We began by listening to the prologue of Part II of Mahler’s eighth symphony, commonly known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the significant resources which are called upon during its performance. It requires a large orchestra, eight soloists, two choirs as well as a separate boys’ choir. While the number of performers is substantial, it rarely reaches the number implied by its common name. Ironically, the extract we heard only involves the orchestra.
Mahler wrote the symphony in 1906 in his summer retreat at Maiernigg in Carinthia, southern Austria. Mahler shunned the conventional four movement structure for this symphony and instead it consists of two parts, the first being based on the Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, and the second part is based upon the closing scenes of Goethe’s poem Faust. The work as a whole expresses the idea of redemption though the power of love. Goethe believed that Veni Creator Spiritus embodied aspects of his own philosophy and translated it into German.
The symphony is the first completely choral symphony written and the choirs and soloists are heard throughout rather than being confined to specific movements. It received its first performance in Munich in the autumn of 1910 in the presence of such luminaries as Richard Strauss, Saint Saëns, Webern and Thomas Mann as well as future luminaries such as the 28 year old British conductor Leopold Stokowski, who six years later conducted the first performance in the USA. Surprisingly, it was not performed in the UK until 1930 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. While it was well received at its premiere, it did have its critics, Theodor W Adorno found the piece weak, Robert Simpson wrote of the second part as “an ocean of shameless kitsch” and Jonathon Carr found much of the symphony bland. Mahler however considered that it was the grandest thing he had ever done and its subsequent popularity and the fact it is regularly performed today suggests that the negative views of some critics were overdone.
The story of Faust is well known but the final scenes less so. Faust made a pact with the Devil, Mephistopheles, but near the end of his life, falls in love with Gretchen who forgives him and on his deathbed, when Mephistopheles arrives to claim his soul he is frustrated by a band of angels who intervene due to God’s grace and the final scene has Faust’s soul carried to heaven in presence of God by the intercession of the Virgin Mother Queen, history does not recall whether or not a sweet chariot was provided! Who would have thought Faust had a happy ending!
After that we hear a couple of pieces by John Field, his Nocturne No 1 and the third movement of his Sonata in E flat major Opus 1 No 1. Field was born in Dublin in 1782; he came from a musical family; his father was a violinist and his grandfather was a professional organist. He was something of a child prodigy and learned the piano under his grandfather and later under Tommaso Giordani an Italian composer who was active in Britain and Ireland. In 1793 the family moved to London where John continued to study under Muzio Clementi, a pianist and instrument maker. He clearly became an accomplished pianist and gave regular concerts in London where he was heard by, amongst others, Haydn. In 1802 he went to Paris with Clementi on business and eventually ended up in Vienna where he played for Beethoven who was impressed by his abilities. He then went on to St Petersburg where he was greatly attracted to the artistic life in the city. Clementi left St Petersburg alone in 1803 but not before securing Field a teaching post at Narva, now part of Estonia but was then of course part of the Russian Empire. He continued to live in Russia until 1831 when poor health caused him to return to London. He returned to Russia but died in Moscow of pneumonia in 1837.
The Piano Sonata in 1801 was his first published work in London and was published by and dedicated to Clementi. He is best known for his nocturnes, and while he did not invent the genre, he significantly developed it. The recording we heard was by Benjamin Frith recorded at St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire.
After that we listened to the Pavane by Fauré who was a contemporary of Mahler and was born in Ariége in 1845 and his family later moved to Foix, so he was somewhat of a local boy. His musical talents developed early and, at the age of nine, he was dispatched to Paris to study to be an organist and choirmaster at a music college; he was taught by, amongst others, Camille Saint Saëns who became a life long friend. He later became the Director of the Paris Conservatoire. The Pavane, one of his better known works, was originally written as an orchestral composition but was later transcribed for piano and chorus. We heard the orchestral version played by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Neville Marriner. It was originally intended to be played briskly, but nowadays it tends to be played more slowly. There is a You Tube (https://youtu.be/_tQ36TFvNoM) recording of the Pavane actually played by Fauré in Paris in 1913 where the tempo is much faster. In his early years he struggled to make a living but he was eventually recognised as the leading French composer of his day. His music has been described as providing a link between the earlier Romantic school, Chopin was still composing when Fauré was born, and the later developments of jazz and the atonal music of the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
That was followed by a couple of extracts from the Ballet Sylvia by Delibes, the Grand Pas des Chasseresses and the Valse Lente played by the Concerts du Conservatoire conducted by Roger Désormière. The ballet was not a success initially although the costumes designed by Lacoste were well received, a case of damning with faint praise perhaps? Nevertheless, the score by Delibes rescued the work from obscurity. The ballet was rechoreographed by Frederick Ashton in 1952 who designed the entire ballet as a tribute to Margot Fonteyn which revitalised the under appreciated ballet. The ballet centres around creatures of the forest dancing before Eros, the God of love when they are disturbed by the inevitable humble shepherd, Aminta. Sylvia with her band of huntresses arrives and mock Eros; she discovers Aminta, who is, not surprisingly, in love with her and, somewhat put out, she aims her bow at Eros, who is entirely innocent, Aminta tries to protect Eros and is himself wounded. Eros, understandable upset, shoots Sylvia but only succeeds in wounding her. She leaves and the hunter Orion enters. Orion then kidnaps Sylvia who begins to appreciate Aminta’s love. After a rather tedious middle Aminta and Orion fight for the love of Sylvia. Diana, the goddess of the hunt is annoyed by the fight in her temple, so she smites Orion and denies Aminta his paramour. Enter Eros who puts everything right and Sylvia and Aminta go on to live happily ever after.
We finished the afternoon by listening to the allegro spirituoso movement of Haydn’s Concerto No 2 in G Major for flute and oboe. There is some doubt about its authenticity with some believing that the real composer was Ignaz Malzat.