Rosenberg: Sinfonia da Chiesa no. 1, op. 15

performed by the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra under John Avison

(cover image by Brenda Helen)

Since this article isn’t going to be very long, let’s talk briefly about the conductor above, John Avison. He was born on April 25, 1915 in Vancouver, and earned an Associates diploma from the Toronto Conservatory of Music in 1929. He later went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia in 1935 and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Washington the following year. He served in the Canadian Army, and then continued his studies at such places as Juilliard, Columbia University, and Yale, where he was for a time a student of Paul Hindemith. He was also founder of the above CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra.

Nothing in his Wikipedia article, though, gives any indication of how or why he came to conduct Rosenberg’s Sinfonia da Chiesa, (or ‘church symphony’) in the above performance, which I believe is the only available recording. I had hoped to read that he was maybe an advocate of Rosenberg’s work, or specialized in 20th century Swedish composers, or something, but there’s no clue as to why he should have been conducting this piece at whatever concert this was.

Almost all of the information I have about the work I gather from the above presenter’s introduction. It is the composer’s first of two, and was completed in 1923, revised in 1950 (the second being op. 23, completed in 1924). The work is in four movements and has a duration of about 20 minutes.

The op. 15 comes a few years after his first symphony, completed in 1919, which we just discussed earlier in the week. It would be another decade and a half before the composer would write his second symphony, but in the interim we got a chamber symphony, and the first and second sinfonias da chiesa. The first two string quartets and a suite for violin and orchestra also date from around this time.

For anyone really interested in the history of what the sinfonia da chiesa really is, you could read the 30-page paper by Neal Zaslaw where he discusses the work. He quotes people like Johann Mattheson in 1713 and others who say various things about the form such as how it “In this species, the composer has full license, and is strictly bound to no number or size.” It’s also referred to as being of ‘more moderate size than the concerto grosso’, or having ‘fugal pieces alternating with dance pieces of various types. What stands out to one writer, though, is “its serious style of composition,” or how it “does not tolerate, as does the chamber symphony, extravagance or disorder in the melodic and harmonic progressions, but proceeds in a steady manner.” It is also said to have “quiet nobility as its goal.”

But really, though, what you’ll see if you read the article is that the term ‘symphony’ or ‘sinfonia’ was tossed around, at times even just referring to filler pieces that worked around oratorios, operas, sacred works, and other stuff. So then… why does Rosenberg choose this form rather than the chamber symphony or the ‘sinfonia del drama’ (in the opera) (even if he did write a chamber symphony around this time)? Who knows?

I expected from this form either a three-movement setup, or a slow-fast-slow-fast four-movement layout, and we really have neither. Overall, it’s a somber piece. There’s a constant hint of the Dies Irae in the first movement that never quite shows up. The second movement features woodwinds in canon, or at least very contrapuntal. The third movement has a violin cadenza at the end, and the finale is also very contrapuntal in nature.

Well, if that isn’t the shortest summary on my site… the work strikes me as sort of cinematic, but ultimately just a little… unmemorable. I wonder:

  • why it was written (i.e. in this specific form)
  • if it would be more compelling in a clearer/better/truer recording
  • if the composer used it as an early test piece, getting his sea legs after an unsuccessful, withdrawn symphony (before the first)

There’s no doubt that this piece is not one of the composer’s great, career-making works (if he could be said to have any; there’s not even a single set of his recorded symphonies yet), but it gives us at least some insight into who he was, where he started, etc.

I know, this article was kind of weak, but we’ve got lots more good stuff to come, and I figured I’d go ahead and get another of his early orchestral works out of the way while I have a recording of it, no matter how poor the audio may be. So that’s that for now, but we move on to the next composer to be inaugurated into our Editor’s Choice series next, week, so do stay tuned and thanks so much for reading.

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