Saturday, 26 January 2013

Focus: Symphony No. 1, Op. 10

I'm starting a feature which I'll keep going from now on: focus articles on particular Weinberg pieces. In these, I'll write about the background and context to the music, before giving a quick overview of each movement with video links to listen.

I'll start at the beginning:

Symphony No. 1, Op. 10.

   The first symphony was written in 1942, and proved to be a life-changing work for Weinberg. The 22-year old composer had only been living in the USSR for a couple of years, having fled his native Poland at the outbreak of WWII. He briefly settled in Minsk, but was forced to flee once-more when the German army invaded in 1941. He settled in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and quickly ingratiated himself within the burgeoning musical community there. A great number of musicians from Leningrad had resettled in Tashkent following the German advance, including several of the Conservatoire staff members. Weinberg soon began working with several of the key musical figures there, collaborating on an opera, 'The Sword of Uzbekistan', as well as producing two operettas and a ballet of his own. All of these scores are now believed to be lost, but we do know that they were of a patriotic character. Having been accepted into the conservatoire at Minsk with all fees provided for by the state, Weinberg fully embraced his position as a recognised composer of the USSR. Combined with the wartime Patriotic fervour, it was natural that Weinberg would write works that attempted to rally National spirit. It is perhaps for this reason that when Weinberg came to write his First Symphony, he dedicated it to the Red Army, the force that had accepted him into the USSR in 1939.
   The life-changing aspect of the work came in its immediate reception, which in turn led to an introduction that would change Weinberg forever. Weinberg described the first time he encountered Shostakovich's music in 1940 'as if a thousand electrical charges were piercing me'. He revered Shostakovich to such an extent that he arranged for a copy of the First Symphony to be sent to him in Moscow, which left such a strong impression on Shostakovich that a permit was quickly arranged for Weinberg to resettle in the capital. (Reports vary about who delivered the score to Shostakovich - either Solomon Mikhoels, Weinberg's father-in-law, or Yury Levitin, another young composer who remained a close friend to Weinberg).

First Movement

The opening movement features a distinctive theme, which is subjected to some rather academic developments. Whether this leaves the movement as over-homogenized or simply an organic whole (in the best Symphonic tradition) is a matter for debate.
   Following the initial exposition and exploration of the theme, a more sedate Woodwind section begins at Figure 14 in the score. With a searching character, snatches of the theme bring us back to the matter at hand, before lush strings accompany the winds, dragging the theme back to the forefront of the music. A build-up leads us to yet more development, combining elements of the second section with the opening theme. As momentum increases, the motifs swirl together, moving towards a dark and oppressive mood at Figure 36. This culminates at the Larghetto just before Fig. 39, which represents the tipping point of the movement. Here, bassoon solo leads to violin solo with a sparse woodwind accompaniment in a restatement of material from the second section. Again, Weinberg builds momentum with quicker figuration and further exploration of the theme at Fig. 42. This restatement starts the conclusion, with drawn out fragments ending with string pizzicato chords quitely confirming a minor tonality, with funereal Timpani faintly underneath.

Second Movement
   The dance-like opening of this movement comes as a welcome relief from the brooding first movement, taking its form as a slow waltz which maintains the searching mood. Bare pizzicato strings begin before the Woodwind take control, only to be joined by the warm strings once-more. An uncertain Cor Anglais solo at Fig. 53 takes the music away from the comforting major centre of the opening into a yearning strings-heavy theme. One particularly beautiful moment to listen out for is at Fig. 58, where five violin solos are accompanied by lulling chords on the harp. The movement returns to the safe-feeling D major with which it began, closing with a gentle Horn, timp and Bass clarinet chord.

Third Movement

A striking Timpani opening introduces the winding theme on Clarinet that lays the foundation for this spritely Scherzo. The meandering line is briefly developed before the threat of menace reemerges in the brass. The early influence of Shostakovich can be heard in the heavy use of percussion in this movement - reminiscent at times of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Weinberg contrasts the Timpani from the opening with jagged String lines leading to a remarkable section at Fig. 76 marked 'Allegretto grazioso'. Following several woodwind lines, the strings bring the gathered energy almost to a halt, with teasing pauses and reaching ascending phrases. An accelerando reintroduces the panic that has been accruing throughout the piece, now turning into a hectic yearning. The excitement building here is turn apart from interjections from the timpani, which is transformed into an incessant bass drum, booming away up until the final flourish which concludes the movement.

Fourth Movement

In my opinion, this is the most successful movement of the symphony, where the searching character that has been so prominent before is brought right to the forefront in a way which surpasses mere academic thematic development. Meandering movement pervades the lines, contrasted with Cantabile sections and imitative exchange between sections. Incessant rhythmic pulses introduce an sense of inevitability as the work draws to a close, as well as the militaristic associations they bring. Fig. 96 brings a fantastic break, where the rhythmic energy is continued by isolated pockets of the orchestra, with woodwind, brass and snare drum exchanging remarks. Fig. 99 brings a fugue-esque counterpoint in the woodwind, heralding a slow return to the opening material, with oppressive cadences in the timpani repeated over and over, reviving the timpani motif from the previous movement. The timpani brings the final ending motif, the seemingly endless repetition of D - G which draws the work to a close.


I hope my listening notes will be of some interest to you.

I'll write a post in a few days with recommended recordings of the work.


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