Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Symphonic Sensations End the Season: Some Sensational Stories Behind the Music We Take for Granted

Caroline Goulding
This weekend, it's the last Masterworks Concert of the season – and it ends with one of the great symphonies of all times, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Caroline Goulding who won an Avery Fischer Career Grant and a Young Concert Artists Award will be playing a 1720-ish Strad for Samuel Barber's largely lyrical Violin Concerto. And the concert opens with “Dances from Powder Her Face” by Thomas Adès, an English composer who's been all the rage for the last 20 years.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3:00 at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Truman Bullard offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

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Shostakovich's 5th Symphony is one of those works inspired by the idea of “Fate knocking at the door” or, to be more specific, the secret police knocking at the door. Because in Shostakovich's case, he'd run afoul of Stalin who'd walked out of a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 and whose reaction to the music was capsulized in the “review” Muddle Instead of Music.

This was not just a bad review. It not only banned his music from being performed (meaning no one would have the courage to commission any new pieces from him, either), it brought down on the composer's head the imminent threat of arrest and imprisonment. This was a time in Soviet history where artists (not just politically outspoken activists) could be accused of being “enemies of the people” as well as traitors to the ideals of Soviet art.

Shostakovich & his children
It sounds impossible for us to believe this – for more information, read my post, Shostakovich's 5th: The Incredible Story Behind the Music, here – but imagine waiting to hear someone knocking at your door in the middle of the night, having your bag packed in case they've come to haul you off to prison, not knowing whether you'd ever see your family again, and you have an idea what the atmosphere was like when Shostakovich began composing what became his Symphony No. 5.

Someone (presumably not the composer) called it “A Soviet Artists' Reply to Just Criticism” and it was generally considered to be Shostakovich's attempt at ingratiating himself back into favor with the government. In that sense, the music succeeded – it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. According to eye-witnesses, the ovation itself lasted over a half-hour.

The first movement is stark and dramatic, full of fits and starts, sudden changes and a good deal of uncertainty both haunting and haunted. The scherzo – no “joke” in the traditional sense – may be a brief tribute to Gustav Mahler whose symphonies Shostakovich greatly admired (the sweep of his first movements also reflect more the influence of Mahler than the traditional Western symphonic form). The third movement is a long lament spinning slowly through long lines, as lyrical as the scherzo was violent, interludes with the harp and celeste adding a sense of almost suspended animation.

The finale begins with a dark, pounding march that turns from “tending towards victory” but is always rushing off into an even darker celebration ever on the verge of hysteria. After a questioning middle section of (possibly) hypnotic reflection, the music slowly leads back to the march. But what is it about the ending when it finally gets there: triumph? Or resignation?

Here is a performance recorded with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic on tour in Japan in 1979.

Listen especially to the conclusion: check in about a minute or so for the build-up to 49:24 where the final march begins.

Here is another performance, this one with Yevgenny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1983. Mravinsky conducted the world premiere in 1937 and had a long career with the work, a close collaborator with the composer. You probably don't have time to listen to both performances, but listen to the last few minutes at least of this one and compare it to the ending in Bernstein's performance. Notice the difference in Mravinsky's tempo at 43:50, especially the way the conducts with smaller gestures and occasional cautionary signals to the brass to keep it from getting too “over-the-top.”

And yet, it's the same piece! Bernstein's ending is certainly triumphant. But what is Mravinsky's? It's not the victory we in the West think of as being triumphant yet is this what the composer wanted?

Again, check my post “Shostakovich 5th: The Incredible Story Behind the Music” to read more about the historical background as well as what might be behind these varieties of interpretations.

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Given the trouble Shostakovich found himself in with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, imagine the problems Thomas Adès might face if he lived in a similar culture after his opera, Powder Her Face, was premiered in 1995...

In Shostakovich's opera, a young wife has an affair with a handsome farm-worker and together they kill her husband, hiding his body in the cellar. Once her husband has been declared “missing, presumed dead,” the widow now prepares to marry her lover until the body is discovered and the two are sent off to Siberia, the widow dying en route. If the pessimistic story is not un-Soviet enough (since art, in the official view, should be uplifting) the music itself was shocking – especially the imitations of their love-making in the lurid slides of the trombones.

Thomas Adès
While it's difficult to say or read anything about Powder Her Face that doesn't mention its most notorious moment – let's just mention the word, fellatio and move on – the music that appears in this orchestral “suite” the composer arranged from it catches more the decadent atmosphere of the life the main character leads with its infinite partying and her desperate attempts to find meaning in a presumably empty existence.

In the ad campaign for the 2003 New York City Opera production, she had been described as a “female Don Giovanni for the Monica Lewinski generation.”

As Alex Ross wrote about the opera, Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, and center of a 1960s British sex scandal (she is invariably known as “The Dirty Duchess”)...

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“...becomes a half-comic, half-tragic figure, a nitwit outlaw. There were clear parallels with Alban Berg’s epic of degradation, Lulu [...] The libretto reads like a nasty farce, but it takes on emotional breadth when the music is added. With a few incredibly seductive stretches of thirties-era popular melody, Adès shows the giddy world that the Duchess lost, and when her bright harmony lurches down to a terrifying B-flat minor he exposes the male cruelty that quickened her fall. Adès's harmonic tricks have a powerful theatrical impact: there’s a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments." [“Roll Over, Beethoven: Thomas Adès,” New Yorker Magazine, Oct 26, 1998]
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The “Dances” in this suite are really the Overture, a Waltz and music from the Finale arranged for full orchestra from the original score's pit orchestra of fifteen players.

