Schubert: Symphony No.9 in C major ('The Great')

Franz Schubert 1797-1828

Symphony in C major D.944 "The Great"

I. Andante - Allegro ma non troppo
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo. Allegro vivace
IV. Allegro vivace

If Schubert had lived to anything approaching a reasonable age, this would undoubtedly be seen as his first mature symphonic work; after the years of chamber and small scale orchestral works, it represents his stated determination to "pave my way towards a symphony in the grand manner." As it is, having acted as pallbearer to Beethoven in 1827, within a year he was himself dead, leaving behind a huge body of work that nevertheless offers only a glimpse of what he might have achieved, as well as all the ingredients of the quintessential "doomed artist" story. The romanticism that surrounds the man and his work casts such a shadow that it is difficult to escape the aura of fanciful myth and appreciate the "Great" C major symphony (so called to distinguish it from his earlier, and much less ambitious sixth symphony, also in C major) for what it is: a vigorous and daring work by an extremely ambitious young man.

By 1825, at the age of 28, Schubert was already making a name for himself as an exceptionally talented songwriter, and was a regular fixture in the salon concert scene in Vienna. However, he had his sights set higher: he wished to be counted among the finest, most renowned composers of the day. To be spoken of in such regard, one had to be recognised as a composer of grand works, and in 1820s Vienna that meant symphonies, and the symphony was synonymous with one man above all others: Beethoven. Beethoven's grip on the Viennese imagination was all the greater because, not only had he inherited his teacher Haydn's reputation as a dazzling practitioner of symphonic argument, he had also effectively invented the concept of the composer as Artist. It was no longer enough to produce well-crafted music; a composer was increasingly expected to Make A Statement.

The fertility of Schubert's life for myth making is evident even in the numbering of this symphony, which, depending how you wish to count it, has been called his seventh, eighth and ninth. The confusion arises because it was traditionally numbered as the predecessor to the "Unfinished" Symphony, despite being composed later. Some publishing houses correct this, so that the "Unfinished" becomes no.7 and the C major no.8; but the waters are muddied further by the fact that some have seen fit to allow the "Unfinished" to retain its numbering of 8, the vacant position of 7 being awarded to one of several unfinished sketches for symphonies Schubert had made in the early 1820s. This seems to be done largely to create the impression that Schubert wrote nine symphonies, which as we all know in the wake of Beethoven, is how many symphonies a Great Composer should write.

The existence of all these false starts and symphonic torsos demonstrates that the problem of producing a convincing Grand Symphony was one that had vexed Schubert quite considerably for several years. His main problem was this: the symphony, as defined by Haydn and Beethoven, is an intellectually rigorous forum for closely argued thought and development of short themes. Schubert's natural gift, however, was melodic, and a tune, being complete in itself, is not something that lends itself very readily to this sort of process. The six symphonies he had written before 1820, while in many ways attractive works, tend towards simple emulation of the styles of Haydn and Mozart, and do not display the same individuality as his songs and chamber music were developing. He needed to square the circle, and the B minor symphony he famously abandoned in 1822 was very nearly the breakthrough he needed. The "Unfinished" is a radical work, replacing the Beethovenian model of closely argued motivic development with a dramatic lyricism that points the way to the Romantic composers who would emerge towards the mid-19th century. So radical, in fact, that having written two movements, Schubert could not think of a convincing way to continue. No fewer than three other symphonies were begun during this period, all abandoned in various stages of completion. Things were not helped by his deteriorating health; by now he had been diagnosed with the syphilis that would eventually kill him By 1824, Schubert had over the course of six years started some thirteen symphonic movements, but had finished only two and had no complete work to show for it.

The breakthrough came, ironically, by taking a step back from the radicalism of the B minor symphony, and partially returning to the motivic model of Beethoven. The Great C Major Symphony, composed largely in 1825-26 (the manuscript is dated 1828, but this seems most likely a later subterfuge to sell the symphony as a freshly composed work), sets itself the challenge of meeting the elder composer on his own ground, and shows an increasing confidence on Schubert's part. It was probably also significant that at this point his health seemed to be improving, and he felt a renewed optimism about his future.

The symphony's most obvious distinguishing feature is its size (or, as Schumann would later describe it when he rediscovered the work and brought it to public attention, its "heavenly lengths"). Beethoven had of course set a precedent for symphonic works of up to an hour or more's duration with his ninth symphony, but Schubert's gargantuan effort achieves its proportions without the use of an extended choral peroration (ironic, for a composer so associated with vocal music). Although he makes use of short motifs, he is equally happy to apply the same processes to larger melodies, which is partly what accounts for the size of the piece. The result is a symphony that takes on Beethoven, but also offers an alternative way to proceed - the fierce logical argument of the German is usurped by the young Austrian's gentler, discursive storytelling. It stands at a crossroads - its attention to form and structure marks it as the last Classical symphony, while its lyrical content and epic nature points firmly towards the Romantics.

