Richard Strauss ‘Horn Concerto #1’: For Bryony

It is with the saddest of hearts that I write this blog on Richard Strauss’ horn concerto no.1 in Eb major. This wonderful piece of music that showcases the french horn was really enjoyed by my late friend, Bryony. Therefore, this blog is dedicated to her and her wonderful life that has been so cruelly snatched away from her.

Richard Strauss was born 11th June 1864, which places him within the romantic era of classical music and Strauss soon became a forefront composer within German romanticism. His father, Franz Strauss was principal horn player at Court Opera in Munich and gave Strauss countless music lessons as he saw potential in the young boy when he started composing at age 6. His father’s crucial influence on Strauss while he was studying music really shaped Strauss’ musical style and of course, his love for the horn. Strauss produced a wide-spread of different compositions, with a large number being concertos and orchestral works. His first horn concerto was written between 1882-3 and was premiered in 1885 in Meiningen.

The concerto starts with the orchestra playing a strong tonic (Eb major) chord on a general pause. The horn then enters alone with the first dotted quaver theme, which is heard throughout the orchestra in this movement. The statement horn solo really showcases the instrument and because the instrument enters so soon, it shows influences from composers such as Mendelssohn and Wagner. The orchestra then play without the soloist, reiterating the dotted-quaver horn theme which leads into the next solo entry at figure A. The orchestra play ascending triplets to anticipate when the horn enters once more. So the next entry by the soloist is a luscious, legato melody which is started by an octave F-F by the soloist. Only strings accompany at this point, with repetitive quaver movement. This really emphasises the soloist and even though the horn melody is quite simple, it’s incredibly effective with such a reduced orchestra. After this long legato section we hear the first theme return in the orchestra only, and at the end of this section the theme is varied slightly which prepares us for the next horn entry which is a semi-quaver variation of the first theme. The horn then quickly settles back into a lovely long, slurred melody which is a joy to listen to. The texture slowly gets a lot thinner and the soloist plays a much more technically challenge passage with triplets and semi-quavers which gets varied throughout this section of the movement. The horn is really showcased here by Strauss and the call and answer work between the soloist and orchestra is exciting to listen to. The first theme then returns once more within the orchestra which ends this wonderful allegro movement.

All three movements of this concerto are played with no stopping, so the first movement seemingly segues into the second movement. Marked andante, this movement is a beautiful exhibition of the horn and the beautiful sounds it can make. This movement is fairly repetitive in terms of accompaniment, with the strings playing a large part in the accompanying side of things in this movement. The speed is really controlled at this slow speed which really illustrates Strauss’ beautiful horn writing.What I really love about this movement are the small interjections played by upper woodwind, which give so much colour after the alluring string accompaniment. The soloist plays an exquisite melody line which is just so pleasing to hear. At the key change the tempo picks up a little with the accompaniment becoming very woodwind heavy, while the strings play a pizzicato rhythm. The first section then returns once more, back in the original key of this piece, which after a long recapitulation of the themes, segues into the third movement.

Marked allegro, the final movement of this wonderful concerto has the longest orchestra introduction before the soloist enters (though it’s still not that long!). Once the horn enters it plays a wonderful triplet theme which once again passed around the orchestra. A lively 6/8 section is heard, which is both playful and incredibly charming. A lovely, rich texture is heard in a lot of this movement, which really shows the unification between the soloist and orchestra. After the initial theme is varied and passed around both soloist and orchestra, the first theme from the first movement is heard by the soloist playing their first cadenza-like solo. The return of this theme is very intriguing as it really feels like Strauss has gone full circle and ended back with his initial thoughts. Both themes are then manipulated until the end of the work, which shows Strauss’ compositional style within the romanticism branch of classical music. The piece ends with crotchet stabs on the tonic Eb major. The work itself is an exciting showcase of the horn and the piece overall lasts about 15 minutes or so. You can really hear the influences from Mendelssohn and other such romantic composers within this work, which is, of course, a joy to hear.

So this blog is dedicated to my dear friend Bryony, who was an incredibly talented horn player and loved this concerto a lot. She was tragically killed by a drunk driver last friday, which has been incredibly hard to come to terms with. She was an incredibly kind, bubbly girl who was a friend to anybody who needed one and the devastation that this has caused is a credit to the amazing impact she had on people. An innocent life that was taken away far far too soon, I miss and love you so much Bry, until next time x

R.I.P x

Recommended Recordings:

Peter Damm (Soloist)

John Adams ‘The Chairman Dances’: Programmatic Genius

The Chairman Dances by American composer John Adams is a mezmerising display of programmatic mastery in the post-minimalist movement within classical music. Written in 1985 the piece is essentially a by-product of his very famous opera Nixon in China which depicts American President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. With that in mind, The Chairman Dances has its own scenario that goes with it, making it a programmatic piece of music (basically it depicts a scene and tells a story). Peter Sellars (director of the opera) says this about the scenario:

“Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall, and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone…”1

The Chairman Dances, subtitled ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ takes the listener on a musical journey which consists of a recurring foxtrot theme based around a major second motif which is first heard in the bassoons at the start of the piece. Adams’ style in this piece really presents a mix of minimalist and romantic writing, which makes it such a clever piece of music. The piece begins with the bassoons and violas, both very woody in tone, playing the major second quaver theme. The upper woodwind then join in with a repeating descending quaver pattern, which is layered in by instruments to slowly create the pulsating texture. Bar 9 sees the basses and cellos enter with a steady crotchet beat on a low B, which then changes between that note and a low F#. This part really gives strength into the foundation of this piece and it offers a new tone to the piece. Still layering up the instruments, Adams introduces the oboes and harp with an off-beat suspended note on A. Subsequent to this the piano, vibraphone and glockenspeil join with this off-beat note which gives a sporadic feel to the piece, as this off-beat interjection theme is layered on top of the relentless major second theme. The violins then join in with this and are the last to be layed in onto this busy texture. One of my favourite things about this piece is that Adams writes in so many small fragments of music for a lot of instruments, but it seems to always lock together and create a rather pleasing sound. I always think of this piece as one of those ‘impossible’ puzzles of the jelly beans, where you think it’d be impossible for those pieces to work together to create one picture, but somehow with some trying it you realise they fitted together all along.

