Play in: Dance of The Nymphs, from The Tempest Music, Sibelius
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today, our programme showcases worksby the Swedish composer, Franz Berwald and the Finn, Jean Sibelius.Often thought of as the first great Swedish Romantic composer, Franz Berwald must have felt anything but during much of his – for the time – long life. Born in 1796, he died less than a year after being appointed head of the Stockholm Conservatoire, in 1868.
Rising from being a violinist in the Court Orchestra, his best years were expended in furious bursts of creativity and intermittent, unsuccessful attempts to assert claim to recognition as a composer at home and in Germany. That claim denied, he busied himself with orthopaedic surgery, design of orthopaedic instruments, managership of a sawmill and glass-works, and advocate in social issues, including land reform. He wrote four symphonies in the early 1840s, having essayed a Symphony in A Major in around 1829, and thus approached the form in his musical maturity, having gained much experience as a composer of opera, concertante works, concert-overtures and what might be described as tone-poems. Like Schumann, he was an idiosyncratic but brilliant symphonist, with an instinct for gaining precisely the sounds that he wished for in his orchestrations. Unlike Schumann, his most characteristic orchestral ‘sound’ tends to the treble register rather than alto – it has a smart, cutting quality that might almost be thought modern, but that in truth harks back to the clean, uncluttered sound of CPE Bach, Mozart or Joseph Haydn. It abounds in imaginativecombinations, interrelations and soloes, and his deft rhythmical wranglings between sections and individual instruments, set off by clever counterpoint, were noticed by the late romantic Danish symphonist, Carl Nielsen, who claimed him as a major influence.
Mystery is rarely a quality that might be associated with Berwald. His music is terse, vital, harmonic and contrapuntal rather than melodic, within a framework of modulation, cyclical form and motivic transformation. The terseness is scarcely noticed except as a skill, an ability to pack incident of the right kind into the right place at the right time.
The Symphonie Serieuse, in G Minor, his First Symphony, one of two that he composed in 1842, was the only one that he heard played, in a performance at Stockholm, arranged by his cousin, in 1843.
It begins with a trademark stuttered two chords; the first subject resembles magnetic attractiveness in its inception of widely spaced scalic figures in contrary motion, and remains restless, quixotic, making play with fragments of an incomplete scale, tension ebbing and flowing; it is automatically repeated. The second subject is more gentle, but comes from the same source, a mere few nostalgic moments. The development begins quietly, in counterpoint, but is doomed to frantic, busy discord, with impatient stutters, juxtapositions and combinations that are quickly done-with for recapitulation. This is straightforward and ends abruptly without sense of resolution.
Symphonie Serieuse, 1st Movt , Berwald
The Slow Movement is a reminder that Berwald was born a year before Franz Schubert. It is indebted to the slow movements of Haydn, a short lyric such as Schumann had written in his D Minor Symphony of 1841, but less free-seeming in its process. It begins in contrary motion, with the incomplete scale present in the first movement, overshot and falling away at the sixth. Its sombre, low-register scoring (after the brightness that went before it) is maintained in what follows. The short-breathedness of the material – the opening figure, a three-note sigh and a musing phrase like a dark gleam of faith, a Beethovenian three note questioning of the sigh, and passage over pizzicato that amplifies it - is no impediment to pathos and charm. A recapitulation of the opening measures is sufficient to close what seems a brief orison.
The Scherzo, termed Stretto – the term suggesting counterpoint - is transient, almost phantasmagoric in nature, a repetitive, ejaculatory and oddly dreamlike affair, blustering in its hunting-horn- and trombone-hardened moments, always airy, throwing out functions of the Symphony’s incomplete scale in all directions in counterpoint and broken scoring. The trio is no relief from scales, but plays slow chords over a busy background, a technique later used with great success by Sibelius, and anticipated by a passage of some pathos within the scherzo section of the movement. The trick – first used by Schubert - perhaps suggests that time hastens the more cruelly as man reflects on happiness. The woodwind are used with great skill; Berwald causes woodwind and strings to interact with beauty. After recapitulation of the scherzo--section, all melts away.
Berwald’s finale begins attaca, with the sigh and consolatory musing figure from his slow movement. This was a daring innovation in the 1840s. The manner of the scherzo returns briefly, and a brusque, instantly repeated downward broken chord in brass and some unrepeated A Midsummer Night’s Dream woodwind-chords of opposite moods have their contribution to make before the movement-proper seems to begin with a sudden hard-driving theme over a running bass, allegro molto, fully scored. This proves short in duration, but, often, Berwald shows a skill in terse continuations – and utter contrasts that remain consistent; a short theme of utter pathos follows. Return to the first subject sees a change in dynamics and scoring – soft, murmurous woodwind take the lead over the running bass – with skeletal interjections from the deeper strings - before development provokes the brass. The second subject returns unchanged, achingly sad. Back to hurly-burly – but the second subject comes to haunt one last time before the first strides off again – the coda is Mozartian in frenzy: with one last pretty switch in its midst: a trombone plays solo the notes of the chord of the dominant in G Major, a move anticipated in the brusque part of the movement’s introduction, to which it adds a sotto voce scale fragment Of descending semitones and a tone as though the chord were not uncertain In itself.