But it's all “dance music,” opening with a tango (which Adès admits opens with the same notes as a tango by the great Argentinian singer Carlos Gardel, but he didn't know it and had no idea it was one of the most popular tunes in Argentina). Now, a tango is a very sensuous, impassioned and erotic dance to begin with, and this one is made even seamier if not smarmier than some you might see on “Dancing with the Stars” (or almost...).

The Waltz, rather than being an out-and-out waltz suggested by its association with Johann Strauss, is more of a jazzy cabaret waltz – or, to be more accurate, a parody of a jazzy cabaret waltz from one of the flashback scenes (this one, from her 1936 wedding). We think of a waltz as elegant but don't forget, when it was first introduced in post-Napoleonic Vienna, mothers were being warned not to let their daughters learn to dance the waltz...

In the end, the Duchess is forced to vacate her lavish home for a hotel room (where the opera takes place) and when she can no longer pay the bills, the manager (despite the Duchess' attempted seduction) evicts her: she suffers a mental breakdown. In the epilogue – in a moralistic way that might also bring to mind the conclusion of Mozart's Don Giovanni – her hotel room (and by extension, her whole world) is torn apart by her maid and an electrician. The music – keeping in mind Alex Ross' line about “shattering into cold, alienated fragments” – reflects not only the shattering of her life but also, eventually, her state of mind when she died, alone and penniless, in a London nursing home.

Despite all that moralizing and sensationalizing, the music is itself delightful, even sparkling, but a bit refracted like a disco ball gone bonkers.

Here's Christoph von Dohnányi with the Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2007 London Proms concert. At the end, the composer appears on stage for a bow:

By the way, if Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District almost landed Shostakovich in prison, BBC-4 aired the film version of Powder Her Face on TV, Christmas Day, 1999.

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In between the Adès which opens the program and the Shostakovich symphony which concludes the season is a very contrasting work, one of the most lyrical (at least for 2 of its 3 movements) and popular American concertos of the 20th Century, the Violin Concerto Samuel Barber composed in 1939 at the outset of World War II. In fact, Barber was working on it in Switzerland and was interrupted by the call for Americans to leave Europe as war approached. But it wasn't the war that nearly scuttled the piece – more of that in a moment.

Samuel Barber in 1938
Samuel Barber is a Pennsylvania composer, born in West Chester PA, growing up in a musical family that included the great opera singer, Louise Homer. He was a graduate of the Curtis Institute for Music in Philadelphia where he was, essentially, a triple-threat as a major in piano, composition and voice. Several of his most acclaimed works were written fairly early in his career – the Adagio for Strings written when he was 25, but also the “Overture to The School for Scandal” composed as a student at Curtis when he was 21.

He completed the Violin Concerto when he was 29 and wrote this program note for the premiere:

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“The first movement — allegro molto moderato — begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement — andante sostenuto — is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.”
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Here's Gil Shaham with David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony in another Proms concert, this one in 2010:

It's that “Perpetual Motion” that has created what could be called the “controversy” behind this seemingly innocent piece. The story had been around for years: I'd first heard it when I read Nathan Broder's 1954 biography of Barber when I was high school in the '60s, plus it's in all the program notes I'd ever seen about it. I'd never read anything to the contrary. So it's a surprise to find out, after all these years, it's not true!

The story had it that when Barber was commissioned to compose a violin concerto for a wealthy patron's un-named ward, he submitted the first two movements when they were finished but they were deemed “too easy” – he was basically asked to write a more virtuosic finale, but the perpetuum mobile Barber sent him was viewed as too difficult to play. In response, the composer got a student at Curtis to sight read the movement which he did quite well, proving that, in fact, it could be done. The assumption was, then, that the violinist for whom it was composed wasn't... well... up to it.

It wasn't until the 1990s that word was going around the story was a myth yet still being included in program books for various recordings. Only when letters and other documents were released in 2010 – almost 30 years after Barber's death – did it turns out to prove quite a different story.

I quote, here, directly from the extensive Samuel Barber entry on Wikpedia which seems factual enough, rather than rewriting all the details in my own words:

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In 1939, Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels commissioned Barber to write a violin concerto for Fels' ward, Iso Briselli, [who graduated] from the Curtis Institute of Music the same year as Barber, 1934.[1] The Barber biographies written by Nathan Broder (1954) and Barbara B. Heyman (1992) discuss the genesis of the concerto during the period of the violin concerto's commission and subsequent year leading up to the first performance. Heyman interviewed Briselli and others familiar with the history in her publication. In late 2010, previously unpublished letters written by Fels, Barber, and Albert Meiff (Briselli's violin coach in that period) from the Samuel Simeon Fels Papers archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania became available to the public.[2]

Barber accepted his advance[3] and went to Switzerland to work on the concerto. Barber started working on the first two movements in Switzerland during the summer of 1939. He hoped to complete the concerto in the early fall to meet the October 1st deadline. His plans were interrupted, however, due to the impending war—all Americans were warned to leave Europe. In late August, he went to Paris and then took a ship to the USA, arriving in early September. After spending a short time with his family in West Chester, PA, he went to the Pocono Mountains to continue working on the concerto.
When he delivered the first two movements to Briselli in mid-October, Briselli received them with great enthusiasm. He believed they were beautiful and eagerly awaited the finale. He suggested to Barber that when writing the last movement, he might include more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities.

