All you need to know about Ruth Gipps Symphony No. 2, and Brahms Symphony No. 3

Technically speaking here at Thoroughly Good there’s no such thing as needing to know anything about classical music. It’s just music after all. But it’s important to make blog posts findable on Google, so please forgive the title.

Ruth Gipps Symphony No. 2

Not heard of Ruth Gipps? No. Not surprised. Gipps was a phenomenal composer who lived between 1921 and 1999 who also happened to be a pianist, conductor, and an oboist. She studied at the Royal College of Music in 1937, played with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, had a shortlived performance career before a shoulder injury stopped things, and penned the second of her five symphonies in 1945.

The second symphony feels like a continuous sequence of contrasting short movements that the series of four movements you might expect from a more orthodox symphony of the time. But what makes it a Thoroughly Good Symphony is that there’s something, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is exactly, that holds the whole thing together – the story of a film without the film getting in the way, if you like.

Gipps writes brilliantly for the brass section – listen out close after the start for some blistering brass ensemble writing which should make you go weak at the knees. Listen out for The March too – highly descriptive, with an irrepressibly rousing English folk music influence to it that is reminscent of Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suites (assuming you’re familiar with them). The slow movement around which the entire 20-minute work pivots is utterly ravishing, with a horn solo that seems to hang in mid-air. The ‘tranquil’ moment which follows has at its heart a playful pastoral melody that still manages a modern and original feel to it. Glorious stuff. It seems incredible to me this was written and premiered in the same year as Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Be sure to listen out for Ramon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ recording of Ruth Gipps’ second symphony on Chandos, including the work she wrote in 1942 which was premiered at the Last Night of the Proms that year, ‘A Knight in Armour’.

Brahms Symphony No. 3

Four key points to highlight for the four glorious movements in Brahms’ third symphony written in 1883 (62 years before Gipps’ second symphony).

The first movement opens with a joyful uplifting melody powered by a rich orchestral accompaniment that stirs the soul. This same uplifting melodic idea returns throughout the movement. It’s like a shot in the arm every time.

There’s a fairytale feel to the second movement, opening with woodwind and brass playing something that sounds like a hymn. There’s simplicity and hope embedded in this material which when it expands to the wider orchestra takes on a blissful countryside feel.

The movement that follows is mournful. The melody lilts from side to side mixing sorrow and delight in equal measure. There’s a sense that something is lost and that the music is recalling happier times. It is dangerous music for those of us who have a weakness for melancholy.

After a distant whispering introduction, the fourth movement bursts into life with an epic sequence that has an air of the end of term about it. Unbridled joy powers this entire thing with loud brassy proclamations, excitable leaps and bounds in the strings. What’s mildly unexpected, weird, but also pleasingly unconventional is the way the work finishes. Not with a bang, but with carefully constructed serenity. We’re not savages, after all. Leave the auditorium in an orderly fashion please.

All you need to know about Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, 40 and 41

Technically speaking here at Thoroughly Good there’s no such thing as needing to know anything about classical music. It’s just music after all. But it’s important to make blog posts findable on Google, so please forgive the title.

Born in 1756 and dead by 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart packed in a lot to his short life. Taken on a tour of Europe (taking in London en-route) by his father. By the time he died Mozart had written 24 piano concertos, 5 violin concertos, 22 operas and 41 (some scholars say 40) symphonies amongst a slew of other religious, secular and instrumental works.

Mozart wrote symphonies 38,49 and 41 – the last he wrote – in 1788. So, musically speaking, these works go some way to illustrate the extent to which Mozart had developed as a composer.

They are remarkable for the amount of invention and development – the way in which he takes a simple melodic idea heard at the beginning of each movement and develops that idea through various key changes and textures is stunning. It’s also something which is so familiar a sound and so entertaining to listen to that its constituent parts could easily go overlooked.

What is a symphony?

A big question that demands a long answer. But there’s no time for that now. Put at its simplest, it’s a series of separate pieces of music (usually four) which are contrasting in style, but unified around a musical key or repeating musical idea. At the same time as Mozart, the ‘Father of the Symphony’ Joseph Haydn was also writing symphonies though these were often much shorter in length. Symphonies written after Mozart’s death by Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler for example took on a much more epic scale.

Symphony No. 39

Listen out in particular for the final rip-roaring movement for an illustration of melodic invention built around one recurring musical and rhythmic idea. You’d think you’d tire of hearing it repeated over and over again. You won’t because Mozart is brilliant at varying it in ever more entertaining ways.

Symphony No. 40

The opening movement of Symphony No. 40 contains one of Mozart’s most famous tunes, underpinned by simmering string accompaniment.

The second movement has a stately dance feel to it throughout and takes the listener through a variety of musical keys of different colours that has the effect of subverting expectations and maintaining attention. It is a remarkable creation full of grace and poise.

The third movement breaks down into two contrasting sections, first a dramatic fast-paced swirling dance, the second a variation on the original musical idea but with an altogether smoother feel to proceedings. The first section returns to conclude the movement.

The concluding movement is tightly controlled and well-executed mayhem – a rollercoaster musical ride full of thrills and spills at every turn. Exactly the kind of music to have when something urgent needs doing. Exhilerating stuff.

Symphony No. 41

Full transparency: Symphony No. 41 is Thoroughly Good Favourite because of the richness of its sound built with contrasting wind and string textures. It also packs a punch in terms of contrasting musical ideas and complexities. Listen out for the variety of melodic ideas in the first movement alone. There’s even an operatic feel to some of the melodies in places.

