Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony Op.58

1.Lento lugubre - Moderato con animo
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fateful questions of life, tormented by the burning anguish of helplessness and by the memory of his criminal past, he feels cruel tortures to the soul. Manfred penetrates deeply into the secrets of magic and communicates imperiously with the mighty powers of hell, but neither these, nor anyone in the world can give him the oblivion which is the single thing he vainly seeks and begs for. A recollection of the lost Astarte, whom he once loved passionately, devours and gnaws at his heart and there is neither limit nor end to the boundless suffering of Manfred.
2.Vivace con spirito
The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of the waterfall.
3.Andante con moto
Pastoral - picture of the simple, poor, free life of the mountain dwellers.
4.Allegro con fuoco
Underground devils of Ahriman. Infernal orgy. The appearance of Manfred amid the Bacchanal. Summoning and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is forgiven. Death of Manfred.

In the winter of 1867-8 Tchaikovsky came into the orbit of the nationalist composer Mily Balakirev. The influence was profound: the domineering Balakirev suggested and acted as midwife to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, in the wake of Berlioz’s second visit to Russia, the influential critic Vladimir Stasov suggested to Balakirev the idea of a symphony in the same vein as Berlioz’s Harold in Italy on another Byron work: Manfred. Balakirev was not keen, and offered Stasov’s suggested programme to Berlioz himself, who declined due to failing health. In the early 1870s Balakirev, suffering financial ruin and mental collapse, withdrew from musical life in Russia and the project seemed dead.

A decade later, Tchaikovsky, preparing the score of his revision of Romeo and Juliet in 1880, sent a letter to Balakirev via his publisher Bessel. “I want you to know that I have not forgotten who was responsible for this score's appearance in the world, that I vividly recall the friendly sympathy you showed me at the time, which I hope even now is not completely extinguished,” he wrote.

The publisher was evidently not in the habit of forwarding correspondence promptly, as it was over a year before Balakirev replied. “Your kind letter and dedication to me prove you have not completely struck me out of your heart's memory”, he responded. He went on to demand that Tchaikovsky come and visit him in St Petersburg, announced that he had a programme for a symphony that he thought would suit Tchaikovsky admirably, and finished with a post script pointing out an error in the published score of Francesca da Rimini: “On p.92 the horns have been omitted, and the result's terrible.”

As it happened, Tchaikovsky was looking for a new project, and so he agreed to take on the job. Having got his claws in again, Balakirev quickly sent the details of the project to Tchaikovsky: a plan for a symphony based on Byron's dramatic poem Manfred. “I had originally offered the subject to Berlioz,” he wrote, somewhat disingenuously. “You would be able to tackle this subject brilliantly – provided, of course, you make an effort... don't hurry to finish at all costs.”

Tchaikovsky's waspish reply suggests he was already regretting renewing his acquaintance: “it leaves me completely cold... To please you I might, perhaps – to use your expression – make an effort... but such composing in no way attracts me.”

And there the matter rested for two years. Then something happened: following a meeting in 1884 Balakirev sent him Stasov's original programme, this time accompanied with extensive notes on what key schemes to employ and a list of pieces that might serve as models for each movement. Balakirev may not have been interested in composing a Manfred Symphony himself, but was evidently determined that whoever did the task should do it his way.

The two men had been discussing religion. Tchaikovsky had recently read Tolstoy's Confession, an account of his faith which was outlawed but circulating nevertheless. Tchaikovsky's interest in religion was largely aesthetic, but Balakirev had moved from being a free-thinker to a devout, if rather eccentric brand of Christianity under the influence of a soothsayer. Tchaikovsky had outgrown any need of Balakirev as a teacher, but he was filled with a need for certainty in the face of overwhelming self-doubt and guilt at his homosexuality, so perhaps felt he had something to learn from Balakirev the mystic.

Tchaikovsky took a copy of Byron's poem to Switzerland and reading it would have become aware of the subtext that is clear in Byron but absent from Stasov’s programme: that Manfred’s love for Astarte is almost certainly incestuous. A tortured soul wracked with guilt at forbidden passion chimed with Tchaikovsky, and it was this conflation of Manfred's feelings with his own that finally provided the incentive to compose.

He found progress difficult, but by August 1885 he declared “this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.” By the time of the première in March 1886, he was qualifying that “because of its difficulty, impracticability and complexity it is doomed to failure and to be ignored,” and by 1888 he declared that “it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the one exception of the first movement.” This reflects the deep association he made between Manfred and his own troubles. It is perhaps significant that where Byron’s Manfred dies refusing to submit to higher powers, Tchaikovsky’s hero is granted absolution and dies peacefully, an act of forgiveness the composer was unable to grant himself.

Gerhard: Concerto for Orchestra

Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970)
Concerto for Orchestra

Duration: 21'
Publisher: OUP
KSO Performed: 25 November 2008

Reader, beware: Roberto Gerhard once said, “My favourite listener is the one who does not read explanatory programme-notes… Understanding comes first, knowledge second,” and asserted: “I stand by the sound of my music. It is the sound that must make sense.”

He was born of Swiss-German and French-Alsatian parents in Catalonia. Inevitably this gave him an internationalist outlook, but nevertheless he felt his identity as a Catalan strongly. After studying with Schoenberg, he worked during the 1930s as a consultant to the Arts Ministry of the Catalan government, which acted as an autonomous body within Spain from 1932. Here, he was responsible for raising Catalonia’s artistic profile considerably, not only with his own scores but his work promoting others. This culminated in his bringing the International Society of Contemporary Music’s annual festival to Barcelona in 1936, during which Berg’s Violin Concerto had its world première.

