Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5

In 1936, after a performance of “Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District,” an article in “Pravda,” the Russian newspaper of the time, publically denounced Shostakovich. The article, often attributed to Joseph Stalin, entitled “Muddle or Music,” claimed that Shostakovich had “missed the demands of Soviet Culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life.” It went on to say, “The danger of this tendency in Soviet music is clear. Leftist ugliness in opera is growing from the same source as leftist ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, and science. Petit bourgeois ‘innovation’ is leading to a gap away from true art, science … literature.”

During this time period in Soviet history, all art was expected to fit within the confines of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism dictated that everything be in support of Communism. Music and art were to enhance and support the government, not cause tension or spur acts of rebellion.

Shostakovich feared for his life, as artists who flew in the face of social norms often found themselves executed or banished. Perhaps the only thing that saved him was the fact that in the early 1930’s Shostakovich had written a score to a movie entitled “Counter Plan,” which was released for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. One song from that score, “The Morning Greets Us,” gained international acclaim and became the first Soviet song to be considered a hit. This is perhaps the only thing that saved Shostakovich from a gruesome fate.

Composed between April and July of 1937, the 5th Symphony was Shostakovich’s response to the events of the year before. Premiered on November 21, 1937, it was received with thunderous applause that lasted more than half an hour.

Shostakovich had no choice but to claim that the piece was nationalistic in nature. In fact, Shostakovich likely viewed the piece as his chance to regain favor with the Communist party. The last movement quotes a song Shostakovich wrote earlier in the 1930’s, based on a poem by Pushkin, which deals with rebirth. Later on in his memoirs, however, he explained that he wrote the piece in direct response to the persecution and oppression that existed under Stalin’s rule. Since the time of its premiere this symphony has become one of the staples of the classical repertoire and is considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century.

As you listen, you will hear moments of terror, pain, pleading, and downright despair; but out of these moments, Shostakovich gives us wonderful glimpses of hope and in the last movement a feel of redemption and even victory.

(Christopher Hisey)

Four Last Songs

Four Last Songs

The Four Last Songs were among Richard Strauss’ last works. He composed them in 1948, shortly before his death. They are all set to poems, three of them by Hermann Hesse — Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (While Falling Asleep) — and one of them by Joseph von Eichendorff — Im Abendrot (At Twilight). These were not initially conceived of as a set of songs, but published in that form after his death and premiered in 1950.

The words and music are calm and contemplative; the last three songs evoke an acceptance of death. The music features melodic interplays between the soprano and the orchestra, subtle chromatic shifts, and lyrical horn passages.

(M. F. Tietz)

Autumn from “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”

Autumn from “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was one of Argentina’s most gifted and prolific composers. He started out as a self-taught composer and accomplished player on the bandoneon, an Argentine variant of the concertina/accordion. After formal composition study in Paris he returned to Argentina and revived tango in a modern “nuevo tango” form.

He wrote the four movements of the Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) between 1965 and 1970 for his tango instrumental quintet (violin, piano, electric guitar, bass and bandoneon). They were conceived as separate pieces, although Piazzolla occasionally performed them together.

In the 1990s, violinist Gidon Kremer commissioned the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov to arrange these four compositions for solo violin and string orchestra. Otoño Porteño is the third of these. It is characterized by brilliant passages for the solo violin, strong pulsing rhythms/syncopation, and wistful slow interludes for solo ‘cello and solo violin.

Lieutenant Kije

Lieutenant Kije

This work began as a film score. In 1934 Prokofiev was commissioned to compose a score for Lieutenant Kijé (in Russian, Parootchik Kizhe), a movie satirizing the military and bureaucracy in Czarist Russia.

The plot is based on a mythical tale that hinges on a spelling error. In the film, a clerk misspells a phrase while copying out military orders: the Russian phrase “parootchiki, zheh” (“the lieutenants, however…”) becomes “Parootchik Kizheh (“Lieutenant Kizheh”). The Czar reads the orders and thinks there is a “Lieutenant Kijé” in his guard company!

