Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April Masterworks, Part 2: Schumann and His 2nd Symphony

Robert Schumann
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest soloist, HSO Principal Tuba, Eric Henry
What: Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, Schumann's 2nd Symphony and the world premiere of Brian Sadler's Tuba Concerto “Journeys”
When: Saturday, April 16th at 8pm; Sunday, April 17th at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance
Where: The Forum at 5th & Walnut, Harrisburg
Why: For one thing, it's a world premiere (no one else has heard the whole piece before) and while Dvořák and Schumann may be well known names to concert-goers, these are two works you don't hear that often and they really should be heard more often, so here's your chance!

In this previous post, you can read about the works on the first half of the program, the new Tuba Concerto written for Eric Henry in its World Premiere and the Serenade for Strings Antonin Dvořák composed during a particularly contented time in his life.

Robert Schumann's 2nd Symphony would seem to originate in a productive and perhaps contented time in its composer's life, too, but the facts behind the scene indicate otherwise. But before we get into that, here's the complete symphony played by young British conductor Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra recorded at a BBC-Proms concert a few years ago.
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There are four movements, once the symphony begins at 3:03 after the introductory remarks and a brief but highly recommended interview: the first movement has a slow introduction (in several short parts) that gradually leads into the “movement proper,” as it were, at 6:21. The second movement is the scherzo, a euphoric ride that begins at 15:32. The gorgeous slow movement, in third place instead of the usual 2nd, starts at 22:30 after everybody takes a breath, wipes the sweat off their brows and lowers their pulses a few notches. Then after that emotional core of the symphony, the finale gets under way at 32:32.

Aside from the fact I'm not sure how “Mahler” and “Chamber Orchestra” work together (Mahler being a composer of some of the vastest symphonic canvases in the repertoire – he did, after all, write the “Symphony of a Thousand”), it's a very fine ensemble and this is a performance I highly recommend given the conductor's interest in maintaining that balance to give the work the sense of intimacy Schumann's music requires but rarely receives - and yet still make it sound emotional enough to be “Romantic.”

As Harding mentions in his interview, there's often been a “one-size-fits-all” approach to 19th Century Romanticism between the heroic grandeur of Beethoven, the hyper-lushness of Berlioz, the intensity of Brahms and the opulence, for lack of a better word, if not the sheer impact of Mahler. Schumann and his colleague Mendelssohn are “none of the above” and for all our thinking about them as Capital-R Romantic composers, they're basically classicists at heart (thinking more in terms of clarity of texture and harmonic language). The problem is, too many conductors play Schumann they way they do Brahms even though Brahms' symphonies belong to the next generation. They would never conduct Mendelssohn that way and yet Mendelssohn and Schumann's symphonies are exact contemporaries. In fact, Mendelssohn conducted the world premiere of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in 1846.

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On the whole, the music may sound “happy” enough – after all, people consider C Major a bright and happy key, the opposite of Beethoven's dark and struggling, dramatic C Minor, if we think of Beethoven's 5th with its journey through “Fate knocking at the door” to the ultimate victory in the finale. Was this Beethoven's personal struggle with his impending deafness – the symphony composed in the years following his statement he would “seize Fate by the throat” – or is it a more universal struggle anyone could relate to? And what (if anything) does that have to do with Schumann's 2nd?

Without specific references to an intended “program” or story behind the music in the composer's own words (preferably first-hand and verifiable), it is dangerous to assume an interpretation based on what we hear (or think we hear) in the music.

Is there a significance behind that opening brass "call" that recurs throughout the symphony? Is it like Beethoven's "Fate" motive (only less aggressive), tying everything together? Or is it just a rising interval (like the one opening Haydn's "London" Symphony) that Schumann had a fondness for?

So let's begin with what was going on in the composer's life around the time he composed the piece.

Now, another 2nd Symphony – last month's Beethoven's 2nd which you can read about here – should remind us that a composer's emotional state is not always reflected in the music he's composing: consider the wildly joyous finale written around the same time Beethoven wrote his tragic “Heiligenstadt Testament” when it was clear he was in deep despair. There are long-term events and short-term events but how they effect music created over a span of time, longer or shorter, varies from composer to composer and probably just as easily piece to piece.

If you read program notes and composers' biographies at concerts, you're probably aware that Schumann suffered from some form of what we now call “bi-polar disorder” (previously “manic-depressive disorder”) and that he ended his life in an asylum two years after he tried to commit suicide.

The “manic/depressive” side of his life can be seen in those incredible bursts of creative energy – writing almost all his major chamber works in one year, most of them over the summer – which were usually followed by prolonged periods of almost total creative inertia, usually accompanied by periods of depression or painful episodes that ranged from tinnitus to auditory hallucinations, from rheumatism to “prickling nervous sensations especially in the backbone and finger-tips.” He might have attacks of giddiness and at other times remain silent for days, unmoved by any attempt at entertainment.

When he was writing regularly in the magazine he founded, one of the great musical journals of the day, he often couched his articles in the manner of Ancient Greek dialogues, creating a symposium of characters who took on different sides of an argument, especially those about the nature of music: the emotional response, the intellectual response, for instance.

Everyone writes about Florestan and Eusebius, two of his best known creations, and says, “Aha, see, he was 'schizophrenic'” without really understanding the term, the disease or the nature of his characters. In reality, given Schumann, the son of a book-seller, was always drawn to the literary world – he created little fictions in his short piano pieces that make up works like Carnaval or Kinderszenen – this was a literary outlet for him, perhaps in lieu of writing a play, and it is unfair to any author to say “the character and the author are one.” Besides, the device of a "round-table discussion" broke the constant pontificating of a journalist writing about his opinions in the first person, right?

But the medical aspects of his life were very real and certainly not understood. As with Beethoven's deafness, how might Schumann have been treated (much less diagnosed) today? Could prescribed medications have kept the symptoms at bay so he could have lived a happier, more productive life?

What kind of music might Beethoven have written if he hadn't had to deal with his deafness? Would we have the Late Quartets if he wasn't locked up internally, unable to hear the world and its music around him? One could ask the same of Schumann: even though his music is not considered “tragic,” would his music have been any different – better?

Or did he need the lows in his life to be able to experience the highs in his creativity? Would medication have leveled out Schumann's world to the point it produced music that somehow wouldn't rise to the level it did to touch us as it does?

The Schumanns in 1847
Whatever happened before he finally married the love of his life, Clara Wieck – truly one of the great love stories of all classical music – the first few years of the Schumann's marriage were probably the happiest of his life. But there were also problems: the composer had to deal with his no longer being a pianist, due to a self-inflicted injury to his hand, and so he watched his wife go on to become the great concert artist he had dreamed of. She championed his music (there was always something he'd composed on each of her programs) but it was “too modern” for too many and so he also dealt with disappointments when his music was rejected or misunderstood. There was also the fact he would accompany her on her foreign tours and be treated like any normal husband going along for the ride: “Mr. Clara Schumann,” in other words.