In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain, and when in 1939 Franco’s troops captured Barcelona, a centre of Republican resistance, Gerhard was forced into exile. He ended up in Cambridge, where he adopted the Hispanic form of his name (he was christened Robert) and produced music for theatre, radio and television. From his earlier romantic style, concerned with the use of Catalan folk music, in his later years he cultivated a more modernist music, partly derived from his teacher Schoenberg, but with a sensitivity for colour that produces a sound far removed from the expressionist angst of pre-war Vienna: the folk music he studied so carefully in his youth lay beneath the surface, continuing to influence his sound-world.

His sensitivity to the nuances of sound was sharpened by his experience as one of the pioneers of electronic music: his music for the RSC’s 1955 production of King Lear was the first electronic score for the stage in Britain, and a few years later he was one of the first composers to work at the BBC’s newly-established Radiophonic Workshop, the cradle of some of the most radical experimentation ever to appear in mainstream culture, such as the extraordinary piece of electronica that nearly 50 years later still holds television audiences in thrall: the theme to Doctor Who.

As his colleagues gave voice to the TARDIS, Gerhard was re-establishing himself as a composer of concert music, and it was a commission for the 1965 Cheltenham Festival that resulted in the Concerto for Orchestra. In fact, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in Boston in April 1965 by permission of the Festival Authority. The British première followed in Cheltenham a few months later. It ruffled a few feathers, far removed as its sense of drama was from the cosy familiarity of the typical “Cheltenham symphony.”

By this time Gerhard was seriously ill: he had had heart trouble for some years which was by then becoming acute, and would cause his death in 1970. There is however no hint of fragility in the Concerto, which from its opening explosion of notes is a work filled with vigour. Gerhard overcame his aversion to explanatory notes to provide a preface to the published score, in which he described his approach to what remains an unusual genre in orchestral music: “Ensemble playing, the distinguishing feature of the concerto for orchestra, in fact here takes the place of the virtuoso soloist in the traditional concerto.” So the emphasis is less on individual display (although Gerhard certainly provides plenty of challenges for the players) than showing off the orchestra as a collective.

If there is a solo element in this piece, it is time itself: the music is constantly moving between different perceptions of time, expressed in three contrasting ways. The first, exemplified by the very opening, is characterised by busy, dense textures which create a sense of an infinitely expanded tonality. Then there are passages of what Gerhard describes as “almost static yet pulsating constellation-like patterns”, where tone gives way to a myriad array of sounds produced through unorthodox playing techniques, from tapping and rustling sounds in the strings which sound like an abstraction of flamenco music, to the unearthly harmonics of bowed cymbals. Finally, there are moments where time seems to stand still, and we experience “the magic sense of uneventfulness.” These kaleidoscopic changes of texture that abound in the Concerto, in which busy, scurrying passages dissolve into radiantly static textures have a dreamlike quality that the listener might experience as a sonic parallel to the images of another prominent 20th century Catalan, Salvador Dalí.

Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat)

Part 1: Introduction - Afternoon - Dance of the Miller's Wife (Fandango ) - The Grapes
Part 2: The Neighbours' Dance (Seguidillas) - The Miller's Dance (Farruca) - The Corregidor's Dance - Final Dance (Jota)

Diaghilev had all the major composers of Europe in his sights, and so as well as Ravel, it was inevitable that he would approach Manuel de Falla to write something for the Ballet Russe. The subject he had in mind was Nights in the Gardens of Spain, suggested to him by G. Martinez Sierra. However, he happily transferred his enthusiasm to Falla's own suggestion that an adaption of El sombrero de tres picos, an 1875 novel by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón based on an older folk tale: a familiar story of political power abused for the aim of sexual gratification.

Falla had been toying with the idea of adapting the novel for some years, and was keen to set to work. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 meant that it would be nigh on impossible to produce the work, and so Falla, with the blessing of Diaghilev, produced with Sierra a pantomime, El corregidor y la molinera [The Corregidor and the Miller's Wife], which was produced in Madrid in 1917 to great popular success. He then revised this extensively to produce the definitive work which was unveiled under its final title in London in 1919.

If Diaghilev was hoping for a succès de scandale such as he had achieved with Nijinsky's notoriously erotic interpretation of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune or Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, he may have been disappointed by the final ballet: Falla was devoutly Catholic and had toned down the plot considerably - the Miller's Wife is much less amenable to the advances of men other than her husband than she is in Alarcón's novel. In other respects, however, it attracted as much controversy as the impresario could have hoped for, with critical reaction divided between those who saw it as a remarkable example of the Spanish national character expressed in a contemporary manner (the opinion of many critics outside Spain) and as an act of modernist desecration of Spain's folk traditions (the opinion of many critics within Spain). To put these reactions in context, Spain during this period was undergoing something of an existential crisis: the battle between those who espoused strident international modernism and those who supported a more insular approach to Spanish culture was, in the wake of decades of political instability, a fierce one.


The set and costume designs for The Three Cornered Hat were as much a draw as the music: Diaghilev had secured the services of Pablo Picasso. For the drop curtain Picasso produced a painting depicting a party of spectators at a bullfight. To give the audience time to admire this, Falla added an introduction. A soprano sings:

Casadita, casadita, cierra trance la puerta; Que aunque el diablo esté dormido a lo mejor se despierta!
[Little house, you must bolt your door; although the Devil sleeps he may wake up!]

The curtain rises on a small village. In the heat of the afternoon the Miller and his wife go about their tasks: drawing water from the well (with a pulley that is obviously in desperate need of oiling), feeding the chickens, and so on. The Miller is an ugly man, but his Wife is much more attractive, indeed has the charm to teach the blackbird to whistle the hour of the day, and attracts the attentions of every passing man. She catches the eye of the Corregidor (the mayor and chief magistrate, whose authority is symbolised by his tricorn), who tries to dance with her. She teases him with a bunch of grapes, obviously a very tasty dish, as in his excitement he loses his balance and falls over.