However, in mid-November, things began to go awry. Briselli showed the two completed movements he was learning to his violin coach in New York City, Albert Meiff, who was immediately critical of the work from a violinistic standpoint. Briselli did not concur. Nevertheless, Meiff, who enjoyed the confidence of Fels, and believing he was protecting Briselli's interests, took it upon himself to write Fels a letter (November 13) stating why the violin part had to undergo a "surgical operation" by a "specialist" such as himself. He said "The technical embellishments are very far from the requirements of a modern violinist..." and if Briselli performed the work as written, it would severely hurt his reputation. Meiff said he was rewriting the violin part to make it more acceptable and that it was necessary that he, Briselli and Barber get together for a "special meeting" to discuss his changes.[4]

Ivo Briselli
Briselli was disappointed when he received the third movement from Barber in late November. He had expected a finale comparable in substance and quality to the first two movements, and felt it was too lightweight by comparison. He told Barber that it did not have a sense of belonging; it seemed musically unrelated to the first two movements, and he thought it was insufficient in compositional form or development to stand as the finale of a major work. It was important to Briselli that the commission be as substantial as the other major concertos in his repertoire that he was offering for prospective orchestra engagements.

Briselli asked Barber if he would rewrite the finale; he could premier it at a later date to give Barber more time if needed. He suggested possible ways in which the movement could be deepened or expanded; perhaps even changing its form altogether such as a sonata-rondo; that perhaps he might expand the third movement while possibly retaining the moto perpetuo as the middle section and giving it more clearly defined structural parameters. Briselli felt that only then would it be a complete, first-class concerto.

Despite Briselli's prodding, Barber was dismissive of his suggestions and declined to alter it. This was a big disappointment for Briselli who believed that with a substantial third movement, the work could stand as a great American violin concerto. Briselli decided to hold his ground regarding the finale and chose to forego the concerto's premier and relinquish his claim on it. On December 14, Barber wrote Fels that, as he probably already knew, Briselli had decided the piece was "not exactly what he wanted, and has given it back to me." Barber expressed concern about the disposition of the $500 advance that he had already spent and wanted to be sure that Fels understood his side of the story. Barber explains why he was late in delivering the commission: the war outbreak and the subsequent illness of his father. He says he landed back in the US on September 1 and immediately "went to the mountains to work." Barber said he was surprised to learn upon his return from Europe that "the first performance was already announced for January" without his being notified by Briselli or Eugene Ormandy. Also, Barber knew Briselli and Fels wanted the music by October 1 to give Briselli time to learn it—presumably for the upcoming January performances.[5]

At this juncture, the Barber and Briselli accounts differ somewhat; both are set forth here: Barber continues that he gave Briselli "the completed first two movements (about 15 minutes of music)" in "the middle of October" and "he seemed disappointed that they were not of virtuoso character--a bit too easy."[6] Briselli's account was that he liked them very much but suggested to Barber when writing the third movement, he might explore more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities. Barber then says he asked Briselli "what type of brilliant technique best suited him; he told me he had no preference." Barber continues: "At that time, he did not apparently dislike the idea of a 'perpetual motion' for the last movement." Barber says that he "worked very hard" on the last movement, finishing it "in far from ideal circumstances" (his father's illness), and sent the violin part to Briselli about two months before the intended premier. Barber says that "It is difficult, but only lasts four minutes."[7] Barber never mentions Meiff's proposal that the three of them meet in regards to alterations of the violin part of the first two movements, or of Meiff's desire to "advise" Barber on the third movement while it was being written.

Barber then discloses to Fels that when he sent the finale to Briselli, "At the same time, I had a violinist from Curtis play it for me to see that it was practical and playable." Barber then wrote "My friends heard and liked it, so did I. But Iso did not." The three reasons he gave for Briselli's rejection were (1) "he could not safely learn it for January;" (2) "it was not violinistic;" and (3) "it did not suit musically the other two movements, it seemed to him rather inconsequential. He wished another movement written." Barber continues "But I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself. So we decided to abandon the project, with no hard feelings on either side." He said he was "sorry not to have given Iso what he had hoped for."[8] [Contemporaries confirmed that the two men did remain friends until Barber's death despite their disagreement on the concerto.]

Barber goes on to say that "While it was Iso's complete right not to accept a work he finds unsuitable," he feels he does deserve to be paid something considering that he had worked four months entirely on the concerto and "has done his best in submitting a work for which he makes absolutely no apology." He appeals to Fels' "understanding and generosity" that he be allowed to keep the $500 advance, which he believes is standard practice "when a commissioned work is not accepted by the commissioner."[9] Fels does say in his December 15 letter to Barber that the matter would most likely be settled "satisfactorily" for both parties. Meiff replies on December 26 with a lengthy two-page letter[10] outlining to Fels, "point by point," the many reasons why the piece is deficient—thus arming Fels with the information he needed to be able to speak intelligently to Barber. He explains: it "hasn't got enough backbone-- not strong, not majestic--does not contain enough dramatic moments, all of which make for a successful performance." He says it is not a piece for a great hall with a huge orchestra " placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie;" he says it lacks an effective beginning and a typical violin technique. And specifically addressing the finale: "It was a dangerous thought from the very beginning, to make a perpetual motion movement ...without a breath of rest and without melodic parts...a risky tiresome was a wrong idea, and Mr. Barber should admit this." Meiff therefore felt it his duty "to advise Iso not to do it." On the positive side, he acknowledges that " has many beautiful parts" and that he has "personal admiration for the composer for himself personally and musically."

