the Russian Orthodox Church, it was set for choir by Rachmaninoff in his early masterpiece, the All-Night Vigil (commonly called Vespers in the English-speaking world).  The text of the hymn describes the emotions of those who arrived at the tomb of Christ on Easter morning and found it empty, because the Lord had risen.

The Dies irae and the hymn engage in an uproar of battle between darkness and light while the incessant scherzo races onward, until the hymn emerges triumphant.  To aggressive snare drum rhythms, we now hear the hymn complete, with the theme nudged by frequent dotted notes.  Emphases and phrase breaks fly all over the map, as the demonic rhythmic scheme breaks into fragments at the assault of the Easter hymn.  As the Orthodox melody reaches its end, the orchestra again erupts into the frantic chordal coda, and the work ends in an uproar of off-beat chords and heavy percussion, with a massive stroke on the tam-tam having the final word.

I can't help wondering if Rachmaninoff knew that this would be his final complete work.  If so, that might explain the incredible intensity of the battle between darkness and light in the last movement, a battle which still ends unresolved as the music explodes apart.  Whatever the truth of the matter, I remain completely convinced that Symphonic Dances is one of the greatest, and most unsettling, masterpieces of twentieth century music.