In 1842, two years after their wedding, Schumann began experiencing “nervous weakness” and an inability to compose at all, following bursts of creativity during the previous two years. Such bouts were often interrupted by “periods of elation,” only to pass again into a depressive or “melancholic” state.

Following such an attack in the fall of 1844, they had moved to Dresden (culturally more provincial than exciting Leipzig). He noted that his “nervous illness” waxed and waned. Despite his doctor's orders to avoid music, in January Schumann began to teach his wife counterpoint (an old skill both of them as composers were technically deficient in). In May, he wrote to a fellow composer, “Gloomy demons possessed me,” and later, “Now it is better and I am working again, something that had been quite impossible for months.” But Clara was writing in her diary at the same time how “Robert's nerve trouble will not lessen.”

In June (1845), Schumann wrote to Mendelssohn in Leipzig, “what an awful winter I have spent with a terrible nervous languor accompanied by a host of terrible thoughts that nearly brought me to despair; but things look better now – music is again beginning to sound within me, and I hope to be recovered soon.”

That fall (1845), he again wrote to Mendelssohn, “[Dr.] Carus has recommended early-morning walks which do me a great deal of good but I am not yet myself and every day I suffer... in a hundred different places. A mysterious complaint – when the doctor tries to take hold of it, it seems to disappear.” (Well, I'm sure many of us can relate to that...)

a sketch for 2nd Symphony
Remember, then, that Schumann sketched his 2nd Symphony between December 12th and 28th of 1845 though he didn't begin orchestrating it until February 12th, 1846. Unfortunately, he then experienced a prolonged melancholia from May through July, followed by a period of “remission,” and finally completed the work on October 19th, only weeks before Mendelssohn conducted its premiere in Leipzig (which was more receptive to Schumann's music) on November 5th.

You could assume the music sounds “happy,” “hopeful,” ultimately “triumphant” (in a brilliant flash of C Major at the end) because of the storm he had passed and the joy of having another period of elation to compose in, riding a wave that, alas, didn't last long. 1848 would be an almost year-long depression but the next few years would be relatively anxiety-free except for minor “swings” here and there and the possibility he might have had a stroke. But when Brahms arrived unannounced on the Schumanns' doorstep, those were good days – until the following February when an attack of “acute delirium” came on quite suddenly resulting in his attempted suicide later that month.

His state of mind that February is sad reading, so let us think we can be glad to have such happy music as his 2nd Symphony at all...

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In the video clip from the BBC Proms, the host's introductory remark about this being the second of Schumann's NINE symphonies is not exactly accurate. True, if you consider he wrote four symphonies, it would be flat-out wrong, and while I expect she just simply “misspoke” (been there/done that), there's a longer story behind the statement. No, there are not really just four Schumann symphonies.

Aside from his first attempt at writing a symphony, a student work in G Minor which he left incomplete in 1833 when he was 23, he began 1841 with his first “serious” attempt writing a symphony (mostly because his wife Clara, one of the greatest pianists of the century and a composer herself, goaded him into it, that no composer has “arrived” until he's dealt with writing a symphony) – and so we have his “Spring” Symphony as it's usually called.

This having proven such a successful experience, Schumann immediately sat down and composed three more symphonies the rest of the year – or almost composed them: he sketched a symphony in C Major but it went nowhere; he wrote an overture, then added two more movements (a scherzo and a finale) which he called, rather unimaginatively, the “Overture, Scherzo and Finale,” essentially a symphony without a slow movement. Why didn't he just go ahead and write a slow movement, this man who could write incredible tunes and could bring tears to your eyes with the poignancy of his adagios? Who knows!

Then, he ended the year by completing a Symphony in D Minor which, when premiered with the not-quite-a-symphony, didn't satisfy him or the audience, so he withdrew it.

In 1845, after leaving bustling Leipzig behind for the more staid lifestyle of Dresden, he began another symphony in C Major – apparently not the same one in the sketches from 1841 – which he eventually published as No. 2, the symphony we'll be hearing at this weekend's concerts.

Then, in 1850, having settled down to his new life in even more staid Düsseldorf on the Rhine, he composed a symphony in E-flat Major known as the “Rhenish” Symphony, inspired by the great river that flowed through the town. In 1854, months after meeting a young man named Brahms, Schumann would attempt to drown himself, jumping off a bridge into that same Rhine just a few blocks from his house.

However, in those few years remaining before his attempted suicide, he took up the D Minor Symphony from ten years earlier and revised it, finally deciding to publish it, and so it became No. 4. As far as new symphonies go, yes, the 3rd was really the last one he composed. Technically, the D Minor is the second symphony he completed, but then he revised it and sent it to the publishers last.

There would be no more symphonies after that.

So counting those two versions of the D Minor Symphony as separate works (which they're not, really – Brahms, by the way, published the earlier version, which he still preferred, in 1891 over Clara Schumann's “strenuous objections”) and the earlier C Major sketch which was never published (I'm not sure it was ever actually completed), plus that “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” as well as a student work in G Minor usually called the “Zwickau Symphony” (after his home town), that would mean there are (or could have been) eight symphonies.

Who knows what we might have had had Schumann not died at the age of 46? Or if he had been able to receive treatment and not suffer from such a life as he lived?

Dick Strawser

P.S. You can read more about Schumann's final years in this post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

April Masterworks: A New Tuba Concerto Kicks Some Action and a Serenade You Can Unwind With

Eric Henry & Tuba
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest soloist, HSO Principal Tuba, Eric Henry
What: Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, Schumann's 2nd Symphony and the world premiere of Brian Sadler's Tuba Concerto “Journey”
When: Saturday, April 16th at 8pm; Sunday, April 17th at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance
Where: The Forum at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg
Why: For one thing, it's a world premiere (no one else has heard the whole piece before) and while Dvořák and Schumann may be well known names to concert-goers, these are two works you don't hear that often and they really should be heard more often, so here's your chance!


April Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

(This post is about the first two works on the program: read about Schumann's 2nd Symphony, here.)

Eric Henry joined the HSO in the spring of 1984 as the orchestra's principal tuba player (or tubist, to use the correct term). As a Chambersburg native and Carlisle resident, he has long been known in the region as a performer, teacher and advocate for the arts and education, a player of classical music – he is also the principal tubist in the York and Lancaster Symphonies – various brass quintets throughout the land and with Hot House (a Dixieland band with a core trio, others added “as needed”) beyond the land as Jazz Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department in 1999. He is also the founder of what's become a Carlisle tradition, “Octubafest” which is no doubt self-explanatory. Plus he's on the faculties of Dickinson College and Messiah College.

