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My favourite symphonies
February 11, 2016
Early in 2014, Jessica Cottis discussed her favourite symphonies for a feature article with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. We liked her answers so much we wanted to share again. If you had to choose only three of your favourites, what would they be? Here are three that inspire her the most.
Sibelius: Symphony no. 5 in E flat, Op. 82
Sibelius’ 5th symphony is a force of elemental nature: free, wild, and blazingly beautiful. Considered by many as the sunnier counterpart to the sinewy turmoil of his 4th symphony, I’ve nevertheless always found the 5th to be a work of profound monumental internal struggle: it is at once both victorious yet full of uncertainty.
The searing last movement is surely one of music’s greatest moments. But it’s the journey that Sibelius takes us on that makes the arrival so emotionally and dramatically powerful. From the nebulous beginnings and haunting lyricism of the opening (the bassoon solo over quietly shuddering strings makes the hairs on the back of my neck quiver every time) through to the pulsing agitato of the second movement, the finale releases all tension and surges forth with an exhilarating rush of energy and humanity.
There is nothing more affirming than this bracing bell-tolling theme of the horns, accompanied by the aching yet ecstatic melody played soaringly in octaves by the woodwinds and cellos. Inspired by a flock of swans soaring upwards overhead on Lake Tuusula near his home in Järvenpää, southern Finland, it is laden with an intensely ardent yearning. And it is this moment that, more than almost any other, just makes me happy to be alive. Little wonder that Sibelius wrote in his diary the day he saw those majestic birds: “One of the great experiences of my life! God, how beautiful”.
Mahler: Symphony no. 3
Mahler’s third symphony has a special meaning for me as it was one of the first large scale pieces I worked on—as assistant and offstage conductor to Donald Runnicles with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra—at the BBC Proms in London.
For me, it is his most mind-blowing score, deeply moving and profoundly powerful in its exploration of the great questions of existence. It’s one of a handful of symphonies I know that truly has the power to make us better people, to give us a deeper understanding of the world and our place within it. A vast work on every level, with six movements and stretching upward of an hour and a half, it surely comes closest to Mahler’s belief that a symphony “should be like a world”.
I think it’s the gesture of struggle, heard throughout the work, that speaks to us directly on a personal level. We hear it from the very opening phrases: the raw and primitive energy of nature awakened by eight horns blazing a fanfare, and the dissipation of energy down to a menacing low rumble, its dark protean form almost vibrating the cosmos into existence. What follows is an energy—a life force—that waxes and wanes so ferociously that it feels overwhelmingly dangerous. Although I know they’re coming, the glissando trombone cries always fill me with terror.
The symphony is full of so many extraordinary moments. The unexpected beauty and fragrant bloom of the second movement often takes me by surprise, as does the heart-stopping hauntingly disembodied voice of the flügelhorn, played far offstage above the stillness of the strings. The fourth movement, with text from Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathurstra, carries us into a dark and mysterious place—midnight of the soul—a place where we become acutely conscious of our own mortality. It’s here that the oboes play a terrifying call (Mahler marks it in the score as ‘the bird of the night’), essentially a grim reaper bird, the bird of death. No wonder the bursting joy of the onomatopoeic “bimm bamm”s sung by the boys and ladies choir come as a blessed relief. Perhaps it’s Mahler’s way of depicting a cosmic joke, but it’s always here that the audience seems to collectively start breathing again.
The final Adagio always seems to exist outside of time. Starting with one of the most wondrous of prayers, it is a tour de force of tectonically slow and sustained playing from start to finish, exquisitely painful in intensity until the brass emerge with their glorious and noble chorale. It’s here that the deep faith in humanity and overpowering feeling of love answer all the pervasive struggle and anxiety of earlier movements. The journey is exhilarating, uncomfortable, painful, inspiring and ugly yet totally worth it. It’s like we have experienced the history of the whole world in 100 minutes. If there is one piece of music we should send into outer-space to describe the evolution of our life upon this earth, this is it.
Bruckner: Symphony no. 7 in E major
The music of Bruckner has long held a special place in my heart and mind. Having been an organist for many years before turning to conducting, my earliest understanding of the Austrian composer’s musical fingerprint came through his preludes and postludes. Although these short organ pieces aren’t at all remarkable—one has the impression they are simple pre- and post-service improvisations, quickly jotted down—it’s very easy to understand where Bruckner’s wonderfully rich block-like sonorities originate.
The 7th symphony is a particular favourite of mine: that the applause following the first performance lasted well over a quarter of an hour comes as no surprise. A vast lyrical masterwork, it opens with one of the most glorious passages for cello ever written. I immediately hear Bruckner’s deep association with Wagner, with the Lohengrin-like theme mysteriously and seamlessly unfolding under the tremolando of the violins.
But it’s in the emotionally candid Adagio that the power of Bruckner’s vision is fully realised. Surely the most exquisite movement he ever composed, it was inspired by his premonition of Wagner’s death, and gathers an extraordinary electrical charge as it progresses, with moments of intense harmonic anguish reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde. Four Wagner tubas, never used in a symphony until that time, join the expansive string textures and, with the theme (eventually) played jubilantly by the brass against an ostinato of rising string sextuplets, we are propelled to the most exhilarating of climaxes, an euphoric cymbal crash over a blaze of C major. Without a doubt, it’s best heard live: the lustrous sonorities don’t just go through you, they actually resonate physically within.
Gustave Mahler, walking through the Austrian Alps.