William Walton (1902-1983)
Two Pieces from Henry V (1944)
A slow worker and by no means a prolific composer, Walton enjoyed a great deal of success as a film composer, often leading critics to dismiss his music as too ‘lightweight’ and ‘populist’ to be considered alongside other luminaries of the twentieth century. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Walton worked in relative isolation: largely self-taught, he had no pupils, held no posts at conservatoires and gave no public lectures. Walton himself was only too aware of the critical disapproval that lurked behind him, once declaring: ‘I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die at the age of 37. I know: I've gone through the first halcyon period and am just about ripe for my critical damnation.’
But criticism of his film music overlooks the remarkable assimilation of styles elsewhere within his music, and ignores works such as Façade, which, although it stirred up controversy at its first performance, is now celebrated as a turning point in twentieth-century composition. It says something of Walton’s popularity among the masses that he was commissioned to write coronation anthems for the crowning of two twentieth-century monarchs: Crown Imperial for the coronation of George IV in 1937, and Orb and Sceptre (1953) for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II seventeen years later.
By the time Walton wrote the music for Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the two had already collaborated on nine other films. Directed by and starring Olivier himself, the cinematic stylisation of the original Globe Theatre production was released in 1944, intended as a morale booster for the British public as the First World War wore on. The first of three Shakespeare adaptations, it would prove to be one of the pair’s most successful collaborations to date, earning a number of Academy Award nominations, including the award for Best Score. Although the music for the film was popular in its own right, Walton felt strongly that film music made little sense when divorced from its context. It was 29 years before he finally allowed an arrangement of his score to be made, permitting Muir Matheson – a close colleague and the conductor of the original film score – to produce a suite comprising five movements for chorus and orchestra. The second and fourth movements are scored for strings alone. Passacaglia: The Death of Falstaff, depicts the slow and sombre lament of Sir John Falstaff, Henry’s youthful companion who dies from a broken heart after being cast aside when Henry takes the throne. In Touch her soft lips and part, we see the wayward ruffian Pistol bid goodbye to his sweetheart as he heads for France, in one of Walton’s most tender and expressive pieces of music.
© Jo Kirkbride
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Cello Concerto (1945)
I: Allegro moderato
II: Andante sostenuto
III: Molto allegro e appassionato
Considering the success he enjoyed during his career, it is surprising that Barber has become celebrated above all for just one work – his Adagio for Strings (1938). His catalogue of music, though not as extensive as some of his contemporaries, extends from solo piano music and instrumental chamber works to symphonies, concertos and operas. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, in addition to the American Prix de Rome, and in 1966 he was commissioned to write a new opera to mark the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new home at the Lincoln Centre (the production was a flop, but this was largely due to Zeffirelli’s direction, rather than Barber’s music).
Barber’s relative neglect from the twentieth century canon probably owes much to his musical style. While Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School forged new harmonic paths through atonality and serialism, and Stravinsky explored bold new levels of dissonance, rhythmic vitality and texture, Barber seemed to content to follow his own path, one which owed more to the dying strains of Romanticism than to the radical new soundworld of the twentieth century. That is not to say that Barber’s music is not innovative and dramatic, nor that his often complex and dissonant harmonies can be considered ordinary, but the rich, full textures of his works with their predilection for sweeping, generous melodies sets them apart from many of the more experimental trends of his age.
It is precisely this gift for lyricism that won him many of his commissions. When Serge Koussevitsky, one of the twentieth century’s most powerful impresarios and conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Barber to write a new cello concerto for the Russian virtuoso Raya Garbousova, he promised that its impact would be as important as Brahms’ Violin Concerto was for the previous generation. Barber spent weeks listening to Garbousova play everything in her repertoire, seeking out the distinctive features of her playing style, so that he could write a concerto that was truly personal to her. The result is a characteristically lyrical – but fiendishly difficult – work in the conventional three-movement format, which won him the New York Music Critics' Circle Award in 1947.
The work’s poetic heart rests in the soft Siciliana that forms the concerto’s centrepiece, but elsewhere there is much more to the music than soaring melodies and heartfelt expression. The acerbic, defiant stance of the opening Allegro moderato sets up a dialogue between cello and orchestra, with the woodwinds echoing the soloist’s melodic fragments and punchy brass chords reinforcing the movement’s vibrant contrasts. This sense of drama is carried over into the finale, where the sense of interplay is heightened by the stark relief between the jagged principal theme and the soft, contrasting second melody. When they finally combine and reach a heady climax in the coda, the sense of culmination is one of the most powerful moments in Barber’s oeuvre.
© Jo Kirkbride
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No 3 in E flat major, Op 97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)
Scherzo: Sehr massig (Very moderate)
Nicht schnell (Not fast)
Schumann’s symphonies, like Schubert’s, are faultily numbered, but attempts to correct their running-order seem eternally doomed to failure. Perhaps only pedants care that his Third Symphony is really his Fourth. What matters, as an identification tag, is that it is known as the 'Rhenish', a name reflected in various aspects of the music. The first movement is, in its way, as vivid a representation of the river Rhine as the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the fourth movement grandly portrays an archbishop’s enthronement in Cologne Cathedral; and the work was the first major product of Schumann’s aspirational but ill-fated move from Dresden to the Rhineland city of Dusseldorf, where in 1850 he accepted the post of music director.
Yet only Cologne Cathedral, at this point in his career, really satisfied him. By 1852, when he was 42, his mental health had begun its heart-breaking decline. His erratic conducting of the Dusseldorf orchestra caused increasing concern. And the river Rhine, initially an inspiration, lured him in 1854 to attempt suicide in its depths. Though he was rescued by fishermen, his career as one of the nineteenth century’s finest, most progressive composers was over.
But the 'Rhenish' symphony, at least, was a masterpiece - and by no means his last. The verve and swing of its opening movement, its main theme a choice example of Schumannesque syncopation, sets the music in marvellous motion. The five-movement structure, with Beethoven's 'Pastoral' and Berlioz's Fantastique as precedents, incorporates not only a scherzo (which Schumann thought of calling ‘Morning on the Rhine’) but two succeeding slow movements. Of these the first is a characteristically songlike Schumann intermezzo, marked ‘not fast’ rather than slow, the second a monumental tribute to the composer’s trip (by train instead of riverboat) to Cologne for the installation of Archbishop Geissel. The movement’s architecture is underlined by the use of trombones, for the first time in the work. To this splendour the finale serves as a sort of flying buttress, bringing the symphony to its exhilarating close.
© Conrad Wilson
Swensen and Kirshbaum – two long-time SCO favourites – return for a delightful evening of music-making. Kirshbaum first recorded the Barber concerto with the SCO back in the 1980s, and it is still one of the top recommended recordings. It has plenty of Barber’s warm mellow lyricism about it, but a good bit of spark and punch too. Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ was actually his last symphony. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s Fifth, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Come expecting heroics and full-blooded Romanticism, delivered with Swensen’s signature passion and sweep.
Tickets are available from April 2012 from Ayr Citadel and Leisure Centre, South Harbour Street, Ayr or 01292 269793