At the Flash Point of History
Three symphonic works from the mid-20th century
It was a decade in which the world was turned topsy-turvy: with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, nothing remained as it was before. The three works in today’s programme were composed, or at least begun, during the ten years or so that followed this disruption, and each of them reflects the ways in which its respective creator reacted personally to the altered circumstances of life. The Russian émigrés Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky felt compelled to abandon their European refuges and settle in America; the budding composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann was drafted into the wartime German army, robbing him of valuable years of artistic development. Heard in such close succession, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Zimmermann’s Alagoana shed light on the aesthetic and stylistic diversity that took shape around the middle of the 20th century.
A “war symphony” – Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements
“Of all musical forms, the one considered the richest from the point of view of development is the symphony. We usually designate by that name a composition in several movements, of which one confers upon the whole work its symphonic quality namely, the symphonic allegro, generally placed at the opening of the work and intended to justify its name by fulfilling the requirements of a certain musical dialectic.” This is how Stravinsky explained the essence of the symphony in his second Norton Lecture at Harvard (1939/40) “The Phenomenon of Music”. Not surprisingly, he later referred to his Symphony in Three Movements as “three symphonic movements”, since it contains no such example of dialectical sonata form, neither at the opening of the work nor elsewhere.
It was written between 1942 and 1945, five years after the Symphony in C. Whereas the earlier work pays homage to Viennese Classicism, the new composition draws on quite different models. One such paradigm is the Baroque concerto grosso and its sectional alternation of larger ensembles with smaller ones in which individual instruments emerge from the orchestra soloistically: for example, the piano in the first movement, the harp in the second and both in the third, where they combine in a fugato section. And yet, inner turmoil can also be sensed in the music, an underground seething barely kept from exploding. In spite of his usual aversion to programmatic explanations, Stravinsky actually spoke of the influence on this symphony of war experiences, referring to them as “a progression of despair and hope permeated by images of the War he had experienced in films... Each episode was linked by Stravinsky to a war image until he even came to call his piece ‘war symphony’” (Helmut Kirchmeyer). Nevertheless, the work was not conceived programmatically: to explain how world events turn up in music was not the composer’s concern.
“Very hot music, highly effective, sound!” – Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Alagoana
Bernd Alois Zimmermann was trebly disadvantaged in his artistic development: by the aesthetic strictures of National Socialist ideology, which ostracized and banned many artists with the label “degenerate”; then by the years for his art that were lost to military service; and finally, when it came to making a new start after the war, by the disadvantage of no longer being seen as a fresh young talent. Although Zimmermann’s deployment in France brought traumatic experiences and injuries whose after-effects would extend to diminishing his eyesight, it also made possible his acquaintance with scores unobtainable in Nazi Germany, especially of music with non-European influences such as the South American adaptations of Darius Milhaud, which could have been an inspiration for the work being heard today.
Alagoana had its origin in a trifle. Zimmermann wrote: “Also progressing is work on a tiny five-minute overture with little sideways glances at the entertainment sector, which I personally am happy to do for once as long as it doesn’t cost me any complaints about seriousness.” Provisionally called Brasilianische (Brazilian), the overture was briefly renamed Penedo and then Alagoas before receiving its definitive title, a suggestion of Zimmermann’s brother Josef: “It’s a very good idea of Alois to give the composition the title Alagoas instead of Penedo.After all, the state is better known than its oldest city. Maybe it would be even better to change the name to Alagoana, because this word, thanks to its Portuguese meaning (the Alagoaners), also has somewhat more artistic appeal; furthermore, it’s more sonorous.”
Following the premiere in 1951, Zimmermann expanded the overture into a ballet score, which had its first staging four years later in Essen. “The time pressure under which the ballet was completed may explain the extent to which Zimmermann drew on older materials in composing it,” wrote the Zimmermann authority Heribert Henrich. That notwithstanding, something altogether new came into being – in the composer’s words “a then completely unfamiliar side of my creative output. It’s very hot music, highly effective, sound!”
Music as biography – Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninov
Rachmaninov often felt like a fugitive, both as man and artist, and often enough he really was one. He fled from Russia to western Europe and North America before the October Revolution; he fled from composer’s desk to pianist’s podium and back again; and he sought refuge from a public whose longing to lionize him as a virtuoso provoked his own longing for serenity and seclusion. “Composing is as essential a part of my being as breathing or eating; it is one of the necessary functions of living. My constant desire to compose music is actually the urge within me to give tonal expression to my thoughts”, he said in his final interview at the end of 1941.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances – his last composition – is filled with musical allusions, especially to his own works. At the end of the first movement, heard through jingling bells, is a theme that suggests transfiguration. Scarcely anyone other than the composer could have known that he was recalling here one of the greatest disasters of his artistic career: the premiere of his First Symphony, which had ended in a debacle and plunged Rachmaninov into deep depression. Now he apparently wished to sublimate the trauma. The Andante con moto evokes the waltz paraphrases of Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Ravel when distorted sounds (muted trumpets, stopped horns) cluster ahead of the waltz bars and fairylike woodwind brush across the plucked triple rhythm. The cor anglais (English horn) introduces an elegiac tone with tart harmonic progressions, but the eeriness prevails.
An orchestral thwack stirs listeners out of this ghostly mood at the beginning of the finale. After a pandemonium of cries and sighs, hectic passages and precarious retreats to the opening, Rachmaninov paraphrases from his All-Night Vigil, op. 37 in the final third of the piece. This self-quotation is overlaid with the “Dies irae” motif from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, which he had already used in his First Symphony, The Bells and the Paganini Rhapsody. The last of the harsh final chords is vaulted by a blast from the tam-tam, symbol of death since the beginning of its treatment in European music.