Friday, 4 March 2016

Francis Chagrin: Symphony No. 1 (1966)

Earlier this year, I was looking at ‘symphonic anniversaries’ and discovered that Francis Chagrin’s Symphony No.1 was first heard in its present form on 15th March 1966 – 50 years ago.  I also found a sketch of the work penned by the composer in that months Musical Events journal. I have presented this below.  
I was therefore delighted to discover Naxos has released (February 2016) Francis Chagrin’s Symphonies No.1 & 2, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.  I will give a brief biography of Chagrin in a future post as well as some reviews of the First Symphony.

From Musical Events:
‘I started my ‘Symphony’ almost exactly twenty years ago, or at least my first sketches date from May 1946. I am not a fast worker and need – like many of my colleagues – a deadline, a strong inventive to force me to ‘get on with it.’ The incentive was very strong, but the luxury of second and third thoughts slowed the work down in favour of immediate tasks:  commissions for films which had to be delivered urgently; or engagements to conduct concerts and visiting ballet companies; or finishing other works that did not overawe me quite so much as the ‘Symphony.’

I rarely make a master plan or a blue print and then work at it systematically. I allow the musical material to have its say. Often I feel that anything I write is there, in its final form (as indeed it is in the womb of time) and all I have to do is to bring the future back into the actual present, reverse the process and feel my way to the next step.

Without knowing yet all the details, I knew that the work was going to have two main characteristics:-
1. Each movement would have within itself a section in completely contrasting tempo: The first movement, apart from a short ‘Largo’ introduction is an ‘Allegro’ almost throughout, except for a passage that is ‘Andantino’ and illuminates a more lyrical aspect of one of the themes.
Similarly, the second movement, a ‘Largo’, has a sudden burst into a short ‘Allegro’ and then resumes its slow pace. The same happens with the third and fourth movements. In addition to the inner contrasts within each movement, the contrasts between movements is as marked as possible. The first is violent and passionate with echoes of the war; the second is slow and very lyrical and singing; the third is a ‘Presto scherzando’ that has a reflexive section and also a quasi-Viennese Waltz passage, brutally interrupted by the discordant brass: maybe the war was not yet far enough away and did not allow too long for frivolities.

2. Although each movement has its own sets of themes, the first theme of the ‘Allegro’ (first movement) appears in each of the subsequent movements in all sorts of guises, like a friend looking in. Once it is a violin solo, another time it is developed as a counterpoint either in the brass or brasses. It makes the whole work hang together without imposing its identity.
The Introduction (Largo) apart from presenting a harmonic basis for most of the work, is developed in the last movement, as are other elements.
After my first and second movements were completed in 1955, the work was interrupted further by a heart attack. But life started again and the third movement was completed in January 1959 and the last in December 1959.

Since then I have revised the work twice; the final version was finished in December 1965. This is the version that I shall be conducting on the 15th March [1966] with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Swiss Cottage Odeon during the St. Pancras Arts Festival.
The ‘Symphony’ is dedicated to Jo Leonard, who has given me much encouragement, and to Lawrence Leonard, who played the first version through with the Morley College Orchestra.’
Francis Chagrin Musical Events March 1966

Appended to this edition of Musical Events was a list of concert works by Chagrin. These included:
Nocturne for orchestra (1956)
Prelude and Fugue for orchestra (1957)
Rumanian Fantasy for harmonica (or violin) and orchestra (c.1956)
Suite No.1: Toccata, fughetta and finale. (1957)
Elegy for string quartet (or string orchestra) (1956)
This material was available from the Mills Music Ltd rental library based in Denmark Street in London. 

Let us hope that Naxos or perhaps Dutton Epoch may be persuaded to record some more of Francis Chagrin’s music. 

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