But there is never any evidence or assertion by Briselli or contention by Barber that Briselli found the third movement too difficult to play. As to the upcoming performance, in place of the Barber, Briselli substituted the Dvorak violin concerto. Barber's letter of December 14 to Fels identifies his intention with regard to the third movement: Barber set up a test of playability to assure himself what he was giving to Briselli was "practical and playable." Herbert Baumel was known to be an excellent sight reader, and he was asked to study the finale for a couple of hours, then to join him in pianist Josef Hofmann's studio. After reviewing the music, Baumel went to the studio to discover an audience of Barber (now teaching at Curtis), Gian Carlo Menotti, Mary Louise Curtis Bok (founder of the Curtis Institute), and a friend of Mrs. Bok. Baumel performed the concerto in the 1939–1940 season as soloist with the symphony orchestra of the Curtis Institute, conducted by Fritz Reiner. That performance brought the piece to the attention of Eugene Ormandy, who soon scheduled its official premiere in a pair of performances by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music in February 1941. [The actual premiere was on February 7.] Those performances were followed on February 11, 1941, by a repeat performance in Carnegie Hall, and from that point, the piece rapidly entered the standard violin and orchestral repertoire. In fact, the Barber Violin Concerto has become one of the most frequently performed of all 20th-century concertos.

[2] Historical Society of Pennsylvania letters and an in-depth portrayal of the violinist, Iso Briselli linked to this violin concerto, written and edited by conductor, Marc Mostovoy
[3] May 4, 1939 Letter from Fels to Barber
[4] November 13, 1939 Letter from Meiff to Fels
[5] May 4, 1939 Letter from Barber and reply by Fels
[6] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[7] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[8] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[9] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[10] December 26, 1939 Letter from Meiff to Fels

(you can find links to on-line reproductions of these letters at the Wikipedia entry.)

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I don't know why the myth of this concerto's last movement has persisted as long as it has, but I mention it only because it is so well known and probably remembered by many audience members and blog-readers. Still, the actual story is only one issue composers have to face when fulfilling a commission: what do you do if you write something for a performer who ends up not liking it or being unable or unwilling to play it?

So, in a way, here are three pieces of music who have unsavory stories connected to them: in the case of Adès' opera, it's the subject matter rather than the music's circumstances, but certainly with Barber's concerto and most of all with Shostakovich's symphony, circumstances regarding their creation that are far removed from the music we sit and enjoy and take too easily for granted. How often do we think about, even when listening to familiar pieces like these, what a composer put into the effort to bring something like this into the world?

- Dick Strawser

Shostakovich's 5th: The Incredible Story Behind the Music

This weekend - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3 at the Forum in Harrisburg - the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina end the season with a performance of one of the great symphonies in the repertoire, the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. The program opens with the riotous dances from Powder Her Face, an opera by Thomas Adès, and the beautifully lyrical Violin Concerto of Samuel Barber with soloist Caroline Goulding. You can read more about these works and watch videos of each of the pieces on this earlier post, here.

This post focuses on the background behind the music of Shostakovich's 5th, taken from an earlier post at my main blog, Thoughts on a Train, about Shostakovich's music and politics.

Conductor Mravinsky & Composer Shostakovich, 1937
Let me begin with a seemingly unrelated anecdote.

Several years ago, a friend took me to hear an open rehearsal with Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. I forget what major work was to be on the program but the moment I will always remember from that experience concerned the orchestra’s first read-through of a work they’d never performed before: Hindemith’s little-known Symphony in E-flat which I’d never even heard of before. They read through the scherzo (the lighter movement of a symphony which translates from the Italian as “joke”) and I thought “okay, cute, kind of scurrying and unsettled, but in a hushed kind of way, cute.” Then Muti said “Yes, but it’s supposed to be... spooky!”

With that, he flung out his arms, hunkered his head down between his shoulders – one could almost see the glare in his eyes from our balcony seats – and they began again.

This time, the music was riveting, spooky above all, and almost demonic, like some breathless nightmare. After they’d read through the notes, now the orchestra gave the music its soul. But they were the same notes: how could two run-throughs make it sound like an entirely different piece? I’ve never heard another recording of the piece match the fear and intensity of that rehearsal.

What is it about music that allows two interpretations to be so radically different? Hindemith wrote the piece in the summer of 1940, shortly after he’d arrived in America as a voluntary exile from Hitler’s Germany in the months following the start of the Second World War. Think about it.

While music can be considered on its own value – whatever that may be – the life of its composer and the times in which it was composed often have some bearing on an even more elusive aspect of art: its “meaning” (whatever that may be).

One of the great things about art, of course, is that it transcends all of that to speak to each individual on a unique basis. The biography of a piece of music is full of certain facts and tinged with interpretation, just like the biography of the person who wrote it. One supplements the other and yet the music can be appreciated without our needing to be aware of either.

An old Cold War complaint was that Shostakovich was just a "propaganda" composer. Yes, he wrote things like the “Song of the Forest,” a cantata glorifying Stalin’s reforestation program (imagine an American composer writing a large-scale choral work extolling the virtues of the Bush Administration’s argument for increased oil drilling in the Alaskan Wilderness) but we in the United States have not lived under the kind of threat artists in totalitarian regimes deal with on a daily basis: while we may argue about Freedom of Speech, we do not necessarily fear for our lives as a consequence. Under Stalin, someone speaking out against the government would simply ‘disappear’ in the middle of the night, when a late-night knock on the door could be from the dreaded KGB, the Soviet secret police, coming to arrest you and subsequently, as happened to various friends of Shostakovich’s, imprison or even execute you.

The 1936 denunciation appeared in the state-run newspaper Pravda (“Truth”) the day after a performance of his most recent success, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been attended by Stalin and his wife who then famously stormed out in the midst of it. The opera had already received rave reviews, had already been running for about 90 performances each in Moscow and Leningrad when it had even been hailed as the “prototypical Soviet music-drama,” and yet when the unsigned article, “Chaos instead of Music” appeared on page 3 – Shostakovich himself, six-months shy of his 30th birthday, discovered the article after buying a paper in a train station while on a concert tour – even his staunchest supporters dropped him for fear of any contamination.