While we describe Eric as “a long-term member” of the symphony, I think we could say his association with the orchestra goes back a bit longer than the past 32 years. During the 1980s, when I was assistant conductor and personnel manager under the HSO's music director, Larry Newland, Eric told me how he'd been taken to hear a concert of the Harrisburg Symphony when he was a kid and how he was fascinated by the man playing the tuba – that would've been Earl Caton – and especially the instrument, deciding that that's what he wanted to do: play the tuba.

Here's Eric as a guest at one of the orchestra's “Musical Chairs” Meet the Musicians events – currently held during concert intermissions in the far-right-side of the Forum lobby – giving a young audience member a more hands-on introduction to what a tuba can be. Who knows if, twenty years from now, this will be another HSO tubist (or a music-lover and regular subscriber to the orchestra's concerts) because of an opportunity to experience music like this?

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Brian Sadler is a Maryland-born, Pennsylvania-raised, Florida-based composer whose career has been as a brass player in the Navy bands, currently located in Jacksonville FL as a trombonist with the Navy Band Southeast. He has performed with a variety of bands in a variety of locations (from Virginia to Washington State to Japan and now to Florida), writing and arranging some 75 pieces for band and chamber ensembles within the band. He's also composed numerous film scores

About the Concerto that Eric Henry is premiering this weekend, Sadler explains it began life as a single movement sonata called the “Kick-Ass” Sonata which he then arranged with wind-ensemble, renamed the “Action” Sonata. Eric played it with the Messiah College Wind Ensemble and liked it so much, he asked about adding a couple more movements to make it a full three-movement concerto – with orchestra.
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The composer writes, “Journey is a three-movement concerto for solo tuba with orchestral accompaniment. The piece resembles the styles of modern film music while featuring the versatility and skills of the tubist.

Brian Sadler
“The first movement, Sonata, was originally written for young tuba virtuoso Gabriel Sears while he and I were studying at Arizona State University. After performing some of my pieces for brass at a few composition recitals, Gabriel asked me to compose a piece for his sophomore recital. Wanting to do something different, I decided to compose a piece with an accompaniment using the orchestra sounds from my computer rather than the standard piano. The piece, called Kick-Ass Sonata for Tuba and Orchestra, was a hit and was later published by Brassworks 4 and played around the country. Pennsylvania tubist Eric Henry enjoyed it so much that he and Dr. Bradley Genevro, Director of Bands at Messiah College, asked me to arrange it for concert band. With the success of the concert band performance, it was only natural to arrange the work for full orchestra and add two more movements, officially making it a concerto.

“Sonata has many pop and modern film-scoring influences, such as the ostinato-like [i.e., repetitive] main theme and heavy brass hits. After a brief introduction, the soloist comes in aggressively, letting the listener know that this will not be an ordinary tuba part of oom-pah-pah bass lines and whole notes. After expressing dominance over the orchestra, the soloist retreats for a moment to catch his or her breath. A new theme is introduced with the support of pizzicato strings (much like straining to hold up a dump truck). The rest of the orchestra joins and just as it’s settling in, the feel changes again, with the main theme coming back into play and shifting gears while the soloist drives the orchestra home.”

Then, the two new movements:

“The second movement, Ballad, slows the tempo and darkens the mood with evil-sounding chord progressions and a haunting melody. The soloist in this movement is calling out from a distant grave, lost in darkness and fog, beckoning its next victim to come closer. The more the melody is played, the more embellished it becomes, revealing the terrifying, long-forgotten secret of the demise of the tuba.

Journey ends with a bang in the Finale. More ostinato rhythms dominate the strings while the soloist dances above in a fury of tonal fire. The theme goes through several variations featuring the trusty solo tuba in different adventures. The piece closes with a series of fast runs that allow the soloist to go out in a final blaze of glory before again playing the dull but necessary bass lines from the rear of the ensemble.”

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“Kick-Ass” may not be a term easily applied to Antonin Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, a work more in tune with lazy summer evenings and the conviviality of friends and family rather than with a cartoon action hero. You could, however, say it's a work written by a contented composer.
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Dvořák in the 1870s
Written in 1875 at a time when the composer – 34 years old and not yet on his way to being the famous composer he would become – was particularly happy: married in 1873, his first son had just been born. Barely making ends meet as a teacher and free-lance musician in Prague, he had submitted some scores to a competition in Vienna (Prague, the capital of Bohemia, had been part of the Austrian Empire for centuries) where one of the judges, Johannes Brahms (who incidentally was a year away from finishing his 1st Symphony), took notice of Dvořák's submission which included two early symphonies, some chamber music and a song cycle (15 pieces in all). The prize – to support “talented composers in need” – was given in February, 1875. Two years later, Dvořák would win the prize again and this time gain additional support from Judge Brahms who offered to submit some of his works to his own publisher. Essentially, that would be the start of Dvořák's career in the wider world.

As a result of this 1875 award, though, Dvořák felt happy enough not just with his personal life but with his professional future, to compose a string quintet, a piano trio, his 5th Symphony, and this String Serenade in quick succession. Based on the idea of an “evening's entertainment” as Mozart wrote Serenades (such as his famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik), this serenade was written between May 3rd and 14th!

It's in five movements – a gentle, lyrical opening followed by a waltz and a dance-like scherzo; a wistful slow movement (reflective and certainly romantic) precedes the lively finale, almost like a village dance (Dvořák's famous “Slavonic Dances” were also in the future). The nostalgic mood is heightened by the occasional quotation of themes heard earlier in the work, especially at the very end: could there be anything more of a “happy ending” than this?

The “New World” Symphony, Dvořák's best-loved work, was 19 years into the future, a whole world away from the circumstances surrounding the composer when he wrote this delightful serenade.

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Robert Schumann's 2nd Symphony may sound like a happy work but there's a different kind of story behind it. You can read about it, here – and hear a performance from the BBC Proms – in the next post.

Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 17, 2016

March Masterworks: Beethoven's 2nd - Sturm, Drang und Lebenslust

Beethoven, 1803
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest cellist Zuill Bailey
What: The March Masterworks Concert with Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, Nicolas Bacri's 4th Symphony (“Classical Sturm und Drang”) and Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto
When: This Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm (a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum, behind the State Capitol, at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg PA
Why: Well, aside from just hearing the orchestra play which is reason enough, there's Zuill Bailey returning to Central PA to play one of the most demanding concertos for the cello, an exciting, edgy work by Shostakovich; there's a Beethoven symphony – and probably one you don't hear that often (Beethoven's symphonies are often described of the Himalayas of the symphonic repertoire, but even if some of the “even-numbered” symphonies aren't quite as epic as the “odd-numbered” ones, it's still quite a magnificent mountain); and you get to hear something you've probably never heard before, a brief, “classically-lined” symphony from the 1990s looking back on the past, by a composer you've probably never heard (or, in this country, heard of) before.

You can read more about Zuill Bailey and the concerto he'll play in this post, here. And you can find out more about Nicolas Bacri and his 4th Symphony in this post, here.

