Sunday 24 June 2018

Richard Wagner
(“Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried)

On 12 November 1851 Wagner wrote to his friend Theodor Uhlig:

“With this new concept [the Ring] I sever all connection with our present-day theatre and its audience: I make a definite and permanent break with present-day forms. … This will take me at least three years.”

In fact, it took him a further twenty-two years to finish the cycle. Since when, people have debated, argued, and even fought, about the Ring’s place in Western art. At one end of the spectrum are those such as a certain W.J.Turner who wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death “I can confidently and in soberness declare that Wagner is a colossal fraud.” At the other end stand those who see him as the supreme master, standing alone on a solitary pinnacle of greatness. Wherever you stand on the spectrum, the Ring cycle is mighty and complicated; and subject to constant reinterpretation – witness Bayreuth’s last interpretation of the drama as a power-struggle for energy security in a world regressing from structured civilisation to uncivilised chaos.

Trying to summarise the plot of Siegfried alone would try your patience for longer than this evening’s opening piece. Let me simply confine myself to part of the second act, borrowing heavily from Ernest Newman’s “Wagner Nights”. Siegfried is in the forest after an argument with Mime (a malevolent dwarf, my precious), and stretches himself out beneath the lime tree. A great pastoral peace descends upon the scene as the forest gradually begins to stir with morning life. The hero who knows no fear starts to contemplate his unknown parent, wondering what his mother would have been like. He is distracted by the insistent calling of the woodbird (listen for chirruping of the oboe and flute and the more cuckoo-like call of the clarinet, all fusing into one). He cannot understand what the bird is trying to tell him. He attempts to answer by taking up a reed and blowing on it; but to no avail. In his frustration, he takes up his horn and blows the most famous horn call in orchestral history. That dispels the forest murmurs, and also wakes Fafner, the dragon who had been sleeping on his hoard of Rhine-gold, including a magic Tarnhelm (a 19th century version of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak) and the eponymous Ring. Fafner is grumpy and aggressive. Siegfried should be terrified but isn’t. He slays the dragon with his magic sword. He has Fafner’s blood on his hands, licks them, and suddenly can understand what the woodbird is trying to tell him.

Or, in the words of a recent Bayreuth Programme: “Siegfried rests in the forest. Gets involved with a little birdy – misunderstandings are inevitable. Brass music awakens Fafner: a dragon, sitting on accumulated capital, dead values. Siegfried ends the situation with superior weapon technology. He takes possession of ring and helmet. Mime without a chance: Siegfried understands him. Missing now: a woman. The bird advises Brünhnhilde.” What happens next involves fire, awakening, love, promises, misunderstandings, envy, betrayal, death, a funeral march and general devastation, culminating with the final collapse of Valhalla and life as we know it at the end of the cycle.

The music we hear tonight is Wagner’s suite of music from the second act. The evocation starts immediately with the murmurings in the strings, then Siegfried’s musings across the orchestra, a flourish (with just a hint of the horn call), the woodbird’s insistent calling to the hero and then a finishing section that looks forward to when the dragon has been slain and Siegfried sets off in confident search of Brünhnhilde, love and death.

Apart from his pot-boiling “Ride of the Valkyries” and, possibly, the Wedding March from Lohengrin (“Here comes the bride” etc), Waldweben is probably the most-often played Wagner excerpt. Even Mr Turner might have to acknowledge the effectiveness of the evocation.


Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 7 in C, Opus 105

By the outbreak of the First World War, Sibelius had to live with twin burdens of fame: he was a composer of international reputation abroad and an icon of Finnish nationalism at home. His early works, such as En Saga, Kullervo, Finlandia and the first two Symphonies had spoken for the Finnish nation when words were strictly controlled by the Russian censor. So strict was the censorship of ideas translated into words, that Finlandia once had to be played with the title “Impromptu”, though no one Finnish was fooled. As part of his 50th birthday celebrations in 1915, the initial version of his Fifth Symphony was performed to immediate and international acclaim. He had survived throat cancer. He was in possession of a state pension. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer lay in his own being. A ruthless self-criticism slowed his output of new works while he revised and rewrote his existing compositions; and self-doubt and nerves led him to return to his “most faithful companion. And the most understanding”. He had given up alcohol on the discovery of his cancer, but took it up again in a futile attempt to see himself through his periods of dark depression. Nor was he free of financial worries. Between 1922 and 1924 he laboured to bring his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies to fruition. It was a time of hyper-inflation in Germany, and many of his royalties were payable in tumbling German marks. In April 1923, the month when the Sixth Symphony was successfully premiered in Gothenburg, Sibelius received 1,280 German marks for the sale of 24,000 copies of Valse Triste in piano reduction; but it was worth only a small faction of one Finnish mark. By November, a postcard from his friend Adolf Paul carried a stamp for 200 million German marks, during a week when the value of the German mark fell by over two-thirds against the Finnish mark in the space of two days.