Part two opens with a dance for the Miller's neighbours: it is St. John's Eve, and the villagers are gathering to drink and dance. The Miller's Wife invites her husband to dance the farruca, a solemn and intense flamenco dance. As he finishes, Fate (as represented by a very famous quotation) knocks at the door, in the form of the police, who are here to arrest the Miller on the orders of the Corregidor. As they haul the Miller off, leaving his wife alone, a warning is sung:

Por la noche canta el cuco. Ad virtiendo a los casados que corran bien los cerrojos que el diablo está desvelado!
[The cuckoo sings in the night. It cautions us to bolt the door, for the Devil is awake!]

Having disposed of the opposition, the Corregidor struts in, dressed in all his official finery to seduce the Miller's wife. Luck is not on his side, however: he falls into the millstream. The Miller's Wife mocks him and threatens him with her husband's blunderbuss; then, suddenly frightened, runs off. The Corregidor removes his sodden clothes to dry, and goes upstairs and falls asleep on the Miller's bed.

The Miller meanwhile has escaped, and returning home to find the Corregidor unclothed in his bed draws the obvious conclusion. Furious, he plots his revenge: he puts on the Corregidor's uniform and sets off to find his wife. When the Corregidor wakes, he finds his clothes missing, so puts on the Miller's clothes. This inevitably leads to a confusion of identity, as his own officials mistake him for the Miller and arrest him. The confusion is exacerbated with the return of the Miller's Wife, who, distraught to find what she takes to be her husband in the grip of the police, sets upon them, and uproar ensues. The Miller returns, and seeing his wife defending the Corregidor, attacks his rival in a jealous rage. The arrival of the St John's Eve procession heralds the final dance, during which the true identities of all are finally revealed, the Miller and his Wife are reconciled, and the Corregidor once again flounders, surrounded and mocked by the whole village.

Britten: Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

Introduction and theme - Adagio - March - Romance - Aria Italiana - Bourée Classique - Wiener Walzer - Moto Perpetuo - Funeral March - Chant - Fugue and Finale
When asked, after he had conducted a concert featuring Ravel's music, if such an eminent composer would ever emerge from England, Frank Bridge replied, "You will hear of one: Benji Britten."

The relationship between Britten and Bridge was of crucial importance for the younger composer: it was hearing and being "knocked sideways" by Bridge's Suite The Sea that set the young Britten on the path to becoming a composer himself, and it was his subsequent lessons with Bridge that honed and disciplined his natural talent, instilling in him his mentor's sense of rigour: Bridge insisted that a composer should write not one more note than was absolutely necessary to make his point, and this asceticism would become the backbone of Britten's own style.

So when the commission came to write a work for Boyd Neel's string orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival it was natural that Britten should take the opportunity to compose something in tribute to his teacher. The resulting work was heard in 1937, and confirmed Britten's growing reputation as England's brightest musical talent. What was particularly remarkable about the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge was their European quality: aside from the parodies of Italian, Austrian and French music, Britten had an obvious knowledge of such composers as Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which set him apart from the insular attitude of much of 1930s Britain, exemplified by the suspicious reviews the work received in British newspapers, in contrast to the more positive reception afforded by the European press.

Perhaps Britten intended to provoke: the theme he uses - from Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet - has a wistful, nostalgic quality (of a kind that Bridge himself had abandoned for a more abrasive style) that is blown away by its subsequent transformations. The work was intended as more than witty parody though: the variations originally had subtitles, intended to indicate aspects of his teacher's personality. It was only with difficulty that Bridge himself persuaded Britten to abandon these, unquestionably the right decision; while the brooding first variation might embody "his integrity", it is difficult to see what the distillation of every waltz cliché in the Wiener Walzer has to do with "his gaiety", and "his sympathy" is an entirely inadequate description of the extraordinary funeral march, whose bitterness is only magnified by the frothy vivaciousness of what precedes it. The extraordinary "Chant" that follows enters another realm altogether. A devilish fugue takes us to the conclusion, which weaves quotations from other works of Bridge around the main theme. So subtle are these that it is only in very recent years that anyone has noticed they are even there.

Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No.2

1.Lever du jour
3.Danse générale

The myth of Daphnis and Chloë comes to us through a 2nd century Greek text credited to Longus. The story is fairly typical of pastoral erotica of the period: two children, raised by shepherds on the isle of Lesbos, nurture an unrecognised passion for each other that is brought to the surface through the medium of mutual peril. More notable is its characterisation, which is more extensive than its more plot-driven contemporaries, and puts it closer in style to a modern novel.
The combination of sex, mild adventure and textual innovation therefore made the story naturally attractive to the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev as a potential subject for the Ballet Russe when they sensationally swept into Paris in 1908. Ravel, the composer earmarked by Diaghilev for the commission, was however more dubious: he disapproved of the racier elements of the story, and this led to arguments with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, with whom he wrote the scenario for the ballet. An episode in which Chloé is abducted by pirates ended up particularly toned down from the original, and Ravel's final score dispatches it in an alarmingly perfunctory manner.
Beyond these aesthetic disagreements, Ravel found the work immensely difficult, and many of his most famous pieces of this period, such as Ma Mère L’Oye were in fact produced largely as procrastinatory diversions from completing work on Daphnis. The premiere, originally slated for the Ballet Russe's 1910 season, was continually delayed as Ravel fiddled with the score, and it was not heard in public until 1912.
The music that is performed in concert as the Second Suite consists of the finale of the ballet, by which point what little plot there is has been resolved. After a depiction of dawn, one of the very finest pieces of orchestral writing Ravel ever produced, the reunited lovers perform a pantomime in thanks to the gods, an enacting of the myth of Syrinx, who, pursued by the god Pan, came to a river, and, asking for help from the river nymphs, was transformed into a water reed, from which the frustrated god fashioned his eponymous pipes. There then follows a final bacchanal, whose pagan frenzy is intensified by a wild quintuple pulse.