While Bacri's 1995 symphony refers to the Sturm und Drang or Storm and Stress "movement" popular in the 1770s, a bit of emotional romanticism at the height of proper classicism, I've entitled this post about Beethoven's symphony on the program Sturm, Drang und Lebenslust because, in Beethoven's 2nd, there is not only a fair bit of storm and stress on the surface (far more behind the scenes, though), there is also an affirmation of "love for life" that permeates every measure of this music. What is it behind the music that makes this symphony what it is?

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Yes, there's something about Beethoven – he isn't considered “the greatest composer who ever lived” by so many music-lovers in the world for nothing; but that very superlative invites protest from those who think he's overplayed or has been turned into some idealized superhero.

Even in 1810, before Beethoven had completed his 7th Symphony, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote of his 5th Symphony, first heard five years earlier, “Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain.”

When Brahms was a young man in the 1850s, hearing the “tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind you” was enough to make him cautious about jumping too soon into the competition with the likes of him – and Beethoven had only been dead for 24 years when Robert Schumann anointed young Brahms his heir.

Composers ever since have reacted to Beethoven, either “with” him or “against” him. Even today, if you've read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise (and if you haven't, you should), with its 14th Chapter called “Beethoven Was Wrong (Bop, Rock, and the Minimalists),” it's clear that many composers today are still reacting to Beethoven, perhaps in a different way: if Beethoven's Path was the one most German composers took in the 19th on into the 20th Centuries, not to mention his impact on composers of other nationalities, today many composers have chosen the opposite path if only to see what the view might be like from there.

It was this “search for a new path” that led Beethoven to the 2nd Symphony in the first place, leaving behind the giants of the previous generation – Haydn directly, Mozart above all – to find his own way. The year 1800 seemed as good a time as any.

Let's begin with the music: here is a performance of Beethoven's 2nd Symphony complete in one clip, recorded at the London Proms in 2012 with Daniel Barenboim conducting his West-East Divan Orchestra, comprised of young Arab and Israeli musicians:
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When Stuart Malina introduced this program – music for people who enjoy “stormy music” – you would certainly think this is a “dramatic” symphony, certainly in the first movement. The slow movement has its dramatic moments, but the third movement is the first of his earthy symphonic “scherzos” (literally, a “joke” in Italian) rather than the old-fashioned, aristocratic minuet.

The fourth movement, rather than being a lively set of delightful variations or a heroic finale, sounds like another scherzo, starting off with a loud if not rude-sounding whoop that several commentators have called “a hiccup.”

One critic, writing for the Newspaper for the Elegant World, famously described it as “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies... in the fourth movement, bleed[s] to death.”

And yet a noted commentator in a respectably scholarly work more recently wrote, “the peaceful mood of the 2nd Symphony is unruffled throughout.”

Which only proves how dangerous it is to try to describe music in words... (Really? “unruffled”?)

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Not long after the premiere of his 1st Symphony in 1800 and the recent completion of a set of piano sonatas (Op. 28, the “Pastorale,” not quite as popular as its predecessor, the “Moonlight”), Beethoven wrote to a friend, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today I will take a new path.”

Beethoven was now in his 30s and, following the publication of such groundbreaking works as his Op. 18 String Quartets and the Symphony No. 1, in the midst of a surge of creativity that by 1802 resulted in the ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, eight piano sonatas, five violin sonatas, a string quintet, his 3rd Piano Concerto, the 2nd Symphony and an oratorio (Christ on the Mount of Olives). The following year, he would complete his 3rd Symphony, the Eroica – “new path,” indeed!

The 2nd Symphony is often overlooked between the sheer audacity of the 1st, coming out of its Haydnesque world into the new century, and the Eroica that followed it. At its premiere, the 1st Symphony did not sit well with the critics; after his Eroica, critics suggested he return to the more acceptable world of his first two symphonies. There is still something “classical” about this 2nd Symphony but only because we know what came after it – yes, by comparison, it would seem a “Classical” symphony, not a “Romantic” one that relies more on the sheer impact of its emotional, subjective response rather than on intellectual, objective ones, a typical aspect of “classical” music, literature, architecture and painting.

Things would change radically – and soon. But, for the moment, that is all in the future – well, most of it.

Beethoven was a painstaking creator – we have his sketchbooks to prove that: where Mozart seemed to write spontaneously, famously writing the Overture to his opera, The Marriage of Figaro, the night before its premiere, Beethoven labored over the shape of his thematic material not so much to find the right “tune” but to create the most productive idea that could generate what he was looking for. And the heart of this is that aspect of “Romantic” music we call development or, in his day, the “working-out.” Sometimes, with “tunes,” all you get is something you can only repeat over and over again; but with a “theme” based on a “generating motive” (like the 5th Symphony's famous opening notes), you could go far beyond the statement of the original idea.

As an example, Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven's few students, recalled seeing the manuscript of the 2nd Symphony's slow movement, a movement he thought “so beautifully, so purely and happily conceived and the melodic line so natural that one can hardly imagine anything in it was ever changed.” Yet the manuscript was a barely legible splotch of notes. Expecting to learn something about the composer's craft, Ries asked him why he made the changes he'd made. All Beethoven said was, “it's better this way.”

As an improviser at the piano – something many performers, especially composers, did in those days – the idea of being given a theme to improvise on was a typical challenge in a performance. In the days before TV and reality shows, people might attend “duels” between rival pianists (imagine that!).

One example from one such duel in 1800 involved a popular virtuoso named Daniel Steibelt. Beethoven was not impressed with either Steibelt's quintet that had just been performed or with the improvisation he had just offered (and clearly he didn't think much of the man, either). When asked to improvise something himself, Beethoven grabbed the cello part from Steibelt's quintet, sauntered over to the piano, put it on the rack then made a show of turning the page upside down, plunked out a few notes and then tore into a lengthy set of variations, all of which harkened back to these few notes from Steibelt's cello part. Often, such a “given theme” might just be the starting place for flights of fancy, but Beethoven stayed close to the idea of his chosen material so he could show the audience what all could be done with this simple fragment of “raw material” and make something out of it better than anything Steibelt had done with it, rightside up.

Suffice it to say, Steibelt had left the room before Beethoven had even finished.

I mention this for two reasons, aside from it being a great story: it shows what Beethoven was looking for in his material; and it shows how his creative energy worked, in this case when inspired by anger.

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Another thing to mention, given the writing of this symphony, is what was going on in his life.

In the midst of writing that last movement of his 2nd Symphony in October of 1802 – not to mention dealing with an impending concert for the following April which would premiere not only his new symphony but a new piano concerto and a new oratorio, none of which were yet complete – he wrote a letter to his brothers. Given the conviviality if not the hilarity of the music he was working on at the time, reading this letter is heart-rending. It is known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.”