In context, the trombone part is no doubt the clincher, for Berwald. Not only that, but most originally presented!
In summation on the subject of Berwald, one may propound that a thing worth saying is worth saying twice – or more than twice! -and in fact, his bold, deceptively tonal ideas, being harmonically interesting, stand up as well in repetition (and treatment in classical patterns of sequences), as in development, which works by sudden contrasts and swift manipulations of intervals and key-change, not to mention arrestingly economical but imaginative orchestration. How thoroughly abstract the process is is frequently concealed by the moods aroused, and by the ingenuity of this music’s transformations. This is both abstract symphony and psychology. Berwald had one foot in the past of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and the other in the future of Nielsen and Sibelius. Not conventionally romantic-classical in the age of Mendelssohn or Gade, more classical in idiom as well as taste, than the revolutionary Berlioz, and no doubt beneath the notice of Wagner, he found a world-audience only long after his death. Then, his true legacy was recognized, and he was celebrated for both his classical skills and far-sighted originality of expression. Never cautious, never insipid, never attitudinizing, in many ways Haydnesque in character, his music seems unlikely to date.
Our second piece in this programme is by a Finn of Swedish extraction, Jean Sibelius. Would Berwald have wished to have the fame that Sibelius was accorded? One doubts it. Born less than three years before Berwald’s death, Sibelius found that national and world-fame cost him dear.
His orchestral piece, Cassazione – Cassation, or serenade out-of-doors (the Italian word may come from the German for alley - Ganz) - has the Opus Number Six in his frankly chaotic list of works. It was never published, but as he went so far as to give the piece an opus number at all, intended at one time to revise it – even partly carried out the intention – and did not destroy it, it is clear that he had affection for it. His first title for it was Fantasy For Orchestra – and why he termed it a Cassation is not to be divined from its tone or nature. Opus 6? - It was written swiftly by a 38 yrs-old national hero in the first weeks of 1904, for performance at the concert during which his Violin Concerto was presented to the public.
In the event, the Violin Concerto’s premiere was a humiliation for the sensitive composer, and his anomalous one movement Cassation went largely unnoticed owing to the poor showing that the larger work made. The self-confessed slave of his themes, Sibelius was an inveterate reviser of his work, a creature of learned instinct on the page and therefore, touchy and extreme in his response to audience-opinion, and Cassazione may have been a victim of his panicked reaction to criticism – by association with the bedevilled Violin Concerto, guilty of having misfired.
It is a single-movement piece that may fall roughly into 4 self-contained sections: an impressive slow introduction, a stentorian fanfare; a restless section in which a theme grows out of an agitated background; a slow movement that begins with beautiful flute and clarinet interplay and becomes a grand, Lutheran-style hymn-theme with asides of greater or lesser tension, much use of woodwind and bass and alto pizzicato strings. Having provoked the first violins to unison statement of the hymn, the asides become resigned, even melancholy, dying out on flute and clarinet bird-calls. We are pitched into the last, fast section, one of Sibelius’ self-repeating themes, thick with elaboration and syncopated rhythm; the speed that promises breadth and boisterousness is in fact short-lived – no sooner is it established than it subsides for brass and strings tremolando to hint abruptly at the introductory fanfare and for the piece to end in surprize tragic terseness, a simple pizzicato cadence in the minor, the final word, as in the first and final movements of the First Symphony and slow movement of the Second. A fantasy. A train of thought of incredible imagination that plays within manipulation of intervals and tonal range, Cassation may appear to be a premature attempt at a one-movement Symphony, a Symphonic Fantasy, like Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, but several minutes shorter than any previous model. It is, in fact, a prefiguration of Sibelius’ later symphonic masterpieces in method, a daring play with God-scattered pieces of a mosaic, and more than the sum of its parts, and Oskar Merikanto’s dismissal of it after the premiere as “rather insignificant” is hard to understand. The wish was father to the thought, perhaps: Sibelius’s stature oppressed many if not all of his composer-contemporaries in Finland. In terms of his life-achievement, the great man had barely begun! Uncertainty followedhim into his sixties, however; his first title for the one-movement 7th Symphony, an object-lesson in compressed development, and development by compression, was “Fantasia Sinfonica”.
Of the middle-period Fantasy or Cassazione’s in places first-rate material, only the hymn-like tune was utilized elsewhere in Sibelius’ output: it turns up as the last number, Epilogue, in his music for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest – where Prospero calls for his release from the bare island.
This was Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was written and researched by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!
Track 5: Cassazione, Op 6, Sibelius
Play out: Dance of The Nymphs, Sibelius