Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Latvia IV: Hollywood, Soviet-style

OK, moving on then. 1909 saw the birth of Ādolfs Skulte (d.2000), above. His long life saw him make the journey from Tsarist Russia, through Latvian independence, Soviet occupation, Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation again to finally reach Latvia's renewed (and hopefully eternal) independence - though not EU membership. He stayed in Latvia after the Soviets returned and achieved a distinguished career there. Skulte was a fairly prolific symphonist too, with at least nine such works to his name. They are, I think it can safely be said, rather different those of Ivanovs.

I want to introduce his remarkable music to you though with a symphonic poem, Wellen ('Waves') from 1934, a gloriously turbo-charged piece of musical impressionism depicting the majestic swelling of the sea, with big bold tunes and dense, multi-coloured orchestration. Fun, wasn't it? Oh yes! And the confident optimism of that score can also be found in the composer's substantial String Quartet from 1936 - a piece of considerable accomplishment and lyricism in a conservative idiom. It knows precisely what it's doing. Yes, the material doesn't particularly linger in memory but the pleasure of listening to the piece does. It leaves a warm afterglow.

When we next meet Ādolfs Skulte we find him writing music for the Soviet Union, pieces with very Soviet-sounding titles. Eschewing the ethical dilemmas this might involve for the listener by means of the cutting-of-the-Gordian-knot approach of simply ignoring any such concerns, let's encounter some of his symphonies and assess their musical qualities, plunging in with the large-scale Symphony No.1, 'About Peaceof 1954. This is ripe, conservative, dramatic-lyrical music, with romantic tunes sweeping over highly-coloured accompaniments with heroic dash. Before reading the accompanying notes on YouTube the first movement struck me as sounding remarkably like Hollywood film music from the 1940s - a happy convergence of opinions, though (in the circumstances) hardly a surprising one. The whole symphony could have accompanied a Hollywood movie. Two andante movements follow - one marked 'dolento', the other 'cantabile'. One, I presume, evokes war and the other peace. The dark, deep visions of Ivanovs's Fifth or Shostakovich's Eighth have no place here. This is pure entertainment. (If the composer intended otherwise, he didn't succeed!) The closing allegro is exactly what a symphony on such a theme at that time had to have - a happy ending. I have to say, having encountered the striking and rather unusual Waves and the refined String Quartet, I was quite taken aback by this symphony.  High-minded music lovers will probably regard it as pure schlock but I had huge fun listening to it.  

In the wake of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight into space Skulte wrote his Third Symphony, the Cosmic. Unlike Ivanovs, who's music was rediscovering some its bite, Skulte's Cosmic is still close to Hollywood film music, though we've moved into the Hollywood of the 1950s here - so the symphony does sound a little more modern, with even a faint whiff of jazz in the first movement - a section of big tunes, exciting action and Technicolor orchestration intended to stir the listener which, in my case, it does successfully. Then, in the central slow section, the action is suspended and we find ourselves sailing through the ethereal mystery of space itself. Ligeti's Lux aeterna it ain't, however, being instead the sort of music you might well remember from sci-fi films of the 1950s when our hero and his heroine are having a happy moment together while lost in space, looking at the magical universe around them and then into each others eyes! Of course, the finale is all noisy, jolly celebration - the musical equivalent of a ticker tape parade - as Gagarin makes his heroic re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Again that word 'schlock' might come to mind, but it's all such fun and all so expertly done that you'd be being a self-defeating killjoy if you didn't allow yourself to indulge yourself with it!

If you enjoyed those, you'll also enjoy the Fourth Symphony, 'Youth' of 1971. I did. It seems to take us back to 1940s Hollywood again.

Frankly, these  immediately understandable Hollywood-style symphonies from Soviet Latvia are so instantly gratifying as to be rather compulsive. I feel a bit like a chocoholic faced with a huge pile of free, cheap, tasty, fattening chocolates ...and now I'm eating the Fifth Symphony of 1975 and it's such a pleasure doing so. Well might YouTubers compare the style here to that of the Frank Waxman and Bernard Hermann of the early 1950s. This is the classiest Skulte symphony, and definitely a thriller rather than an heroic epic, sci-fi film or a romantic movie.

I'm getting through a lot of popcorn tonight. I'll allow you to watch listen to the Eighth Symphony of 1984 and the Ninth Symphony of 1987 by yourselves. Suffice to say, they're still the same old Ādolfs Skulte - and just as much fun as before. What an extraordinary anachronism his music must have seemed in 1984 and 1987 - if not decades earlier!

Incidentally, Ādolfs's older brother Bruno Skulte (1905-1976), above, was also a composer. Unlike his brother he fled Latvia after the Soviet Union re-imposed its rule on the country after the Second World War, emigrating to the U.S.A. where he established a Latvian chorus and continued to promote Latvian culture. There's very little of Bruno's music available on YouTube, with the opera The Heiress of Vilkaci, an obvious gap. Still, you can enjoy his Bērnu dziesmas ('Children's Songs') - a song-cycle very much in the vein of Mussorgsky's Romantic realism and clearly owing a lot specifically to the great Russian's song-cycle The Nursery. These songs and tasters from The Heiress of Vilkaci suggest that the elder brother might well have been an even more conservative composer than his brother. They certainly whet the appetite for hearing a lot more Bruno Skulte. What though of his Latvian-sounding side? Well, (and go to 2:29 in the video) his Lūgšana ('The Prayer') gives a lovely example of that and, on a more extended scale, his Ganiņš biju is a charming pastoral piece.

The thought has just crossed my mind, as it may have done yours, that there's an irony-laden theme here, in that one brother emigrated to America and the other brother wrote as if he'd emigrated to America. 

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