Schumann: Symphony No. 4

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, op. 120 

Ziemlich langsam - Lebhaft [Fairly slow - Lively]
Romanze: Ziemlich langsam [Romance: Fairly slow]
Scherzo: Lebhaft [Scherzo: Lively]
Langsam; Lebhaft [Slow- Lively]

Duration: 30'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013

The defining relationship of Robert Schumann's life began in 1828 when he took piano lessons from and boarded with Friedrich Weick.  Weick's nine year old daughter Clara was something of a prodigy herself, and in fact it was hearing her playing that led Schumann to request lessons with her father.   

Friedrich had Clara’s career planned out in meticulous detail, and in 1830 she duly embarked on a concert tour to Paris.  Schumann, meanwhile, continued to take lessons with Wieck but had to abandon any hope of making a living as a pianist after he injured his hand.  How this injury occurred is unclear, but sit mat have been the result of ill-advised contraptions or even surgery to stretch his tendons.  In any event, a career on the concert circuit was now out of the question, and so Schumann concentrated his energies on composition, supporting himself by working as a critic.

By 1834, Schumann had established himself as a leading writer on music, and had set up the influential journal Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("New Journal of Music," a publication that continues to this day).  Meanwhile he ad become engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, the 16-year old daughter of a Bohemian nobleman.  However, it soon became clear that this match was ill-starred. Ernestine was, it turned out, illegitimate and hence would bring no dowry to the marriage.  Meanwhile, Schumann found himself increasingly attracted to Clara, by now 15.  Schumann broke off the engagement and embarked on an affair with Clara.  Weick was not happy when he discovered this and forbade his daughter to meet with Schumann.  Robert and Clara nevertheless continued their relationship in secret.  

In 1837 Schumann asked Wieck for his permission to marry Clara, and was unsurprisingly refused.  Weick threatened to disinherit Clara unless she ended the relationship.  The whole matter eventually ended up in court, when Schumann successfully sued Weick for defamation over his claims that Schumann was a drunk. Robert and Clara were finally married in 1840.

Most of Schumann's early compositions had been for piano. Now came an outburst of song, so astonishingly prolific that 1840 has come to be known as Schumann's "Year of Songs".  Encouraged by his wife, he began to explore orchestral music.  He was also inspired by his discovery in 1839 of the manuscript of Schubert's forgotten Ninth Symphony.  1841 saw an outpouring of orchestral music.  Over four days in January he sketched his First Symphony, which he completed in February and was performed in March.  In April followed a not-quite symphony, the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and in May a fantasy which would eventually form the first movement of his Piano Concerto.  In September, as he celebrated his first wedding anniversary and the birth of his first child, he completed a second symphony in D minor.  This was performed in December but was less well received.  A further symphony in 1845 became his "official" second, and the earlier work was forgotten.

A decade passed before Schumann gave further thought to the piece.  By 1851 he was music director for the city of Düsseldorf and had written another symphony, the "Rhenish".  At the same time he was given the score of an unfinished symphony by an obscure contemporary.  Norbert Burgmüller was born in Düsseldorf in the same year as Schumann and was highly regarded as a promising talent until his early death at 26. Schumann himself wrote an obituary that compared the tragedy of Burgmüller's early death to that of Schubert.  When he became aware of Burgmüller's symphonies he arranged for them to be published, and also completed the orchestration of the third movement of the Second.  He considered attempting to complete the finale as well, possibly with a view to performing it as part of the subscription concerts he directed as part of his duties in Düsseldorf, but the surviving sketches for the movement were too fragmentary.  In any case, the completion of unfinished works by dead composers was not as popular an undertaking then as it is now.

Working on Burgmüller's symphony reminded Schumann of his own long forgotten D minor symphony. He made extensive revisions in December 1851, and after some more work the symphony was finally published and performed to great acclaim in 1853.   He worked further on it intermittently over the next two years, and it was finally published and performed in its final incarnation in 1853.  This time it was received much better.  The resurrected symphony would prove to be his last.  Schumann’s health had been deteriorating for some time (probably the long-term consequence of  contracting syphilis in 1832, for which he had been treated with arsenic).  As 1853 progressed he suffered increasingly from aural hallucinations, and after a suicide attempt in February 1854 was confined to a sanatorium near Bonn.  He briefly rallied, but his mental health declined rapidly thereafter, and he died there in July 1856.