Not daring to tell the Czar about the copying mistake, the Czar’s aides, courtiers and military officers instead fabricate an entire life for the “Lieutenant.” Besides a military career, they concoct a romance and even a marriage for him.

The fictional lieutenant rises high in the Czar’s esteem and is rewarded with promotions and riches. Finally, the Czar’s aides devise a way to “kill off” the non-existent lieutenant, and he is buried with military honors.  

By 1937 Prokofiev reworked the movie score into a substantial five-movement suite, each depicting a scene from the fictional lieutenant’s life. It begins with the “Birth” of Kijé, featuring a far-off trumpet solo and martial music.

This is followed in succession by a Romance based on a love song (featuring a double bass solo); Kijé ‘s marriage, with a flourish of brass, pomp and ceremony, followed by a lively trumpet tune; the famous Troika, evoking a winter sleigh ride in the snow; and, finally, Kijé ‘s death and burial, in which brief passages from the other movements serve as reminiscences of his fictional “life.”

The suite ends as it began, with a trumpet solo in the distance.

Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra

Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra

Stravinsky orchestrated this suite for small orchestra based on simple tunes he initially composed for the piano between 1914 and 1917.  It is one of many “miniature” works that Stravinsky composed during his life, experimenting with various combinations of instruments, styles and textures.

This short work is in four movements — an opening calm Andante; the rollicking “Napolitana,” evoking an Italian street song and featuring woodwinds; an intense Española, with jagged rhythms, offbeats and contrasts; and the final Balalaȉka, tuneful throughout, with an abrupt ending.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major

This happy, exuberant piece was composed by Shostakovich in 1957 for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. It was premiered that year by the Moscow State Philharmonic, with Maxim as the piano soloist after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory.

The work is in three movements. The woodwinds start the sprightly allegro, quickly joined by the piano in the opening four-note theme, with bursts of hammering percussive passages.An introspective lyrical second theme follows, with the piano accompanied by soft strings. A development section and return to the initial theme bring the movement to a close.

The middle movement is by turns wistful, poignant and lyrical, with singing piano themes that evoke late 19th-century romanticism. The piano opens the final sparkling allegro with octave-based flourishes and scales. Following that, a rollicking second theme (in 7/8 time) is heralded by the winds, in turn picked up by the piano and the strings.

On a pedagogical note, Shostakovich included many scale and arpeggio passages ‑ based on piano exercises by Louis Hanon ‑ to make sure that Maxim would learn them! Those passages are in turn echoed by the strings. A recap of the main theme, strong brass-led chords, and a timpani flourish bring this sparkling concerto to its close.

Rodeo

Rodeo

In 1942, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned the choreographer Agnes de Mille to create a ballet for its 1942-43 season. De Mille came up with a concept for a ballet based on a western theme: a gathering of cowboys and ranch hands at a Saturday afternoon rodeo, together with neighbors and a lonely cowgirl.

She chose Aaron Copland, already a recognized master of the American idiom, to write the music.

The ballet was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera that same year and was an instant hit. A few years later Copland fashioned the ballet music into an orchestral suite. The suite is in four movements: Buckaroo Holiday, Corral Nocturne, Saturday Night Waltz, and Hoe-Down.

Copland used a number of American folk tunes in Rodeo. These include “If He’d be a Buckaroo” and “Sis Joe” in the opening lively Buckaroo Holiday; “Goodbye, Old Paint” in the Saturday Night Waltz; and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “McLeod’s Reel” in the exuberant Hoe-Down.

Concerto “in the Old Style” for Three Solo Violins and Orchestra

Concerto “in the Old Style” for Three Solo Violins and Orchestra

My CONCERTO in the old style FOR THREE SOLO VIOLINS AND STRING ORCHESTRA was commissioned in 1994 by Marc Mostovoy for a group he founded, directed and conducted called the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia (now called the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, resident at the Kimmel Center). I completed the work in 1994 and dedicated it to Marc Mostovoy and his Concerto Soloists, who successfully premiered the work on January 8, 1995, at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. The solo violinists were Elizabeth Kaderabek, Richard Amoroso and Jennifer Haas. Tonight’s performance, with solo violinists Muneyoshi Takahashi, Kinga Augustyn, and Tzu-En Lee, will be the second performance of the work and a New York premiere.