Dvořák: Symphony No.6

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No.6 in D major, op.60

1. Allegro non tanto
2. Adagio
3. Scherzo: Furiant: Presto
4. Finale: Allegro con spirito

If Smetana effectively created the Czech musical character, it was Dvořák who took it to the world. By the end of the 1870s he was, thanks to the patronage of Brahms, establishing himself internationally as a composer, and in 1879 he achieved the distinction of having his third Slavonic Rhapsody performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter. The performance was a great success, and as a result Dvořák found himself in the position of promising his next symphony to the orchestra. So in 1880 he set to work, completing the new work by October for a projected performance in December.

The orchestra, however, had other ideas: rumbles of discontent were heard at the prospect of playing new Czech music two years in a row; to present overtly Czech music in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Bohemia was a subject, was potentially an unwise political act. In the end the first performance of the symphony was given in March 1881 by the Prague Philharmonic under Adolf Čech. Richter himself finally conducted the symphony of which he was the dedicatee in London the following year.

Ironically, the work that the Viennese musicians had objected to on the grounds of its ethnicity has a distinctly Germanic tang to it; Dvořák went out of his way to write something that related to the traditions of musical Vienna. Not least of these is a clear indebtedness to his mentor Brahms, and in particular his second symphony (also in D major), which was then still a recent work. Dvořák also peppers the score with reference to Beethoven's symphonies, which were highly regarded in Vienna (not necessarily the case when that composer was alive), in what seems a ploy to present himself as an heir to those traditions.

That notwithstanding, this symphony, the first of his to be published (which is why for many years it was known as his first), sees Dvořák's style fully formed, the thick scoring of his earlier symphonies now replaced by the colourful, translucent sound that characterises his mature output. The first movement's allusions to the musical world of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert only serve to highlight the confidence Dvořák has in his own voice, which is never swamped by his illustrious forbears.

The second movement takes for its principal theme a tune from an early string quartet that dates back to 1862, around the same time as the youthful Dvořák composed his first symphony, The Bells of Zlonice. As is his way, the movement proceeds less through contrasts than ruminations on and tangents to the main theme in a thoroughly relaxed and generous manner which finds time to make reference to the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Having doffed his cap to Vienna, the third movement is entirely and unashamedly Czech in character, taking the form of a furiant, a dance notable for its forceful cross-rhythms, that takes the folk ideas he had thoroughly explored in such works as the Slavonic Dances and propels them into an entirely new plane of thought. The opening of the finale that follows evokes the equivalent movement of Brahms' second, before launching off on its own expansive course, finally culminating in an outrageously lively dash for the finish.

Myaskovsky: Symphony No.21

Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950)
Symphony No.21 in F sharp minor, op.51

Posterity is a harsh mistress, as is seen in the case of Myaskovksy, a classmate of Prokofiev and pupil in Rimsky-Korsakov's composition class, who built himself a reputation as the finest symphonist in the Soviet Union before a young upstart called Shostakovich came along and stole his thunder. His 27 symphonies constitute one of the most extensive sequences since the classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and together form the backbone of his career.

After a time in the armed forces, he took a post at the Moscow Conservatory and became a leading light in the promotion of contemporary music in the 1920s, and later became a member of the Organising Committee of the Composers' Union. An introvert by nature, he showed little interest in politica and an overwhelming absorbtion in his work, but this was not enough to keep him from criticism, and he was periodically attacked for what the authorities saw as the excessive individualism and pessimism of his music, and in 1948, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, found himself one of the main targets of the infamous Zhdanov decree attacking "formalist" music. His style is, however, less abrasive than either of those two composers, and is more obviously in the Russian romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

His 21st symphony was composed in 1940 concurrently with his 20th, and dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor Frederick Stock, who had asked Myaskovsky to compose something for them in 1938. Their performance of it on December 26 1940 was billed as a world première, but in fact the first performance had been given on 16 November by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Aleksandr Gauk.

The symphony is cast in a single movement, and although there are passages of livelier temprament, the predominant mood is withdrawn, epitomised by the clarinet solo which opens it, and the quiet string chords which bring it to a close. It is a testament to the inconsistencies of Soviet Arts policy that this introverted and melancholic symphony by a composer who had been condemned for these qualities was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1941.

Smetana: Vltava

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Czech nationalism was a sentiment borne more on hope than experience in the 19th century. The country then known as Bohemia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it would not emerge with any autonomy until the creation of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the First World War: true independence had to wait until the Czech republic disconnected itself from Slovakia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century.

So music was one of the few areas that offered any palpable outlet for patriotic expression, and Smetana, as the leading Czech composer of his day, found himself at the head of a movement, and his music emulated as the basis for a Czech school of composition. The cycle of six tone poems called Má Vlast [My Homeland] that he composed between 1872 and 1879 represent a self-conscious attempt to encapsulate the essence of Bohemia in music.

The original title of the cycle was the more demonstrative Vlast; the later addition of the pronoun perhaps suggests an unease with the idea of being a spokesman for the nationalist cause at a time when he was the subject of increasing hostility from critics. The project must also have taken on a great personal significance as the composition of the first part, Vyšehrad, coincided with the sudden loss of Smetana's hearing. For a composer this was serious enough, but the deafness itself was a symptom of undiagnosed syphilis, which would eventually kill him. Má Vlast therefore represents a remarkable fusion of the political and the personal.

Vltava is the second part of the cycle. It depicts the flow of the eponymous river from its source in the Šumava Mountains to Prague and beyond. On the way it passes a hunting party and a village wedding, and sprites dance on its moonlit waters before the current builds as the river reaches the St. John rapids, then flows broadly through Prague, past Vyšehrad Castle and disappears into the distance where it will flow into the Elba.