The first symptoms of his impending deafness appeared when he was 28, at first occasional buzzing and humming heard in his left ear, then in both. He did not “go deaf” as we normally think it, completely losing his hearing, until later in his life, but his hearing from then on was never “normal,” often afflicted by bouts of this buzzing and what we might call “being hard-of-hearing.” Given the medical treatment available today, it's possible he might have been cured. But the question remains – remember that story about Steibelt? – how much of the music we know is the product of the man who was facing losing his hearing throughout his career? Was this burst of creativity, this level of creativity the product of his fear of becoming deaf?

In June of 1801, he wrote to a close friend still living in distant Bonn, “My hearing has grown steadily worse over the last three years... For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people 'I am deaf.' If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state... It is curious that in conversation there are people who do not notice my condition at all; since I have generally been absent-minded, they account for it in that way. Often I can scarcely hear someone speaking softly, the tones yes, but not the words. However, as soon as anyone shouts it becomes intolerable...”

Beethoven's Heiligenstadt neighborhood (in 1898)
So, in April of 1802, Beethoven's doctor advised him to spend some time in the bucolic little country town outside Vienna called Heiligenstadt (since 1892, part of the expanding modern city of Vienna). Here, amidst wooded paths and rural walkways, he would wander during the day, and work out details for all this music that was in him, everything he had brought with him – not just the 2nd Symphony, most of which was finalized and eventually completed here.

In October, he wrote a three-page letter to his two brothers, both now living in or near Vienna (though he doesn't mention Johann by name), that explains his condition, a last will and testament that at times reads like a suicide note. It begins,

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O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming... that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible)... I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness... and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.
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It continues,

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“...what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence - truly wretched...”
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Four days later, he added this,

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“For my brothers Carl and [blank space instead of mentioning Johann by name] to be read and executed after my death.

Heiligenstadt, October 10, 1802, thus do I take my farewell of thee - and indeed sadly - yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree - I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away - even the high courage - which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer - has disappeared - O Providence - grant me at least but on e day of pure joy - it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart - O when - O when, O Divine One - shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men - Never? no - O that would be too hard.”
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And yet he was in the midst of finalizing the last movement of the 2nd Symphony! Is there anywhere in this music you hear that tone?

It speaks not only to his ability to “compartmentalize,” not to give in to self-pity, perhaps, to continue with the work he had planned as planned.
pages from the Heiligenstadt Testament

But, in November, 1801, he had already written to his friend in Bonn about his impending deafness and said defiantly - prophetically - "I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely."

By the end of his Heiligenstadt crisis a year later, Beethoven had decided on the path of resignation, perhaps, but with a determination to resist.

I can think of a similar instance in classical music, Tchaikovsky and his Pathetique aside: when a 20-year-old student named Alexander Scriabin, writing his 1st piano sonata in 1892, concluded it with the gloomiest of funeral marches, after he had lost the use of his right hand through an injury (excessive practicing, ironically), and had imagined his career, barely begun, already over. (You can listen to the movement, here.)

This is, perhaps, how a “normal human being” would react to such a crisis. Perhaps Beethoven's response to his is what makes him seem like a super-hero in our eyes. It is, certainly, something to wonder about...

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Zuill Bailey Returns - with the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto

Zuill Bailey
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina
What: Masterworks Concert with guest cellist, Zuill Bailey - with Beethoven's 2nd Symphony (which you can read about, here), Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto, and Nicolas Bacri's Symphony No. 4 (which you can read about, here)
When: Saturday, March 19th at 8pm, Sunday, March 20th at 3pm (a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum, behind the State Capitol, at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg PA

Why: Because Zuill Bailey returns to Harrisburg for the 1st Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich, a work he recorded for his debut on the Telarc label, a program of “Russian Masterpieces” which included Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. Already familiar from appearances with Market Square Concerts and the Next Generation Festival which began in 1997, he played the Dvořák Concerto the last time he was on stage at the Forum a couple seasons ago.

He plays a cello made by Matteo Gofriller in 1693, previously owned by the cellist of the legendary Budapest String Quartet. Here, Zuill plays the Prelude from Bach's 2nd Suite for Solo Cello, one of six suites Bach composed around the time Zuill's cello was 27 years old:
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The Shostakovich Concerto is a more recent piece, composed in 1959, in the years following Stalin's death, a time when the composer was feeling rejuvenated creatively after years of not just artistic repression during Stalin's regime. It was composed for his friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the idea for it probably came to him when the two had toured with his Cello Sonata in the mid-1950s and which they recorded (it was released in 1957). As Rostropovich related the story in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, ever since 1946, the young cellist had wanted to gather up the nerve to ask Shostakovich to write a piece for him but the composer's wife, Irina, explained, if he really wanted that, the best thing was not to ask him directly and never talk to him about it.

It took thirteen years – but one day, Rostropovich was reading an interview with Shostakovich in the newspaper saying he was working on a cello concerto, and completed it the next month. About two weeks later, Rostropovich shows up at Shostakovich's dacha outside Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and is given the score, and asked to play through it four days later.

On a hot August day, the cellist and his pianist showed up at the arranged time and while Shostakovich was rummaging around to find the music stand, Rostropovich said he wouldn't need that.

“What do you mean, you don't need a music stand?”

“You know, I'll play it from memory.”

“Impossible, impossible,” Shostakovich muttered. And then he listened to his new concerto played through – from memory. The cellist had learned the entire piece and memorized it, too, all in four days.

After they'd played the piece through and worked on a few spots, they sat around having some drinks with a few friends when Shostakovich remembered he hadn't written the dedication in the score, writing Rostropovich's name on the title page. Not only did the cellist finally have a work written for him by the great Shostakovich, it was even dedicated to him.

On October 4th, 1959, Rostropovich premiered the work with Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. This performance, with Charles Groves conducting the London Symphony, was recorded two years after the world premiere:
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Scored for a “reduced” orchestra – to better balance the cello – with only double woodwinds, one horn and no trumpets or low brass, the concerto is regarded as one of the more challenging in the repertoire, along with Prokofiev's Symphony-Concertante for Cello and Orchestra which Rostropovich had frequently performed and which Shostakovich loved.

As Rostropovich recalled, “there are a host of connections [between the two works]... Not only are many details of the Symphony-Concertante reflected in the First Concerto, but indeed, whole sections of the piece (admittedly much transformed) found their way into Shostakovich's work.” One such connection was the use of “rhetorical bangs on the timpani.”

For instance, “At the end of the finale [of the Prokofiev], the cello ascends the heights as if spiraling up to the very summit of a domed roof; on reaching the highest note it is silenced by one bang of the timpani which puts an end to the frenzied madness.”

Now listen to the end of the first movement of Shostakovich's cello concerto, from 6:00-6:24, where the lone timpani strike seems to tell the soloist, “okay, enough.”

