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This week’s piece (an old favourite rather than something new) is the final movement Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).
Mahler’s symphonies are dramatic and epic – he famously said to Sibelius in 1907 that “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything”. His music not only encompasses extremes of emotion but also those of style – with even popular songs of his time sometimes finding their way into the musical fabric. The turbulent last movement of his first symphony was originally entitled “Dall’inferno al Paradiso, as the sudden expression of a deeply wounded heart”. After much frenetic soul-searching it eventually triumphs in D major – a moment well worth waiting for. If you like this you should move onto his other symphonies – his second and fifth are both pretty accessible.
This week’s piece is Symphony No. 7 by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
Sibelius’s seventh (1924) is his last completed symphony although he lived until 1957 and destroyed or left fragments of other works. Composition students may recognise the bit at around 5’30ish …
This is a fascinating symphony – it develops quite slowly and organically and in its single movement it rarely moves out of C major for long. Sibelius was the master of the long span – his music always sounds like it is moving purposefully forward, sometimes with excitement, sometimes sternly and sometimes with trepidation. He makes you wait for climactic moments but you feel you deserve them when they do arrive.
There is a really good Discovering Music programme about this symphony from Radio 3.
If this piece with its sombre opening textures does not immediately grab you then try the last movement of his fifth symphony first or his Tchaikovskian first symphony.
This week’s piece is Christus Vincit by the Scottish composer James MacMillan.
I have chosen it because some of us are going to see the UK premiere of his St Luke’s Passion at the CBSO this coming Thursday.
It was written in 1994 to be performed on St Cecilia’s day in St Paul’s in London. Listening to this piece you can imagine the soaring melismas and lush harmonies echoing through the resonant spaces of a grand cathedral. Being a devout Catholic, MacMillan’s religious music has a reverence and beauty that resonates even with miserable old atheists like me. His other music is worth exploring as well, particularly The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni Emmanuel, which are probably his most famous.
The text for Christus Vincit translates as follows:
Christ is King
Christ is Lord of all
Each week I will pick a piece that you might want to give a quick listen. This week I have chosen a piece by BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946).
De Falla, who is one of Spain’s most famous composers, wrote music that was often fantastically exotic and colourful but his Nights in the Garden of Spain (1915) is probably his most impressionistic – recalling Debussy in its use of orchestral and harmonic colours.
The third movement is entitled ‘The Gardens of the Sierra de Cordoba’ and moves between different types of meditation, beginning with wild music that depicts the famous whirling dance that Sufi Muslims do to induce a state of active meditation.
Catch it here on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgukjLhPh-c