The Fourth Symphony therefore offers an unusual experience of youthful inspiration tempered by mature experience.  Schumann made a number of changes from his original scheme, adding several details to emphasise the connections between the movements (which run without a break) and revising the slow introduction and the passage connecting the third movement to the finale, one of the most inspired passages in all Schumann’s symphonies.  The major difference lies in the orchestration, which is much weightier with many lines doubled by wind and strings.  It is sometimes unkindly suggested that Schumann did this to compensate for the shortcomings of his wind players in Düdsseldorf, but it seems quite likely that his intention was to recast some heartfelt and serious ideas in an appropriately grand manner. A reflection of this intention is in the dedication on the manuscript to the violinist Joseph Joachim: "When the first sounds of this symphony emerged, Joseph Joachim was a little boy; since then the symphony and even more the youth have grown, and so I dedicate it to him, even if only silently."

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 63

Allegro moderato
Andante assai
Allegro, ben marcato

Duration: 26'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2013

In 1918, as the revolution reached its climax, Prokofiev decided that for the sake of his family’s safety they must leave Russia. The departure was intended to be temporary, until things calmed down again.  In fact it was to be 18 years until he returned permanently to his homeland.  Basing himself in Paris, he lived a semi-itinerant life, constantly traveling across the globe on concert tours.

In the newly established Soviet Union, meanwhile, the arts became an important focus for the new regime. Artists, writers and musicians were now expected to produce work that reflected the revolutionary ideals of the Communist Party.  In the early 20s this actually led to a flourishing avant-garde, as the part encouraged work that would show the new Russia as a modern, forward thinking country.  After the death of Lenin in 1924 however, Stalin took control of the party.  Stalin was a man of conservative taste, and so as he tightened his grip on the reins of power the state began to exert a more overt influence on its artists. By the 1930s the cult of the Leader was developing rapidly, and the regime began to look more inwardly.  The aim of global revolution was rejected in favour of the idea of "Socialism in One Country."   What was wanted in music now was not bourgeois innovations, but simple, optimistic tunes such as might be sung by the workers on the collective farms that were springing up as part of Stalin's series of Five Year Plans.

When he left in 1918, Prokofiev was a certified enfant terrible of Russian music, but as his extended sojourn in the west continued he became more preoccupied with a simpler, more melodic and direct style of music than he had hitherto composed.  It seemed therefore that the conditions in Soviet culture were becoming more suited to his art, and vice versa.  Moreover, Prokofiev was homesick, and longed to return to Russia.  This overwhelming desire perhaps blinded him to the true situation in his homeland.

In 1934, Prokofiev returned to Russia for the first time since the revolution for a concert tour.  Some of his more complex works were less well received by the authorities, but he felt nevertheless a rapprochement between himself and his country.  He even gave an interview to the journal Izvestiya in which he expounded on his idea that a “new simplicity” was needed in music. His growing links to his homeland were strengthened when a long cherished project, a ballet on Romeo and Juliet, was taken on by the Bolshoi ballet.  Prokofiev made arrangements to stay on the Bolshoi Theatre Estate while writing the ballet.  Having made this decision, he took the further step: he and his family would return to Russia permanently.  Prospects seemed better than America, where  his popularity was waning, and he received assurances that his international travels would not be curtailed (promises which turned out to be worthless).

The Second Violin Concerto was composed in 1935, as Prokofiev made these life-changing decisions.  It  is generally held up as an example of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity”, but it is rather more complicated than that.  It is true that there is a surface straightforwardness to its folk-like themes and clean orchestration.  But ambiguities abound: the initial theme is lopsided in its phrasing and the music constantly strays from its ostensible simplicity into more tense moods.  The middle movement presents the facade of a sweet cantilena, but the lyricism is  interrupted by nervier passages. The finale’s Spanish-tinged dance, complete with castanets, is undercut by irregular rhythms that suggest an unease behind the dance.

