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Johann N. David - Sixth Symphony

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Author Topic: Johann N. David - Sixth Symphony  (Read 581 times)
Jolly Roger
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« on: May 23, 2014, 07:49:12 am »

The next item in my essentially random selection from our archives is Johann N. David's Sixth Symphony opus 46, written in 1954. Until now I have not heard any of his compositions, and so as usual in such a case I turn to Mr. Lebrecht for advice: "Fluent composer whose polyphonic mastery and reverence for tradition aroused a powerful nostalgia in German audiences and tedium elsewhere," he writes. Much the same may be said of Reger . . . Mr. Lebrecht goes on to say "He toyed with twelve-note rows in his second violin concerto (1957) and wrote his last symphonic fantasy, Magic Square (1959), on a counterpointed version of Schönberg's method, basing the work on a mathematical conundrum and Dürer's Melancolia." So, that gives us a point of departure; David's music will clearly have a serious tone, rather as Brahms's does. Member Jolly Roger has also given a good description of David's music here.

The work was recently uploaded to our archive by Mr. Dundonnell, and it is constructed in four movements: 1) Allegro, 2) Adagio, 3) Waltz(es), and 4) Rondo allegro with triple fugue.

The first movement (six and a half minutes) begins with a lively motif played mostly by the strings (vaguely like Hindemith), but very soon things slow right down, and we hear a rhapsodic violin solo (vaguely like Rubbra). But the lively speed soon returns and turns into a fugue (strings and woodwind), then a kind of stretto over timpani, and before we know it there comes a recapitulation, and a grand but short coda for full orchestra. The most memorable and beautiful passage (if I may use that word) is probably the slow but very short second subject, particularly on its return. This whole symphony does seem to pass very quickly, and it is no surprise to see that it bears the subtitle "Sinfonia breve."

The second movement occupies nine minutes, and I will not describe it in detail, but simply say that the textures are very sparse. Brahms's textures are much less sparse; while he (Brahms) uses the strings just as much as David, there is much more harmonic interest in Brahms's string writing, and both Brahms and Sibelius distribute the interest more effectively among the different orchestral groups. I believe a composer should always ask himself whether his slower melodies are strong enough to carry a passage alone, without some harmonic interest (as opposed to contrapuntal interest).

Things begin to change with the waltz movement (five and a half minutes). It is much livelier than the first and second movements, and again should repay a certain number of hearings. The harmony is more modernistic and bitonal. It ends in a kind of explosion, and then we progress with scarcely a break to the finale. The finale is really quite different from what has gone before. The texture becomes more and more dense and complex as the movement progresses. But fugues are seldom beautiful, are they - apart from some of Bach's in the forty-eight? If I am not mistaken I don't think Brahms ever considered putting a fugue into any of his symphonies. But again David in this finale sounds more like Reger, proud of his contrapuntal abilities. That must presumably be one of the reasons why he wrote it. And it is true that it has distinct similarities with the finale of Mozart's forty-first (which we are told David studied in great detail). I suppose counterpoint gives certain listeners a certain kind of enjoyment; but it hardly gives them musical beauty. There is only - to quote George Smiley - "a certain technical satisfaction." So we listen to this work a few times, get to know it, and then return to Delius, Scryabine or Rachmaninoff, with their more intense striving towards all those lyrical beauties of which music is capable.

The influences that were important to David in his student years were Debussy, Ravel, Scryabine and particularly Schönberg, whom David regarded as his most decisively influential master after Marx, and under whose influence he wrote a symphony that he later described as "purely atonal." (This is probably not the one that is now known as his first symphony; many of his early manuscripts were destroyed in the 1940s. And the music I have just heard is nothing at all like Schönberg's.) Later influences were Hindemith and Reger. Polyphony was such a pervasive presence that, in David’s own words, whatever he wrote "turned into a fugue," signifying that counterpoint was always present in the essential creative idea. Anyway, after this initial encounter with what is possibly a minor item in the sequence I am encouraged to get to know all his symphonies.

While the 5th is said to be his most often played..and even that is a difficult listen..I think the opening of the 4th symphony is one of the most powerful statements in modern symphonic the mode of Bach, I think.. hear it in better audio would delightful and I am awaiting the CPO version of the same. But if it does not resonate with others, so be it.

BTW: The 2nd movement of the 4th reminds me of a nightmarish dance with Mahlers ghost..he seems to parody Mahler and Bach often.
The 6th is a complex but interesting work and like most of JND's symphonies, must be listened to repeatedly to be appreciated..
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