The piece fluxuates a lot between 2/2 and 3/2 time giving it a strong beat throughout the piece, which ties in with its essential foundation themes. The brass enter (muted) with an extended repeated quaver motif which politely sits underneath the other themes that are buzzing around the orchestra. By b.59 there is a change and the main foxtrot theme is now played in a minor mode, which adds so much tonal (or lack of) colour to the piece. The tuned percussion play such an important role in this piece, as they not only add colour, but a new texture to the piece with their relentless off-beat rhythms and their syncopated parts which work with the orchestra to help keep the speed of the piece up. Adams’ style in this piece is not fully minimalistic, but has some tendancies towards that musical period. For instance, the use of repeated rhtyhms is a main feature of minimalist writing as its taking the familiar and working with the bare minimum to achieve a sound/texture that the composer desires. So after this minor-mode foxtrot section, Adams brings back the opening foxtrot theme (sounds familiar right?) the texture becomes thicker a lot quicker at this point but the main theme is there. The high-pitched pizzicato notes from the upper strings really ring through on this reprise section and the upper woodwinds enter with their opposing quaver-movement a lot sooner than the first time. The shrill high octaves of the upper woodwinds and strings really give an exciting air to the piece in comparison to the strong lower-pitched instruments which hone in on the foundation of the piece.

By b.125 the minor mode foxtrot theme returns, this time initiated by the piano and tuned percussion. The piano plays such an important role within this piece as its chordal foundation create a secure pathway for the melodic instruments at this point to fly above. After this section some new material is generated into a violin melody which is played in four. The change in tempo here is very obvious as it goes from a fairly fast tempo to very relaxed and laid-back, which all points towards it being a programmatic piece. This syncopated theme is played by the piano as well and above that the woodwind play off-beat quaver patterns to compliment the other parts of the orchestra. This part of the piece particularly highlights Adams’ use of romantic writing to create a difference in feeling within the piece. The piece becomes quite unstable rhythmically by b.221, which adds to the tension and excitement of this piece. The harps play long glissando’s to create a mysterical air about this section, as well as the violas playing prolonged tremolo notes to create a more chaotic texture. This carries on for a while until we reach what has been named as the ‘slinky’ section of the piece at b.251. This probably one of my favourite sections of the piece, an even slower tempo is played, contrary to the faster tempo just heard. The strings play incredibly high harmonics and all other strings play pizzicato off-beat notes. The woodwind section, with the exclusion of the bass clarinet, play an on-beat quaver pattern to compliment the strings. The bass clarinet joins in with a slightly varied off-beat motif later on.

A transitional section is heard after the slower section, which sees the violins, and then later the upper woodwind, play some very fast demisemiquaver patterns which run into a slower tempo once more which gradually gets faster. This section is pushed on by the tuba and basses, which are complimented by the upper woodwind quaver theme. This section slowly speeds up to a much faster tempo which releases a lot of the musical tension that was heard in the previous sections. This section is also based upon the initial minor mode theme, so the familiarity of this section will be fairly solid now when you listen to the piece. The texture becomes a lot fuller and the whole orchestra are playing varying rhythms to create a very busy sound, which slowly over the next 100 bars or so will die away until only the piano and percussion remain, playing the chord progression of the major mode theme. This isn’t to say that nothing happens in those hundered bars, a lot happens, but its best to listen to this little treasure of a piece to hear its true beauty! When the piano fades off at the end all that is left is the sand block, bass drum and a shaker. This ending is very unusual and it is supposed to represent the gramophone that they’re dancing to. It’s like it’s dying away, like this fantasy they’re dancing in, its very moving when you think of it in conjunction to the scenario that it is depicting.

I was lucky enough to play this piece with my university symphony orchestra, which was a great experience (though very frustrating as the counting was tough!). A good pal of mine, Dom Hartley, conducted us through this wonderful piece which we all worked so hard on as it’s not easy! I’d also like to thank him for his advice and help while I wrote this blog up! This piece is a hidden gem and is well worth a listen, it lasts about 12:30 and is well worth the ride it’ll take you on. A brilliantly clever piece of music that seemlessly mixes minimalism with romanticism to create an incredibly pleasing piece of music!

Recommended recordings:

This recording is by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Sir Simon Rattle conducting). This is a fantastic interpretation of this incredible work.

 

1 – http://www.earbox.com/the-chairman-dances/

Dmitri Shostakovich ‘Waltz No.2’: What a Suite Dance!

The inspiration for this blog comes from my love of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as wanting to write a blog that is slightly shorter and a bit lighter than some of my earlier ones. I shall be looking into one of my favourite waltz’s of all time – Shostakovich’s Waltz No.2 from Suite for Variety Orchestra. Shostakovich wrote this suite post-1956 as it is used as part of the soundtrack of the Russian film The First Elechon. The suite itself has 8 small movements in them, all of which are scored for a large orchestra (with the addition of a full saxophone section, a celeste and two pianos). In a composers note on the score, Shostakovich writes that any amount of the movements can be played at any one time, as well as in any order the conductor pleases. This adds a personal effect for the conductor/orchestra as it can be made a much more personal suite.

The second waltz is probably the most famous out of all the movements, probably due to its affiliation with film. As well as that it is an incredibly charming piece of music that is accessible to listen to. The waltz is only about 3 minutes long, and somehow its just very recognisable. Starting with a standard waltz accompaniment in 3/4 by the strings and snare drum, the main theme is played on alto saxophone, which is an interesting choice, seeing as saxophones were rarely used in classical orchestras. The tune is charming and very pleasing to listen to which gives such an impact when the full orchestra start layering in after the first solo line with the main theme. A lush sound is made by the strings at this point and it really highlights the delightful writing from Shostakovich.

This piece wavers between Eb major and C minor (relative major/minor keys) which gives it a steady feel in terms of tonality, which I think will appeal to a lot more people. The use of tuned percussion and bells is incredibly alluring for the listener as it creates a kind of comedic value, but Shostakovich still holding his musical integrity. The strings a bit later play a new theme which is accompanied by the snare drum and an ‘oom pa pa’ accompaniment from the winds and brass. The trumpets then take this new theme on and it creates a nice contrast to the rich string sound. This leads into my favourite section of the waltz – the trombone solo. A wonderful recap of the first theme is played by a solo trombone which is so very inviting for the listener as it emphasises the instrument as well as carrying on with the witty novelty of the piece.

The togetherness is something that is very important within any dance pieces, and this one really highlights and emphasises the whole varied orchestra working together to create music that people can move to. This piece is also nicknamed ‘Russian Waltz’ as it is heard in a Russian film in the waltz scene (fancy that?!) and if you went by the original order of the suite it comes seventh out of eight. Some have commented that this piece is somewhat depressing and gives out a lot of negative feelings, which I can kind of understand/hear, though I don’t agree myself! Shostakovich was a prominent 20th century Russian composer who I will be delving into in more depth in a later blog!

This charming little number is well worth 3:45 minutes of your time, even if you just need a bit of a pick-me-up or are having a naff day, take a listen to this waltz and you’ll have more of a smile on your face I’m sure! (Especially if you watch the video I have suggested below, it’s great to watch!)