It was not just a bad review: it was clear the article came not from some disgruntled critic but quite possibly from Stalin himself, whoever may actually have written it.

A week later another scathing attack appeared, this one about his ballet The Limpid Stream, and he was now labeled an “enemy of the people.” He'd seen others arrested for merely espousing non-Soviet principals or pro-Western “decadence” in their art – when would they come for him?

During this year, then, a former companion, a family friend, his mother-in-law and brother-in-law and an uncle were all arrested by the NKVD, the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs. In the midst of composing his 5th Symphony, he himself was called in to be interrogated by the NKVD about his association with a powerful military figure, Mikhail Tukachevsky, a fan of Shostakovich’s music who had recently been implicated in a plot to assassinate Stalin.

The story is told by a friend who recalls the composer telling him how he had been “interviewed” on a Friday but since he could not recall ever discussing politics with Tukachevsky, just music, he was told to return on Monday as if, perhaps, his memory might improve. That weekend, Shostakovich hardly slept. When he left for his second “interview,” his wife had prepared a little bag for him with traveling stuff (like warm underwear) because they feared he would not return but be sent off to a prison like many of his friends.

This time, his name was not on any list of “interviewees” and he was again sent home, only to discover later the officer interrogating him had himself been arrested!

Shortly after Tukachevsky was executed, Shostakovich’s close friend, the musicologist Nikolai Zhilayev, was arrested and executed. A short time before, the composer had shown him part of the new piece he was working on at the moment, his Fifth Symphony. A couple of years later, the poet who wrote the words Shostakovich had set in his film-music, The Counterplan, was executed as well as the poet who wrote the book for his ballet, The Limpid Stream. Even the great theatrical director Vsyevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed, implying even an internationally recognized figure like Shostakovich was perhaps not immune from Stalin’s Terror.

Given that atmosphere, you might understand how a composer who wished to survive to write another day might decide to do the dictator’s bidding only to put his true soul into music that could be left, by the very nature of art, a secret.

Someone called Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony “a Soviet artist’s practical response to just criticism,” a comment that stuck (I think it’s even inscribed in the published score) and on the surface the music genuinely responds to the Pravda attack: instead of screaming dissonance and an acute lack of melody as his earlier music had often been described (or derided), this work veers away from the more aggressive harmonic direction his music had been taking in the previous decade, creating something simpler that could be called a “populist” tone.

Consider, however, the history of his 4th Symphony which he’d begun writing the year before this Pravda article, then completed four months afterwards. After ten rehearsals – wow! – and just days before its scheduled December premiere, he was talked into withdrawing the work, an hour-long extravaganza for a huge orchestra and two nearly half-hour long movements separated by a brief scherzo, music full of violence and violent contrasts that perhaps was even more deserving of Stalin’s complaint about “neurotic” music. Whether it was out of fear or dissatisfaction with the piece, he put it aside (it would not see the light of day for another 25 years).

In mid-April four months later, he began work on the 5th Symphony which he completed in three months: its premiere in November, then, would establish him as an artist rehabilitated. It went on to become perhaps his most popular piece, if not his greatest symphony.

Reports say that during the last movement, many in the audience stood as if royalty had entered the room, as one described it; the ovation at the end, depending on whom you read, lasted a half-hour, 40 minutes, almost an hour. Clearly, Shostakovich had proven he could write a symphony that would reach the Soviet masses.

In many respects, it is a symphony about the struggle with fate – like Beethoven’s 5th, Mahler’s 5th, Tchaikovsky’s 4th and 5th (perhaps it's a 5th Symphony Thing to struggle with fate).

In lectures about his father’s music, Maxim Shostakovich who later became famous for conducting his father’s music, called the 5th his father’s “Heroic” Symphony, quoting his father that “the hero is saying, ‘I am right. I will follow the way I choose.’”

At this point, it becomes impossible to avoid the book that has changed the West’s perception of the composer from a political doormat to a raging undercover dissident, Semyon Volkov’s Testimony which purports to be Shostakovich’s memoirs as told to the author in numerous meetings in the years before his death in 1975, then smuggled out of the country and published in 1979.

In it, we read many new and surprising comments made by the composer regarding many of his major works, including the 5th Symphony, one of the most famous quotes – so famous, it has become part of the Shostakovich Canon – pertaining to the last movement: “I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky’s] Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”

This is certainly a viable comment since it's a famous moment from the very opening scene of what is considered the greatest Russian opera, Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky, an historical opera based on a tsar who usurped the throne, possibly murdering the only available heir, and who desires to be declared the new tsar by the acclamation of the people. Only the people are not willing to do so until forced by the police to beg Boris to become tsar. Did people in the 1870s see this scene as a comment on the Russian social system? Perhaps not at the moment, but I think many Russians would understand it as part of their heritage: certainly the poorer classes were constantly being coached and badgered against their own deeper feelings to acclaim the country’s rulers and their policies.

Part of this begins long before the finale: the struggle that has gone on with the first movement’s constantly shifting tempos always accelerating before breaking off into something almost static or perhaps only to start over again, as if one’s heartbeat is racing but then you catch your breath; the stark contrast of the brief scherzo; the agonizingly tragic lament of the slow movement; and then the rousing (or supposedly rousing) march of the final movement comes to a long drawn-out expansion of the march-tune which can be played in two ways. If you conduct it in 2 (two beats to the bar, conducting half-notes) , it is fast and triumphant sounding; if, however, you conduct it in 4 (four beats to the bar – quarter notes – but with each beat in the same tempo as the previous half-notes), it loses its drive and perhaps does sound mechanical and hollow. I have not seen the original manuscript in the composer’s handwriting to know if what some people have said is true, that there was a misprint in the published score and the composer “intended” it to be “in 4" or if the quartet-note got the beat, not the half-note, and my miniature score is so miniature, even a magnifying glass doesn’t clear it up.