The early 19th century was the era of the Grand Tour, and of poetry propagating the Romantic figure of the Wanderer - the young man whose yearning for spiritual truth leads him out into the world. Schubert himself had set many poems and written many works on this subject. Many of the themes and rhythmic ideas in the Great C major Symphony can be related to songs dealing with the subject, and it does not seem to fanciful to suppose that this aesthetic greatly informs the mood of the work; the conductor and scholar Roger Norrington has characterised it as Schubert's "Sommerreise", a sun-drenched counterpart to the gloaming of the song-cycle Der Winterreise that he completed the year before his death.

Whether Schubert ever heard his symphony is open to conjecture - certainly in 1827 a set of parts was copied, and he may have heard it in rehearsal. But it would be another decade before Schumann found the manuscript and persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct its first public performance, and it would be many years before it established its place in the orchestral repertoire - even in the 1890s, a figure su ch as George Bernard Shaw could feel quite confident in asserting that "a more exasperatingly brainless composition was never put on paper." Posterity has taken a different view and it has taken its place as not simply an important link between the classical and Romantic styles, but a great work in its own right.

The first movement sets out its stall immediately with the long, heroic strides of the opening horn call, albeit presented as if from afar. What is nominally an introduction is much more than that; its expansive theme provides a motif that becomes a crucial part of the energetic allegro that follows, and returns to form a grand climax to a movement whose inventiveness and vigour testifies to the extent of its composer's abilities and ambition.

The second movement is not a "slow" movement as such, but rather a march-like affair, possibly influenced by the equivalent movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Some of its thematic ideas bear a striking resemblance to songs from Der Winterreise, particularly the concluding song "Der Wegweiser", which finishes:"I must travel a path from which none return"; it is imbued with a darkness that greatly contrasts with the first movement's buoyancy.

Having faced the serious issues of the second movement, the third finds release and relaxation in dancing, in a vigorous scherzo that frames a central trio that is a glorious outpouring of melody, which, at a point where a symphony would traditionally offer a lowering of tension and a chance to reflect, rather intensifies the emotional atmosphere. This sets the precedent for the finale, the like of which has not been heard before or since. It is a relentless and hedonistic rush, intoxicating and overwhelming, a tsunami of intense exhilaration, in which the listener may hear an echo of Beethoven's own Ode to Joy.

Sibelius: Symphony No.4

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957
Symphony No. 4 op.63
I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio
II. Allegro molto vivace
III. Il tempo largo
IV. Allegro

"It has nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it." So Sibelius characterised his fourth symphony, "a protest against the music of today". By this he meant the opulent scores that composers such as Richard Strauss and Mahler were producing in the early years of the 20th century, and his Fourth is certainly a stark contrast to that over-ripe romanticism. Its austerity led to incomprehension and even outright hostility at its early performances, and in his native Finland it quickly earned the nickname of Barkbröd ("Bark-bread"), a reference to the famines that devastated Finland in the 19th century, when people were forced to eat the bark from trees to survive. This gives a misleading impression of the work; it is in no way malnourished, but rather strips away all unnecessary decoration - it is undoubtedly sparse and austere, but it is also forceful and sinewy. The Fourth has never made its way into popular consciousness in the way its more obviously romantic and heroic successor has, but it is arguably his finest symphony, and the listener who braves its forbidding landscape will find the journey dark and challenging, certainly, but also rich and rewarding.

Its genesis came in the wake of a difficult period in Sibelius' life. Increasing success both at home and abroad, culminating in his dedication of the Third Symphony to the now almost forgotten, but then prominent composer Granville Bantock, who had done much to promote him in England, was tempered by his drinking habit, which increasingly interfered with his work. Then, in 1908, a severe blow came: troubled by throat pains, Sibelius underwent tests and was diagnosed with cancer. The tumour was successfully removed, but he lived in fear for years afterwards of the disease returning - so much so that he gave up alcohol and his other favourite vice, cigars, for nearly a decade afterwards. It was in the wake of this scare that he composed a number of works that are notable for their severity and sense of isolation, most notably the string quartet Voces Intimae and the Fourth Symphony, which he began work on in 1909 and completed in 1911. He interrupted work on it to begin a setting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven, although this was abandoned and many of the ideas recycled for the finale of the symphony, which may provide a clue to the thoughts behind the music.

The concentration is extraordinary; it is a white dwarf of a work, compact and dense. The opening declamation on cellos and basses contains the seeds of everything that follows. The first movement is a vast drift, in which hints of passion and tenderness emerge briefly from a dark, barren landscape whose horizon seems infinite.