Recommended recordings:

A fantastic recording of Waltz No.2 

Johann Strauss Orchestra – André Rieu

 

 

 

Felix Mendelssohn ‘Violin Concerto in E minor’: A Romantic Tour of the Violin

Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is a thrilling three-movement work that has become a staple piece for violinists all around the world. In the midst of the ‘changeover’ between classicism and romanticism this work sees Mendelssohn at his best, writing with firm roots in both styles. However, before we delve into this wonderful work, lets find out a bit about Mendelssohn himself. Born in 1809 in Hamburg, Mendelssohn was regarded as a child prodigy alongside his older sister Fanny Mendelssohn. Johann Sebastian Bach was always a big influence for Mendelssohn, with his early fugues and chorales really resembling Bach’s work, which really put him in a position where people were interested in his music. Mendelssohn’s first public concert was when he was 9 years old (eek) where he accompanied a horn duo. Aged 15 he wrote his first symphony in C minor, which was a huge success when premiered in Berlin in 1824. Mendelssohn wrote a large catalogue of music which covered a broad range of different performance disciplines such as, chamber groups, symphonies, concertos and piano music. As well as being an incredibly successful composer, Mendelssohn also had a fine hand for watercolour art (which you should take a look at, some of them are beautiful!). Mendelssohn was known for his aloofness and his frequent fits of temper which usually led to him collapsing, which is said to be tied in with his young death.

He composed his violin concerto in E minor within a six-year period between 1838-1844, which has led to much speculation as why it took so long to write. The work was premiered in 1845 in Leipzig and was welcomed with very positive feedback and the soloist, Ferdinand David, was complimented on his fine, virtuosic playing. The work consists of three movements, though all played attacca (tied together with no breaks) which is a technique that was becoming more and more popular as the years went on. You can see/hear Mendelssohn’s affiliation with the classical period through components such as the form of the movements, and the harmony and tonality that he uses with the foundation of this work.

The first movement, the famous movement, has always been praised for its innovative ideas and exciting opening to the concerto. Instead of an orchestral opening, Mendelssohn writes the solo violin 1.5 bars into the piece, a technique that very much points towards romanticism. The solo violin plays the famous first theme in E minor, which is an absolutely wonderful start to the concerto. After the solo violin plays a few bravura (virtuosic) passages, the orchestra then plays the main theme in E minor, which is like an awash of colour and romantic sound. The movement then modulates to G major after a lot of chromatic movement, which really heightens the tension and the thought of where Mendelssohn will go next. The tranquillo section, which is where he modulates is lovely as it shows off the woodwinds, with the solo violin only playing a drone note on an open G-string. What I find most electrifying about this movement, and indeed the work as a whole is the virtuosic nature of the solo violin as well as the use of extremities in range on the instrument. The higher the soloist goes, the more I sit up in my seat to see where the limit is for this wonderful instrument. I’m surprised every time with the range that this instrument can go! A written codetta is then played by the soloist, which really shows off the instrument and how versatile it is. The first theme then returns in the development section after the codetta. The two main themes are then combined in the development section which head towards the final cadenza of the movement, which was written out by Mendelssohn instead of letting the soloist improvise. The cadenza is incredibly difficult and requires ricochet bowing from the soloist. Some incredible notes are written as well with more than two octaves drops heard within beats of each other! The main theme is then played again in a variation in the recapitulation section which provides a lush sound from the orchestra. Mendelssohn manipulates the second theme by putting it in E major before returning back to the home key of E minor and these chromatic shifts make for such an interesting listen. The music gathers some more momentum leading into the finale presto section which ends on long semibreves from the orchestra, this then leads into the second movement.

Marked Adagio, the second movement is segued by a bassoon, which leads into the winds and strings layering up to create a more rounded and fuller texture before the soloist returns. This movement is in 6/8 and it makes the quaver and semi-quaver movement much more flowing and really gives the listener a comfortable listening experience. The sustained B from the bassoon then raises a semitone to middle C which serves as the key change from E minor to C major. The middle section is in the moody key of A minor (relative minor key) which gives a much deeper atmosphere to the movement. Much dexterity and technical ability is required from the soloist within the middle section of this movement as its a relentless semi-quaver pattern which is quite unforgiving for a while. A beautiful climax near the ends lets the winds wind down to a serene conclusion to the movement, which is a beautiful end to a dark, yet very pleasing movement.

Straight into the third movement after the general pause, this movement begins with a fourteen-bar passage with only the soloist and strings which acts as a transitional passage to the lively finale. The allegro section is started off by a bright trumpet fanfare which then sets this fast-paced movement off. This movement is in sonata-rondo form and it sees the soloist having to play some incredibly fast passage work. A lot of call and response between the orchestra and the soloist is heard in this movement which is a wonderful ‘coming together’ moment for the orchestra and soloist. Reminiscent passages from the first movement’s cadenza are heard in the transitional passage in B major, which is followed by rapid semi-quaver movement from the soloist. A short development section is heard in G major, this then leads into the recapitulation section of the movement. The main theme returns at the end of the movement, played by the woodwinds. This  acts as a somewhat cadenza section, though it’s not in its original form. The concerto then ends with a fiery coda section which is strong and brings all the instruments, plus the soloist together to end on a strong E major chord after a thrilling ascending sequence by the soloist.

This concerto is definitely up there as one of my favourites as it provides easy listening as well as a gripping virtuosic solo line which can hold your attention I can assure you! I’ve seen the last two movements of this concerto live (due to my best friend getting the concert start time wrong!) and it was a great experience to hear the dexterity and integrity of the soloist close up. So many novel aspects of this concerto are shown by Mendelssohn, such as the tied movements with no break and the fact that the soloist is sometimes only an accompaniment to the orchestra before it takes a lead line again. This concerto is absolutely fabulous and is well worth a listen, it is incredibly virtuosic and exciting to listen to. Its one of the most played violin concertos and I can certainly see why!

Recommended recordings:

 

Hilary Hahn (Soloist)

Ray Chen (Soloist)

 

Joseph Haydn ‘Symphony 103’: Drumroll Please!

The inspiration for this particular blog came around when an old college friend messaged me last night and it reminded me of some of the wonderful pieces we studied in my music A-Level. As well as tomorrow being A-Level results day, it seems right for me to look back at some music that helped me get really interested in musicology. Joseph Haydn’s 103rd symphony, nicknamed ‘The Drumroll’ was one of the pieces we studied in my first year at college. Focusing on the finale movement, it really gave me an insight into how analysis works and how helpful it is when looking into the context of the music.

