Suggested Listening: “Larghetto” from Symphony No. 2 by Sembiin Gonchigsumlaa

This week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC presents the third movement, larghetto, from Sembiin Gonchigsumlaa’s Second Symphony, performed below by the USSR Radio and TV Large Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Yesipov conducting.

About the Composer:

Sembiin Gonchigsumlaa (1915-1991) is the greatest Mongolian composer you’ve never heard of.  Born in the aimag (province) of Bayankhongor, one of Mongolia’s largest provinces, Gonchigsumlaa left for the Siberian city of Irkutsk to study veterinary medicine.  Upon returning to Mongolia, he found work as a veterinarian, but his lifelong love of music led him to take a job with the Mongolian State Circus band.  Recognizing his musical talents, the Mongolian government sent Gonchigsumlaa to study classical composition at the Moscow Conservatory (training grounds for the likes of Khachaturian and Rachmaninov).  At the time, Mongolia was a socialist state that had just emerged from over a decade of conflict with China and the Soviet Union.  The Mongolian People’s Republic, as it was then known, maintained close ties with the USSR, and sought to establish a modern, propogandized Mongolian culture by supporting artists such as Gonchigsumlaa to create works that would convey patriotism and national pride.  Gonchigsumlaa became one of Mongolia’s most important musicians, chairing the Mongolian Composers’ Association, teaching at the State College of Music and Dance, and even directing the State Radio.  His work with the State Opera and Ballet Theatre marks the first time a Mongolian composed Western-style ballet music.  Though obscure outside of his homeland, Gonchigsumlaa remains one of Mongolia’s most prominent cultural figures.

About the Piece:

Having trained at the Moscow Conservatory, Gonchigsumlaa’s compositional style borrows from the rich, Romantic style still taught in Russia in the first half of the 20th century.  Think Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rachmaninov — for the Skeptic, think of film music, with many different characters and settings and moods, love themes and battle scenes.  Despite this Russian influence, Gonchigsumlaa wrote in a distinctly Mongolian style, borrowing snippets of folk melodies and gravitating towards use of the pentatonic scale — a collection of five notes with harmonic properties distinct from the seven-tone scale of Western music (the stereotypically “Asian” sound you get when you play around with just the black keys on a piano).  Further, as can be heard in this larghetto, Gonchigsumlaa tended towards asymmetry in his phrase structure — that is, instead of writing endless strings of four-bar chunks as was common in symphonic music, he allowed his musical phrases to run into each other, fluid and organic, some melodies longer or shorter than others.  This movement, from his Second Symphony composed in 1974, makes extensive use of clarinet and oboe solo lines, and a prominent tympani part emerges at around 3’45” — these sounds could possibly be meant to imitate folk instruments heard in the Steppes.  The simple melody heard in the clarinet at the very beginning is constantly transformed as it is passed around among instruments, undergoing changes of color and intensity as the music moves through different styles — a song, a march, a lament.  Though composed in the late 20th century, this music is unquestionably Romantic, sweeping and cinematic and utterly beautiful.

If you enjoyed the larghetto from Symphony No. 2, you might also like…

[Note: Most of the biographical information for this post came from the helpful but unsourced description section that accompanies the embedded YouTube video.  If you can recommend a more reputable, preferably English-language source, let me know!]


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