RAWSTHORNE: Symphonies Nos. 1-3
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Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971)
Symphonies Nos. 1-3
The first performance of a composer's first symphony isa musical rite of passage, a declaration that he or she hasarrived. Rawsthorne, like Brahms, left his entrance intothis august company a little late, for he was 45 when hecompleted his First Symphony.
Rawsthorne's reputation was founded upon a handfulof published compositions. The earliest and mostesteemed of these were the Theme and Variations for TwoViolins (1937), Symphonic Studies (1938), FourBagatelles for Piano (1938) and the First Piano Concerto(1942), with all of which he established a singular voice.
Of post-war compositions, the First Violin Concerto(1948) and the Concerto for String Orchestra (1949),further secured his standing. It was against thisaccumulation of solid achievement that his FirstSymphony was expectantly awaited.
The symphony was commissioned by the RoyalPhilharmonic Society and first performed on 15thNovember 1950 by the BBC Symphony Orchestraconducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Without preamble thelistener is propelled into the turbulent opening section,Allegro tempestuoso, into the first forty or so seconds ofwhich the composer concentrates most of the elementswhich prove ripe for subsequent development. Themovement is marked by restlessness, both harmonic andrhythmic; agitation even underlies the calm secondarytheme which appears on the oboe. This is continued bythe strings, accompanied by a scurrying semi-quaverfigure which becomes material in the ensuingdevelopment. A long-drawn melody (cor anglais andviolas) provides contrast and leads to a reprise of theopening theme, now passive and lyrical. Cellos andbasses start a climb from the depths, building thefoundation for a crescendo, a prelude to a shortenedreprise of the opening music. The movement endssombrely on a unison G, the tonal centre of the wholework. In the slow movement a recitative-like figure on thelower strings and bassoons, alternating with a chordalpassage on horns and trumpets, establishes an immediatechange of mood. The main theme is a long, sad melodyfor flute, which is taken up by muted strings, giving itgreater expressive intensity, before further development.
A middle section is of a contrasting, romantic andsentimental nature, the climax of which brings arestatement of the introductory material. The cor anglaisplays a version of the first flute subject leading themovement to a quiet close. The restlessness of the scherzois attributable to the continual shifts in metre, alternating5/8, 3/8, 2/8, of the main subject, which is derived fromthe flute melody of the previous movement. Thecontrasting middle, trio, section, now in a stabilised 2/4,can be traced to a descending woodwind figure in the firstmovement. These are just two examples of the integrationof the symphony's thematic materials. The reprise of theopening section concludes the movement. Rawsthornetells us: \The last movement is based on an idea stated ina short introduction by the brass, maestoso, which is soondoubled in speed to form the subject of the main Allegro".
He considered this movement "rather more discursivethan the rest of the Symphony". It proceeds in anunbuttoned fashion through several inventive episodesbefore the introduction of what Rawsthorne calls "asecondary theme of a playful nature", which adds materialfor further episodes. The end arrives rather abruptly toseal the symphony with an emphatic G major chord,scored for the full orchestra. The work was well received.
Rawsthorne's Second Symphony (A PastoralSymphony) was a commission from the City ofBirmingham Symphony Orchestra (supported by the JohnFeeney Charitable Trust), and was given its firstperformance in Birmingham on 29th September 1959 bythe commissioning orchestra under Meredith Davies. It isno programme piece; no quails or imitations of other birdsong are to be heard. Rawsthorne moved to live in ruralEssex in 1953 and this is an expression of the pleasures ofliving in an environment where the passage of the seasonscould be closely observed and a tranquillity, denied theurban dweller, was to be found. Nevertheless the harsherundercurrents of country life are not ignored; beneath thesurface of the music melancholy undertones are to besensed. The introductory bars accumulate to form anexquisite chord of harmonic portent. The movement'smain elements are a flowing melody, its continuation by asecondary idea heard in woodwind and violas, and alively scherzando figure recognizable by its dottedrhythm. The second part of the movement begins withlyrical phrases derived from the first theme accompaniedby sustained harmonies, until the mood is broken byrough chords on the strings. From here the movementworks towards a modified version of the openingmaterial. The slow movement opens with a drowsy hornsolo, containing an echo of the previous movement. Thisis an introduction to the rhapsodical principal melodydeclaimed by flute, oboe and violins, which is developeduntil a contrasting section is reached, described byRawsthorne as having "... a rather march-like feeling.
The theme is darker, more gloomy." The composerexplores this in three-part canon, employing the fullorchestra at its climax. The somnolent horn call returns toput the movement to bed.
The composer calls the third movement 'Country Dance'.
The first theme is written in a favourite Rawsthorne style,a jovial jig-cum-tarantella. This opens the first of threesections with fragments of the tune building to its fullstatement. The second section introduces a new melody,played over tenacious fragments of the first tune in thebass. The mood is broken by the sudden interjection oftwo trumpets, heralding the return of the first section'stheme. The finale is an epilogue, which sets a poem byHenry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516-1547). Rawsthornetells us that he chose this poem not for its melancholy, butfor "... the beautiful alliterative verse, the closeobservation, and general expression of the pleasures oflife in the country". The soprano soloist meditates uponmaterial derived from the first movement. The scene is setby a return of the music heard at the very opening of thesymphony. Throughout, the voice is accompanied withdelicacy, in some passages in duet with a solo oboe ortrumpet. The work ends as it began with the serene spellcast by the strings, tinged by the counter-harmony of thehorns, before they retreat, leaving the strings to bring aresolution.
Commissioned by the Cheltenham FestivalCommittee, Rawsthorne's Third Symphony received itsfirst performance at Cheltenham on 8th July 1964 by theBBC Northern Orchestra conducted by George Hurst.
The work returns to the turbulence of the First Symphony,now tempered by the subtle colouration and gentlerexpression of the Second. The opening of the firstmovement predicts a more astringent idiom, yetRawsthorne's voice remains distinct. He tells us that themovement "... is based upon two thematic elements, andtheir relations to one another. It is in this aspect of its formthat its claim to be symphonic resides". The first theme ispresented in fragments, which accrue to merge into ascampering passage over which the second, imposingtheme appears vehemently stated on cellos and horns. Thefalling interval of the final phrase has a valedictoryquality - shades of Mahler - which remains prominentthroughout the development and elsewhere. The workingout of the materials is strenuous and rigorous becauseRawsthorne employs his own version of the serial system.
A return of the second theme in its original form presagesthe end in a quiet, shimmering passage. The slowmovement is one of Rawsthorne's finest creations, writtenin the style of a Sarabande. The composer points to thesalient elements, "An important feature is the pedal noteF, which persists, on variou