Joseph Haydn (also know as the father of the symphony) was born in 1732 in Rahrau, Austria where he was brought up listening to and singing folk-music. As he grew up he showed musical talent, and his parents sent him away to be trained as a professional musician. After struggling as a freelance musician, Haydn took the job as Kapellmesiter (musical director) at the grand palace of Esterháza in Hungary. During this time Haydn had many responsibilities, including composition, running the residential orchestra and playing in chamber groups and because of this he ended up writing a mass of compositions. Due to Prince Nikolaus passing away in 1790, his son Anton was the next heir in line to Esterháza, and with this power he dismissed most of the court musicians and kept Haydn on a lower pay income. As Haydn wasn’t needed as much in the palace, Anton allowed him to travel. Haydn then made two separate trips to London, where some of his most famous works were written, which include the Drumroll, London and Surprise  symphonies.

Symphony No.103 was Haydn’s penultimate work and was written while he was in London between 1794-95. The reception towards Haydn in London was incredibly enthusiastic and people really connected with his music. Symphony 103 was premièred on the 2nd March 1795, at The Kings Theatre in London as a part of a concert series entitled ‘Opera Concerts.’ The symphony is written for 60 players, which was unusually large for the time (the woodwinds were doubled up). The reception for this work was very positive, with many reviewers calling it another triumph for the father of the symphony.

The first movement is essentially in sonata form, but with a long introduction. The nickname ‘drumroll’ derives itself from the opening timpani drum roll, which was an incredibly imaginative feature at this time. Following this opening we hear a slow, mysterious melody played by the cellos, double basses and the bassoon. This moody opening to the symphony is really effective as it takes the listener by surprise when the allegro section is introduced slightly later on. With use of chromaticism, Haydn is able to create a really eerie sound which was also an innovative technique for the time, and is probably why it received such good responses. The allegro con spitito section that follows is full of life and really captures Haydn’s orchestral sounds and textures. Written in 6/8 time, the movement is bright in humour and the themes played by the oboes and first violins introduce new themes, which Haydn then develops further. Strangely though, the slow introduction returns after the first general pause within the development section. The change is tone here is prominent and is a lovely recap that takes us back into the development section. The biggest twist is still to come though and that’s in the coda section at the end where the drumroll returns and a part of the introduction is heard once more. This was a very unusual thing to do in the 16th century, so Haydn was ahead of his time when writing music like this. This movement starts and ends in Eb major, which was common convention at the time.

The second movement is a double variation movement, with Haydn playing around with the keys C major and C minor. The movement starts fairly slow and we hear an angular dotted-semi quaver melody. This movement focuses a lot on the strings, with the double basses being written bottom C’s (usually their lowest notes are E) and a lovely violin solo being written in for the principal player. The winds offer some pretty embellishments within this movement, especially the flute who has some lovely lines of decoration. Haydn builds the tension nearer the end of this movement by writing in some more semi-quaver movement in the basses and by varying some previous material. The movement ends on a strong tonic C major chord.

The third movement is a minuet and trio in Eb major, which is quaint and nice to listen to. The theme is based on a Croatian folk-dance, which emphasises Haydn’s travels and his experience. The minuet has a long development and recapitulation sections which really hone in on the cute little melodies that Haydn has written. The trio is set in the same form as the minuet, with the woodwinds now doubling with the strings to make more of a statement sound. This movement has been likened to a music box, with its layering of woodwind sounds and the way Haydn handles his themes within the orchestra.

The final movement of this work, the finale, is by far my favourite of this work. I may be slightly bias as I studied this in much detail in my A-Level, but it is for sure the most thrilling! Starting with the famous horn call, Haydn uses this as the basis of the movement, with the strings adding accompaniment upon the second play of the call. Haydn creates a neat little canon by b.28, which makes a thicker texture and builds the piece up on that pedal note played by the double basses. Haydn’s use of passing modulations, suspensions and high ranges of instruments makes this movement all the more exciting. With chromatic harmony creeping in once more, we see Haydn creating an incredibly colourful movement which is brilliant to listen to. The movement is in sonata-rondo form and the second episode within the rondo section is one of my favourites as it sees the coming together of the string section and letting the woodwinds take over with recurring themes. To create the thrill at the end of this movement, Haydn stretches the violins to very high notes which really do create some excitement! This movement is highly imitative and is well worth a listen!

Writing this blog has brought back a lot of fond memories of college for me, so I do hope you can find the time to listen to this wonderful symphony. After all, Haydn wrote 104 symphonies in total and this is probably my favourite one! As the father of the symphony its quintessential to become familiar with his work as he indeed laid the pavement blocks for composers to come after his death in 1809. A fine work indeed, do take a listen!

Recommended Recordings:

A great recording from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras)

 

Béla Bartók ‘Concerto for Orchestra’: Hungary for Musical Success

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra  is an absolutely fantastic five-movement piece of orchestral music that was written in 1943 and premièred in December 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Another underrated composer in my eyes,  Bartók’s music is incredibly down to earth and experimental, but not as radical as composers such as Schoenberg and Webern. Born in Hungary in 1881, Bartók is another composer who showed potential from a young age. Able to distinguish dance themes from a young age, his mother started teaching him piano to bring out his musical talents. Bartók then studied at The Royal Academy of Music in Budapest where he started to establish a name for himself. By 1940 he was tempted to flee Hungary because he strongly opposed Hungary’s siding with the German Nazis. This caused him many issues as he refused to give concerts of his music in Germany, which consequently lost him a lot of publishing contracts from around that area, and also in his own country. Thus in 1940 he and his wife at the time, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, fled to the USA to settle down in New York City.

When he wrote his Concerto for Orchestra between 15th August – 8th October 1943 (as inscribed in the original score) it was for a commission that Bartók received from the Koussevitzky Foundation. If this commission hadn’t come about, Bartók’s last work could of been his String Quartet No.6, which he wrote before he left Hungary. The name Concerto for Orchestra is one that is bemusing and puzzling as there is no direct solo instrument within the work, nor does any of it actually function as a concerto. Bartók explained his reasoning for the title saying that although the texture is symphonic, each individual instrument is written like a soloist. This approach can be heard throughout most of the movements, but its the most prominent in the second.

The first movement is essentially in sonata-allegro form, and the first 75 bars acts as a slow introduction before the fiery allegro section. The slow introduction gives us a taste of Bartók’s famous ‘Night Music’ style which he used in his orchestral works in his mature period. Night music is a style which encompasses natural sounds and takes the listener on a journey of eerie dissonances, melancholy solo lines (firstly from the flute) and a somewhat tour of the orchestra as orchestra layer up to segue into the allegro vivace section at bar 76. The fugal section is fast-paced, thrilling and really shows off the orchestra and the technical writing of Bartók. As well as using a fugal approach, Bartók also uses a memorable dotted-quaver theme which repeats at least once in all of the instruments. Bartók’s use of ever-changing time signatures, complex rhythmic structures and technically demanding parts creates a virtuosic first movement to this brilliant piece of music.

