Two symphonies facing darkness and seeking light

We’re only days away from next week’s Orchestra of the Swan concert and recording sessions, and everyone involved is getting excited about meeting up again with our old friends, Bobby and Hans. Our previous encounters have been most memorable. This time out, we’re playing Hans’s Second Symphony, a searingly personal work written in the darkest hours of WW II that ultimately seeks a tone of peace and consolation. This amazing work has, amazingly, not been performed in concert in 61 years. What insanity. Bobby is represented by his second symphony, the one in D minor which we call his Fourth Symphony, the third or fourth and last of his six symphonies, which are numbered 1-4. No wonder the poor guy ended up in an asylum once the publishers got their hands on his music. It’s amazing, and hugely influential. What follows is the welcome blurb from next week’s printed programme, which gives a little sense of the thinking behind the concert:

Two Symphonies

The relationship between a composer’s personal circumstances and their creative work is often a complicated one. Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is the most dramatic and stormy of his four works in the genre, and yet it was written in what was one of the happiest and most productive years of his life, just after the triumphant premiere of his Spring Symphony in 1841.  Even in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime combination of professional success and personal happiness, did Schumann sense the dark clouds of his own tragic destiny on the horizon? Did the struggle against darkness it expresses so powerfully take on new meaning to Schumann when he returned to revise the work ten years later, at a time when his own circumstances were becoming far more difficult, and his future health was becoming a matter of existential concern?

On the other hand, Gál’s Second Symphony is a deeply lyrical, tender, wise and gentle work conceived and completed in an era of mass violence, war, genocide and personal tragedy. At the moment in Gá’s life when he had lost the most, did he choose to assert his will to survive not through Beethovenian defiance or Mahlerian anguish but through music that seeks consolation and comfort, or was he simply writing what he felt he had to?

In both cases, these are symphonies that respond to universal tragedy with an insistent will to live and to seek joy- statements of hope and optimism all the more moving because they were created by artists who had endured incredible darkness and tragedy themselves, and were able to turn from that darkness to something ultimately life-affirming through their music.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Two symphonies facing darkness and seeking light”

  1. Brian Hughes

    Best of luck to you and the orchestra on your latest endeavors. Wishing I could be there!

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