C Symphonies

As a youngster, one knew that the first requirement for playing the piano was to be able to find Middle C. So, I got to wondering if the first requirement for composers was to be able to write a Symphony in C. After all, I thought, Beethoven went on to produce nine symphonies, but his first was indeed cast in that key. As time went by, it struck me that not all composers mused constantly on the symphony wavelength, devoting their time to other genres to secure their fame. In contrast to Haydn’s 100-plus symphonies, Mozart’s 40-plus, Beethoven’s nine, and so on, I noticed that some composers spawned just one: a Symphony in C major, or wrote a numberless symphony in the key, as if claiming a badge of honour alongside others who did similarly. Let’s hear extracts from some of them.

Paul Dukas
Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

French composer Paul Dukas (1865–1935) is famed for his brilliant, meticulously scored symphonic scherzo The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, first performed in 1897. It subsequently became the focus of a ballet and later Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. Magical scoring is also a feature of his La péri (1912), a poème dansé of great imaginative verve. Dukas’ colourful Symphony in C was composed mid-way between these works and published in 1908.

One reads that Dukas was a perfectionist for whom no detail was too small. He revised and modified many of his orchestrations, even after publication. To this day, there is no definitive edition of his orchestral works, and while preparing for the recording we’re about to hear, it became apparent how much the existing editions for the works on the programme diverged from one another on numerous key points of orchestration, tempo and even harmony. So, in order to produce an authoritative reading that reflected the composer’s original intentions as closely as possible, the producers went back to the available manuscript sources.

The Symphony in C major is in three movements. Here’s the exposition section of the opening movement in which you’ll hear three distinct thematic sections that progress harmonically from C major, to A minor, to F major.

Symphony in C major / Dukas (8.573296)

Hans Pfitzner
© HNH International

German composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949) was a contemporary of Richard Strauss (1864–1949), both of whom represented the final phase of German Romanticism in music. Although praised by Gustav Mahler and the author Thomas Mann, Pfitzner’s music has largely fallen into obscurity. Only his opera Palestrina still receives occasional performances. Pfitzner’s Symphony in C major dates from 1940 and bears the subtitle ‘An die Freunde’ (‘To My Friends’). It unfolds as a single movement divided into three sections. Here’s how the work ends.

Symphony in C major / Pfitzner (8.572770)

Richard Wagner
© HNH International

Although he’s best known for his innovative operas and iconic music dramas, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) maintained a keen interest in symphonic composition throughout his career; his Symphony in C major (1832), however, was the only symphony he managed to complete. Written in his late teens, it stand as a tribute to Wagner’s passion for his great idol Beethoven. The Symphony in C major seems to absorb the energetic fire and rhythmic dynamism of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

Heinrich Dorn
Source: August Weger, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wagner had studied with Heinrich Dorn, the Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Court Theatre (who was also teaching a young and rather wayward Robert Schumann at around the same time). Dorn recalled: “I doubt if there has ever been a young composer who was more familiar with Beethoven’s works than the then 18-year-old Wagner. He possessed the Master’s overtures and larger instrumental compositions mostly in the form of scores he had specially copied. He went to bed with the sonatas and rose with the quartets, he sang the songs and he whistled the concertos (for as a player he wasn’t making much progress).”

Let’s listen to part of the slow, second movement of Wagner’s Symphony in C major, which is clearly based on the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, from its melody to the funereal harmonies beneath.

Symphony in C major / Wagner (8.573413)

Georges Bizet
© HNH International

French composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875) started work on his only completed symphony (in C major) on 29 October 1855, just four days after his seventeenth birthday, finishing it the following month; a remarkable feat. The symphony remained unperformed, however, and the score eventually passed from Bizet’s widow Geneviève to the composer Reynaldo Hahn, who thought little of it. He then deposited the score with the Paris Conservatoire where it was rediscovered in 1933 and premiered two years later by the eminent conductor Felix Weingartner. That performance gave it the foothold it now enjoys in today’s concert repertory.

Here’s the third movement in its entirety, a neatly balanced Scherzo and Trio.

Symphony in C major / Bizet (8.553278)

Igor Stravinsky

My final choice is Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, composed at the outset of the Second World War. The conductor on the performance I’ve chosen is Robert Craft (1923–2015), an American conductor and writer who enjoyed a close professional relationship with Stravinsky. I’ve selected the second, slow movement of the work to close this blog. Craft himself introduces the movement:

Robert Craft

“Stravinsky’s elder daughter died of tuberculosis at the end of November 1938. His wife, Catherine, died from the same disease on March 2nd, 1939. He did not complete the first movement until April 17th, 1939, by which time he was stricken with tuberculosis himself and confined to the same sanatorium, Sancellemoz, in the Haute-Savoie, where his wife and daughters had spent so much of their lives.

The second movement, Larghetto, was begun there on April 27th. It employs a reduced orchestra, omitting the tuba, trombones, timpani, two of the horns, and one of the trumpets… The full draft was finished on July 19th, after very little trial-and-error sketching. The music is elegiac, with long-line, elegantly embellished melodies. The duets between the oboe and violins are graceful and refined beyond any music of the twentieth century known to this writer, and even the agitato middle section is soft and subdued. The composer conducted the premiere [of the symphony] with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on November 7th, 1940.”

We end by joining that second movement part-way through.

Symphony in C / Stravinsky (8.553403)

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