The last months of composition of the Seventh Symphony were plagued by wild swings in mood. On 3 October 1923 Sibelius wrote in his diary: “Life for me is over. If I’m in good spirits and have a glass or two I suffer for it long afterwards. This dreadful depression …” On 23 October he wrote: “What unbearably difficult times I have gone through these days? Perhaps the darkest in my life.” Yet eight days later he wrote: “Working on the new piece. Am in wonderful spirits. Life is rich and profound.” He relapsed quickly. Early in November he wrote “Am worn out and worried about my work – the new piece! … Can I hold out until next February, that is the question?”

Somehow, he finished the work on 2 March 1924 and it was first performed later that month. Throughout its gestation period, Sibelius would frequently refer to it as a “Fantasia sinfonica”; and it is easy to see why. Sibelius has taken his compression of the symphonic form, which started with his earlier symphonies, to the ultimate degree. He has also applied his mastery of orchestral colouration, perfected over almost sixty years, to provide something almost more like a Fantasia or Tone Poem – the genres of his youth. The result is a piece in one movement that combines an almost incredible economy of materials with an astonishing richness of tone and texture, all under one soaring structural arch. It has aptly been described as Sibelius’ Parsifal. Neville Cardus put it particularly well in words almost as economically powerful as the music itself:

It lasts not much more than twenty minutes. None the less, it creates the effect of an unfolding musical and orchestral grandeur, with unity in variety and contrast and development, the end foreseen and sown in the beginning.

And, when speaking more generally on another occasion:

In Sibelius the forces of nature seem to live more and have being of their own as they are changed into orchestral sounds. It is as if the sights and sounds of his country, the air and the light and darkness, the legends and the history, had by some inner transforming force become audible in terms of rustling violins, horn-calls out of a void, brass that swells in short gusts, beginning and ending almost as soon as heard; oboes and flutes that emit the clucking of weird fowl; bassoons from the darkness of swamps.

The pillars that support the symphony are three great statements on the solo trombone. But the piece starts with a rising scale in the celli and (off-beat) basses: remember the scale – it comes back as a unifying device towards the very end of the symphony when Sibelius is pulling the strands together. The rising scale is followed by a slow section which immediately starts welding the short building blocks for the entire piece: rising and falling fragments of a scale, with rhythms that distort and disorientate the listener’s understanding of where the music is going and how it is getting there. The first iteration of the trombone theme calls out in a brave C major, which soon starts to shift both in key, syncopation and ever-increasing speed until a Vivacissimo section (lots of clucking and chattering from the flutes and oboes here, and some swampy bassoons too). The second trombone call is less certain than the first. It slips into the minor and “a grim nocturnal mood descends”. It is followed by tempestuous arguments across the whole orchestra (horn calls aplenty), which subside before energy is re-generated by growlings in the bass instruments and a pick up in tempo. This progresses until the opening scale returns on the horns, now apparently in G major, heralding the third, elated, trombone call. There follows the final section where Sibelius brings all his materials together, each striving for dominance, until the final astonishing settlement on a chord of C-major. Yet even this is not as it seems: in a furious last attempt to avoid resolution, a dissonant B natural, the seventh and most discordant note of the scale, is held for six long beats against the final chord, before at last resolving upwards in an astonishing release of musical tension.