The second movement, most famous for its use of Yugoslavian folk-dance themes, is a musical gateway for instruments to be treated more like soloists, yet still being a crucial part of the symphonic sound. The opening firstly shows off the side drum as a solo instrument, with it playing an interesting quaver-semi-quaver motif, which returns in variation throughout the movement. Then a pair of bassoons join playing a Yugoslavian folk-theme, which ties Bartók back to his homeland. Along with many of his contemporaries, Bartók also uses nationality a lot for his inspiration for compositions. The bassoons are a minor sixth apart, which is important to hear because when the oboes then take over a varied theme, they are in fact minor thirds apart. Consequently, when the clarinets play their variation they are in minor sevenths and when the flutes play their paired musical theme they are in fifths. The trumpets are the last duo in this menagerie of variations and they are in major seconds. One of my favourite parts of this movement is where a brass chorale is written from b.173. Its a lovely change in texture from fragmented strings and folk-dance rhythms to a warm, lyrical brass chorale sound which offers the listener another pathway into Bartók’s musical genius. After some call and response work and some variations on previous themes between the wind players, the movement ends with the side drum playing its opening theme.

The third movement is a slow movement and also shows Bartók’s night music style. It starts with double basses and timpani playing a long melancholy motif, which is then layered up in all the strings from the bottom to the top. By b.10 we start to hear the hendectuplets (11 tuplets) flutter between the clarinet and the flute, which for me gives it an air of magic and mystery. The harp is also playing similar runs, though with slightly varying rhythmic treatment which gives it a much more unsteady feel. The oboe plays a simply melody over the top of this madness below, which is in a high octave for the instrument. Lots of unison discipline is used in this movement, with especially the woodwind having to work very hard to stay completely together. I find this movement intriguing as it offers a rather strange atmosphere for the listener.

The fourth movement, acting as an intermezzo definitely offers an interesting segue between movements three and five. A theme is quickly established in the oboe and is passed around the orchestra throughout the movement. Lovely long and lyrical themes are interrupted as trombones and winds glissandi in a brash tone. Brash trills from upper brass also play a part towards interruption. The movement is a parody of themes from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. This movement is fairly short and it builds a pathway for the chaotic movement that is next.

The fifth and final movement is definitely my favourite as it offers so much colour and excitement within the orchestra. Whenever I hear this movement it always reminds of a Tom and Jerry sketch due to the nature of the music. The beginning is a horn theme which leads into a fast paced presto section which sees some incredibly technical demand needed from the string section. The swirly sounds underneath the themes above create an organised chaos atmosphere which I find most fun! These very fast sections are complimented by slower, tranquil sections which just build a pathway back up to the fast-paced themes. This movement is also in sonata-allegro form so within the development section different folk melodies are manipulated and passed around the orchestra. I love the programmatic feel to this movement as you can really make your own story to go with it. This movement is packed full of complex rhythmic structures and chromatic harmony which give it a fruitful and colourful sound for the listener. The ending is powerful with the whole orchestra ending on a quaver beat after dramatic ascending septuplet runs.

I love this piece of music as I think its so clever to utilise the orchestra in such a way. I find it a triumphant work and I urge you to listen to it because it’ll be worth your time! Bartók is a brilliant Hungarian composer who’s contribution to 20th century music has been incredibly important and remains to be that way. The Concerto for Orchestra was incredibly successful and brought Bartók a lot of fame in the USA, and the piece is regarded as one of the best instrumented pieces of all time and is regularly played.

Disclaimer – The title is an awful pun…not a spelling mistake! (Apologies)

Recommended recordings:

The Orchestra of the University of Music – Nicholás Pasquet

Another great recording from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Arnold Schoenberg ‘String Quartet #2’: A Fond Farewell to Common Conventions

This morning as I was trawling my collection of pocket scores to find a basis for this blog I came across my copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet. Schoenberg has always been an interesting composer for me because in one sense I don’t enjoy much of his music, with the exception of a few pieces. However, I find his contribution to classical music an incredibly important one as he provided new ground to push the boundaries even further within the slowly dying genre. His second string quartet is my favourite quartet (out of the four) that he wrote in his lifetime as it encompasses not only brain-melting chamber writing, but also the addition of a soprano voice in the last two movements.

Born into a lower-middle class Jewish family in Vienna in 1874, Schoenberg was a mostly self-taught composer. He learnt counterpoint with one of my favourite composers, Alexander Von Zemlinsky and was also taken under the wing by Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg is perhaps most famous for his innovative twelve-tone technique, which at the time was a  massive milestone for classical music. Schoenberg also worked a lot on atonality (pieces with no tonal centre) as well as developing variation without returning to the centralised melodic ideas. Schoenberg is a very hit and miss composer for a lot of people, some on one hand have extended his thought processes and carried on his legacy, whereas others refuted his new ideas which were too ‘out there’ for the common man.

The second string quartet was written in 1908 and is a four-movement piece chamber work which sees Schoenberg’s use of chromatic colouring (especially in movement’s 1 and 2) but also his experimental side with both the third and fourth movements being subject to atonality in some way. At the time of writing this work, Schoenberg was caught in a rather unsavoury dilemma as he found out that his wife, Mathilde was having an affair with their neighbour in Vienna, Richard Gerstl. Schoenberg must have felt this betrayal two-fold due to he being the one who introduced Gerstl into their lives, due to him being an expressionist painter. After Mathilde going to and fro between the two men, she settled back down with Schoenberg, only for Gerstl to commit suicide over his depression over losing Mathilde. While all of this was happening, Schoenberg was still writing music, and some of the more radical choices that were made about this work can be seen as a bridge between his life and his music.

The quartet was said to have been a revolutionary piece within composition as it really pushed musical boundaries. The first movement, marked moderato, is foundationally in F# minor. The quiet opening provides a slightly reserved feel until the slightly faster quaver movement emerges from the second violin. I always find the extremities in range that Schoenberg writes is incredible, with the first violin and the cello playing in very high but also very low octaves. Looking at the score it looks like an awash of notes with an incredible amount of accidentals (which enhance his use of chromatic harmony) however, the music itself is incredibly mature due to it somehow locking together to create a rather exciting contrast of light and dark shading. Opposing rhythms and multiple themes makes the moments of togetherness all the more emphasised. There are many direction changes within this movement, with it leaving it very open as to where it will go next, which is partly my like for Schoenberg’s music.