It was composed for the violinist Robert Soetens, who had championed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.  Prokofiev’s initial conception was modest. In May 1935 writing to Soetens he referred to “sketches for the concertino”, but the work he completed in the summer was altogether more substantial.  Prokofiev remarked, "The number of places in which I wrote the Concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid."

The Madrid premiere was given on 1 December 1935, after which Prokofiev embarked on a whirlwind tour of North Africa with Soetens.  From there, he wrote to a friend, his next objective was “to join Mrs Prokofiev in Moscow for New Year’s Eve.”  In January 1936 the final preparations were made for this family to move permanently to Russia, and Prokofiev embarked on yet another international tour.  He was therefore unaware of the storm that broke on 28th on January, when an article titled “Chaos instead of Music” appeared in Pravda condemning his compatriot Shostakovich.  This was the opening salvo in a protracted war on the arts in the Soviet Union that would form part of Stalin’s Great Terror.  Prokofiev initially managed to keep some of his privileges, but after he returned from a tour in 1938 the door slammed shut and he was never allowed to leave Russia again.

Magnus Lindberg: Gran Duo

Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958)
Gran Duo

Duration: 20'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2013

Perhaps it is something to do with northern climates, but Finnish music seems to chime well with British audiences.  Sibelius found some of the most enthusiastic reception of his music in the UK, and Magnus Lindberg, the leading composer of the current generation of Finnish composers, has also found his music become a regular staple of British concert life.  The Gran Duo is a direct product of this; it was commissioned for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle, who gave its first performance in London in 2000.

Lindberg happily describes himself as both a Romantic and a Modernist, without seeing any contradiction between the two.  His music may be highly expressive, but there is nothing nostalgic about it, and its warmth is tempered by rigorous construction.  “I don’t ask people to understand music in any technical sense because I don’t understand music in the same sense that you understand a set phrase in a language. Music is much more complex and the semantics are not really about comprehension. What makes this serious music different from commercial music is that its function is not the same as dance music or music you have on in the background. The only thing you should ask is to sit down and concentrate on it – if you don’t listen to it, it is merely a disturbance. It is the same as listening to a Beethoven symphony. You cannot listen to a Beethoven symphony in the background. It is a drama and you have to take it as it comes.”

The Gran Duo is a dialogue between wind and brass, or at least begins that way.  Lindberg has said that he wanted the work to sound “like an orchestra where the strings didn’t arrive on time.”  Its instrumentation (which also dispenses with the percussion section) recalls Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, while its title alludes to an even earlier large scale work for winds: Mozart’s Gran Partita. At first the wind and brass are distinct: the wind tend to play higher and are led on by the brass, who are lower and more assertive.  These roles conform to stereotypical notions of the masculine and feminine that permeate 19th century music.  However, as the music progresses, the two groups increasingly fragment into smaller groups and soloists, and these roles become less distinct and blur into one another.  

The Gran Duo is nominally split into five sections, but these grow out of each other organically so that the impression is of a seamless whole.  There is a precedent for this sort of approach to composition, and Lindberg acknowledges his forbear at the end with a brief allusion to Sibelius’s Tapiola.

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Igor Stravinsky  (1882-1971)
The Firebird (complete ballet)

Duration: 45'
Publisher: Schott Music
KSO performed: 2013, 2002

Introduction - Kashchey's enchanted garden - The Firebirdvappears, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich - Dance of the Firebird - Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird - The Firebird's entreaty - The appearance of the thirteen enchanted princesses - The princesses' game with the golden apples - The sudden appearance of Ivan Tsarevich - Round Dance of the princesses - Dawn; Ivan Tsarevich enters Kashchey's palace - The sound of enchanted bells; monsters appear, Kashchey's guar, and take Ivan Tsarevich prisoner - The arrival of Kashchy the Immortal - Kashchey's dialogue with Ivan Tsarevich - the princesses intercede - the appearance of the Firebird - Kashchey's followers dance under the Firebird's spell - Infernal Dance of Kashchey's subjects - Lullaby (the Firebird) - Kashchey awakes - Death of Kashchey - Kashchey's spells are broken; his palace disappears; the stone knights return to life; joy reigns

