Thursday, October 23, 2008
What is it about Fifth Symphonies?
An email from a reader mentioning Valentin Silvestrov prompted me to listen to the now deleted 1996 CD of the Ukrainian composer's Fifth Symphony with David Robertson conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; the ECM-cloned artwork of the Sony disc is seen above. Listening to Silvestrov's remarkable symphony for the first time in several years started me thinking, what is it about Fifth Symphonies?
If you want to capture the essence of a composer's style you will find it remarkably often in their Fifth Symphony. Think of Beethoven, Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Martinů, Prokofiev, Nielsen and Tchaikovsky. Their Fifth Symphonies are not, necessarily, their greatest works, but somehow they capture the unique voice of those composers.
The magic number five also applies to lesser-known symphonists. If you want to understand Valentin Silvestrov, Edmund Rubbra, Hans-Werner Henze, Arnold Bax or William Alwyn, start with their Fifth Symphonies. Of couse it's fallible, even if we ignore the many composers who never reached number five. The Fifth of Malcolm Arnold is one of his least typical and least penetrable works, and the Fifth of 15 year old Jay Greenberg received the critical thumbs-down. But the 'golden fifth' rule does apply to a remarkable number of composers and testing it out is a fascinating game. Nominations for notable, or notorious, Fifth Symphonies are , as ever, very welcome.
Composers have always been fascinated by numbers. It has been suggested that Bach used Pythagorean mathematics to create the 287 different versions (and inversions) of the main re-la-fe motif that make up The Art of Fugue , Iannis Xenakis ported the golden mean from architecture to music, John Cage threw the the I Ching, and Mahler feared the number 9. Perhaps there is more to those fifth symphonies than mere chance?
Talkng of music and mathematics, there is a priceless little book titled Vivaldi and the Number 3. Sample it here.
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