Robert Keely: Symphony No.2

My Second Symphony was written more or less straight after the First, which had been commissioned by the BBC for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and first performed in St David's Hall Cardiff early in 1996. This time I wanted to write a 'classical' symphony, a little bit along the lines of Stravinsky's Symphony in C (an under-appreciated work of which I am very fond) and scored this for a smaller line-up than my First: a sort of 'late Mozart' orchestra, with the addition of a harp.

The work, perhaps unusually, is entirely abstract in conception, and is an example of 'pure' music, with no extraneous or picturesque references: music, happily, is one of the few areas where this is possible: 'pure contraption', in W H Auden's memorable phrase. Any representation in my piece will be of other music I have heard and have transformed through my own personal ways of thinking.

Movement 1 is a fast and driving sonata allegro, the opening idea, scored for strings with flute, suggested by the 'idee fixe' in the erlioz 'Symphonie Fantastique'. Movement 2 is a rather Beethovenian Scherzo with two gentler, related Trios featuring woodwind solos accompanied by harp. The short (slow) Movement 3 is mainly for strings alone, but with the addition later of little woodwind fanfares played independently of the strings, and the Finale is an energetic and good-natured Allegro: all first three movements end rather inconclusively, so the end of the last decisively compensates for this.

(Note © by Robert Keeley)

Richard Strauss: Ein Alpensinfonie

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Ein Alpensinfonie op.64

Night - Sunrise - The Ascent - Entry into the Woods - Walking by the Stream - At the Waterfall - Apparition - In Flowery Meadows - On the Pasture - Lost in the Thicket - On the Glacier - Moments of Danger - At the Summit - Vision - The Fog Rises - The Sun is Gradually Obscured - Elegy - Calm before the Storm - Thunder and Storm, Descent - Sunset - Journey's End - Night

Nietzsche's essay The Anti-Christ, a splenetic, sustained attack on Christianity that was one of the products of his last burst of creativity before he succumbed to syphilitic madness in 1889, may not appear to the casual observer to have much in common with a musical depiction of a mountain ascent. Yet it is this work that supplied the initial spark for the creation of what Richard Strauss would finally name his Alpine Symphony.

The philosopher's invective was in part a sequel to his earlier work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which famously also inspired Strauss, and the composer's later work likewise expands on elements of the earlier (an echo of Zarathustra's famous opening can be heard at the point where Strauss's protagonist reaches the summit of the mountain, preceding a "vision"). But Strauss was not the sort of composer to kick up too much of a fuss (even his most "modern" dissonances are impeccably behaved), and rather than the controversial priest-baiting it is the more positive side of Nietzsche's argument - the idea of enlightenment through immersing oneself in the physicality of the world - that permeates the Alpine Symphony. The inspiration for the expression of these ideas goes back to Strauss's childhood, and his memories of mountain walks in the Swiss Alps.

Although designated a symphony, it is in fact a very large scale tone poem, a musical form Strauss had inherited from Liszt, and the Alpine Symphony represents the climax of this strand of his work; having completed it, Strauss turned his attentions almost exclusively to opera, and would not return to purely instrumental composition until near the end of his life. "Now I know how to orchestrate!" he commented after an early rehearsal. The orchestra is huge: over 140 players, including an army of off-stage brass. A composer of Strauss's reputation had ready access to such forces, though, and his deployment of them is masterly and subtle, although often challenging: the wind players have such long notes to sustain during the opening that the composer recommended the use of a now archaic device, "Samuel's Aerophon", that supplied extra air to the player's mouth by means of a tube connected to a foot pump.

By the time the Alpine Symphony was completed in 1915, however, the world had moved on; the long nineteenth century that had lingered until 1914 had been brought to an abrupt end by the First World War, and there would be no room for such opulent, indulgent music in the acerbic, stripped-down musical world of the 1920s, embodied by the laconic, jazz-inflected irony of Stravinsky and the Satie-influenced group of French composers known as Les Six on the one hand, and the expressionist angst of Schoenberg and his pupils on the other . Strauss was a man out of his time, and his style retreated backwards from the Viennese modernism that had made his name into a nostalgic hankering for the old nineteenth-century certainties for the rest of his career.

The Alpine Symphony's sequence of events, from the darkness, dawn, ascent, storm, return and sunset back to darkness, is so clearly and precisely depicted that it is superfluous to discuss it in any great detail. Its origins can be traced to 1900, when he wrote to his parents of a symphonic poem "which would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland". But although Strauss claimed that he returned to these ideas simply to keep himself occupied while he waited delivery of the libretto for Die Frau ohne Schatten, his next operatic project, a far more profound influence was the death in 1911 of his friend, colleague and rival Gustav Mahler, whose ghost can be heard behind the music throughout the work. The relationship between the composers was not easy, but their mutual admiration was genuine if not always openly expressed, and the influence of Mahler is significant, not only in explicit tributes such as the cowbells that we hear as our hero crosses the mountain pasture, but in the construction of the music, which owes more to the Austrian than to Liszt. Strauss mused on the fact that "the Jew Mahler could still be uplifted by Christianity... the hero Richard Wagner descended to it again as an old man...", and the Alpine Symphony can in some ways be seen as a continuation of the discussions and arguments he had had with Mahler over many years.

Strauss is often characterised as a superficial composer, in comparison with the profound spiritual and religious struggles and declarations presented in the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, but the Alpine Symphony demonstrates that he did think about such things, and his description of it stands as the closest he ever came to expressing a spiritual credo: "I shall call it The Anti-Christ, because in it there is moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of nature, eternal and magnificent."

