Notes from the underground

As you all know, or should know, or will know by the time you finish reading this sentence, this column focuses on classical music. However, its author (me) knows a thing or two about the more popular genres which have been around for a while, and he even listens to some of that type of music from time to time. I would imagine that most of you are not so limited in your musical taste that you will only listen to the music I prescribe, though please let me know if I have that degree of power over you – it could come in handy in other venues.

What’s my point? Well, I’m trying to build up to a pop music analogy. We’ve all seen the phenomena of the “one-hit wonder” in pop music; I won’t mention any examples here, but let’s just say that you don’t hear too much Milli Vanilli playing nowadays. The one-hit wonder is less common in serious classical music, if only because fadism is less prevalent. Composers generally write in a fairly consistent style, and over time, either their entire output goes out of style or it doesn’t.

The classical equivalent of the one-hit wonder is a composer like William Walton, who wrote a small number of very effective works but is not generally considered an important figure in the musical landscape. I first heard his Symphony No. 1 when I was working at Tower Records; my friend said that it was a good piece and put it in the playstack, insisting that I hear it.

I’ve taken quite a liking to this piece; it is very much a product of the pre-war years (written in 1935), but is hardly optimistic. This is not to say that the symphony is depressed or depressing, but many of the pre-war pieces have a level of “spirit” that can be uplifting or nauseating, especially when one considers the horrors that were to follow.

But back to Walton. He wrote only a few good works—I am not a Walton expert, but I have heard some pieces of his that are just terrible. The recording I’ve chosen has two works on it besides the symphony; they are perfect examples of the trivial, bombastic English marches for which Walton seemed to have a taste. Think “Pomp and Circumstance” in the 20th Century, and having visualized that, feel no need to actually listen to the pieces.

The low level of much of his other output makes the quality of the Symphony No. 1 that much more surprising. The work is in four movements, with the standard symphonic tempo structure of Fast/Really-Fast/Slow/Big. I know that “big” isn’t a tempo, but it’s the only way I know to characterize the last movement. This entire symphony is quite “big,” really. The opening of the first movement is not, though, serving as the quiet before the storm.

Most effective works have great beginnings, but I would not say that the symphony gets going for at least two minutes into the first movement. Once it does, though, it carries you straight through to the end of the first movement. I’m struggling to characterize this piece; it has the grandiosity of a film score (and Walton wrote a number of film scores), but the formal structureof a Romantic symphony. Every gesture is on a large scale, and Walton creates tension which is resolved at a few points throughout the movement. The end of the first movement is possibly the largest gesture in the entire piece—don’t make the mistake of thinking the piece is over!

The second movement is a fast Scherzo “with malice.” Malice? I don’t know what he means, exactly, but it is with this movement that one begins to suspect that John Williams memorized this score before embarking on a career in film music. My first passionate love of orchestral music came with the Star Wars scores, and Williams was my hero for a year or so, maybe longer.

This second movement sounds like a better version of some of the music from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—a better version in part because Walton can build tension without the restrictions of a plot that he has to follow. I don’t understand the reference to “malice”—it’s no darker than the first or third movements.

The slow third movement opens with an ·expressive flute solo that brings to mind the Shostakovich fifth symphony written at around the same time, but with a British “attitude.” This movement drags a bit at times, but is generally very dark and dramatic. The fourth movement is bright and boisterous—I love the opening sequence with its call and response in the high and low registers of the orchestra. All “malice” has been discarded before this movement, and it seems to be a celebration of something. Again, you hear the influence that Walton must have had on John Williams and other film composers; I am very interested in hearing Walton’s own film scores.

All in all this symphony is very effective. The recording I chose, however, is not. I selected Andre Previn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (CD W15 2) to get a new perspective and hear the two other works on the disc, but the “new perspective” seems to be “what would this piece sound like if the conductor was asleep?” Professor of music K.C. Roberts has often chastized Previn’s style, and though I have sometimes found him to be an effective conductor, this recording is fairly bland.

Fortunately, the library owns two other recordings. The one I own, with Leonard Slatkin and the London Philharmonic (CD W15 8), is terrific. Slatkin evokes excellent colors out of the orchestra, and this symphony has many wonderful textures written into the writing that Previn fails to bring out. I cannot attest to the quality of the other recording, with Vernon Handley and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (CD W15 10), but it is coupled with the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, a pretty good work.

Before we go, I’d like to remind everyone that feedback is appreciated, and questions are welcomed. Having said that, and knowing my rascally suitemates, I’ll be getting at least a few interesting letters in the next few days. The only other letter I ever received was from Owen Boger’s dad, and we had a nice e-mail discussion—thank you, Mr. Boger!

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