Monday, August 26, 2013

Glière - Symphony No. 2 in C Minor

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent seizing of power by the Bolsheviks led to a complete change in the Russian way of life. Gone was the old aristocracy (with the execution of Czar Nicholas and his family in 1918) while the communists (in name if not exactly in Marxist theory) made their power felt in the arts as well as every day life. The control of the communists, with lip-service given to the ideals of the revolution, led to the all too-human trait of maintaining power at all costs, created a totalitarian state that was not any better (and perhaps in some ways worse) than the old regime.

It was into this chaos of post-revolution Russia that Reinhold Glière was thrown.  He was not without sympathy to the cause of the October 1905 uprising, as he had been a signer of the manifesto that protested government brutality during the uprising.  He ventured to Berlin to study conducting later in 1905 and stayed until 1907. Upon his return to Moscow he settled into the life of composer and conductor.  After the revolution, he remained a conductor, teacher and composer. But the complexion of his music changed. Gone was the late Romanticism of his music, to be replaced by music more fitting to the 'revolution'.

Glière's three symphonies were written in 1900, 1908 and 1911 respectively.  There was a steady growth in his music from his first to third symphonies which showed influences of composers from his native Russia and Europe. This musical growth was stymied by the revolution and the cultural and artistic control exerted by the new regime. After the death of Lenin, the cultural control grew to be a stranglehold by a paranoid and brutal Stalin. To create any piece of music or art that was not liked by Stalin could be a literal death sentence. The number of people of all walks of life that were murdered under Stalin's orders (implied or explicit) runs into the millions.  The three symphonies of Glière may have been only a prelude to what he might have written under different circumstances.

Glière's Second Symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro pesante - The movement begins straight away with driving rhythm and a powerful theme stated in the horns. The theme is restated and slightly varied, but maintains a forward momentum that comes to a halt with a more quiet section accompanied by muted strings which introduces the expressive second theme. This second theme is but an interlude as the theme fist heard in the horns returns and is developed further. The development section of the movement begins with hushed tones until the horn theme begins again and goes through yet more development. The recapitulation arrives, the horn theme is heard, the second theme returns more passionately than heard in the beginning. There is a climax of the horn theme (the overwhelmingly dominant theme of the movement) and a short coda that incorporates pieces of the main theme and brings the movement to a mystic close.

II. Allegro giocoso - The composer's change of time signature from 3/4 to 2/4 in this scherzo gives it an appealing  quirkiness while the tune of the trio section shows the Russian spirit of the composer. As in the first hearing of the scherzo proper, the bass clarinet can be heard in the accompaniment as the music heads to the brilliant close of the movement.

III. Andante con variazioni - Glière showcases another of his melodies in this set of variations that holds the interest of the listener throughout.  The composer's gifts for melody and symphonic construction are showcased in seven variations that are in turn sweet, melodious, melancholy and boisterous. The theme is brought forth in a short coda with the Cor Anglais, strings and harp that serenely end the movement.

IV . Allegro vivace - A rousing dance opens the movement, with the bass clarinet once again playing a noticeable role. A more expressive theme appears for a brief time until the dance once again takes prominence. A quiet interlude with woodwinds accompanied by strings comes forth, only to be dispelled by the restless dance tune slowly appearing. The xylophone enters as the music gets more hectic and loud, the orchestra clashes, the dance dominates. The music morphs into a maestoso coda of fragments of the dance played in the brass as it comes to a close.

Some of the music in the Second Symphony foreshadows the music Glière was to compose for his masterpiece, the Third Symphony 'Ilya Murometz', but it is by no means an inferior work. It is a work of a great and original musical mind and talent.

That Glière's style changed to fit his political times is a fact that is proven by much of the music written after the 1917 Revolution. What might have been is but speculation. It may be easy for some to label the composer as complicit, a sell-out to the tyranny of his times to save his own ass. But how many might do the same thing, including those who may condemn him? It was a matter of life or death, after all.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lachner - Variations And March From Suite No. 1

Born in 1803, drinking companion of Franz Schubert, conductor and organist, Franz Lachner was also a prolific composer whose career spanned most of the 19th century. His opus numbers ran to 190, with his first compositions written while Schubert and Beethoven were still alive (in the 1820's), and whose last piece was published in 1881.  He worked tirelessly with the orchestra in Munich and made it one of the best in Europe, and if all this wasn't enough he taught for many years also.

He helped make his contemporary composers music better known, even when he didn't like it. He was a promoter of the young Wagner's music and was rewarded for his efforts by having his conducting duties of the Munich orchestra handed to Wagner's protege Hans von Bulow, with Wagner himself playing a key role in the treachery.

Lachner's music was dismissed by Wagner and other followers of the New Music as being old-fashioned, and the stigma has carried over to the modern era. It is true that Lachner's music was not considered modern in the sense that Liszt and Wagner's music was, but it is solidly written and shows that Lachner was not without gifts of melody, structure and orchestration.
The writer Eduard von Bauerfeld, Schubert
and Lachner drinking in Vienna, a drawing
by the artist Moiritz Schwind 

Lachner's Suite No. 1 For orchestra was written in 1861, after he had written his Eighth Symphony, his last work in the form,  in 1851.  He composed a total of 7 orchestral suites, his main form of orchestral composition later in his life. Why he no longer wrote symphonies isn't known. Perhaps the shadow of Beethoven's 9th Symphony was too large for him to go further. Whatever his reasons, his suites are indeed suites in the sense that they are modeled after the Baroque suite in that they contain individual pieces in dance form.

His first suite is in 4 movements, of which the third movement, Variations and March, is discussed here.

The movement begins with a solemn theme in D minor stated by the strings in unison.  The set of variations Lachner writes on this theme show him at his most versatile and creative. Going from minor key to major, from emphatic to gentle, there is plenty of contrapuntal, textural and orchestral diversity to keep the listener's interest. The music drifts from one style into another seamlessly. The movement ends with a rousing march.