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


  1. Regarding the Barber violin concerto - I found your essay right on target. It goes the distance in refuting the awful story concocted by Nathan Broder. As the daughter of Iso Briselli, I salute you and thank you for being such a conscientious scholar.

    1. I'm happy to have finally found the correct story after dealing with generations of program and liner notes rehashing the old wives' tale. Why would Broder publish such a story? Does anyone in your family know?

  2. One must keep in mind Broder’s position as manager of the publications department at G. Schirmer, Inc. He wrote the biography of Barber as a means of promoting and marketing Barber’s music. In light of this, it certainly wasn’t in Schirmer’s best interest for Broder to have to write that the commission was rejected on musical grounds. Broder needed to present an acceptable face-saving story explaining why the artist, for whom the work was written, did not premier it, and to make the piece's attraction more scintillating. What better way to promote the concerto to violinists than with a “juicy” story attached. Had Broder wanted the correct information, it was his to be had. We know with certainty that Broder never contacted Briselli to verify the facts before publishing his book, even though Briselli was easily reachable. Marc Mostovoy