The second movement begins with an interesting cello solo which Schoenberg then subsequently layers the other parts on top of. This movement is in D minor, which creates a moody, yet energetic atmosphere. Within this movement a quasi-humorous quotation to the children’s song “O du lieber Augustin – alles ist hin” (Oh my dear Augustin, all is at an end) is made, which has sent musicologists and Schoenberg listeners into a complete tailspin. The quotation is heard when Schoenberg modulates to F# minor and the start of the new section begins with harsh ff pizzicato from all parts bar the first violin which plays a descending chromatic theme. This then leads into the quotation and this part of the movement feels slightly calmer due to the ‘poco rit’ direction Schoenberg writes in. I find this movement incredibly exciting, especially by the finale ‘presto’ where all parts are in complete unison playing a dramatic and very demanding conclusion to the movement. In the penultimate bar the cello returns with the initial solo on D, which is a huge contrast in texture from full instrumentation to just one. The ending is intriguing as all parts end on a D marked pp and are marked pizzicato. I think this movement is probably my favourite due to the thrilling writing and Schoenberg’s ability to make 4 instruments sound so big.

The third and fourth movements are seen as controversial, as Schoenberg introduces a female soprano into the chamber group. The voice sings two poems by Stefan George, the first being ‘Litany’ and the second being ‘Entrueckung.’ It has been said that the poems represents Schoenberg’s tonal methods and how he handles his new musical ideas. I’m partial to agree with this as its a solid interpretation of the subtle changes Schoenberg is making to classical music harmony and tonality. The relationship between the solo voice and the strings is so complex in both movements and really requires the utmost musical ability to perform it well. The third movement is set in Eb minor, however the bridge between the last two movements represents the change in Schoenberg’s ear, as the fourth movement has no key and is atonal. I absolutely love the third movement as it encompasses themes from previous movements (albeit in very tangled and varied ways) while also creating a heart-wrenching melancholy feel that is bound to make you feel a few tingles. The end of the fourth movement is just fantastic with a chorale like theme emerging which heads towards a touching diminuendo ending.

Schoenberg is not a composer who I listen to all that often, however this quartet I find completely mesmerizing at points, with a lot of the writing being incredibly complex and technically demanding. I’d heartily recommend this quartet to anybody who is unsure about Schoenberg or is interested in listening to some of his works!

Recommended recordings:

New Vienna String Quartet – 1999

 

Leoš Janáček ‘Sinfonietta’: A Unique Form of Expression

Leoš Janáček for me is a completely underrated composer who’s music is notably expressive, individual and sought for greater realism. Born is 1854 in Hukvaldy, Moravia (a large area within the Czech Republic) Janáček was seen as a gifted child within a family that had little means. As a choir boy Janáček sung at the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, where he also nurtured and enhanced his skills on the organ and piano. The choirmaster of St. Thomas, Pavel Křížkovský recommended Janáček for the Prague organ school, even though he found Janáček a highly problematic student. After then enrolling at the Prague organ school, Janáček decided to study composition instead of piano performance, which led him to compose some small scale choral works. Janáček graduated with the best results in his class for his work in the disicpline of composition, and after working as a music teacher for some years he enrolled at the Leipzig conservatory to study composition, piano and organ.

Janáček achieved quite a sudden blast of fame in 1916 after the great success of his opera Jenfua, which was premiered in Prague that year. After that the composer worked tirelessly throughout the rest of his life, churning out some incredible pieces of music such as his symphonic rhapsody Taras Bulba and another fairly well-known opera The Cunning Little Vixen. In 1926, two years before his death, Janáček wrote his Sinfonietta. The piece was written for a gymnastic organisation called Sokol, which celebrates youth sport and independent nationhood. Janáček sought for realism in his music, which is why it makes him such an original composer. He used Morovian and Slovak folk-songs to inspire his works and thus his musical connection with the real word became much greater. Sinfonietta is dedicated to the ‘Czechoslovak Armed Forces’ and that is certainly a prevelant theme within the music. Independence and spirit is woven into the fabric of the Sinfonietta and the conncection to the armed forces and real people is especially emphaised.

Sinfonietta is a five-movement symphonic-like work which lasts about 25 minutes. It is orchestrated for a full orchestra, however with a slight adjustement to the amount of brass included. The reason for this is that Janáček wanted the cyclic composition to represent the armed forces, therefore he wrote for nine (yes nine!) trumpets. The first movement is one massive fanfare which is orchestrated for nine trumpets, four trombones, two Bb tubas and timpani. The opening is large, loud and incredibly brash, which is the sound that Janáček was aiming for as it would reprsent an army band much more realistically. The layering of the fanfares from the different instruments is a sign of Janáček’s musical thinking, where he divides and sub-divides tiny cells of music and creates an interlocking themes. The fanfare is a huge statement of what is to come within this piece, with the massive number of brass players all playing at forte.

The second movement (refrerred to as ‘The Castle’) interlocks some folk-dance motifs with incredible power and majestic grace. One thing I always find astonishing about this work is the sheer technical demand that is needed from every single player to create the atmospher and the rhythmic charm of the work. With some interesting time changes and no real established key, this movement is very free, though ironically incredibly complex. I really enjoy the initial oboe theme that is heard, as it provides a sweet, yet fast-paced motif that is then passed around the orchestra throughout the movement. This movement especially relies on Janáček’s musical roots as the main nuggets of themes you hear are based on folk-dances.

The third movement, marked Moderato is referred to as ‘Convent’ is a very reminiscent movement which looks back at Janáček’s family roots. The movements always give a subtle nod to the opening fanfare, so when it returns in the fifth movement its like one big musical cycle.One of my favourite musical extracts from the work is within the third movement between bars 58-75.The sheer dexterity that is required in the flute parts at this point is astonishing! Those incredibly fast and intricate semi-quaver runs (bearing in mind all three flutes are playing and so is the piccolo player) is just incredible to hear.

The fourth movement is referred to as ‘The Street’ and the opening theme, played on trumpet is probably one of the most memorable of the whole work. In a loose scherzo form it is incredibly intricate and really takes you on an exciting journey! With the incredibly handling of extrememties of instrument ranges and the colours that Janáček creates is formidable. This movement revives the initial theme and varies in a plethora of different ways, such as rhythmically, harmonically and instrumentally. This movement is a very exciting one which builds the pathway for the incredible final movement that is next to come.

The final movement (‘Town Hall’) is a representation of the change within the historical city after the war. Starting in Eb minor a retrograde of the opening melody is played and the piece acquires some pace. The rhythmic demands do not waver in this movement, with complex syncopation and time changes still a prevelant factor within the music. In the finale section the opening fanfare from the first movement reappears and is joined by swirling figures in the strings and shrill harmonies within the winds.