The origins of the Ballets Russes lie in a late nineteenth century Russian artistic movement known as Mir iskusstva [The World of Art].  This was a group of students that  congregated around the artist Alexandre Benois in 1898. A year later they set up a magazine, also called Mir iskusstva, the editorship of which was  taken up by Sergei Diaghilev.  Like the Pre-Raphaelites in England, Mir iskusstva dedicated itself to the opposition of what its members saw as the decadence of industrial society, and sought to preserve and restore Russian folk-culture.  Few Westerners would ever see a copy of this magazine; nevertheless it would prove a pivotal influence on European art in the early 20th century.  In 1907 and 1908 Benois  and his cohorts presented programmes of Russian nationalist opera and ballet in Paris.  These proved highly successful, and in 1909 the group returned, now formally established as the Ballets Russes.  By this time Diaghilev had taken charge of the project.  The next few years would see the growth of a phenomenally successful company whose influence is still felt today.

With an artist such as Benois designing, and the choreographer Mikhail Fokine directing the dancers, the Ballets Russes offered productions that combined the exoticism of Russian folk traditions with a revolutionary approach to design and choreography.  However, where the productions lacked a certain fizz was in the music.  Although Diaghilev managed to commission such eminent French composers as Debussy and Ravel, most of the Russian music represented was in the form of what the company secretary Walter Nouvel archly described as "salades russes."  These compilations of old orchestral and ballet repertoire paled in comparison to what was being achieved in the other elements of the shows.  The lack of vital new Russian music did not pass unnoticed in the press, and so Diaghilev, Benois and Fokine determined to find a composer who could produce something special.  They concocted the most Russian scenario they could think of. This combined elements of several Russian folk tales: the Firebird, the demon king Kashchey the Immortal and the archetypal hero Prince Ivan Tsarevich.  This sort of conflation will be recognised by anyone familar with the 1940s horror films churned out by Universal Studios featuring the likes of Dracula versus Frankenstein versus the Wolf Man. 

The tale begins as Prince Ivan Tsarevich  enters the magical kingdom of Kashchey the Immortal.  In its gardens he sees the Firebird, whom he chases and catches. The Firebird agrees to help Ivan Tsarevich in exchange for its freedom.  Thirteen Princesses appear, and play a game of catch with Golden apples.  Ivan Tsarevich falls in love with one of them.  As dawn breaks, Ivan Tsarevich enters Kashchey's castle, determined to marry the princess.  He talks with Kashchey but the two soon argue.  The princesses try to intervene, but Kashchey sends his demonic entourage after the prince.  The Firebird appears and bewitches Kashchey and his creatures, making them dance a wild, infernal dance.  They then fall asleep.  The Firebird tells Ivan Tsarevich that Kashchey's soul is contained within a giant egg; if this is destroyed he will die.  Kashchey awakes, but Ivan Tsarevich breaks the egg and the demon king is killed.  With Kashchey dead, all the magical creatures and the palace disappear.  All Kashchey's prisoners, including the princesses, awake and celebrate his defeat.

Diaghilev initially hoped that his house composer Nikolai Tcherepnin would compose the ballet.  Why this never happened is something of a mystery.  Tcherepnin was prone to mood swings, and Benois later claimed that he was simply becoming less keen on writing for the ballet.  However, it is also quite possible that he declined after he had a falling out with Fokine.  In any event, Tcherepnin resigned from the company, and so Diaghilev's thoughts turned to other composers.  He approached Anatoly Lyadov about the commission, but although Lyadov apparently initially expressed interest, nothing came of this. By now things were becoming urgent, and so Diaghilev decided to take a chance.   For the 1909 production "Les Sylphides", Diaghilev had commissioned a number of young composers to arrange piano pieces of Chopin.  one of these had made a particular impression, not only for the distinctiveness of his work, but also his rapid work rate: Igor Stravinsky.