Korngold: Violin Concerto

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major op. 35

1. Moderato nobile
2. Romance. Andante
3. Finale. Allegro assai vivace

"Erich, how about my violin concerto?" was a question frequently asked by the Polish violinist Bronisław Hubermann of his friend Korngold during the early 1940s. Korngold, however, never answered; he had resolved not to compose any concert music as long as the Second World War that had exiled him raged in Europe, and restricted his activities to the film music on which his reputation now largely rests. This changed in 1945, when in response to another asking of the question, Korngold went to the piano and played a theme, which would become part of the first movement of the long-requested concerto. From this point Korngold worked quickly and had soon completed two movements. However, the project stalled after an unsuccessful rehearsal with another violinist, Bronisław Gimpel, who found the solo part too demanding. Korngold was further discouraged by Hubermann's reluctance to commit to a date for a first performance until he had seen the finished work. The deadlock was broken by the agent Rudi Polk, who arranged a rehearsal with his client Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz took to the work much more positively, and in fact insisted that the solo part be made more difficult. The great violinist's enthusiasm spurred the composer on, and so it came to pass that the concerto was premiered with Heifetz as soloist in 1947, to great popular, if somewhat lukewarm critical, acclaim. The New York Times dismissed it as a "Hollywood concerto", but Heifetz continued to champion the work, and his 1953 recording of it has become a classic, cementing the concerto's place in the violin repertory.

Korngold had made frequent use of his pre-war concert music for many of his film scores, but the concerto takes the opposite route, re-casting themes from several films on which he had worked in a lush, romantic symphonic context. Thus the first movement makes use of themes from Another Dawn and Juàrez, while the slow movement takes its main theme from the score for Anthony Adverse, and the finale's origins lie in The Prince and the Pauper. The soloist's immediate entrance recalls Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, which acts as a model for much of Korngold's concerto. The lush romantic style of the music certainly brings to mind the swashbuckling films that Korngold wrote for, but its roots go back further to the turn of the century Viennese modernism from which Korngold first emerged as a child prodigy, and this is reflected in the Concerto's dedication to an early champion of his, Mahler's widow Alma Mahler-Werfel.

Shostakovich: Symphony No.4

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No.4 in C minor, op. 43

1. Allegretto poco moderato
2. Moderato con moto
3. Largo-Allegro

On December 1st 1934, Leonid Nikolayev fired a bullet at point blank range into the head of Sergey Kirov, the second most important man in Russia, and the Great Terror, an experiment in the systematic terrorising of an entire population which has few parallels in all the atrocities of the twentieth century, began. Nikolayev was a dupe, a man with a grudge chosen to carry out the murder of Kirov at the behest of the most important man in Russia, Josef Stalin. Stalin's five-year plan to collectivise Soviet agriculture was more or less complete, and had resulted in the deaths of some 15 million peasants and food shortages throughout the Soviet Union. This all went largely unnoticed in the cities (although rumours circulated), but some members of the Party were less inclined to ignore what was happening. Stalin's solution was to engineer the death of the Party and its replacement with a new, more compliant leadership. The investigation into the death of Kirov eventually implicated, and removed, anyone whom Stalin saw as a threat or rival. It was decreed that the number of subversives in Russia was 5 per cent of the population, and the only way the police could come close to the number of prosecutions needed to meet this figure was to arrest people more or less at random. Merely being seen not to smile in public could be taken as a sign of dissent, and as failure to report dissident behaviour was in itself a crime, all acquaintances were to be treated with suspicion - even immediate family. By 1938 one in ten adults in the Soviet Union would have "disappeared" to the Gulag. This combined with a fascistic glorification of the leader on a surreally obscene scale, to produce a kind of collective schizophrenia in Russia; as Solzhenitsyn described it, "black marias at night and demonstrations by day."

Meanwhile, Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, premiered in 1934, was an international success and had established him as the foremost composer in the Soviet Union.He was in a powerful enough position to stand up and express his own opinions at Composers' Union meetings and had on several occasions defended fellow composers whose work had come under attack. This changed overnight on January 26th 1936, when Stalin attended a performance of Lady Macbeth. Two days later an article appeared in Pravda headlined "Muddle Instead of Music", which layed into the opera and warned that if the composer did not address the issues at hand, things might "end badly." It was not signed but was clearly the work of Stalin himself. Within two weeks a second article appeared, attacking Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream. To be attacked twice in the official organ of the Communist Party within the space of a fortnight seemed tantamount to a death sentence.

Stalin's taste in music was conservative, so it is hardly surprising that he would have been offended by Lady Macbeth's lurid tale of sex and murder. It has been suggested that he saw in the character of the police chief a parody of himself. But the real reason for the attack is probably not much to do with the work itself. Western Scholars have turned themselves upside down in their attempts to rationalise the doctrine of "Socialist Realism", but it was in truth a chimera; the term, and its opposite "Formalism" in reality meant nothing more than whatever was or was not useful to the state at any given moment. It was entirely possible to begin a piece that was perfectly in accord with party ideology, only to find that it was opposed to party ideology by the time it was completed. This left individuals in a state of permanent fear, as nothing could guarantee that they would not be found guilty of something. This is reflected in the attack on The Limpid Stream, a work which in contrast to Lady Macbeth is a piece of hackwork, as simple and banally melodic as the opera is complex and dissonant. The composer could not win; Stalin's drive to suppress independent thought in the arts had run ahead in literature; it was now time to step the campaign up into the world of music, and Shostakovich was simply a convenient target.

