Symphonic progressivism, 1896

I came across the program above quite by chance the other day, during another search (I don’t even remember what I was looking for).

It’s rather astounding. In our own time, symphony orchestras have come to be seen as conservative organizations and as curators of the past. The call has gone out for a greater diversity in the repertoire, for the performance of more living composers and the performance of more women composers.

Here, from 1896, is an exemplar from the Boston Symphony. It’s a subscription concert and every composer on the program above, except for the last, was alive at the time of the performance.

And the first piece on the agenda — the “Gaelic” Symphony by Amy Beach — was, yes, composed by a woman. It’s a piece very much worth reviving, by the way.

Neglected symphony: Symphony No. 3 by Franz Berwald

Here’s another offering in my neglected symphony series, the Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonie singuliere,” by the Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1796-1868). Why is it neglected, you ask? I don’t think you can say it has anything to do with the work’s quality. It’s more that the 19th-century classical music culture was dominated by Germans, who forged the canon, who left out Swedes and many others.

Okko Kamu conducts the Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester.

Playlist: Some British symphonic music

It was gratifying last week to see the audience’s response to Pacific Symphony’s first performances of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 (and how well the orchestra played it, under the baton of guest conductor Michael Francis). We don’t get much British symphonic music here in California, or in the U.S. generally, so I thought I’d put together a little playlist for those of you who are curious to explore a little more.

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Audio: A Christmas symphony

I give you herewith “Santa Claus (Christmas Symphony)” by William Henry Fry, an American composer and critic who lived from 1813-1864. He was a most interesting musician and writer, and is often credited as the first native-born American to write a grand opera and to compose for large symphony orchestra. As a critic, he advocated for the performance of American music and encouraged composers to look to our folk music for inspiration long before Dvorak did so in the 1890s.

The symphony posted above is perhaps not a masterpiece, but neither is it anything to sniff at. You will hear a distinctly American touch here and there. The piece was given its premiere on Christmas Eve, 1853, in New York. It is performed here by the Royal Scottish Orchestra conducted by Tony Rowe.

“Santa Claus (Christmas Symphony)” is a programmatic work in one movement, which, according to George Templeton Strong, consisted of,

“an Introduction, Slow Movement, Christmas Merrymakings, Juvenile Dances and Songs, Separation of the Merrymakers as midnight approaches. Prayers of the Children, Lullaby, Stillness (all being hushed in slumber), A Snow Storm and Episode of a Perishing Traveler, The Church Bell tolls midnight, Santa Claus comes in his sleigh and distributes Christmas Gifts, Visions of happy sleep. Angels chanting the glad tidings. Sunrise, Joy of Children on discovering their toys, Christmas Hymn, Adeste fidelis—and Grand Finale—Hallelujah Chorus!”

Fry passed out a detailed program of the work for the opening night audience. A scholarly, but clearly written, discussion of the premiere, and the ensuing controversy, is here.

Merry Christmas.

Video: Leonard Bernstein conducts Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’

None of the six symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) turn up very often on U.S. concert programs, and that’s a shame. The set is certainly one of the most remarkable and satisfying of the 20th century (though No. 1 was written in 1892). The reason they aren’t performed here much is perhaps hard to say with certainty, but I think it probably has something to do with our programming in general, which is overwhelmingly focused on German and Russian classics. There are simply no Danish works in the standard repertoire, Nielsen or otherwise.

At any rate, here’s a rather athletic and terrific live performance of the Third, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1965. (The sound is decent; you can even hear Bernstein stomping at several points. The picture is virtually high def.) Bernstein at one time took up the Nielsen cause with some enthusiasm, and recorded the symphonies 2-5 with the New York Philharmonic, as well as the flute and clarinet concertos. He also recorded the Third with the Royal Danish.

Review: Walton Symphonies Nos. 1-2, Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony

How is it that the two symphonies of the British composer William Walton, from 1935 and 1960, have escaped my attention until now? Oh, certainly, the fault is mostly mine; I could have always listened to a recording of them. More to my point, though, is that I never did bother to listen to them because I thought them negligible and unimportant, having never once run across them in my many years of concertgoing. (Of course, what British symphonies do you ever hear regularly performed by American orchestras?)

Well, not to tarry, they are both very good. The First, completed when Walton was in his early 30s, is usually considered his masterpiece. “The claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive,” writes Michael Steinberg — a statement which itself seems not excessive. In four movements, the symphony is clearly modeled on those of Sibelius (the foremost living symphonist at the time), though Walton’s style here is more pent up, athletic and intense than it is dark and brooding. Walton took several years to write it and apparently had quite a lot of trouble doing so. (Stuck on the finale, he asked the advice of the composer Constant Lambert, who suggested a fugue. Walton, who was largely self-taught, admitted that he didn’t know how to write one. Lambert sent him to the article on fugues in Grove’s Dictionary and after reading it Walton produced the dazzling fugue at the center of his finale.)

Ostinatos drive the outer movements; the string section is required to leap and bound. The second movement is a biting and gritty scherzo marked Presto con malizia (with malice). The slow moment (Andante con maliconia) initially has a dazed sadness before rising to a more ominous and dramatic despair.

Perhaps Walton’s symphonies are underestimated because they remind us of others. In addition to Sibelius, the First recalls, in spots, Hindemith. The Second brings Stravinsky to mind, especially the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements (Walton’s Second is in three movements, too). But never mind, Walton makes the work his own, and it is enchantingly and elegantly scored. An angular and muscular Allegro molto is followed by a voluptuous, though still acrid slow movement (with moments of “Firebird” opulence). The finale — marked Passacaglia (Theme – Variations 1-10 – Fugue – Coda scherzando) — is a compositional tour de force, with a 12-tone theme and the orchestra put through the paces, a giant, powerhouse machine.

The current recording (on Onyx Classics) comes courtesy of the Bournemouth Symphony, home in the South of England, and its Ukrainian principal conductor Kirill Karabits, who together have made many recordings before, including the complete Prokofiev symphonies. These are confident and kinetic performances, without wasted effort and thrillingly pedal to the metal. The strings in particular deserve praise for their lean and nimble efforts in Walton’s pulsating and skittering lines. It’s all well tailored and well steered.