Shostakovich, Rostropovich & Rozhdestvensky rehearsing

Much has been made of “secret programs” or “hidden themes” in many of Shostakovich's works – the famous ending of the 5th Symphony, for one; various quotations of song fragments in the 10th Symphony; not to mention the psychological implications in his use of his own “signature tune” based on the notes D-S-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B in German, from his initials, ДШ or D.Sh, turned into D.SCH in German) – and many dismiss these as mere conjecture since the composer never admitted as such (but then, he notoriously said little about his music or himself).

However, in this instance, we have Rostropovich's recollection of one such admission: in the final movement, shortly after the long solo cadenza ends with the return of strings and winds in a rough, almost rude take-off on what sounds like a folk-song.

In the above video, at 22:49 there begins an exchange between strings in one bar, answered by winds (complete with “rhetorical bangs on the timpani”) that Shostakovich pointed out to the cellist.

“The first time [he] hummed this passage through to me, he laughed and said, 'Slava, have you noticed?' [Shostakovich referred to him by the nickname for Mstislav.]

“I hadn't noticed anything.

“'Where is my dear Suliko, Suliko?...'

“I doubt I would have detected this quote if Dmitri Dmitriyevich [the composer] hadn't pointed it out to me.”

It also recurs later in the finale (at 26:55 to the end, along with the opening motive). Wilson's biography includes pages of the score where Rostropovich circled references to the tune (see pp.538-540).

So, what is the importance of “Suliko”?

It was Stalin's favorite song and Shostakovich had parodied it once before in a satirical work called Rayók which means literally “peep show” or “little paradise,” a parody of the Stalinist days probably written in 1957 but only intended for private performance and not for publication (still a concern even after Stalin died).

“These allusions,” the cellist recalls, “are undoubtedly not accidental, but they are camouflaged so craftily that even I didn't notice them to begin with.” [Quoted in Elizabeth Wilson, p.365.]

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Holy Fool (by Surikov, 1885)
In Russian culture, there is this character of the “Holy Fool,” the religious mad-men who were viewed not as “village idiots” as we might in the West but as divinely inspired and therefore closer to God and therefore able to say truths which others normally could not get away with.” The most famous of these iurodiviy is probably St. Basil (the one for whom that most famous of Russian cathedrals is named in Moscow's Red Square) who once rebuked no less than Ivan the Terrible but was not taken off and executed as a Western autocrat might have ordered. In Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov there is a scene between the “Simpleton” (a.k.a. Holy Fool) and Boris when the poor man accuses the tsar of having murdered Ivan the Terrible's son in order to succeed to the throne himself. Instead of ordering his arrest, Boris asks the fool to pray for him.

Dostoievsky novels are full of such characters (the main character of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, for one, so innocent yet someone who makes others uncomfortable by his innocence). Pasternak, a friend of Shostakovich's, viewed himself as a kind of iurodiviy where the role became an ambiguous form of protest in the subtlety of its sub-text, “by deliberately communicating banalities on the surface level. This concept shaped Russian cultural consciousness during the years of totalitarian rule” [E. Wilson, p.484].

Shostakovich, in rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar's often with an open sense of cynicism, turned his back on much of the reality of his world, the better to avoid open conflict which was not part of his nature. When asked to deliver a speech on Beethoven, government officials “corrected” it, being experts on such things as “Beethoven and Revolution,” but the friend who'd helped him with the original speech described listening to Shostakovich read the speech. “How alien and artificial seemed the text he was pronouncing. Banal, journalistic phrases, textbook quotations, cumbersome and wordy statements. And the way he read this all out! In a quick patter, omitting all punctuation marks and with an intonation that seemed intentionally lacking in sense. It was as if he was poking fun at himself in the role of official orator” [Daniil Zhitomirksy, quoted in E. Wilson's Shostakovich, p.370-371].

Now, consider the opening four-note motive in the solo cello. G – E – B (or -H) – B-flat (or -B)? It doesn't really seem to spell out anything – if Shostakovich used D-S-C-H to represent himself as he already had done in the 10th Symphony (his first post-Stalin symphony) and would clearly do again in his 8th String Quartet written the following year, does this motive have any significance here? It permeates the entire work, after all. Is it a “variation” on D-S-C-H? Or... just a coincidence?

Or is there a bit of Rayók (a work that could only have been written by a “holy fool”) smiling out from behind all the manic energy of the first movement, set aside during the long, introspective, indeed tragic slow movement that builds up through the increasingly manic cadenza to erupt into one more nose-thumbing dance of the Holy Fool?

Or you could just say it makes for a smashing ending.

- Dick Strawser






Introducing March Masterworks: A Classical Symphony by Nicolas Bacri

Nicolas Bacri
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina
What: The March Masterworks Concert with cellist Zuill Bailey - Nicolas Bacri's Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto (which you can read about, here), and Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D Major (which you can read about, here)
When: Saturday March 19th, at 8pm; Sunday March 20th, at 3pm (with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum, behind the State Capitol, at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg PA

Call it March Madness or that unsettled time of year when Winter is reluctant to give way to Spring, but this weekend's Masterworks Concert, as Stuart Malina says, is for those who like their music dramatic:


March Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

That said, the first work on the program, by a composer probably unfamiliar to most concert-goers in Harrisburg, might inspire anxiety at the unexpected. Even though Nicolas Bacri's Symphony No. 4 is subtitled “Classical Sturm und Drang” – and that refers to the “storm and stress” style that was popular during the 1770s (Mozart's highly dramatic Symphony No. 25, the “Little” G Minor, is such a piece) – I think the composer may be having a little fun at the expense of those who may be experiencing a little “storm and stress” with another new piece of music.

Considering we think of Romanticism as being super-emotional, this was how the Classical composers of France and Germany dealt with “emotion” in an age pre-occupied with form and content – and it was considered by many of their contemporaries as “modern music” in the way too many people today still fear “modern music.” The Prussian king, Frederick the Great (himself a flutist and composer), loathed this music, calling it noise, but then he had little good to say about either Haydn or Mozart in general.

Perhaps with a nod to the 1st Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev from 1917, his “Classical Symphony,” Bacri's little chamber symphony, composed in 1995, is in four brief, neo-classical movements, each one an homage to some great composer from the other end of the 20th Century: Richard Strauss at his post-Rosenkavalier most classical; Stravinsky in his middle-period style (itself an imitation of classical and baroque styles rather than the more familiar style of Petrushka or the Rite of Spring); Schoenberg in, ironically, the most old-fashioned movement, a minuet that is a little spikier than what most neo-classicists would have been delving into in the 1920s (it reminds me more of something between his Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, nominally in E Major and still very Straussian, and the Minuet from his serial Suite, Op. 25, rather than anything he's more infamous for); and finally, Kurt Weill but not the composer of “Mack the Knife” as much as his 2nd Symphony which, still, is a very classical work but with the edge we'd expect from the composer of The Three-Penny Opera.