It is easy to imagine that this was a conscious end-point for Sibelius; but that would be wrong. For at least another ten years he worked on an eighth symphony. A first movement was completed and copied by 1933. Koussevitsky, who was Sibelius’ great champion in America, pressed him for years and received various assurances that it was almost ready or would be ready soon. In the end, it never saw the light of day; and it seems likely that it perished in a great bonfire of manuscripts that marked Sibelius’ final acted of depressive self-criticism in the mid-1940s. The last page of his diary, in 1944, contained a shopping list for champagne, cognac and gin. His faithful companions remained with him until his death, but he wrote no more music.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D Major Opus 35
Allegro Moderato; Canzonetta - Andante; Finale - Allegro vivacissimo

At the end of 1877, Tchaikovsky was in despair. He had escaped from the awful fate of the lawyer’s office to become a composer. Recognition was slow in coming and he had to supplement his income by teaching, which he hated. He had counted on the success of his opera “Vakoula the Smith” to establish him as a composer of renown (and fortune) and had travelled to St Petersburg in October 1876 for what proved to be a complete failure. His Romeo and Juliet overture was hissed in Vienna and booed in Paris. What little was left of his sensitive self-confidence was shattered by his “rash act”: the catastrophic marriage which he contracted during the summer of 1877. The marriage collapsed and the composer attempted to take his life. A year’s rest was prescribed as the only panacea for his troubles.

The spring of 1878 found him at Clarens, near Geneva. He had now come under the patronage of the rich widow Mme.Von Meck, who he never met but who gave him financial security for many years. In March he was visited by his former pupil, the violinist Josef Kotek. The weather was foul and they played much music together. It is evident that Tchaikovsky enjoyed both the music and the company. As he wrote to Mme. Von Meck, an “auspicious mood” came upon him and stayed. “In such a phase of spiritual life composition completely loses the character of work: it is pure enjoyment. While you’re writing you don’t notice how the time is passing, and if no one came to interrupt the work you would sit all day without getting up.” In this state Tchaikovsky conceived and wrote the Violin Concerto in little over a month. He then rejected the original slow movement and quickly wrote another.

To modern eyes, Tchaikovsky’s language suggests that Kotek’s presence was essential to the composer’s ecstatic mood. After he played the first movement to his brother Modest and to Kotek he described them as both being “in absolute raptures”; and, a little later, when the violin part had been written out, Tchaikovsky wrote of Kotek: “With what love he fusses over my concerto! Needless to say that without him I shouldn’t have been able to do anything.” It seemed that all memories of marriage had been banished by the intensity of the new collaboration. But the friendship sowed seeds of trouble for the new Concerto. For obvious reasons, Kotek should have been the dedicatee. But Tchaikovsky wrote to his publisher: “in order to avoid gossip of various kinds I shall probably decide to dedicate it to Auer. In no circumstances to Wieniawski or any other celebrity.” A week later the decision was taken: it was to be dedicated to Auer.

When the concerto, already engraved and ready for circulation, was presented to Auer, he professed himself deeply touched at the honour. However, when he came to study the music, he came to the view that the piece would not work without thorough revision by a violinist (i.e. himself). He expressed regret to Tchaikovsky that he had not been shown the piece earlier so that he could make it “more suited to the nature of the violin”: a curious remark given Kotek’s involvement in the composition and the concerto’s subsequent success. Whether he was personally or professionally jealous of Kotek’s role in the creation of the concerto is not known; but he failed to carry out the revision over a period of two years, during which word got about that the work was unplayable. At least three premieres were cancelled and eventually Tchaikovsky withdrew it from Auer. Eventually it was premiered by Brodsky in Vienna on 4th December 1881, the first and only one of Tchaikovsky’s works to be heard abroad before being played in Russia.

Vienna was a brave choice for it was the home of the all-powerful critic Hanslick who loathed Tchaikovsky’s music. The reception at the concert was mixed and very stormy. The reception from the critics was mainly hostile, led by Hanslick who infamously referred to the “stinking music” of the finale. Some were more generous, one anonymous critic referring to the “splendid healthy tunes” of the first movement and asking rhetorically of the slow movement: “who could fail to be reminded by this of Turgenev’s female characters?” Brodsky then played it in London and Russia and was rewarded by being installed as the dedicatee in place of Auer. Kotek followed, but Auer did not get round to playing it in public until 1893.

The first movement starts with an oddity: a beautiful tune which never reappears. Once the movement gets going, tunes pile on top of each other with gay abandon. The second movement is a lilting Canzonetta of sweet simplicity. The third movement bursts upon the scene and storms to its glorious final coda. Hanslick was wrong: the concerto is immortal and the only odour is Elysian.

Jeremy Stuart Smith—June 2018