Even before Volkov’s “Testimony” appeared, I’ve heard performances with the “expansive” ending: the recording Maxim Shostakovich conducted (recorded in 1977 and available on RCA) also takes the expansive ending.

Then too, there is the figure of Mahler who is one of the major influences on Shostakovich the symphonist, and in this case Mahler of the 3rd Symphony. Mahler’s finale is also not a “faster/louder” ending meant to get the audience to its feet. It is a grand, expansive slow movement lacking any sense of irony, but there are many similarities between Shostakovich’s and Mahler’s conclusions, that one in fact can end slow and loud and sound triumphant. To this, just add a touch of Soviet Socialist Realism – the police-persuaded peasants inherited from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Possible? [Hmmmm...]

A composer writes notes on a page, choosing pitches that create the right combination for what he wants to express in the melodies, harmonies, colors and rhythms of his creation. But it is the music “between the notes,” left to the performer, which the composer has no control over: once he is finished writing it and sends it off into the world, the music is at the mercy of first the performer and then the listener. The listener can only approach it after a performer interprets it and then walks away with something that could have little to do with what the composer had in mind.

Not to denigrate the musicianship of Eugene Ormandy or the Philadelphia Orchestra, but when the last series of Shostakovich symphonies were first recorded in the West, it was their recordings that introduced us to these dark and often difficult pieces – not technically difficult, but difficult to comprehend their “meaning” because so many of us were listening for something beyond the clarity of formal structure and so on. This is obviously music “about” something - two of them are collections of poems set to music - and I found these recordings lacking in something. As a naive 20-something, I dismissed the Late Shostakovich Symphonies as “boring.”

Then I heard the next batch of recordings to come out, conducted by the composer’s son, Maxim: now, I discovered, these were wholly different works, exciting and deep, thought-provoking and sometimes even just plain scary. The notes were the same: why was the music different?

Did Ormandy not “understand” these pieces? Or was I just more receptive to Maxim Shostakovich’s approach?

It could be a little of both, plus how I felt on that particular day, who knows... Remember my opening anecdote about the performance of the Hindemith, hearing the orchestra read through it and then, after being told it was supposed to be “spooky,” how suddenly everything changed?

When I heard Stuart Malina conduct the Harrisburg Symphony in Shostakovich’s 5th several seasons ago, his approach to the accelerations in the first movement left me so breathless I was almost imagining the "knock on the door" myself: how could these not be the thoughts of a composer who was fearing for his life – not Beethoven’s Fate that knocks at the door, but the KGB – and who was watching as friends and relatives around him were hauled into the net of Stalin’s Terror? If the slow movement is a lament, who is it a lament for? The reviled Soviet Artist being criticized for having written neurotic, dissonant music or the Russian people under the shadow of the tyrant? And so in the end, is it the Russian People who are hollowly rejoicing, mimicking the policeman’s call to rejoice, or is it the composer saying “I will do your bidding, but...”?

There is another tradition that we in the West do not understand, and it is what is usually called “The Holy Fool.”

We think of the Village Idiot as a figure of ridicule but to the Russians, this person was closer to God and given a certain amount of respect and “distance,” allowing him to say things and get away with them that an ordinary person would, perhaps, be arrested for. Returning to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, one of the minor figures (to us) is The Simpleton, as he’s called – in Russian, this yurodivy – who appears in a few scenes lamenting the tears shed by the poor Russian people.

There is a scene that has often been cut from performances, at least in the past. Boris is now faced with open rebellion among the people who support a renegade monk posing as the reborn prince, Dmitri, the legitimate heir Boris is rumored to have killed so he could ascend the throne himself. Coming out of the cathedral, the tsar, dressed in robes and crown, is confronted by the Simpleton in his rags who’s had his last penny stolen by a bunch of rowdy children: “why don’t you have them killed,” he asks the Tsar, “like you had Dmitri killed?” One of the noblemen orders the fool arrested but Boris stops them and instead asks the fool to pray for him. “How can you pray,” the simpleton asks the tsar, “for the murderer of a child?”

It is a chilling scene and even in the West with our claims for Freedom of Speech, such an affront might not go without some retribution. Depending on how the scenes and episodes of this opera may be staged (they are individual tableaux, not a continuous drama), one can conclude the opera with Boris’ death (which makes sense in the West because, after all, the tsar is the star) or with the scene in the forest where the people, in open revolt, have captured some of the tsar’s supporters and, led by the False Dmitri, now march off to Moscow to bring down Boris’s government, leaving only the Simpleton on stage with his sing-song lament – tears, no matter what happens, only tears for the poor starving Russian people.

Ending the opera with Boris’ death is a powerful operatic story about a man overcome by fate; ending the opera with the Simpleton’s lament is a powerful emotional ending to a story about the people who, despite their impending victory, will continue to suffer regardless who’s in control.

Which do you think might resonate more with the Russian people themselves?

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Toward the end of his life, when Shostakovich was feeling old and in constant pain, he was reading Chekhov’s story, “Ward 6,” about a doctor who halfheartedly performs his duties at a squalid provincial hospital: “Dr. Ragin was a great believer in intelligence and honesty, but he lacked the strength of character and the confidence in his own right to assert himself in order to see to it that the life around him should be honest and intelligent. He simply did not know how to give orders, to prohibit, or to insist. It was almost as though he had taken a vow never to raise his voice....When deceived or flattered or handed a quite obviously fraudulent account for signature, he turned as red as a lobster and felt guilty, but he signed the account all the same.”

