Sunday, April 16, 2017

Four Fifths

This will not be a post about bottles of bourbon!

I had a theory professor once, when he was teaching 20th century theory, would devote one class to compositions written in the year 1951--the only reason for this was that was the year of his birth. But looking at things from a seemingly arbitrary angle can be interesting and rewarding because it shakes you a bit loose from the standard or common perspectives and allows you to, perhaps, see things from a new angle.

So the idle thought crossed my mind the other day of comparing, putting together, four different symphonies that all happen to have the number five. Number five, number five, number five, number five...

The first one is the venerable and much admired and discussed Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven, the mother of all fifth symphonies. It is a tightly-written piece that has been a kind of icon for tightly-written (or "organic") pieces ever since. It absolutely fixates on the falling third interval and the three short and one long note rhythm that we hear at the open.

Incidentally, while these little rhythmic cells are often (by me and others) referred to by the names they have in metric prosody, this one never seems to be given its proper name, which is quartus paeon. Another odd thing is that, while Beethoven often sought to emulate Mozart, in this particular realm he is really following in Haydn's footsteps, who was the one who invented this extremely focussed kind of composition. A perfect example is his "Quinten" quartet, the entire first movement of which is based entirely on two falling fifths in half notes!

The Beethoven symphony was began in 1804 and first performed in 1808. It is inconceivable that either Haydn or Mozart would have taken four years to write a symphony!

Let's listen to the Beethoven as the first of our fifths. This is the enthusiastic Gustavo Dudamel conducting the equally enthusiastic Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela in a recent performance in Paris:

The next fifth is by Franz Schubert and it was written in September and October of 1816.  In some ways it is in an older tradition than Beethoven's and is a bit reminiscent of Mozart. Schubert did not really carve out his unique symphonic voice until his last two symphonies. This one is full of charm and grace, quite different from the Beethoven. Let's have a listen. This is Franz Brüggen conducting the Orchestra of the 18th Century:

We are going to jump way into the 20th century for our next two fifths. The first one is by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1916 and revised it in 1919. In this period of his life Sibelius was feeling not only the storms of the First World War like any European, but also the stresses coming from the feeling that his kind of composition was being made obsolescent by the early winds of modernism. His Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1911 was the first to receive mixed reviews, perhaps because there had been so many new kinds of writing from composers like Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. My feeling about this symphony is that it is a kind of structural marvel, like an intricate kaleidoscope of beauty. Sibelius wrote this about it in his diary: "It is as if God Almighty had thrown down pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to find out what was the original pattern." This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Bayerischer Rundfunk:

For our final fifth, I choose the Symphony No. 5 of Dmitri Shostakovich. This is certainly one of the most exigent symphonies ever written. Faced with the disapproval of Stalin, who, in the company of his cronies had recently heard a performance of the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and was very offended by it, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony, already in rehearsal, and set out to salvage his career (and possibly his life) from disaster. He somehow had to write something that would both reach out to the long-suffering Russian people and satisfy the demands of "socialist realism" required by the apparatchiks. Bear in mind that the symphony was written in 1937, right in the middle of one of Stalin's most devastating purges. Millions of people, including army officers, artists, government and party officials and just anyone who might be suspected of pretty much anything were sent into Siberian exile or simply shot. This might have been Shostakovich's fate, like so many other artists, if he had not been able to write a successful symphony. But he did and the Symphony No. 5 had a spectacular premiere with a half-hour standing ovation. Listening to it, you almost feel that you lived through these times along with him. This is Valery Gergiev conducting the BBC Symphony:


Will Wilkin said...

Predictably for you, an excellent choice of great Fifths.

Bryan Townsend said...