Sunday, 27 May 2012

Symphonies and Requiems

Benjamin Britten thought his superb Sinfonia da Requiem too short a score to call a symphony and yet it is one of his most symphonic works. Though guided by the particular moods of three sections of the requiem mass, the Sinfonia also makes that most traditional of symphonic journeys, from darkness to light, and does so through dynamic thematic working, a clear tonal plan centred on D and a continuous three-movement structure that consists of two outer slow movements framing a central scherzo. 

The opening movement, Lacrymosa, is a Mahlerian dirge of considerable power. It opens to a pounding assertion of the tonic note before a muted march begins with a theme introduced by the cellos. This theme, syncopated and strong on the interval of a second, is answered by a tense four-note bassoon figure. These two ideas duopolize the movement gently but grimly throbbing early stages, climaxing magnificently. The movement's second section opens to a sequence of alternating major and minor chords high in the flutes and low on the trombones. Eventually a new theme, strong on the interval of a seventh, joins in an intense development-like slow crescendo at the peak of which the pounding rhythm of the opening returns and drives the Lacrymosa to a thrilling climax where major and minor again clash.

The second movement, Dies Irae, follows straight on. Britten himself called it a 'Dance of Death' and his model is clearly the archetypal sardonic Mahler scherzo. A sinister fluttering flute is its starting point, introducing the movement's main motif. Other short figures follow, including a tarentella tune on trumpet. The trio section sets an eerie saxophone tune against fierce martial rhythms. The scherzo's close is a remarkable fragmentation, a break down, a dissolution...On first hearing this passage struck me as being the work's most original passage.

The final Requiem aeternam emerges from these ruins. This deeply beautiful movement's main theme is a somewhat Eastern-sounding melody in bright D major sung by a trio of flutes and made magical by the soft collisions of their seconds over a quietly revolving bass-line played by harp and bass clarinet. Horns give them their blessing, warmly. This peaceful music has a ritualistic character. In contrast, the highly Mahlerian central passage, with its long, yearning melody and romantic warmth feels full of human passion. Britten brings this to a glorious climax. When the ritualistic music resumes this warmth lingers on courtesy of a counter-melody on solo violin. The Sinfonia da Requiem ends quietly. 

This masterpiece is Britten at his finest.

The Sinfonia da Requiem was commissioned from Britten rather bizarrely by the Japanese government in 1940. I've never quite got my head round Britten's acceptance of that commission. Swiss composer Arthur Honegger wrote his Symphony No.3 (Liturgique), widely considered to be his symphonic masterpiece, at the end of the war and the work evinces not a small degree of horror and despair at humanity's dark depths. It's a bleak piece then but it closes in a spirit that can best be described as tentatively hopeful. It has clear connections to Britten's piece, as you will hear. Its subtitle derives from its drawing on sections from the requiem mass - as with the Sinfonia da Requiem

The fierce first movement, Dies Irae, evokes humanity's torment in the face of barbarity, mechanisation and suffering - in the words of the composer. As a musical experience, however, it's exciting stuff (flippant as that may sound to say) - rather like the comparably mechanically-driven scherzos of Shostakovich. Darkly-orchestrated, grippingly-argued music, striking in its material, somewhat grotesque, strongly grim, it turns toughness into an enjoyable listen. (Think Hieronymus Bosch!)

The second movement, De Profundis clamavi, is the symphony's adagio - a movement of deep lyricism, pleading most beautifully. It proves Honegger to be a true master. Though complex in its harmony at times, you can tell that it is ultimately in E major.

The finale, Dona nobis pacem, is meant to evoke a future of slavery for humanity under mechanised collectivism - a nightmare vision indeed. However, having an exciting theme and a first-rate main theme, Honegger's magnificent music might make you feel that, perhaps, the coming Hell-on-Earth has compensations, especially when the Devil can swing! The nightmare has a consolatory coda though which Honegger said was just a Utopian fantasy not a likely reality - a quiet, slow section, serenely lyrical and beautiful, with flute and piccolo evoking the 'bird of peace' against warm strings. 

This masterpiece is Honegger at his finest. 

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