Another spring symphony – Benjamin Britten

by Ben Hogwood

In the last week Arcana have explored three very different symphonies with a springtime theme or feel. Now here is a fourth, a very different beast, from the pen of Benjamin Britten.

A number of years back I wrote about this piece for my Good Morning Britten blog, marking the composer’s centenary. There is a lot of scholarly debate as to whether this really is a proper symphony, but as Michael Kennedy points out in his booklet note for Britten’s own recording on Decca, it follows in the tradition of choral symphonies from Vaughan Williams and Holst, while taking more influence from the Mahler symphonies in which voices were used.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and began with a rather different concept. When Britten wrote to the conductor, he said, ‘I am planning it for chorus and soloists, as I think you wanted; but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) and consequently I am using Latin words’.

Things changed, as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer details. ‘Both Eric Crozier and Elizabeth Sweeting believe that the Spring Symphony owes its existence to a particular Suffolk landscape, ‘somewhere between Snape and Ufford’, writes Crozier. According to Sweeting, Britten visited this spot on a picnic with her, his housekeeper and Pears. It was ‘a glorious spring day, one of those that seem to be out of time; and she believes that this experience crystallized his love of the Suffolk countryside.’

The work actually enjoyed its first performance in the Netherlands, where, with Koussevitsky’s blessing, Eduard van Beinum conducted the first performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 14 July 1949. A little Latin remained, Britten including the ancient song Sumer is icumen in in the work’s climactic final pages.

Britten says this is ‘a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the reawakening of the earth and life which that means’. Carpenter maintains that ‘sweetness is the work’s predominant character – most of the poems are in the pastoral tradition – and it is much to Britten’s credit that the music never becomes cloying. This is largely due to the orchestration. Coming to it from the exigencies of the English Opera Group chamber ensemble, Britten treats the full-size symphony orchestra of the Spring Symphony (triple woodwind, four percussionists and two harps) as a palette from which he selects only a few colours at a time, with stunning results.’

Britten recorded the work first, though the version below is a live concert given by Leonard Bernstein in 1963. Once the ear becomes used to the sound it is easy to appreciate the intensity of the performance from singers and orchestra alike:

A spring symphony from anniversary composer Joachim Raff

Here is a third symphony on the theme of spring in four days! This one is not so well known as the works we have enjoyed from Dvořák and Schumann – but it was well-received in its time.

Composer Joachim Raff was born 200 years ago this month. A big part of his prodigious output of compositions are the eleven symphonies, of which the last four are based on the four seasons.

That means the Symphony no.8 in A major, his Op.205, is based on spring, taking the title Frühlingsklänge (Sounds of Spring) Completed in 1876, it is mostly a bright and airy piece, with elements of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann but also with Raff’s own fresh melodic inspiration.

The first movement delights in Spring’s Return, while the second – During Walpurgis Night – is much darker. The slow Larghetto, subtitled With the first bunch of flowers, is a tender aside, before the energetic Wanderlust completes a most enjoyable piece. Have a listen below, in a recording available on CPO from the Philharmonia Hungarica and conductor Werner Andreas Albert:

Spring sunshine from Dvořák

It is a beautiful spring day outside Arcana’s ‘head office’ today…so to celebrate, one of Dvořák‘s sunniest symphonies is on the playlist. Here is a performance given by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck, in celebration of the green season:

The Bridge Festival – four days of live music for strings this week in Glasgow

We bring news of an exciting new festival coming to Glasgow this week. The Bridge Festival, originally scheduled for May 2020, is bringing some of Europe’s finest string-playing ensembles together for a four-day program of inspiring music.

Hosting the event are the Scottish Ensemble, who will be joined by the Trondheim Soloists, Ensemble Resonanz and the Estonian PLMF Music Trust, a talent development organisation offering opportunities for musicians without setting age limits.

The concerts are fascinating. Thursday 21 April will see a combined opening concert, all ensembles joining for a programme of Nachtmusik at the Barrowland Ballroom, with music from Hildegard von Bingen to Jonny Greenwood by way of two world premieres. These are commissions from Mica Levi (Flag) and Erkki-Sven Tüür (Deep Dark Shine), and the works are complemented by Penderecki’s Polymorphia – for 48 solo strings – and Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia.

On Friday 22 April a lunchtime concert from the PLMF Music Trust showcases their home country. The trust, now nearly 20 years old, supports the development of talented professional musicians by organizing master classes, opportunities to perform and by introducing them internationally. Estonia! will include more Tüur (Symbiosis) and the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra from Jaan Rääts, while looking at the Estonian classical heritage through the eyes of Artur Lemba’s String Sextet and Heino Eller’s Five Pieces for Strings.

Later that day the Scottish Ensemble will perform Anna Meredith’s Anno at Tramway, with performances at 6pm and 8pm. Anno was written for the group, after an observation by the ensemble’s artistic director Jonathan Morton that Meredith’s style had similarities to Vivaldi. In response she wove an original work into Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a clever interpolation that provides an invigorating live experience. The performances will be complemented by work from visual artist Eleanor Meredith, the composer’s sister.

Later still – at 9.30pm – there will be a chance to enjoy Ensemble Resonanz’s club night urban string, which will transform the Glad Café into a hotbed of minimalism. Music by Lou Reed, John Cage, Julia Wolfe and Glaswegian DJ Charlie Knox is promised.

Saturday 23 April offers what looks like a special concert of Nordic music old and new, given by the Trondheim Soloists. The ensemble will bring with them more traditional Nordic classical fayre – Grieg’s Two Nordic Melodies and Peer Gynt Suite, with the latter in a version featuring the sounds of the Norwegian national instrument, the Hardingfele. Sibelius’s Valse Triste will also appear, contrasted with Britta Byström’s A Walk To Gade.

Finally, on Sunday 24 April, comes a fascinating musical melting pot in Saint Lukes at 8pm. Ensemble Resonanz will be joined by guest performers including Hamburg-born bağlama player and vocalist Derya Yildirim and duduk player Deniz Mahir Katal. Twelve composers were asked to write a new work, with new compositions incorporating traditional Turkish, Anatolian, Kurdish and Greek songs, as well as new works for Derya’s voice, the bağlama (a Turkish stringed instrument, similar to the lute) and the string players of Ensemble Resonanz.

The result is a new, trans-cultural song cycle, combining old folk songs and new music, performed in modern cultural settings and creating a new experience of music from across Europe and across the centuries.

It should be a fascinating and inspiring four days of music – and for more information and tickets for each of The Bridge Festival concerts, you can head to the dedicated website