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Samuel Wesley - Symphony in E flat Major - Allegro

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Uploaded on Jun 18, 2009

Symphony in E flat Major (1784)
Samuel Wesley

I. Allegro

London Mozart Players
Matthias Bamert

Wesley penned this symphony at the age of 18. All but one of his symphonies and the bulk of his other orchestral works were written before an accident at the age of 21 which left Sam with a head injury that would plague him for the rest of his life. He only composed very sporadically from then on and so England virtually lost one its most promising composers at an age where he was about to enter the public eye.

This symphony is a remarkable achievement for a teenager. Not least because (although ostensibly cast in sonata form) this first movement is structurally unconventional, rebelliously so in fact. Instead of a coup d'archet and a strong first theme, we hear a beautifully formed flowing theme at the piano level, more typical of a second theme than a first. Staccato notes in the melody and increased movement in the bass-line are the first hints that the mood is about to pass, before the violins suddenly take off on a reiterated semi-quaver run, which leads to a remarkable syncopated passage, which has no allegory in the musical rhetoric of the time... after building to a crescendo with the first violins scrubbing away, a massive trill on the flattened leading note, played tutti by the rest of the orchestra flings the exposition into an unexpected modulation. After another sequential modulation, the music calms down again and another lyrical theme is introduced which has some similarities in construction to the opening theme - again it is followed by an ascending violin semiquaver passage and after a fiery tutti, the exposition ends with an almost comically quiet perfect cadence before launching immediately into the development section.

The the length of the development section is entirely unprecedented for a symphony written in the 1780s. It is bloated out of all proportion, occupying in total almost half the length of the entire movement. It begins by developing the opening melody in a fairly complete form, but quickly moves onto developing almost every other melodic motif heard in the exposition, bar the syncopated linking passage. Here Wesley shows his incredibly technical skills in counterpoint, frequently departing from the standard two part imitation of the time to allow dialogue between two or three parts while the remaining parts are given independent movement or harmonies of their own. At one point the violas enter into dialogue with the basso, while the violins are relegated to accompaniment by chain suspensions. Significant when at the time the viola was rarely given a part with melodic importance.

The development section merges straight into the recapitulation, which only states the first theme again and is curtailed to the point that it is little more than a coda. It seems Wesley was keen to eschew what he saw as unnecessary repetition to allow more room for his own artistic expression, which finds an outlet in the myriad of ways he develops the musical ideas he stated in the exposition. Such a divergence from accepted form was not tolerated in mainstream circles and would not be seen again until the emergence of the Romantic movement two decades later which saw the blurring and distorting of sonata form.

Aside from the structural ingenuity, the symphony shows that Sam had excellent command of counterpoint, an innovative harmonic language and the ability to combine beautiful lyrical melodies into rhythmically vital and exciting movements. Skills which rival or even surpass those demonstrated by his near contempary Mozart at the same age.

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