The second movement begins in a lighter mood, a solo oboe leading an apparently carefree dance, but this soon becomes unstable, and when the tempo halves the initial mood is revealed as superficial as the music darkens before evaporating with a flick of the timpani.

Nowhere is the stark mood of the symphony more apparent than at the start of the slow movement, where a chasm opens out between the faltering flute and the wraith like cello accompaniment. Fragments of melody float in an uncertain fog, trying to coalesce; the orchestra tries to rouse itself, and almost breaks through with a cry perfectly poised between nobility and tragedy; but it cannot be sustained, and the music fades away again into darkness.

The finale begins suddenly, with an apparent determination to find some light, the addition of a glockenspiel to the orchestral texture providing a sharp brightness. The music becomes more impassioned, and strains towards light, but is snared in a trap, and eventually collapses in a calamitous climax, after which there is a retreat into shivering darkness, illuminated only by pleading figures on flute and oboe. All seems lost, but the grey, pulsing chords, reminiscent of the chorales that close Bach's Passions, that end the symphony should not be mistaken for tragedy; there is steel in them, a determination to endure. Noting the completion of the symphony in his diary on April 2, 1911, Sibelius commented: "It calls for much courage to look at life straight in the eye."

Prokofiev: Symphony No.5

Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Symphony No.5 in B flat major, op.100

I. Andante

II. Allegro marcato

III. Adagio

IV. Allegro giocoso

In November 1951, on the eve of a performance of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony in Salt Lake City, the conductor Maurice Abravanel received an anonymous phone call warning him that if he began the piece he would "never finish it". The performance went ahead without incident, but not long afterwards the Russian paper Novosti printed an article relating the incident, and expressing anger that the conductor should have been threatened for performing a symphony which is "a hymn to the freedom of the human spirit". The article was signed by Prokofiev, but it is clear from the style of the writing that this article was not the work of the composer: such was the way things worked in Stalin's Russia.
This article is only one of a number of "official" statements that promote the idea of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony as an "heroic" work, brimming with good soviet optimism; a curious description, as although it begins in apparent sweetness and light, it soon charges fairly relentlessly in the opposite direction. But doublethink was endemic in Stalinist Russia, and in a country where terror was the normal state of mind, no sensible artist would suggest his work represented anything else, while few works would ever mean exactly what they appeared to. The simplification of his musical language that Prokofiev had developed by the early 1940's is a crucial part of the landscape of the work, as it enables the creation of an atmosphere far more subtle and ambiguous than the enfant terrible of his earlier work could have achieved, while presenting a tonal façade that could be accommodated within the diktat of "Socialist Realism".
When he began work on the fifth in 1944, Prokofiev had not produced a symphony since the fourth of 1930 - in fact, this was the first time he had worked on something that was conceived as a symphony from the outset since his second symphony in 1925; the third and fourth both adapt music originally written for opera and ballet. The four movements of the fifth display a great deal of interrelatedness, which is partly attributable to the fact that he worked on all four simultaneously. This was a common approach for Prokofiev; he explained that this way, if he "hit a snag" in one movement, he could move onto another without wasting time. Having completed the work and taken it before the Composers' Union for approval (as all soviet music had to be), he conducted the premiere in January 1945. It was a great success, but proved to be his last appearance on the podium - days later he suffered a serious fall, which left him concussed, and he would suffer poor health from then until his death in 1953.
The symphony begins innocuously in a pastoral vein, before sunshine breaks forth. As the first movement progresses, however, there are suggestions that all is not as rosy as it might appear, particularly in the growls that come from low brass, and by the time the movement reaches its climax there is a definite sense that dark clouds are gathering.
Prokofiev was never one to waste an idea, and the outer sections of the second movement have their origins in a discarded movement from his ballet Romeo and Juliet (which the Bolshoi Ballet would later reinsert as a "letter scene"). This is a spiky movement, which begins in a furtive mood, then opens out into a more extrovert middle section before the sinister tramping of the opening returns to end the movement with a snarl.
The third movement's main melody emerges out of a mist, poised between romantic yearning and melancholic resignation, that struggles to find daylight, but is crushed under the weight of a grotesque march-like climax, and slowly sinks back into an uneasy peace.
The finale begins coyly, apparently determined to restore the innocence of the very opening, before rushing off in a lively fashion, determined to put all troubles behind it. Soon, however, sinister interjections demonstrate that things are not as they might appear. The music struggles to maintain its poise and is increasingly submerged beneath jackbooted brass fanfares and whiplash string and wind motifs. Beneath the surface triumphalism and bombast, there is something nasty lurking; I n the closing bars, Prokofiev draws back the curtain, and we see the ghost in the machine.