In a letter to his student Boris Tishchenko, written around the same time he was meeting with Volkov, Shostakovich wrote, “when I read in that story about Andrey Yefimovich Ragin, it seems to me I am reading memoirs about myself.”

Whether Volkov’s testimony is even partly accurate or may be more conjecture than “straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth” accuracy – given the furor over James Frey’s memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” a few years ago – there are more arguments now that it is a forgery. Since many of its quotes and ideas have already permeated the Shostakovich Legacy, it will be hard to filter what is fact from what may only be fiction.

But the point remains, the music is there: however we choose to interpret it, pointing out this background fact or that possible afterthought, the music is capable of speaking in different ways to different individuals, with or without these references.


I only point them out...

- Dick Strawser

Monday, May 4, 2015

Stuart & Friends 2015 - Haydn, Prokofiev & Weinberg

Stuart & Friends from Seasons Past
In the 19th Century, it wasn't unusual to find chamber music interspersed in orchestral concerts with the maestro accompanying the soloist in a short instrumental work or perhaps a singer in a couple of songs – a bit of variety and change in texture for the evening.

In the 20th Century, it was sufficient for conductors to “play the baton” even though at one point they might have been orchestral musicians before graduating from the ranks or had, as students, played the piano.

This season's annual “Stuart & Friends” program honors the idea of the conductor as performer and, in this case, in chamber music made with members of the orchestra.

Tuesday evening at 7:30 at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, Stuart Malina puts his busy baton aside just days after the last Pops concert of the season to play a Haydn trio, a Prokofiev sonata and a quintet by a composer you've probably never heard (or even heard of).

(The annual concert Stuart & Friends is underwritten by Marilynn R. Kanenson in memory of Dr. William Kanenson.)

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Keeping in mind these posts can be read before or after the concerts, let's just say, without getting into the musicological much less the music-illogical details of the 18th Century piano trio's history, that by definition a piano trio consists of three instruments – a violin, a cello and a piano.

Haydn ponders a conundrum...
And while Haydn wrote a great number of such trios, mostly for amateur performers, there are three that were specifically written for flute instead of violin. Not that it can't be played with a violinist – in Bach's day, it wasn't unusual to be very vague about the instruments needed for a particular piece: what were called “trio sonatas” (but which weren't piano trios – in fact, they weren't even for three performers, part of the music-illogical aspect of classical music) were written with two melody parts, a keyboard to supply the harmony and a bass instrument to beef up the all-important bass-line of the harmony (so that's four players in a trio sonata - count 'em, four). These could be two violins, a harpsichord and a cello – or two flutes, an organ and a bassoon – or even one violin and one flute and... well, anyway, you get the idea.

So these three Haydn trios-with-flute often end up being performed in standard piano trio format with a violinist. In fact, here's a recording I can recommend!

To be even more confusing, there are lists of the complete Haydn Piano Trios which say there are 26 – no, 31... wait, here's one that says 45 (and just because it's Wikipedia doesn't mean it's wrong).

Anyway, while there are many performances by students and amateurs to choose from on-line and most of the flute ones are either “period” instruments (from Haydn's day) rather than modern instruments or not well recorded, I've chosen the Beaux Arts Trio (with violin) to give you an example of the first movement you'll hear at this year's “Stuart & Friends.”

Charles Rosen, in his detailed book on The Classical Style dedicates a whole chapter to Haydn's trios. But he only mentions these three flute trios in passing which he considers “pleasant works of no great interest.”

Of course, there's a lot of music that's pleasant. And music that's crafted by an expert like Haydn, well... hey...

It's not like music can't be enjoyed: the whole idea of most of the music written in this period was to entertain whether it was the Prince who was your boss or the amateurs who gathered around their household pianos for an evening of music-making whether they were playing for their own enjoyment or that of their friends.

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In the midst of World War II, Sergei Prokofiev wrote a sonata for flute and piano which is usually more frequently performed in its arrangement as a violin sonata. So it's kind of similar to the situation with the Haydn trio except here, the great violinist David Oistrakh heard the flute sonata and strongly urged the composer to adapt it for the violin. And what composer, even one as respected as Prokofiev was then, could say “no”?

Again, the choice of performances of You-Tube leaves a lot to be desired, but I've chosen this one by the Russian flutist Denis Bouriakov with pianist Naoko Ishibashi recorded in Tokyo four years ago.
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1st Movement

2nd Movement (Scherzo)

3rd Movement (Andante)

4th Movement (Finale)

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Listening to the first and third movements, the word “serene” is one of the first words to come to mind. Consider, though, this was written in the midst of World War II which the Soviets called “The Great Patriotic War,” fending off the Nazi invasion.

Sergei Prokofiev
Evacuated to safer locations east of Moscow, away from the invading forces, composers like Prokofiev were able to continue composing ostensibly with Soviet Ideals in mind. In fact, Prokofiev wrote several war-inspired works during this period including three piano sonatas normally grouped together as The War Sonatas. But for every war-ravaged suite, “The Year 1941” or “The Ballad of an Unknown Boy” (in which a boy avenges the killing of his parents by the Nazis), there was something like “Cinderella” (conceived while he was originally sketching the piano sonatas) or, for no reason other than he thought the flute was an underutilized instrument, his Flute Sonata in D Major.