The symphony is available in two versions: one, for standard but Classically-sized chamber orchestra, which the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing; and the other, for piano, clarinet, horn and string trio. The only recording I can find on-line to sample for you is this second sextet version, but here's the second movement, the Arietta a la Stravinksy, as an example of what to expect:
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As one writer has noted, quoting from the composer's website, “Nicolas Bacri is an artistically restless composer driven to continuously question the goals of his art and his compositions habits, an attitude that has resulted in aesthetic choices that are consequences of carefully weighed musical reflection and practice (as opposed to the outcome of ideological presuppositions). This is particularly noticeable in his quartet production, which has yielded starkly contrasting works.”

Born in Paris in 1961, Bacri has written a surprisingly large amount of works including seven symphonies, nine string quartets, four violin concertos, cantatas and sonatas and a number of other large scale works. His most recent work is his serenade, “Homage to Fujita,” for flute and string trio, Op.141. That's a very high number for any composer, these days, and he's only 54 years old.

Though I've only heard a little of his music and out of some 140 published works would not know what is to be considered “typical” of his style, I would, however, recommend for anyone interested in other works by him checking out the concluding section of his “Prayer” for violin and orchestra of the mid '90s or his brief Symphony No. 6 of 1998.

You can read about Zuill Bailey and the Shostakovich Cello Concerto, here and about Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, here.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, February 21, 2016

February Masterworks: "You Made Me Want to Get Up and Dance"

Since some of you were asking, the Patriot-News is no longer publishing reviews and there's no longer a Sunday Edition of the Carlisle Sentinel to publish one in, so Dick Strawser has offered his own thoughts on Saturday night's concert with something he calls "in lieu of a review."

This is where we'd put a link to the outside source of a review, so read it, posted at Strawser's blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.

Without a soloist on the program to play a concerto, this concert contains numerous solo parts within the orchestra in each piece: all of them working together "with other players not so highlighted (even briefly) whose playing makes you forget what a solid support they create in turning almost 90 players into a cohesive brilliant whole, making these very difficult string parts and wind and percussion ensembles seem like something you do every day."

And if you missed Saturday night's performance, don't forget Sunday afternoon's at 3pm at the Forum - Truman Bullard offers his pre-concert talk in the hall, starting at 2:00.

Don't forget, too, the Youth Orchestra takes over the Forum stage Monday night at 7:00 with the Junior Strings for their Mid-Winter Concert conducted by Greg Woodbridge which includes the Overture to Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Wasps," the Suite from Faure's Pelleas & Melisande, and Smetana's beloved portrait of a river, "The Moldau."


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

February Masterworks: Love Among the Puppets

Stravinsky & Nijinsky (as Petrushka) in 1911
This weekend's concerts bring three orchestral showcases to the Forum – the lively Mid-Winter Fair of Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, Ravel's evocation of a sultry summer night in Spain, his Rapsodie espagnole which ends with another festival, and the celebration of love's joy (and love's pain) in the Suite from Richard Strauss' complicated comedy, Der Rosenkavalier, “The Knight of the Rose” (which you can read more about in this earlier post, here).

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in two performances – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – each one preceded an hour earlier by a pre-concert talk.

(In case you missed the news on Monday with all the fuss about who won Grammy Awards and all, Augustin Hadelich, who's appeared as soloist with the HSO on three separate occasions, won a Grammy for "Best Classical Instrumental Solo" for his new recording of the Violin Concerto by Henri Dutilleux. You can read about it, here!)

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With all the folk-pageantry swirling around in the two outer scenes, it's sometimes easy to overlook the core of the story which takes place in the middle two scenes.

Basically, Petrushka is one of those “boy-loves-girl / girl-loves-exotic-stranger / exotic-stranger-kills-boy” stories where Petrushka, a “sad-sack” of an introvert, loves the Ballerina who only has eyes for the dashing Moor.

Oh – and they're all puppets.

V.E. Makovsky's "Village Puppet Show" (1908)
Puppets have been part of our theatrical imagination for centuries – especially Punch & Judy in England, Pulcinella in Italy – and the idea of a puppet who could have the soul of a human isn't lost on someone who grew up watching Walt Disney's Pinocchio.

Here is Igor Stravinsky's version of the story, from a Mosfilm DVD (I believe 1992) recreating the original 1911 sets and costumes and, I presume, most of Fokine's original choreography. While I can find little information about the dancers on-line, Andris Liepa is Petrushka and also the director of this film version (staged for the film, not a filmed stage performance) with the Bolshoi Ballet Company, Andrey Chistiakov conducting the Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra.

Tableau #1 – Shrovetide Fair


It is the Russian version of Carnival or Madri Gras, the mid-winter Shrovetide Fair (Maslyenitsa), in which people from towns around come and partake of the festivities. In addition to drunken revelers (it is, after all, Mardi Gras) and a barker touting the wonders to be seen inside his booth, two rival buskers begin to dance at 1:57, one to a Russian folksong (“Toward evening, in rainy Autumn”) while playing a triangle (in the score, Stravinsky writes the organ-grinder's part into the flutes and clarinets) and the other to a bawdy French dance-hall song (“A woman with a wooden leg”). The activity of the fair erupts around them, sweeping them aside, until (at 4:50) drummers draw everyone's attention to the puppet theater where (at 5:00) we first see “The Charlatan” who, it turns out (at 5:30) plays a mean flute!

Then he presents his puppets, all hanging on hooks in their respective boxes: from left to right, the fearsome and exotic Moor, a beautiful Ballerina, and, finally, a poor, awkward, sad-faced clown named Petrushka.

At 6:51, he's brought them to life and they begin the “Russian Dance,” based on two more Russian folksongs (“A Linden Tree in the field” and “St. John's Eve”).

More drums mark the transition to the second scene.

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Tableau #2


Petrushka is tossed back into his box. We see it from his perspective as a kind of cell where he lives, the original scenery by Benois including an image of the All-Powerful Charlatan like a religious icon overseeing his every moment.

Nijinsky as Petrushka, 1911
At 0:16, we hear the “signature sound” associated with Petrushka played on two clarinets – this became so famous it's actually known as “The Petrushka Chord,” a C Major chord superimposed with an F-sharp Major chord, two chords that in traditional classical music are about as far away harmonically as two chords could be! You'll hear it throughout the ballet, always in reference to Petrushka himself.

At 1:01, Petrushka gestures wildly at the – what, injustice of his being cooped up in a box? At being only a puppet and not a real boy with real human emotions?

Also, speaking of sound, note the prominent piano part through this scene. Stravinsky originally considered using this story as a work for piano and orchestra, a “concert piece” – but when he played his sketches for his friend Diaghilev (who'd just presented his first ballet, The Firebird and who was looking forward to a second ballet, the impresario urged him to turn it into a full ballet.

Petrushka is full of self-pity and the music allows us into his thoughts, apparently: from dainty ballet-like music, thinking of the Ballerina, we move on (at 1:57) to the exotic music of the Charlatan.

