Making connections

bbc-promsThe 2015 BBC Promenade Concerts, the world’s largest music festival based at London’s Royal Albert Hall, kick off this week and run for the next two months. The first four weeks of performances sport a wealth of exciting music, opening on July 17 with Walton’s big-boned Belshazzar’s Feast (8.555869) and closing with Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony (8.554478-79) on August 13, a momentous piece to mark the festival’s halfway milestone.

John-FouldsThe programming is eclectic: the fare during the first four weeks is book-ended by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 and John Foulds’ Three Mantras. Who is John Foulds, you might ask? Well, he was a British composer who lived from 1880 to 1939; being “self-taught and long ignored…John Foulds has enjoyed a recent revival of interest” (The Guardian). The schedule appears all-inclusive, with more British composers on offer, plenty of French fare, classical period classics, generous slices of Stravinsky and a clutch of new commissions.

I tried to deduce a possible theme running through the first month’s works but, at first glance, nothing sprang readily to mind. So, for this week’s blog, I’m going to try and join the dots by looking at some of the featured composers through their subtle interconnectivity.

korngoldOn 10 August you can hear Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto (8.570791), the work by which the Austrian Hollywood emigré is probably best known by today’s concert-going audiences, although it was his film scores that brought him to the attention of much larger audiences during his lifetime (1897–1957). Here’s an extract from the Violin Concerto, which was both premièred and subsequently championed by Jascha Heifetiz. Korngold dedicated the work to Mahler’s wife, Alma. The link? Read on.

Korngold was up there with the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn as far as child prodigies are concerned. His father, Julius, was a music critic. He introduced his son to Mahler, no less, when the boy was only nine. Mahler was impressed by what he heard. Four years later, Erich followed up with a score for the ballet-pantomime Der Schneeman (The Snowman), which was given its première at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910. By the age of 23, Korngold had achieved world recognition with the performance of his opera Die tote Stadt (8.660060-61).

gustav-mahler2Mahler himself can be heard at the Proms on 2 August with his Symphony No. 5 (8.557990) and on 8 August with his Symphony No. 9 (8.550535-36). The veteran Austrian composer had recommended to Julius Korngold that his son should study with Alexander Zemlinsky. Although Zemlinsky isn’t represented in the first month of the Proms, music by his brother-in-law is: Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (8.557525) gets an airing on 24 July. It’s a fairly short but very demanding a cappella piece for mixed chorus, which Schoenberg completed in 1907. Here’s the final stretch of the piece.

paul-dukasBack to the young Korngold, who had received valuable input from Mahler during the development of his First Piano Sonata. The prodigy went on to play his Second Piano Sonata in Munich in 1910 in the presence of Paul Dukas and Camille Saint-Saëns, arousing their amazement and admiration. The previous year, Dukas had composed his Prélude élégiaque (8.557053), based on the letters H-A-Y-D-N to mark the centenary of Haydn’s death. Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 (8.550387) can be heard at the Proms on 20 July, while Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (8.573296) will have a wand waved over it on 6 August. Premièred in 1897, it’s a riot of sound depicting the mayhem when a sorcerer leaves his apprentice by himself. The youngster lands himself in trouble with an ocean of overflowing bath water and an army of self-replicating broomsticks before his master comes to the rescue and restores order.

Here are short excerpts from these three works:

First, the opening of Dukas’ Prélude élégiaque;

Followed by the close of the finale from Haydn’s Symphony No. 85;

Finally, part of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

claude-debussyTo close the survey of this selection of varied, but historically connected pieces from the first month of the Proms, Dukas again provides the link with a piano piece he wrote in 1920. It was inspired by the memory of his friend Claude Debussy, who had died two years earlier. La Plante, au loin, du faune (8.557053) is an expression of Dukas’ veneration for Debussy’s music. Through sorrowful chromaticisms, yet great simplicity, Dukas conjures the powerful and sensual harmonies of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (8.570759), which can be heard on 30 July.

So, let Debussy have the last word with his seminal orchestral work. Here’s the opening stretch of those ten minutes that turned a historic page in the development of music around the turn of the 20th century.

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