Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976)
Simple Symphony, Op. 4
English composer Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony is a work composed for string orchestra or string quartet. It was first performed on March 6, 1934, with the composer himself conducting the largely amateur Norwich String Orchestra.
Britten wrote that this piece is “entirely based on material from works which the composer wrote between the ages of nine and twelve.” The piece is dedicated to his childhood viola teacher, Audrey Alston; and the alliterative playfulness of its title and its four movements, speak to its sense of fun and good spirit. Britten rejected post-war avant-garde, instead attempting to fill the role of all-round beloved national composer previously held by Vaughan Williams.
The First Movement: Boisterous Bourrée
The Bourrée is a 17th century French dance that became popular as an instrumental form. This movement has two fluctuating themes: one playful, the other more lyrical. The first is announced in a loud, almost unruly fashion, shifting between high and low strings, before giving way to the second theme, which feels gentler and more peaceful by contrast. Then, there is a short period of exploration – plucked strings, quiet but fast and very high notes here and there, which gradually builds into a repeat of the first theme. The ending mirrors the opening bars. As the movement ends so quickly, we get the sense that this symphony will be highly compact – “quality over quantity.”
The Second Movement: Playful Pizzicato
This movement is based on a short piece for piano Britten composed ten years earlier. The performers are instructed to play “as fast as possible”. The ‘Playful Pizzicato’ (plucked strings) hinted at in the first movement are expanded on for the entire movement. It is unusual to hear a whole string orchestra play in this fashion and this captures the ear – at times we get the illusory impression of other instruments such as guitar or harp joining in, especially towards the end as some of the players begin strumming their instruments. This movement is frequently performed on it’s own and is popular with mandolin ensembles.
The Third Movement: Sentimental Sarabande
The Sarabande is a slow dance that was popular in the Baroque period in France. We might find it hard to imagine an eleven-year-old writing melodies of such restrained but eloquent lyricism. The ‘Pizzicato’ strings partly return, maintaining some continuity with the previous movement, despite its drastically different speed and feel.
The Fourth Movement: Frolicsome Finale
This movement lives up to the expectation of its title - building gradually in intensity until a change to a slower speed suggests that we are nearing the end of the Symphony. A lightning-flash coda of fast, loud playing completes the movement.
– David Haack
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891 –1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26.
Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev wrote this concerto while on self-exile in America in 1921. The piece is dedicated to the Russian émigré poet Konstantin Balmont, who wrote verse inspired by Prokofiev. It was first performed on 16 December 1921, in Chicago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Friedrich Stock conducting and the composer himself as soloist.
The Concerto was the first of Prokofiev’s works to be recorded (in 1932, with the London Symphony Orchestra), and is the most popular of Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos.
First Movement: Andante – Allegro
The Concerto opens with a beautifully languorous melody in the woodwinds, quickly followed by an extremely lively introduction in which dissonant passages catch the ear as they pass. Castanets join the sonic texture, emphasising the rhythm and the piano and orchestra converse as the volume shifts from soft to very loud and the strings break in short, sharp bursts. The movement ends with a tremendously fast run by piano and orchestra. So far, the concerto feels like an exciting ride through heightened emotions, and those not totally familiar with it will not be sure what to expect throughout. The overall emotional tone is one of excitement, enthusiasm, and zest for music itself. It can be viewed as a celebration of what a virtuosic pianist and orchestra can achieve if pushed to the limit – but it does not go “over the edge” into self-parody or banal technicality for no reason.
Second Movement: Tema con variazoni
The second movement is structured by the statement of a theme (by the orchestra alone); followed by five subsequent variations. The emotions experienced in the first movement are expanded in the second to include more darkness among the fun and light. The movement begins in a slow, mysterious fashion, like a dark musical tunnel – one from which we emerge with playful musical clarity and increased energy in for the second and third variations. Prokofiev wrote: “…the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra.” As with the first movement, there is a tremendous energy at work. Thumping double basses emphasise rhythm. The fourth variation is, in Prokofiev’s words, “quiet and meditative”, while the fifth marks a return of vitality and excitement.
Third Movement: Allegro, ma non troppo
In this movement fast octave runs on the piano interweave with tense, exciting passages from the orchestra that occasionally veer into minor keys. The already-fast tempo switches gears into total allegro – everyone is on full throttle for a short while until it all slows right down, and moves into a slow, lyrical section, where the woodwinds pick up a descending melody, reminiscent of the first movement. The piece eventually builds up again in volume and tempo to a thrilling finale that places us back in a major key – showcasing the incredible virtuosity of the composer and performer and ending with a feeling of uplift and pure positive energy.
– David Haack
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVKSY (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
I. Andante – Allegro con anima
II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
III. Valse, Allegro Moderato
Longing, fantasy, and the chasm of disappointment that lies between dreams and reality are the defining features of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840 and died in St Petersburg in 1893. Symphony No. 5 is a work that placed large strain on the composer. Tchaikovsky himself stated he had to “squeeze [the] melodies from [his] dulled brain” to bring it to completion.
Tchaikovsky likened the theme of his Fourth symphony to that of Beethoven’s Fifth—one of fate inevitable—musing that fate was “the fatal force that prevents our striding for happiness from succeeding.” His own fifth symphony also carries the theme of “fate,” but with a reluctant acceptance, rather than the kneeling, gnashing defiance of his Fourth.
The 1888 premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was met with mixed reviews. While one critic felt the work sprung from a dark spiritual experience, Tchaikovsky himself believed it was a failure: ‘there is something repulsive about it, a certain excess of gaudiness, insincerity and artificiality.’
The first movement opens with a clarinet dutifully singing out the main theme under a bed of sweetly stinging strings. This theme is Tchaikovsky’s fate motif, also appearing in the other movements as a waltz and march. This movement develops picks up pace, with idiosyncratic, tornadic flourishes and brassy military calls growing to an all-encompassing orchestral texture.
The second movement wades into the depths of the lower strings, accompanied by a lyrical horn solo, appearing like light filtered through the ocean. The first theme’s lyricism is sternly interrupted by a timpani roll, and the fate theme from the first movement is repeated, stopping as quickly as it arrives. In the composer’s notebooks, he wrote next to this movement “shall I cast myself into the embrace of [fate]?”
The third movement, by contrast, appears lively and spritely. Strings run across one another, intermingling with the woodwinds and brass. Beneath this cheeriness, however, is a marked unseen nausea, with the lower woodwinds quietly singing the fate motif.
The Finale opens with a dignified procession of a fully realised fate theme, completely harmonised and removed from its minor key. The movement metamorphises into rapid military precision, bringing in quick staccato and singing themes in the upper winds. The piece concludes with bombast, interpreting the theme for the last time as a triumphant march.
– Jake Ryan Deans