Written in 1943, it was one of a series of sonatas he composed during these war-filled years: in addition to the piano sonatas (begun in 1939 but finished during the course of the war), there was also a violin sonata. No wonder Oistrakh coveted the Flute Sonata – it would make a wonderful companion, a pair of contrasting violin sonatas.

I don't remember when I first heard the violin sonata – probably when I was a teen-ager – and I've always loved it, so perfectly suited to the instrument. I was a college student before I discovered that the Flute Sonata was not an arrangement but the original – and there aren't many flute sonatas in the repertoire that can equal it.

This time, you'll get a chance to hear principal flutist David DiGiacobbe play it with Stuart Malina at the piano.

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Mieczyslaw Weinberg
You've probably heard Dmitri Shostakovich's famous Piano Quintet composed in 1940, the year it won the Stalin Prize (the Soviet equivalent of the Pulitzer, I guess) – quite an improvement over the circumstances that brought about his 5th Symphony which the orchestra plays at the next (and last) Masterworks Concert of the Season, subtitled “A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism.”

You may never have heard of composer Mieczysław Weinberg.

In fact, until last month's concert with Market Square Concerts when the Amernet Quartet played his 5th String Quartet, I'd never heard any of his music live. Though there is a great deal of it available on-line, I'd heard none of it till I began researching my blog-post for that concert. I highly recommend his 4th Quartet which I included since there were no recordings of the 5th available.

First of all, how do you pronounce that name? He was born in Poland, so his first name would be myeh-CHEE-swoff but in Russia, it might be written in its Jewish equivalent, Moisei or Moise (moy-SAY or MOI-sheh). His nickname among friends (as Sasha is to Alexander) was Metak.

The last name would be pronounced VINE-bairg since it's initially Germanic (or Yiddish) in origin. In Russian, it's spelled phonetically and then re-translated into English as Vainberg.

Born in 1919 in Warsaw, his parents were members of the Yiddish Theatre. Just out of conservatory, he fled Poland as the Nazis invaded from the west, heading to Moscow. But he lost his entire family who stayed behind, later dying in the Trawniki concentration camp.

As the war followed him, the newly-arrived Weinberg – like many Soviet composers – was evacuated to safer points east of Moscow, in Weinberg's case Tashkent where he later met Dmitri Shostakovich.

They became good friends – Shostakovich was 13 years Weinberg's senior – but Weinberg was never his student, as many assumed. The story is told that they met frequently and played each other their latest compositions. Certainly this became a regular part of their lives after the war when both of them lived in Moscow.

Weinberg wrote later that meeting Shostakovich changed his life. Certainly he had been a talented student in Warsaw but he had not yet written anything comparable to a mature work. That began to change.

Here is the Piano Quintet he composed in 1944, a busy year for him (having returned to Moscow), despite the war-time privations, when he also wrote his 3rd Quartet, his 2nd Violin Sonata, two sets of Children's Notebooks for piano, and a set of Jewish songs. He completed his 4th Quartet early in 1945.

It's in five movements and lasts, in this performance with the ARC Ensemble, 45 minutes. It may, in places, remind you of Shostakovich's more popular Piano Quintet which, after all, was a very popular piece that had been written only four years earlier. But you may hear a lot of other "voices" in the course of the work, for a composer who was only in his mid-20s: Bartok comes to mind in the scherzo and is that some Irish fiddling in the finale?

If Prokofiev considered Shostakovich's Quintet "a safe piece" ("he never takes a single risk"), I wonder what he might have thought of Weinberg's Quintet? It doesn't strike me as being entirely "safe" or risk-free.

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Weinberg was a prolific composer with 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, a half-dozen violin sonatas and another half-dozen piano sonatas in his catalog along with 7 operas and some 40 film scores, but in The West he remained virtually unknown. Only recently have works like his Piano Quintet, a Piano Trio and some of the cello pieces been heard in European and American concerts.

Ironically, Harrisburg has heard two of his works performed within 10 days and that's largely due to Peter Sirotin, growing up in the former Soviet Union where he was familiar with Weinberg's works. The 5th Quartet was in the Amernet's repertoire because their first violinist also grew up in the former Soviet Union and knew this music and couldn't understand why his colleagues here had never heard it much less played it.

Though Jewish himself, the Jewish musical voice was only one of the influences on Weinberg's musical style. He has been described as a “conservative modernist” in the manner of Shostakovich who, along with Bartók, was probably the major influence on his music.

Weinberg remained one of Shostakovich's closest friends during the dark days after the Zhdanov Decree – you can read more about this in my Market Square Concerts post – and it's quite possible that Shostakovich's association with Weinberg introduced him to a great deal of Jewish music which he incorporated into his own works directly or indirectly at this time. In a way, he might have seen (or heard) Jewish music as a sound-image for himself:

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“Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them.”
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And the period after the war, from Zhdanov's Decree in 1948 to Stalin's death in 1953, was a bad time for Shostakovich.

It was also a bad time for Weinberg. His father-in-law, a leader of the Jewish community in Russia, was murdered, it turned out later, on Stalin's orders in 1948. Weinberg himself was arrested in connection with the infamous “Doctor's Plot” in 1953 when Shostakovich wrote to the chief of the police in his friend's defense. Weinberg was released only because Stalin suddenly died and, in the aftermath of the purges and years of paranoia, it was determined there was not enough evidence for a case against the composer and he was released.

In 1964, Shostakovich dedicated his 10th String Quartet to Weinberg and one of the last things he did was gather up what strength he had a few months before he died to attend the premiere of his friend's new opera in Leningrad, The Madonna and the Soldier, in 1975. Weinberg wrote his 12th Symphony in his mentor's memory.

Weinberg died as recently as 1996 but we are only now beginning to discover his music here.

- Dick Strawser