The break came at just the right time for Stravinsky. As a student he had actually studied Law, but was promising enough as a composer that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed to take him as a pupil anyway. As his studies progressed however, he found that his teacher became less enamoured of him as his style became more influenced by Skryabin and Glazunov, both of whom Rimsky-Korsakov considered unacceptably modern.

Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird is nowadays usually heard in one of the suites that he later concocted for concert performance.  His complete original score is however an astonishing tour de force of orchestral writing.  His influences are here not yet fully absorbed, but such dramatic music as the buildup to the climactic Infernal Dance of Kashchey are as exciting as anything he retained for the later suites; it is often in these little-heard passages that can be heard the first stirrings of the musical revolution that would erupt in The Rite of Spring.

Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra

Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6

1: Präludium (Prelude)
2: Reigen (Rounds)
3: Marsch (March)

Duration: 19'
Publisher: Universal Edition
KSO performed: 2013

Alban Berg was born into a comfortable middle-class Viennese family, the third of four children.  His unremarkably happy childhood was thrown into disarray after his father died in 1900.  This loss was hugely traumatic for Berg. Within months he had an attack of asthma, a compalint from which he would then suffer for the rest of his life. His schoolwork suffered; he failed his exams and was forced to repeat his sixth year, and would later also have to repeat his seventh.  Most scandalously, he had an affair with the family's kitchen maid, which resulted in an illegitimate daughter.  The eventual collapse of this relationship was the primary motivation for a suicide attempt in the autumn of 1903.

As a child Berg's main passion had been for literature, but in the wake of his father's death he became interested more in music.  He had been given piano lessons by his governess, and from 1901 he composed songs and piano duets for his family.  He evidently had talent, and so in 1904 his brother and sister answered a newspaper advertisement for composition classes.  Unknown to Berg, they took copies of some of his songs to the teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.  Schoenberg was impressed with what he saw and accepted Berg as a pupil, refusing to charge a fee in view of the family circumstances.  Berg quickly became devoted to him.  He studied with him until Schoenberg abruptly left Vienna in 1911, and continued to seek his advice and approval thereafter.

The relationship was not an easy one.  Berg increasingly regarded Schoenberg as something of a surrogate father figure, whose approval he craved and whose criticism was devastating.  Schoenberg for his part felt no compunction about lecturing his pupil on matters of morality as well as music.  As well as absorbing Schoenberg’s compositional ideas, Berg also inherited to an extent his teacher's moral views, in particular his ambivalence towards Viennese society.  Schoenberg, along with many artists, saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a corrupt and decadent realm that preferred oppression of its subjects to social reform.  The Expressionist movement to which Schoenberg was allied was in part a reaction to the lack of opportunity for political expression by exploring extremes of personal crisis in art, partly fulled by the new ideas of the subconscious that Sigmund Freud was developing.

In 1913 Berg visited Schoenberg in Berlin.  The trip was a happy one until the last day, when Berg showed his former teacher the two pieces he had written since Schoenberg's departure from Vienna.   Schoenberg vehemently criticised them, before proceeding to lecture Berg on what he saw as his lack of self-discipline. In a letter to Schoenberg written after his return home, Berg revealed how much to heart he had taken the criticism: “I have to thank you for your reproof as for everything I have received from you, knowing well that it was meant for my own good.  I don't need to tell you that the great pain it has caused me, is proof of the fact that I have heeded your criticism.”

Schoenberg had suggested that for his next composition Berg should consider a characteristic suite for orchestra, and Berg resolved that he would attempt such a project.  This was the starting point for his Three Orchestral Pieces.  This origin is visible in the titles of the pieces (Prelude, Rounds, March), but the final work that Berg produced moves way beyond the scope of what might be expected of the original idea.  Berg dedicated the Three Orchestral Pieces to Schoenberg as a present for his 40th birthday in 1914; in the event, only the first and last pieces were finished in time, the middle movement not being completed until 1915.  Berg's friend and fellow pupil of Schoenberg Anton Webern conducted two of the pieces in 1920, but it was not until 1930 that the work was heard in full.