The second movement has a similar stately thing going on as in the second movement No. 40. The third movement – a dance – has a portly swinging quality (when the timpani kick in).

Hold on tight for the rollicking joyous celebration in the fourth movement that starts with a seemingly low-key idea in the strings before opening out two bars later to include the entire orchestra in a blaze of exuberance.

Also, about five minutes keep an ear out for a series of jaw-dropping ‘chromatic’ notes where the melody seems to slide up and up. These are surprises and scrunchy and utterly gorgeous (if you like that kind of thing).

Towards the end, there’s what’s known as a ‘fugue’. Fugues are, no word of a lie, gripping musical wonders created when one musical idea is played by successive instruments to build a bigger whole. Put like that it sounds a bit shit, but go with it. It’s a treat.

Why is Symphony No. 41 nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’?

The nickname ‘Jupiter’ was applied to Symphony No. 41 allegedly by German violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salamon when he put on a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in London in 1821. The nickname is a reference to Jupiter, the chief god of the Roman pantheon.

Recommended recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, 40 and 41

There are A LOT of recordings of Mozart’s music. So whilst this is a Thoroughly Good Recommendation its not necessarily or the best. It’s just a Thoroughly Good one. It a live performance of the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing all three symphonies. They especially give it some welly in the final movement of Symphony No. 41. Very pleasing.

Hear Australian Chamber Orchestra director Richard Tognetti in conversation in the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast

All you need to know about the music in the First Night of the Proms 2021

Technically speaking here at Thoroughly Good there’s no such thing as needing to know anything about classical music. It’s just music after all. But it’s important to make blog posts findable on Google, so please forgive the title.

Some handy signposts follow for anyone who’s a newcomer to this stuff. It’s all cracking music. Worth flagging that there’s nothing on the new piece by James MacMillan because obviously it hasn’t been played yet.

Vaughan Williams ‘Serenade to Music

Vaughan Williams, all thin-lipped and a bit grumpy looking though he did write lovely lovely music

Written by the same composer as The Lark Ascending, this fifteen-minute piece for orchestra and vocal soloists. It’s a ravishing musical statement – what is often referred to as ‘English’ sounding though that terminology is a little problematic these days. The title refers to the text which was adapted before being set to music in this piece – a discussion about music in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It is a soothing musical balm to open the BBC Proms season after a year of turmoil – an apt choice reasserting why this music matters. Listen out for the glorious climax around halfway through. You’re allowed to cry a bit here. It’s also OK not to cry, just so we’re clear.

Vaughan Williams wrote this as a celebration of conductor Henry Wood’s 50 years as a conductor in 1938. It was premiered in the Royal Albert Hall in October 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Soloist Elizabeth Llewellyn who features in tonight’s performance has also featured on the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast and used to work in IT before she became a professional singer.

Poulenc Organ Concerto in G minor

Poulenc. A dapper chap.

Written in 1938, the same year as Vaughan Williams ‘Serenade to Music’ – think about the different sound world here compared to VW. Twenty minutes long and made up of contrasting musical ideas. Lots of theatre.

Terrifying chords from the organ open the first movement before things resolving into something a little more romantic sounding from the strings in the orchestra. 

Once that portentous opening is over things shift into more of Keystone Cops feel. If you’re looking to be chased by dastardly evil villain, this would be the music, wouldn’t it?

Something softer and little more comforting follows. The musical equivalent of the best mattress and the perfect soft downy duvet. Though not for too long as the peril returns followed by some cracking chords in the organ.

What follows is (for those of us who love a bit of a melodramatic montage) another chase – scurrying industry played out between the organ and strings on the stage. Cracking stuff. Move over Andrew Lloyd Webber, this is the music the Phantom really wanted.

A romantic escape follows in the next sequence. Sweet nothings are being whispered in somebody’s ear. Wobbly knees abound (if you like that kind of thing). 

Doom and portent returns momentarily before a little more comedy montage music returns – a sort of Miss Marple chase conducted as a reasonably fast trot. Eventually the steam runs out and the doom laden chords return ushering a church like feel for the final movement. 

If you’re liking Poulenc’s music here, be sure to listen to his Concerto for Two Pianos which is rip-roaring fun. No, really. It is.

Sibelius Symphony No. 2

Jean Sibelius with unkempt hair

A musical evocation of Finnish national pride. Right from the start the warm strings and perky oboe and clarinet solo evoke a Finnish pastoral scene. What follows throughout the four movements of around 45 minutes is a struggle that concludes with a bracing sense of triumph and an all important ‘amen conclusion’.

The symphony was premiered in 1902 conducted by the composer at a time of heightened tension between Finland and Russia.

The second movement has a dark quality to it opening with plucked strings and a haunting hypnotic bassoon solo. A series of bold statements follow. Heart on the sleeve stuff. 

The third movement is frenetic with scurrying strings; a contrasting sedate section follows offering a breather from the frenzy – a musical lay-by if you’re in need of a metaphor. When that section returns again it builds to a ravishing triumphant opening to the fourth and final movement that will make you go all teary eyed (assuming you’re not a cold-hearted bastard, and you might be). You get another stab at the highly emotional bit around seven minutes in.

If you’re looking for a good recording of this, Thoroughly Good recommends Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Lots of detail that places you in the heart of the action.