From the most feted composer in Russia to an enemy of the people in the space of a day was the most disastrous reversal of fortune imaginable. Shostakovich took to keeping a packed suitcase by his front door in anticipation of the arrival of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) to take him away. But the visit never came. Why is not clear, but there are several possibilities. While Stalin probably knew little or nothing of Shostakovich's concert music before he attended the opera, as a dedicated film buff he would certainly have recognised the composer's name from his work writing film scores, and it is quite possible that it was this that saved him, as this showed his usefulness to the regime. Possibly Stalin decided to step back after his spies gave him reports suggesting that in the wake of the attacks Shostakovich was suicidal. The suicide of the writer Myakovsky in 1930 had been an embarrassment for the dictator, and another prominent self-inflicted death was to be avoided. Then there was Stalin's superstitious nature: "He thinks all poet are shamans who'll put a spell on him", commented the poet Osip Mandelstam to his wife, and when Mandelstam was himself arrested, he received only three years exile, whereas journalists were casually disposed of in great numbers. This superstition informs another theory: that Stalin had decided to allow Shostakovich to act as his yurodivy, the "holy fool" of Russian tradition depicted by Pushkin in Boris Godunov, and embodied in Pushkin's relationship with Tsar Nicholas I. Or he may simply have been intrigued to see what Shostakovich would do next.

Whatever the case, arrest and disappearance was a very present danger, and the next thing Shostakovich did was going to have at least to appear to conform. The trouble was that that next thing was the Fourth Symphony, which was certainly not contrite. The symphony was put into rehearsal, but things did not go well; the conductor was understandably nervous at being given the dubious honour of premiering a work by an enemy of the people, and tension filled the atmosphere. Finally, Shostakovich made the decision to withdraw the work, citing dissatisfaction with the finale. The required sacrifice had been made, and the composer kept his head down and wrote film music. By 1937 the atmosphere had changed, and although his Fifth Symphony was clearly tragic and pessimistic, the politics of the moment declared it a great success of Socialist Realism. Meanwhile, the manuscript of the Fourth was lost during the war, and when asked about it, the composer would mutter vague comments about the finale being unsatisfactory, and that the work suffered from "grandiosomania".

By the late 50s, the Soviet Union under Krushchev was undergoing a limited thaw, and the rediscovery of the orchestral parts prepared for the aborted performance in 1936 raised the possibility that the work might finally be heard. After all the talk of the work's failings, Shostakovich made no changes whatsoever (in contrast to his extensive reworking of Lady Macbeth), even rejecting the cuts suggested by the conductor Kiril Kondrashin, and so in 1961 the Fourth was finally performed exactly as the composer had conceived it.

Stylistically, the symphony owes an obvious debt to Mahler, in its epic scale and its juxtaposing of intense emotion with parody and irony, while its structure owes more to novelistic or cinematic models than conventional symphonic forms. The orchestra is vast, excessive by any conventional view, but the effect of physical assault that results is clearly intentional, and becomes a point in itself. Rather than being a work that suffers from "grandiosomania", it is a work about it.

The huge opening movement seems a vivid depiction of the schizophrenic nature of life in mid-30s Russia, the shrill bombast of daytime demonstrations contrasted with nocturnal paranoia, sleeplessness and the wait for boot steps coming up the stairs, or escape into oblivion through the bottle, while the short middle movement presents a deconstruction of classical forms, its allusion to the movement of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony based on a song about St. Anthony preaching to the fish maybe providing a clue to the satirical target Shostakovich has in mind.

The finale, as vast as the first, is also the most unorthodox, and divides into four parts: a funeral march, dripping with irony; then an increasingly panic-stricken sequence that ties itself in constructivist knots, as though desperately trying to escape a labyrinth. The next sequence is the strangest: a kind of satirical divertimento that brings to mind Stravinsky's Petrushka and Jeux de Cartes. The impression given is of a group of characters (most prominently a pompous, loquacious bassoon, and a boorish, possibly drunken trombone) giving speeches, periodically interrupted by applause from the violins and animated discussion within the orchestra. Who these characters are is a mystery - there is an air of the circus, or maybe the Rayok, the pre-revolutionary fairground shows of which Petrushka is a descendant - but it may not be irrelevant that this movement was being planned at the point when the attacks by Pravada and subsequent condemnation by the Composers' Union came. As they fade away into the distance, we are suddenly catapulted back into the harsh daylight of the opening, for a peroration that paraphrases a chorus from Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex: "Gloria! Laudibus regina Jocasta in pestilentibus Thebis!" [Gloria! We hail Queen Jocasta in pestilent Thebes!]. A long coda fades slowly into blackness, lit only by the embers of an impotent rage.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con moto
3. Rondo. Vivace

An audience in the early nineteenth century needed stamina; the concert at which Beethoven first presented his fourth piano concerto to the public in 1808 also included the premieres of his fifth and sixth symphonies, his Choral Fantasia, and parts of his Mass in C major. This gargantuan concert was the fruit of an astonishingly productive few years in Beethoven's life: after his unhappy experiences writing and staging his only opera Fidelio he threw himself back into the creation of instrumental music, and during 1806 produced one major work almost per month. The Fourth Piano Concerto was the first of this slew of pieces to be written, although sketches for it exist from several years previously - it was not uncommon for Beethoven to mull over ideas for many years before he finally committed them to a final form. This performance featured the composer himself at the piano, an occasion which proved to be his last appearance as a concerto soloist, although he continued to play the piano in public until 1814, when his deafness finally forced him to abandon performing altogether.

Although one of Mozart's concertos is occasionally mentioned, there really is no precedent for the opening of this concerto, in which the piano begins immediately, without any orchestral tutti to precede. This remarkable gesture sets the tone for a work which continually flouts the conventions of how a concerto was supposed to work at the start of the nineteenth century. Although a distant echo of the Fifth Symphony can be heard in the main theme, the concerto achieves its originality without the barnstorming heroics of that work and the others that are contemporaneous to it, but cloaks it in a warmth and vulnerability which is perhaps the closest Beethoven ever came to emulating Mozart's sublime humanity.

Liszt is only the most prominent musician who has drawn attention to the close similarities between the slow movement of the concerto and the scene between Orpheus and the Furies in Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Beethoven was not averse to including hidden programmatic elements in his music, but no knowledge of Greek myth is necessary to appreciate the archetypal concept of the movement, as the fierce, stark string declamations are gradually subdued by the piano's gentle pleading.