Apart from Schoenberg, the influence of Gustav Mahler looms large in Berg's style.  After Mahler's death in 1911 Berg briefly considered writing a symphony, and some of the ideas from that aborted project ended up as part of the Praeludium.  This piece, materialising uncertainly from nothing, carries clear echoes of the opening movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, which had made an enormous impression on Berg at its posthumous premiere in 1912 in Vienna.  Like Mahler,  Berg's Prelude rouses itself repeatedly to increasingly intense climaxes, but eventually retreats back into the fog from which emerged.  In a nod to Schoenberg's concept of “developing variation”, ideas from this movement are then reconstituted and transformed to provide the themes for the second.

The title “Reigen” is usually translated as “Round Dance”, but it seems more likely that it has other associations: in the 19th century, “Reigen” was a term used in salon music for a sequence of dance tunes, generally a hodgepodge of popular hits.  In a nod to this, the movement evokes Waltzes and Ländler, sometimes overtly but often through a distorting mist.  “Reigen” may also refer to the  notorious, and at the time banned, play of that name by Arthur Schnitzler.  The play has ten scenes featuring a chain of couples: a prostitute and a soldier, then the soldier and a maid, and so on until the prostitute appears again with a count in the final scene to complete the circle.  Berg owned a copy of this dark indictment of Viennese morality, and its tone chimes well with Berg's own ambivalence towards Vienna, and the often sardonic character of this movement.

The final March  also begins with material reworked from the previous piece, as well as reintroducing a number of ideas from the Praeludium. This is music of astonishing and overwhelming complexity, that makes the most of the sheer brute force that can be harnessed by a large orchestra. The sheer density of ideas and textures eventually causes everything to collapse in on itself, leaving a desolate landscape and a hint of something sinister before a final outburst by the brass. Weeks after Berg completed this movement, Europe stepped over the brink and was engulfed in war.

Berlioz: Overture, Benvenuto Cellini

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Overture, Benvenuto Cellini

Duration: 12'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013 

Berlioz claimed to despise Italian music, but the 15 months he spent in the country in the early 1830s proved a source of inspiration throughout the rest of the decade. Romeo and Juliet, Harold in Italy and his first opera Benvenuto Cellini all drew to some extent on his experiences of Italy.

His trip was a consequence of his finally winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at his third attempt in 1830. Learning from his previous entries, he had composed a cantata in a deliberately tame style so as not to annoy the judges. He felt ashamed of the piece, and later destroyed it.  Despite his aversion to its music, Italy itself proved highly amiable.  The prize money also came as a welcome relief at a time when he was struggling to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, by 1836 when he was hard at work on Benvenuto Cellini and most needed financial security, the money had run out.  He was therefore forced to take up a second career as a critic, a role which his considerable talent for it did not prevent him from loathing.

The opera is based - very loosely - on the memoirs of the eponymous 16th century sculptor and goldsmith.  Cellini was a colourful character, whose life also encompassed painting, music, a period soldiering and accusations of philandering with both sexes.  Berlioz identified with the idea of artist as hero that Cellini propagates in his writing.  While highly entertaining, not to say scandalous, Cellini's memoirs are arguably not greatly suited to dramatic adaptation.  This might partly explain why the opera's first performance at the Paris Opera in 1838 was an unmitigated disaster. 

It cannot have helped that even before its première the opera was subject to derision and hosility, not least from its cast.  The principal tenor abandonded his part after three performances, which the Opéra took as confirmation of its failure.  Berlioz wrote to the Director, "Sir, I have the honour to announce to you that I withdraw my opera Benvenuto.  I am absolutely convinced that you will receive this with pleasure. I have the honour, sir, to be your devoted servant, H. Berlioz."

Revising it many years later for  revival in 1852 did little to make it more popular.   It was performed at Covent Garden in front of Queen Victoria, and was as unsuccessful as at its first staging.  It remains a rarity in opera houses today, although its ebullient overture has found more success as a concert piece.