Thursday, January 6, 2011

Great Eighths

Note: Picking up where I left off last July with my series on Great Symphonies. I plan four more posts in the series counting this one. But, I don’t necessarily intend to finish them on a monthly basis. There’s no hurry.

When it comes to Great Eighth Symphonies one towers among all other contenders. The “Unfinished” Symphony (1822) by Franz Schubert is one of the great musical wonders of the world. Schubert is certainly one of the greatest composers to ever live, so it seems surprising that I have not mentioned him before now. His lively Fifth Symphony was in contention back when I posted on at subject last May. But, ultimately it didn’t win out over the other tough competitors I chose to include. Schubert composed a great deal of chamber music that I enjoy, particularly trios, several marvelous string quartets, and the famous “Trout” Quintet.

Schubert wrote his Great Eighth when he was only 25 years old. It is simply mind-blowing (and a tribute to his commanding talent) that he produced so much memorable music in his tragically short lifetime. The symphony’s title comes from the fact that it only has two movements, rather than the traditional four. He composed the brief beginnings of a third movement but nothing more. It is a mystery why he only completed two movements; especially since he went on to compose another symphony and some of his best chamber works during the six years after working on his Eighth. But then, the symphony solidly stands as it is. So, perhaps he simply decided nothing more was truly needed.

The first movement begins solemnly enough with basses and cellos tempered with a bittersweet melody by oboe and clarinet. The winds chime in as a tranquil atmosphere pervades the piece. At times the movement is heartrendingly beautiful, at times there is turbulence and storm, always returning to the poignant, emotional thread that so forcefully runs throughout the movement. A pre-Wagnerian layering of the string section pitted against itself, supported by the rest of the orchestra, is quite evident.

While the first movement presents a marvelous contrast of quiet reflection and forceful agitation, the second movement offers a virtually uninterrupted, delicate beauty. The symphony leaves behind all hint of conflict and presents an idyllic, pastoral character that contains as much confidence and strength as it does utterly satisfying calm. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Schubert could have improved upon these two movements. They are a fine example of symphonic excellence.

Bruckner completed his Great Eighth late in his life in 1886. As with many of his symphonies, this is an extended work, lasting almost 90 minutes. It begins with in a perplexed fashion, full of restless energy. The second movement, a scherzo, is almost folksy in nature, strong but with a completely different energy, sort of confident without being exactly lively.

The final two movements of the work are its best, each well over 25 minutes long. The third movement, an adagio, is one of the longest and most expressive symphonic movements Bruckner ever composed; with deep melodies featuring cellos and tubas. The fourth movement is meant to be played “freely but not fast.” There are three or four major themes developed during its course, building to a triumphant, unified, almost jubilant conclusion that recalls bits and pieces of each of the previous three movements. This was the last symphony Bruckner would finish in his lifetime.

No composer was perhaps more affected and produced more thoughtful music during the course of World War Two than Shostakovich. I blogged about my admiration for his “Leningrad” Symphony last July. He followed that with a Great Eighth entitled “Stalingrad” after that seminal battle on the Eastern Front in 1942-43. Unlike his prior symphony, however, the Stalingrad work is more unconventional, not catering to any specific militarism or patriotism. Compared with his body of work up to this time, Shostakovich’s Great Eighth comes off as very subtle.

The extended first movement takes up almost half the symphony. At times it reminds me of some of the strongest sections of Shostakovich’s Great Fifth. It begins slowly then builds relentlessly through several climaxes. The short second movement is rather macabre, perhaps representing the twisted, inglorious horrors of modern warfare.

The next three movements are all performed without interruption. The third movement is a driving, pounding collision of contentious chords. The fourth, a Largo, calms things down after a crashing transition and offers the melancholy hopefulness so familiar to Shostakovich’s music. The finale is not what one might expect. There is no triumphant victory here, no inspiration to drive forward the “Great Patriotic War” to a successful conclusion. The end comes quietly, almost with a whimper. It is easy to see how this work, meant equally as a testament to the horror of war and to the oppression of Soviet life, was frowned upon by communist bosses at the time of its premier.

Mahler’s Eight Symphony (1910) can be classified as great in a couple of respects. First of all it is ambitious in size, requiring a heavily fortified orchestra, two mixed choirs, a children’s choir, and eight soloists. Little wonder this Great Eighth was dubbed “Symphony of a Thousand.” At times it certainly sounds that way. With that much sonic potential contained in a concert hall you are bound to end up with something that sounds grand.

It is also great as a composition, even though it is one of my least favorite Mahler symphonies. The reason I don’t care for it as much as other compositions is that this Great Eighth (in spite of the massive instrumentation) is predominantly a vocal work, more so than any other symphony we have considered thus far. It is too operatic for my tastes. Nevertheless, the composition has several moments of brilliance.

Even though, like an opera, there are numerous pieces to the composition, the symphony is essentially in two parts. The first part uses an ancient Latin text incorporated by the Roman Catholic Church. It alternates between ennobled outbursts by the chorus’ and expressive solo performances. The music itself serves as the “spirit” for the text’s presentation, the ethereal accompaniment of the vocal material’s manifestation.

The second part of this Great Eighth is even more dramatic. It is clear that Mahler intends this as a forceful affirmation of life. Once again, various choruses’ alternate with various soloists to convey the earthy context for this motivational music. The complexity is what is most noteworthy here. Mahler continually presents new elements then weaves them more tightly together into a multifarious whole. It builds to a climax that seems to promise the divine power of cosmic love to eternity itself. Mahler has made this statement before but never with so much musical prowess at his command. An impressive feat, if a tad too operatic for me.

Philip Glass normally sends me running down the street screaming manically. I know he is considered one of the greatest minimalist composers, and one of the greatest American composers, of our time. But, unlike John Adams, who I much prefer, Glass has not integrated his mastery of minimalism with broader influences of contemporary classical music. While I admire a few scattered works here and there, Glass rarely impresses me; more often than not he simply turns me off. But, his Great Eighth Symphony is a striking exception for me. It remains pure to its minimalist foundations, yet it does so in a way that inspires rather than hypnotizes or revolts with endless repetitions.

Composed in 2006, it is the most recent symphony considered in this series thus far. It is noteworthy not only because it is an impressive orchestral composition but also because, in a time when composers have largely shunned the traditional form of composing symphonies (they much prefer concertos or odd symphonic pieces), Glass has managed to compose eight symphonies to the exclusion of almost any other active composer today.

The centerpiece of this wonderful symphony is the massive, comparatively complex and richly layered first movement. I knew the moment I heard this that it was different, more enduring than most anything I had heard from Glass in many years. If there is a weakness here it lies in the fact that the first movement is so domineering and well-constructed it leaves the second and third movements as rather anti-climatic. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this work to anyone who thinks there is no good classical music being composed today. Certainly, this is an outstanding contemporary symphony.

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