Out of this profound stillness emerges a kittenish theme, which begins in the "wrong" key of C before finding its way to the home key of G major. The mood is one of unbuttoned playfulness, and the trumpets and drums that appear transcend their military connotations to provide a sunny and vivacious conclusion to what is quite simply one of the very finest concertos by Beethoven or anyone else.

Martinů: Symphony No.6

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No.6)

1. Lento - Andante moderato
2. Poco allegro
3. Lento

Like Stravinsky, Martinu was made an exile by war and revolution; first, forced to leave his native Czechoslovakia for America by the outbreak of the second world war, then, just as he was due to return in 1946 to take up a teaching post in Prague, stranded in the West as the Iron Curtain descended across Eastern Europe.

Martinu's first five symphonies were all written between 1942 and 1946, and like Dvořák's New World Symphony, they betray a nostalgic longing for the composer's homeland. Martinu was suspicious of the conventions of symphonic form, however, regarding the greater freedom offered by opera to be more suited to his temperament as a composer. When he came to start work on a new large-scale orchestral work in 1951, therefore, he took a new approach to the task, producing a sequence of 3 movements that, while closely argued, take a freewheeling approach to musical structure, concerned as much with creating a mosaic of textures as with the development of musical ideas. Martinu himself described it as being "without form", and spoke of his desire to escape the "geometrical relation to composition."

Fantaisies Symphoniques, largely composed in New York but completed in Paris in 1953, was written partly as a result of Martinu's desire to compose something for the conductor Charles Munch (an old friend of his from college days), but also from a deep-seated inner compulsion. What precisely this "story for Charles" beneath the suface is is not certain, but the fact that Martinu's original title for the work was "New Fantastic Symphony" suggests that, like Berlioz, he had deeply personal matters in mind. The suggestion of a hidden programme is boosted by the motif presented by a solo cello shortly after the beginning of the first movement, which derives from Dvořák's Requiem and forms the basis for most of the symphony.

Martinu also quotes himself; in the mercurial second movement there is a phrase from his Field Mass, associated with the idea of homecoming, while the finale features both the ancient Bohemian "St. Wenceslas Chorale" and a fourteen bar sequence from his opera Julietta, whose plot is a complex and surreal meditation on love, fantasy, and the relationship of reality and the imagination, the sort of tale one could easily imagine Terry Gilliam filming. The music in question comes from the scene in which the two protagonists, Julietta and Michel, first meet, and Julietta startles Michel by her insistence that the two are having an affair. The contrast between Julietta's fantasy and Michel's perception of reality forms the heart of the opera, and is further complicated by the suggestion that Julietta herself may be a product of Michel's imagination.

Martinu wrote that the reason for including this music was that "thinking that I shall never hear my opera again, I would listen once more to these few bars", but his admission in letters to close friends that there were deeply personal and private concerns hidden in the Fantaisies suggests there may be a greater significance. He never revealed precisely what these undertows were, and so it is left to the imagination of the listener to decide what is happening when Julietta's dream-music is gradually overtaken by the Requiem motif, and a final frenzied climax builds and is suddenly cut off, leaving a coda of quiet resignation.

Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Among the pieces written in response to Henry Prunière's call for contributions to a supplement to the Revue Musicale in 1920 to commemorate Debussy, who had died in 1918, one stuck out: where most of the contributing composers (including Falla, Bartók and Ravel) responded with conventionally threnodic or wistful miniatures, Igor Stravinsky offered a cool, austere chorale, bearing the title: "Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy".

The complete work, to which this fragment forms the conclusion, in fact has its origins in sketches Stravinsky had made in 1919, while the opening motif was noted down on March 26th, 1918, just after he had learned of the death of Debussy the day before. Most of these sketches indicate that Stravinsky's original intention was to score this music for strings and harmonium, and it seems that they did not find their final form as wind music until much later on, the unrefusable request for a memorial to Debussy providing the final push Stravinsky needed to realise the work's definitive form. As the pluralisation implies, "Symphonies" is not used to denote anything like a conventional classical symphony, but rather harks back to the word's earlier meaning as a generic term for ensemble music (from the Greek "syn" [together] and "phone" [sound]).

The dedication is at least partly ironic; while Stravinsky and Debussy were friends, their relationship was characterised by a certain friction, attributable on Debussy's part to jealousy at the greater fame Stravinsky had achieved, and on Stravinsky's side to resentment at the older composer's occasionally condescending attitude. Debussy did not approve of the more cosmopolitan style that the Russian had been experimenting with, writing to him in 1915 to say;" Cher Stravinsky, you are a great artist! Be, with all your energy, a great Russian artist! It is a good thing to be from one's country, to be attached to the earth like the humblest peasant!"

Stravinsky, however, was by the time of Debussy's death determined to put as much space as possible between himself and his roots. Any hopes he may have entertained about returning to Russia were destroyed after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, after which his modernist style made him persona non grata with the new regime, and it is surely not coincidental that within 2 years he composed Pulcinella, the work which effected a seismic shift in his career, rejecting the Russian folkloristic style that had characterised his greatest successes (not least the Rite of Spring) in favour of the ironic, distanced world of what would become known as neo-classicism. The Symphonies of Winds therefore stands as the last recognisably "Russian" work he produced until the Requiem Canticles some 50 years later - shortly after he visited Russia for the first time since the First World War.

This all goes deeper than mere stylistic turns, though. The structure of the Symphonies, hailed in its early years as something radical, in fact is related very closely to the Russian Orthodox burial service, to the point that one can virtually superimpose the prayers of the service onto the melodic lines that weave their way through the work's short, but intense path. It may be that this work is intended as a burial, not only of Debussy, but also of Stravinsky's own identity as a Russian composer.