Julian Anderson: The Stations of the Sun

Julian Anderson (b.1967)

The Stations of the Sun

He may not be linked in the press with rock stars, but Julian Anderson's career has been in its way just as meteoric as Joby Talbot's - Proms commissioned, acclaimed composer in residence with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, ubiquitous programmer and proselytiser for contemporary music, and Harvard professor are all things he can lay claim to before his 40th birthday, which he celebrates this year, and he is, alongside his contemporary Thomas Adès, now at the forefront of Britain's classical music establishment.

The Stations of the Sun was commissioned by the BBC for the 1998 Proms, and was the work which brought Anderson to widespread attention. The composer describes it thus:

"The title The Stations of the Sun refers not to any religious rite, but to the changing positions of the sun through each day, and through the seasons. Three years ago I read Ronald Hutton's fascinating book of the same name, explaining the origins of folk customs through the year - giving an egg at Easter, ceremonies for the winter solstice, and so forth; it immediately suggested ideas for a new orchestral piece. Instead of a literal programmatic approach, however, I decided to let the music take its own shape whilst keeping the idea of a seasonal cycle in mind as a background. The superficial form of the piece is quite simple - four linked sections plus a coda. As the music progresses, there is an increasing amount of interruption and cross-referencing, so that the true form of the piece is much more elusive and ambiguous. The following outline is not a blow-by-blow account, but a rough guide for those who wish it. The woodwind launch the work abruptly into a scherzo, presenting the simple melodic patterns to which much subsequent music can be more or less directly traced in an exuberant polyphonic dance. A cascading series of these melodies side-steps into a slow movement, mainly for the strings: at first a set of variations, with the theme presented by the violins alone, it soon develops into a continuous song with varied harmonic and polyphonic colours. A very fast dance for the flutes, clarinets and Japanese temple bells intervenes and the quickening pace releases a new scherzo. This is another variation on the slow movement theme, now revealed as the plainsong Alleluia Adorabo ["I shall worship in your holy temple"] - first on the strings, then on brass and wind, all accompanied by drums. The central plateau of the work follows: a long, ecstatic melody played mainly by the trumpets, extending and varying the plainsong, is surrounded and eventually overwhelmed by carillons on the rest of the orchestra. Here the music abandons equal temperament to include a small number of chords with microtones - chosen for their resonance and varied colour. The dance with drums is twice resumed, but now cross-cut with other musical characters, including an increasingly violent brass chorale used as a varied refrain. The tension is finally released in a polyphonic texture for the whole orchestra that precipitates the work's main climax: an evocation of Easter with an explosion of bells, both real and imaginary. As to the coda: a single six-octave mode gently resounds around the whole orchestra as many melodic and harmonic elements of the piece combine and unite for the first time in the work's only tutti - the harmonic goal towards which the entire work has been heading. A sudden 'zoom' at the very end denies the music any safe conclusion, suggesting instead the beginning of something new which is cut off before we can fully glimpse it."

Joby Talbot: Hovercraft

It was hearing Hovercraft, the work commissioned and premièred by Kensington Symphony Orchestra in 2004 that inspired choreographer Wayne McGregor to approach Joby Talbot. Last year's resulting collaboration, the ballet Chroma, made headlines through its use of arrangements of songs by the White Stripes, the press being apparently unable to believe that anyone attending a performance at Covent Garden might have heard some pop music before, but it was Hovercraft that provided the climax of the evening. If KSO cannot claim to be entirely responsible for Talbot's seemingly unstoppable ascendancy, it is gratifying to think that the orchestra might take its place alongside Jack and Meg White as part of the inspiration for one of his most prominent successes.

Of Hovercraft, Talbot says: "Hydrofoils are nothing compared to hovercrafts. They might be cheaper and more reliable but where's the romance in a hydrofoil? I well remember my family's annual pilgrimage to Pegwell Bay in the 1970's to watch the hovercrafts come in from France; terrifying machines pounding across the ocean then remorselessly surging up the beach spouting great fountains of surf and with the noise of a thousand Lancaster bombers. Where did they all go?"

KSO Season 51 2006-2007

Wednesday 18 October 2006 at Barbican
KSO 50th Anniversary Concert
Korngold: The Sea Hawk (Extended Suite)
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky

Piano: Nikolai Demidenko
Chorus: London Oriana Choir

Tuesday 28 November 2006
Arnold: Symphony no.2
Mahler: Symphony no.1

Monday 15 January 2007 at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Film music of the 80s and 90s

Saturday 10 March 2007
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber
Richard Strauss: Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Guest conductor: Dominic Wheeler
Violin: Matthew Trusler

Monday 14 May 2007
Ravel: La Valse
Bizet - Shchedrin: Carmen Suite
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Tuesday 26 June 2007
Dvořák: Symphonic Variations
John Woolrich: The Elephant from Celebes
Sibelius: Symphony no.5