I have never seen this work live, but I bet that being there in person would give it much more powerful impact. The thrilling brass fanfares and interjections emphasise Janáček’s incredibly powerful writing that shouldn’t ever be dismissed. I wouldn’t call this a symphony, but a musical cycle in a loose symphonic form, and this makes it a really unique way of writing instrumental works. Janáček’s keen interest for expanding toniality (for example using unorthodox chord structures) is just one way that Janáček puts his own stamp on classical music forms.

If you’ve never listened to any of Janáček’s works I would highly recommend you do, they’re well worth your time and concentration!

Recommended recordings:

Vienna Philharmonic – Sir Charles Mackerras

Sergei Rachmaninoff ‘Symphony No.2’: Symphonic Mastery

If I ever get asked what my top 3 favourite symphonies are, Rachmaninoff’s second symphony is certainly in there. A colourful display of symphonic mastery, this symphony goes into incredible depths to showcase the skill and the array of different instruments within a romantic orchestra. The piece is written for a full orchestra with a full woodwind and brass section to compliment the incredibly rich string sections. Composed between 1906-1907 and premiéred in 1908, the symphony was the Russian composer’s second attempt at writing for a full orchestra. Some background before we go on though – Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in 1873 and he is best known for his talent as a pianist, conductor and composer. Rachmaninoff was one of the leading figures in Romantic Russian classical music in his time, after Tchaikovsky. As he was born into Russian aristocracy, he of course received top class musical and military teachings, which no doubt helped him to shape the composer he became.

Due to Rachmaninoff’s affiliation with the piano, a lot of his work is based around the instrument, or is scored for small chamber groups. He only wrote 3 symphonies in his lifetime (a complete tragedy in my opinion) but nevertheless the ones he did compose bring so much serenity, passion and richness to the classical music world. However, of course, before the second symphony came the first. It was previewed in 1897 at St.Petersburg conservatory (although Rachmaninoff himself studied at Moscow conservatory). The symphony was shunned and the reviews were awful, with some saying the work represented hell and the ten plagues of Egypt. However, after some socio-cultural analysis of the time it has been said that it wasn’t anything to do with the music that made the preview so unsuccessful, it was in fact the rivalry between both St.Petersburg and Moscow conservatories that led to the failure of the work (as well as the conductor supposedly being intoxicated with alcohol at the time of the performance!). Due to this, Rachmaninoff naturally blamed himself for the downfall of his first ambitious large-scale work, and this sadly plunged him into a four-year depression where his productivity levels were near non-existent. Eventually after lots of therapy sessions he was able to start composing again, and this was when he composed his second piano concerto (which I will write a blog on soon!). To prove he could write for a large-scale orchestra, Rachmaninoff composed his second symphony, which in fact won him the coveted Glinka Prize, a very prestigious award.

The second symphony is a four-movement work and is about an hour long (without cuts). The work is a phenomenal display of beautiful romantic writing, which is why I love it so much. The first movement, a Largo-Allegro moderato in E minor, opens with a slow introduction with a motto theme by the cellos and basses. The movement is in sonata form when it reaches the allegro section, with all of the instruments being utilised to the maximum throughout the work. The mesmerizing and haunting opening to this movement is pretty awe-inspiring writing and creates a really spooky atmosphere. A rich textural balance is made with full orchestra instrumentation and the balance between the higher octaves in the upper woodwind and the upper strings is just incredible. There are so many points within this movement where brass, especially lower brass, are really utilised and showcased, which really adds a special sound and timbre to the piece. I always find the ending to the first movement an interesting one due to the full orchestra ending on a strong ff E minor chord, but on the third beat of the last bar the double basses and cellos play a low E marked sff. I feel it provides a slightly different alternative for the end and it represents a strong force returning, as those were the instruments that the started the movement.

The second movement is marked Allegro Molto and is primarily in A minor. However, whenever you listen to Rachmaninoff you’ll realise that he doesn’t stay in keys very long, he is very adventurous with keys and this symphony is no exception. The start of this movement is incredibly exciting and played with the upmost intensity. The Dies Irae plainchaint is referenced by the horns firstly 3 bars into the movement, with that theme returning throughout. The clarinet is a prominent instrument in movements two and three of this work, with it having some very important solo work. The clarinet offers the musical pathway into the meno mosso section with a solo with no accompaniment, which is a beautiful quaver motif. This comes around once more further on in the movement. One of my favourite things about Rachmaninoff is his use of texture colouring and the tones he creates with the instruments he has. The lush strings and the delicate woodwind and the strong brass create a sound so large that you can’t help but smile and think ‘wow.’ The second movement is incredibly exciting throughout and it leaves for the listener to interpret where the story goes next. For me I always find this movement like running a marathon, starting with all the energy in the world and then slowing down at times and appreciating the view around you, and then speeding up again at the end.

The third movement is genuinely one of my all-time favourite movements I have ever heard. I don’t even need to analyse this, I just need to advise you to listen to it. Marked Adagio, the movement encompasses a rich sound and timbre and the themes from the upper strings really pull on your heartstrings. An incredible contrast to the fiery movement before, this melancholy movement sets up a completely new tone for the work. Divine beauty is not a strong enough description of this movement. It pushes emotional boundaries and if you were not connecting very well with the rest of the music that well (which I’ll struggle to believe!) I’ll bet that you’ll connect with this movement. The clarinet has a beautiful long solo which takes you to another world. Sit back, close your eyes, relax and let this movement take you somewhere special, because my goodness it will. There are two sections for me in this movement, both with these intense and frankly jaw-dropping emotional climaxes which give me chills every time I hear them. I remember the first time I listened to this movement and my chest hurt from how good it made me feel. I’m a self-proclaimed crier when it comes to symphonies and this one gets me every time. I’m listening to it right now as I write this blog and my tummy feels all fuzzy from the rich and colourful sounds I can hear. It reminds me of one of those melt in the middle chocolate puddings, once you’ve opened the outer layer, the insides ooze out  and is rich in texture and flavour, just like this movement! If you take anything from this blog it is to listen to this movement (please).

The fourth movement is a beautiful movement marked Allegro Vivace and it pushes the boundaries even more so than the faster-paced movements before. With extremities in instrument ranges being played with and the technical proficiency of the parts becoming a lot more prominent, there really is no doubt that Rachmaninoff is an incredibly skilled symphonist. The movement is exciting and has many twists and turns within in which to really feel them you must listen to! Rhythmic variations of past themes are brought out to emphasise the coming together of the symphony. The movement is foundationally in E major, but of course this being Rachmaninoff and it being written where boundaries with harmony and tonality were being stretched, modulations are key (awful pun!). The movement ends with a brilliant crotchet, triplet, crotchet ending which oozes power and dominance of the music which can be seen as a metaphor for Rachmaninoff overcoming his depression.