Petrushka hardly seems a great role for a dashing ballet dancer like the great Vaclav Nijinsky or the more recent Rudolf Nureyev, but the physical control of maintaining the loose body and limp arms of a puppet full of sawdust is a physical challenge all its own.

Then, at 2:40, the Ballerina slips into Petrushka's cell. He then protests his love and tries to impress her with his dancing. But, by 3:10, she has been so frightened by his excitement, she dashes from the room, leaving him to his dejection and rage. The sudden “carnival music” at 3:58 means he must catch a glimpse of the outside world just as, once again, we hear the drums, drawing our attention to the next scene.

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Tableau #3 & the beginning of Tableau #4


Here, we find ourselves in the more luxurious box where the Moor lives. Unlike Petrushka, he seems quite self-satisfied though the appearance of a coconut confuses him. Eventually, he decides if he can't figure out what it's for, he must bow down and (at 2:20) worship it.

At 2:40, the Ballerina pays him a visit, dancing while playing a wicked trumpet solo. At 3:27, they dance together (Petrushka apparently listening from the box-next-door). Notice how her dance theme in the trumpet and flute contrasts with the Oriental-sounding, low-register melody in a seemingly independent tempo in the English horn and cymbals, beginning at 4:12 and again at 5:02.

At 5:33, we hear Petrushka's chord again and he breaks into the Moor's box, intent on rescuing the Ballerina. A chase ensues (at 5:50) but the Moor proves to be too strong for Petrushka as he chases the clown out of the box. (At least that's the original stage direction which has some importance for the ending of the next scene: for some reason, here, the Moor tosses Petrushka out the door and sits back to enjoy some us-time with the Ballerina. I prefer, dramatically, the Moor, scimitar raised, chasing Petrushka out into the fair. You'll see why when it comes to the next scene...)

The drums once again mark the transition to the next and final scene which, due to some bad editing, continues in this clip.

Once again, at 6:38, we are back at the Fair (outside the puppets' boxes), and we see drunken coachmen and several nursemaids (the young ladies in pastel-colored coats) and at 7:44 we hear another Russian folksong in the oboe, “Down the Petersky Road.” Like most folksongs, it defies what Europeans call “development.” Stravinsky shows what a Russian composer can do to get some mileage out of a such a tune: you repeat it over and over but each time change the accompaniment and add even more brilliant colors in the orchestration.

At 9:45, the coachmen and the nursemaids are interrupted by... well, wait for the next clip, but while you're in between clips, listen to this recording of that folksong, “Down the Petersky Road,” sung here by the great Russian bass, Fyodor Chaliapin. He was a friend of Stravinsky's father, a leading bass at the Mariinsky Opera – one can imagine Stravinsky as a boy perhaps hearing these guys sing this popular folksong about a drunken coachman. Anyway, this recording was made in 1910, the year Stravinsky began composing Petrushka. What's that, like two degrees of separation?



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Tableau #4 – Evening at the Shrovetide Fair (continuing with the Entrance of... the Bear)


Yes, that's right, the dancers are interrupted by a bear, the typical “dancing bear” of Russian folk festivals, lumbering in with his handler – the bear is represented by the tuba solo at 0:15-0:45. (There's a story from a rehearsal – I forget which orchestra – when Stravinsky was conducting and stopped the tuba player after this brief solo and asked him to play it again; then, without comment asked him to play it again. Finally, the tuba player stopped and asked, “Maestro, could you please tell me what I'm doing wrong?” Stravinsky told him “Nothing – I've just never heard it played so beautifully.” True or not, it's a nice story.) 

The bear lumbers off and by 0:52 the bustle of the crowd returns as more revelers join the scene with a return to the Peterskaya Road song with coachmen (here in blue or red coats) and the grooms (in white shirts and brown vests) with the nursemaids. While the music reaches a joyous climax, everything is once again interrupted, this time (at 4:20) by mummers and a nasty-looking demon (at 4:35), no doubt, reminding everyone that Lent begins the next day. At 5:20, the rowdiness resumes.

But then something happens at 5:50 – a long trumpet tone alerts us to some activity back at the Charlatan's puppet theater. At 6:03, Petrushka erupts from the tent, chased by the scimitar-wielding Moor pursued by the distraught Ballerina. (This means that the earlier part of this scene was happening simultaneously with the events of the scene in the Moor's room, since the chase that ended Scene III continues now at the end of Scene IV.)

At 6:25, the Moor fells the poor clown with a single blow (the Petrushka Chord practically strangled in the clarinets). As Petrushka breathes his last, the crowd (and the police) gather round as the Charlatan comes out to see what's going on. At 8:05, after some incantations, he picks up the body but it is only a rag-doll puppet stuffed with sawdust which he tosses around to reassure the crowd (and the police).

The people disperse, enough excitement for one night, and the Charlatan drags the puppet back to his tent. But at 8:49, he hears the trumpet call associated with Petrushka and looks around, then sees Petrushka – or his ghost? – on top of the little theater, making wild, angry gestures (shaking his fists, thumbing his nose) at the futility of it all. The Charlatan runs away, not sure what he has seen is real or not.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Though Stravinsky crafted a suite from his first ballet, The Firebird, he did not bother with Petrushka which is often played in the concert hall intact (or nearly intact with a few cuts in the final moments). But in 1947, largely for copyright reasons, he revised the score, reducing the instrumentation (one less woodwind, each; deleted the two cornets but had three instead of two trumpets; reworked the percussion section a little; deleted one of two harps), giving the piano a bit more to do, and simplifying a few of the metric details.

The film above uses the original scoring (though with some adaptations), but if you'd rather hear the 1947 version, here's a concert video. The Harrisburg Symphony will play this version at this weekend's concerts.

Here, Andris Nelsons, before having taken on his new position at the Boston Symphony, conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2011. (The performance ends at 34:39.)



There was another "version" of Petrushka Stravinsky made in 1921. Remember it had originally been conceived as a piece for piano and orchestra? Well, the composer took three “excerpts” from the complete ballet and turned them into a solo piano piece for Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. He used the Russian Dance from the end of Scene I, material from the 2nd Scene with Petrushka alone in his cell, and then chunks of the final scene to conclude, including an all-out transcription of the Dance of the Coachmen and the Nursemaids written on not two but four staves – along with a skin-ripping glissando to conclude.

Here is Artur Rubinstein in this live recording made at a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1961.



I saw Rubinstein play an all-Chopin program in the mid-'70s when he was in his late-80s (and using Villa-Lobos' Polichinelle as an encore). In the late-'70s, I was brash enough to work on these “Three Movements from Petrushka” though I balked at performing them in public because I didn't have the stamina to get through the final 90 seconds... I know Rubinstein had played the piece but had never recorded it. So it was a delight to discover on YouTube a recording from this Carnegie Hall concert I'd never heard before.

And there's another two degrees of separation. 

- Dick Strawser