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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week No. 1

Updated: Jul 19

First, some news, Typee Valley has been listed by as one of the top blogs for writing on classical music. I am suitably honoured and wish to respond with an appropriate increase in productivity that might reflect the fact that my music posts appear to have provoked the most appreciative response from readers. (Though I hope to continue posting on other arts areas as well.)

So, welcome to the Symphony Project.

During those - for me, not un-blissful - days of lockdown, one of my diversions became the systematic investigation of the history of the symphony. I was prompted partly by a series of discussions I had been having with informed friends around the notion of canonicity in the arts. It is a hot topic at the moment, with established literary, artistic, cinematic and musical pantheons facing strong challenges on grounds of racial or gender exclusion - challenges that are to be welcomed but that, in themselves, provoke further, often troubling, questions.

Now, I honestly feel that I have always been happy to consume in all artistic media well beyond a narrow field of "greats", as my overflowing book and CD collections bear witness. I am always willing to give something new at least one try. But, at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near... There simply is not world enough and time to consume everything, let alone to appraise it with any justness, and there is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with exercising personal preference. During my student years, I read almost every play performed on English stages between 1580 and 1624 - certainly all the major ones and an awful lot of minor ones. Many of these dramatic works struck me as fascinating in their own right, as well as vastly enriching my knowledge and appreciation of Shakespeare. Still, those of us who find the larger canon of Jacobean drama absorbing must also accept that for most theatregoers Shakespeare is enough. Indeed, isn't part of the pleasure one might get from a good performance of say, Marston's The Malcontent, or Middleton's Women Beware Women bound up with an appreciation of their rareness?

Recent books by Leah Broad and Kate Molleson have sought to expand the canon of classical music, Molleson's Sound Within Sound from a radical, post-modern perspective, Broad's Quartet from a rather more conventional one. Indeed, their projects might be seen as in some ways opposed. Molleson thrills to technical and generic innovation, whilst Broad strongly implies that the four British women composers whose careers she describes in her group biography, fell variously foul of a masculine musical culture in thrall to modernism. For me both beg the question, where exactly in any canon, should one place these supposedly neglected figures? The ten subject's of Molleson's book are, I suspect, unlikely to make much headway with general audiences, as opposed to the small audience for specialized programmes on Radio 3 - such as New Music Show, of which Molleson is an informed and enthusiastic presenter. Broad's womanly quartet might have an easier time establishing themselves in listeners' affections but, one wonders, how permanently? The considerable efforts made on behalf of Havergal Brian or Jan Dismas Zelenka in the Sixties and Seventies established them as cults, but I'm afraid little more. Those interested or curious about them can find copious samplesof their music floating about on line. Do Ruth Crawford Seeger or Rebecca Clarke really deserve a better fate?

I should emphasize that nothing would delight me more than a shaking up of British concert programming, maintained at a stupefying level of un-adventurousness not, I would have though, by the villainous, vaguely-defined "gate-keepers" and "wall-builders" cited by Broad and Molleson, as by the commercial timidity of promoters and the sluggishness of popular taste. My own little venture is not so much an assault on the accepted canon (the neglect of much of the music it unearthed, though not always deserved, is usually understandable) as a reasonably thorough attempt to explore what might be hiding behind the canonical facade of a single central genre of musical production - the symphony.

It works like this. Google "Composers of Symphonies" and up comes a vast Wikipedia entry with literally thousands of names, most of them obscure, arranged chronologically in several tranches. For the last three years I have been listening systematically through it, drawing on my own record collection and recordings posted on Youtube. From this week on, I shall be posting some of my more interesting discoveries for your delectation or derision. Some people's entire symphonic output evidently awaits recording, or has been lost - for instance, the two works in the form by Liszt's admired friend, the splendidly named Hans Bronsart von Schellendorff - but it is surprising how much is out there if you choose to look. (I am, of course, immensely grateful to the many enthusiasts who have posted them there, often with accompanying score.)

To keep things sort of manageable, (and to concentrate on the period I find most congenial) I decided to discount all composers who didn't live into the 20th Century (which I take to begin in 1901). This meant that the first qualifying figure was someone I had heard of - Carl Reinecke (1824-1910). I had even heard some of the attractive, if strongly conservative, music he produced over the course of a long career, but his three symphonies - including the lengthy, programmatic Second - though works of assured and civilized craft, failed to excite. Reinecke is one - in fact, one of the liveliest - of a group of composers whose stylistic vocabulary advanced little beyond that of Mendelssohn. Other examples would be, Abert and Jadassohn, both of whom have small, but evidently devoted followings online, but neither of whom, I'm afraid, will be featuring in my selection of interesting little-played symphonies by composers born after 1800 and living till at least 1901. Of course, this is a personal selection and anyone is welcome to disagree with it, though I have tried to be as open and receptive to what I encountered as possible. I shall perhaps make a few more remarks of a general nature as the project goes on, but I think I had better get on with my first candidate for consideration.

Symphony no.2 in D minor, Op. 44 by Rijk (Richard) Hol (1866)

Hol was a dominant, indeed, the dominant figure in Dutch musical life in the later 19th Century. As conductor he introduced an unusually wide range of contemporary music to Amsterdam audiences, whilst as composer he enjoyed considerable success, especially with operas and large-scale choral works. The first three of his four symphonies are all on youtube and all worth a listen. This strikes me as the best of them, though the First (1863) is arguably more tuneful and the Third (1867) certainly more ambitious.

The latter piece clearly demonstrates that, although essentially conservative in his creative practice, Hol was not averse to a little cautious experimentation outside the shallow Mendelssohnian waters where he evidently felt safest. It's harmonic and rhythmic style is more sophisticated that it's predecessors and it features an unusual slow movement featuring two scherzo interpolations. The overall result, however, is curiously self-conscious and unpersuasive, it's innovations seemingly springing from refined curiosity rather than any real imaginative impulse.

The Second Symphony, by contrast, does inhabit it's stylistic skin with genuine confidence. The slow introduction, with its chromatic and rhythmic groping, establishes a tone of tragic intensity to which the ensuing Allegro is a convincing response, with varied and well defined - if not especially memorable - material. Like most of his contemporaries working in the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition, Hol cultivates a homogenized orchestral sound in which individual orchestral timbres are largely subjugated to the whole, but his orchestration is considerably less clotted than might be feared and lines always stand out clearly. The eventual return of the introductory theme in a quiet coda feels both earned and effective. It is worth reminding ourselves that this music pre-dates Brahms First Symphony, whose opening movement it rather strongly anticipates, by about a decade. Listening to it "blind" I might well have assumed it was the other way round.

If the symphony's remaining three movements don't quite maintain the standard of the first, they are all perfectly decent. The "prayer" of the slow movement is a restful clearing of the air and the scherzo that follows is suitably rowdy, if a bit anonymous. The finale, in which Hol permits himself the extravagance of a triangle, is characterized by a sane, unforced cheeriness that does not seem to have travelled too improbably far from where the symphony set out.

This is an admirable, rather than an exciting achievement, yet perhaps there is something fitting about opening my survey with a work of this kind; something typical of much that surrounded it, but a shade more distinguished than most.

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