This symphony is one of the most complex, but pleasing pieces of work I have ever had the pleasure to hear. I also had the delight of playing this symphony with my university symphony orchestra recently and that was a fulfilling experience in itself. I find it such a tragedy that Rachmaninoff did not write more symphonic works because I find his writing lush, rich and full of excitement. I cannot advise enough to listen to the work, you won’t regret it!

Recommended recordings:

This is a fantastic interpretation of this symphony by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Elvind Gullberg Jensen

 

Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Fourth Movement

So here we are, the fourth movement, we’ve finally made it to the last movement of Mahler’s first symphony! If you’ve listened to the symphony before reading my blog you’ll probably be aware that all of the musical exploration in previous movements make the last movement worth the wait! Entitled ‘From the inferno to paradise’ the start of this movement certainly highlights the inferno. Due to the third movement acting as a segue (for dramatic purposes it seems) into the fourth movement, it really heightens the tension that Mahler had spent the past 36 minutes trying to create.

An incredibly powerful fortissimo F minor chord is played by the woodwinds and brass a beat after the cymbal crash at an ear-ringing fff. The strings then provide a run of quintuplets and sextuplets which head towards an exciting ascending semi-quaver run into a fff tremolo. An extremely subtle hint is made towards Liszt’s Dante Symphony by the brass section with a cross symbol theme in a minor mode being played. Mahler was a massive fan of Lizst, with him being one of his biggest influences throughout his composing career. The famous triplet run down within this movement is also based on a theme from the Dante Symphony. At this point the triplets represent the inferno, with the orchestra coming together on the triplets and then the strings doing some incredibly fast and technical runs underneath the main triplet theme.

This movement is written in a very loose sonata-allegro form. So by figure 6 (b.62) we’ve entered the exposition section (still currently in F minor). The upper brass and woodwind play the main fanfare theme at this point which return quite a lot within this movement, especially nearer the end. The texture throughout this section is incredibly dense as there are so many instruments accounted for. This for me really hones in on the idea of an inferno, a fiery, thrilling and exciting part in the music/story. Once again Mahler uses dynamics as an aid to make the music interesting and variable. By figure 12 (b. 143) we hear a ‘swelling’ kind of sound from the brass and lower woodwind sections with the use of quick crescendos. This all leads up to figure 14 and 15 which act as a transitional section into the secondary section at b.175. The mood is brought down a lot and the whole section is marked Molto riten. Chromatic movement is also something that has been used a lot to create interesting modulations within movements, for instance at b.175 Mahler has modulated to Db major to mark the start of the secondary section. Slightly further on he modulates to G minor in order to mark the start of the development section.

Hints from the first movement in particular are shadowed within this movement, and by the time we get to b.254, otherwise known as the development section, we can hear a lot of ideas being varied from all of the movements. The development section takes a lot of Mahler’s ideas, as well as from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and creates an exciting build up to figure 25 (b.290) where Mahler has modulated from G minor to C major to showcase the new ‘victorious theme.’ As well as Liszt being a large influence on Mahler, Richard Wagner was also a favourite of the composer. A rhythmic variation from Wagner’s Parsifal Opera is quoted at figure 26 of this movement. For further development, a chromatic modulation occurs at b.317 where the piece goes to C minor for the second part of the theme. By figure 30 (b.337) the texture is incredibly dense with every instrument playing, and mostly in higher registers to create a shrill, yet exciting variation.

A variation from Liszt is heard once more and is used as a transition into the next section of the development. Back in C major by b.371 the woodwind and strings are in unison with descending semi-quaver patterns. This very quickly modulates to D major, which is where we reach the realm of the paradise. A new chorale theme is played, which is a fantastic unifying theme at this point on in the work. This theme recurs until the main theme from the first movement returns in a different turn of events where the music is brought back down. The descending 4th’s theme returns in the strings, while the awakening fanfare, the cuckoo and the tirilli theme is brought back in slight variation. I’ve always thought of this part to mean that nature is paradise and all of the movements thrown together creates a paradise. Small nods to each movement are made in this movement and I feel its the coming together of the paradise.

The secondary transition into F major at figure 41 (b.458) is interesting as it is a condensed orchestration at a much slower tempo. However, for me this section is not sad at all, its a realisation of the beauty of nature within music. Above the low drones of the lower strings, the violins have a beautiful lyrical melody, which is Mahler’s appreciation of romanticism. After a lot of build up and the use of octave changes the F minor main theme returns again at figure 45 (b.533). Intensification of the main theme is then heard and stretched through a fair amount of time as octave drops and fanfares are culminated together to create a syncopated main theme. Within this build up one of my favourite interjections is from the violas at b.540. The very contrasting ff marked quaver motif is played above the very sparse foundation. It emphasises the violas and really gives a nice deep sound to the mix of instruments.

After a run of dramatic triplets Mahler then modulates back to D major into a section marked “Utmost Strength.” Interlocking fanfare themes are heard across the whole orchestra, which creates an incredibly powerful and rich timbre. The chorale theme returns once more above the technical semi-quaver runs from the strings underneath. A new section begins at figure 56 (b.657) which is marked “Triumphal.”  This leads to the coda at figure 59 (b.696) which is a massive explosion of music and the complete opening up of the paradise. Varied triplet themes and the chorale theme interlock together to create one of the most incredible sounds I have ever heard. The tremolos from the strings on the last few bars of the movement build up to an incredibly dramatic D major chord three bars from the end and then an two-note octave drop in the tonic in the last bar. This is one of the most powerful endings and is probably my favourite as it honestly makes me well up every time! The powerful triple stops in the string section and the force of the whole orchestra really gets into me. Heck I’ve cried too many times to dare count!

One of my favourite interpretations, which you see in a lot of different versions, is at the Triumphal section the whole horn section stands up with the bells in the air. I remember going to see this symphony live at Sheffield City Hall with the Hallé Orchetsra playing and it was one of the most incredibly fulfilling moments when the final sections of the fourth movement were played. I remember just tearing up due to happiness and thinking “yes this is exactly why I study music, because it makes me feel like this!” This symphony is the basis of my dissertation for my last year at university, with the focal point being modernism and reception. It is a piece of music that is very dear to me and I urge anybody to listen to it because it brings me so much happiness (pretty much everyday!).

My recommendations for performances would be:

Lucerne Festival Orchestra – Claude Abbado 2009