Proms 2016: Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes (World Première)

by 5:4

Last week, i finally got round to watching a concert i’d recorded last year celebrating the music of film composer John Williams, featuring highlights from throughout his long career. For better or worse, i couldn’t help recalling that concert again and again during last night’s world première at the Proms of Magnus Lindberg‘s Two Episodes, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In some respects, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Always a demonstrably accessible composer, Lindberg’s work in the last few years has reached more and more into the kind of musical language associated with movie soundtracks (a quality i’ve pointed out with regard to both Al largo and Era). What was surprising, though, was that the piece was entirely conceived to serve as an homage to the work following it in the programme, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Lindberg has apparently undertaken no small amount of analysis of Beethoven’s score, and sought to tap into it in various ways. He describes the first of his ‘episodes’ as “linked to the massive impact of the first movement [of the Beethoven] with its immense tutti writing” whereas the second “is closer to the beauty of the slow movement and acts as a bridge towards the open fifth A and E and its D minor destination”. He goes on to point out that the work doesn’t directly quote Beethoven (sighs of relief all round) but instead embeds “a number of Beethovenian allusions, so there are clear aural links, and the orchestration matches the symphony, so it will have a period colour without harp, piano and exotic percussion that feature in many of my works”.

This would be all fine and good if any of it seemed remotely true when actually listening to the Two Episodes. Throughout, it has that filmic quality i mentioned at the outset, ever in flux, subject to the machinations of some imagined complex narrative. A connection to Beethoven seems possible at the start, Lindberg assembling in his introduction a number of motifs that may prove to be the basis for what’s to come. But instead, he doesn’t just evoke the palette of John Williams but one of Williams’ inspirations, Richard Strauss. This is emphatically not solely from a harmonic perspective, as Lindberg has indicated in his programme note how this aspect will obviously be a far cry from that of Beethoven. But it’s also true behaviourally, from such familiar gestures as wildly rising overlapping woodwind flurries to aggressive salvos opening out into broad, pretty vistas to the kind of ‘vaguearies’ (as i call them) where the orchestra settles into a generalised kind of underscore chatter that, in movies, keeps things ticking along while the on-screen action gets itself from A to B. To name but three. None of these similarities are remotely problematic in and of themselves, but as Lindberg was setting out to compose a work imbued with the essential character of Beethoven (as encapsulated in his Ninth), then there are some serious problems from that perspective. But then, having said that, when divorced from the particular way Beethoven constructed melody, directed harmony, shaped structural drama, how much of Beethoven’s ‘essential character’ really remains except in the most notional sense. Is it all just a big red herring?

Removing all that extra-musical weight and putting it on one side allows the simple pleasures within the Two Episodes to emerge, 19 minutes of undemanding fun and froth that would have worked pretty well as an opening for the Proms season as a whole (being the over-traditional thing it is, whatever happened to that Proms tradition, starting the season with a première?). Lindberg avoids indulging in too much lushness, instead providing glimpses that leave one wanting more. This is particularly true in the more engaging second episode where its initial, somewhat jazzy, brass slitherings expand into a vibrant, multicoloured climax, as well as later where fast-flowing, triple metre rapids precipitate a rapturous collapse, filled with gorgeous harmonies. Even the curiously unclimactic end is more of a virtue than a disappointment, yet for all the twists of its cavorting narrative and the playful orchestration and moments of calorific yum, it’s all surprisingly forgettable, leaving nothing but the most ephemeral of impressions. Definitely more film score than Beethoven.

As ever, throughout the season you can register your opinion about each new piece using the poll below.


Magnus Lindberg - Two Episodes
  • Loved it! (9%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (23%, 13 Votes)
  • Meh (21%, 12 Votes)
  • Disliked it (16%, 9 Votes)
  • Hated it! (32%, 18 Votes)

Total Voters: 57

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Programme Note

My music falls naturally into two distinct sections: one is linked to the massive impact of the first movement with its immense tutti writing, full of bold sounds and energy, while the second is closer to the beauty of the slow movement and acts as a bridge towards the open fifth A and E and its D minor destination. For obvious reasons I’ve kept well away from all references to Beethoven’s finale which has to leap out on its own terms.

Rather than quotations, I’ve embedded a number of Beethovenian allusions, so there are clear aural links, and the orchestration matches the symphony, so it will have a period colour without harp, piano and exotic percussion that feature in many of my works. The harmonic world will naturally be much later than Beethoven’s, though it is the outcome of where he was heading. I’ve returned to the sequencing of harmonies I was exploring in works like Kinetics in the late 1980s, trying to find a modern equivalent of classical functional harmony built from the spectral series.

I still believe contemporary music can find a way to enjoy the same rhetorical excitement of language as that employed by the classical composers. I’m pursuing such vital ingredients as modulation, harmonic rhythm, question and answer, stasis and movement. This is related to the hierarchy between chords and how they are sequenced in chains, and I’ve built a vocabulary of chords from the spectral series, particularly using the odd-numbered overtones. A central harmony is the ‘Tristan’-chord used by Wagner, which can be spectrally derived and is a pivot chord for multiple series of linked progressions. So this chord and its relations can often be heard, giving the new work a distinctive colour.

—Magnus Lindberg

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Chris L

Hmmm…after two listens, I’m aware of several allusions to the start of the 9th Symphony’s 1st movement, and what sound like a couple to the first subject of the corresponding movement in the 5th; perhaps there are more to be uncovered during further listens…

…but, aw heck! I wasn’t going to ask, but find myself unable to resist a second opportunity: could you summarise in one sentence your chief objection(s) to Beethoven 9 itself? (I’m too ambivalent myself about those other two pet hates of yours, Carmina and Gorecki 3, to mind what you have to say about them.)

Chris L

True, suggestion (auto- or otherwise) may play a part; this is, after all, the same listener who once convinced himself he could hear an allusion to Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes about two minutes into Knussen 3…

Yup, I can see how one might apply those two adjectives to the Beethoven; the difference is (perhaps it’s the Elgar-lover in me? ;-)) that I’d consider said traits to be a good thing! After all, there’s unbalanced and hysterical and then there’s a certain Frenchman’s Op.14, completed just six years later (which, incidentally, I love a fair bit more than I do the Choral)…


Lindberg showing a popular side seems to be causing some upset. But I like this one. It reads as a pan-homage love-letter to the Beethovenian/Romantic music tradition, which as never gone away. ‘Two episodes’ seems perfectly drawn for a festival/pickup/pops orchestra playing for a casual audience on a lovely summer evening.

I feel like this performance/interpretation misses dozens of opportunities in the first half to shape the drama and play above the time changes. The through-line gets lost more than once. The second half runs on rails and works well.
The promo video for Two Episodes reveals a slight bit more about the 9th ‘quotes’.

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