For several years before the Philadelphia commission, I had been contemplating writing a concerto “in the old style.” Such a work by a contemporary composer is not as unusual as one might think. Many other composers have written works in the style of a previous era. This list would include such composers as Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Brahms, Stravinksy, Resphighi, and even Haydn. Since I had done a great deal of research into the music of the 18th and 19th centuries, I thought I would like to write a concerto grosso in the baroque style. I was delighted when the opportunity presented itself with the 1994 Mostovoy commission.

When I had completed my three-movement concerto, it turned out to be wholly original, albeit with obvious shades of Bach, Vivaldi and Townsend. The Bach and Vivaldi influences are clearly evident in the first and second movements, while Townsend predominates in the third (final) movement.

Structurally, the FIRST MOVEMENT is in a large three-part form with the first section being a statement of themes, the second section being a contrasting section (a kind of development section), and with the third section being a recapitulation of the themes of the first section.

The SECOND MOVEMENT is a Siciliana, which was a type of slow dance favored by Baroque composers for the slow movements of their concertos. This movement is in a kind of two-part form, where each part is repeated, yielding four sections (ABAB-Coda). The first section is the Siciliana theme itself, followed by a repeat of that theme by the piano. The second section is a contrasting section, played largely by the three solo violins. The third section is a repeat of the Siciliana theme in the first section. This is followed by a fourth section which is a repeat of the second section (which repeat also serves as a coda to the movement).

The THIRD MOVEMENT is in the classical rondo form, very much favored by Baroque and Classical composers. A (theme), B (contrasting section), A (theme), C (contrasting section), A (theme and coda). A large part of the C section has two of the three solo violins playing fast notes, while the first violin plays a more sustained lyrical melody. This style was favored by Bach and Vivaldi in the last movement of their concertos. Technically, in some places, the C section has the three solo violins playing in three different keys and three different rhythms all at the same time. This is strictly Townsend, and was not influenced by Bach or Vivaldi.
Notes by Douglas Townsend, NYC

Symphony No. 9 in Eb Major

Symphony No. 9 in Eb Major

The Ninth Symphony is emblematic of the high-wire act required of a Soviet composer under Communist rule. Shostakovich’s transcendent musical gifts won him status as the Soviet Union’s leading composer, a stint as the president of the composers’ union, and international acclaim, despite two periods when he was out of favor with officialdom at home. As a young man, he ardently embraced socialist ideals, but later, after successfully responding to political criticism from the state with his Fifth Symphony, he tried to remain above the political fray. Even when he was out of favor with the Communist regime, he was never dispatched to the gulags. He remained an economically favored hero of the Republic with a country dacha and an active social life with his musical colleagues. In public, he never criticized Stalin or the Soviet government, but in private life he mocked the bureaucracy and its heavy-handed interventions in the creative process. As a result, a sarcastic tone permeates the Ninth Symphony.

Composed near the end of World War II in honor of the military victory in Europe (VE Day—May 8, 1945), Shostakovich adopted a surprisingly transparent neo-classical approach supplemented with a bombastic sneer. Reputedly, he was inspired by playing piano four-hand reductions of Haydn symphonies on a nightly basis with his friend and fellow Soviet composer Dmitri Kabalevsky. Yet Haydn never used low brass and percussion the way Shostakovich does in the Ninth. That enables the Russian to infuse his symphony with a frantic, 20th-century edge that many have interpreted as subversive. Although initially well received, the symphony was banned in his home country in 1948 and not reprieved until 1955.

The Ninth Symphony is divided into five movements. The first, an Allegro in sonata form, is crisp and bouncy, with the upper parts classical. A snare drum adds a brisk military air, and the trombones add some insistent bombast. But even the very neo-classical upper parts, chock full of short, precise notes, are skewed with a scattering of extra beats, giving the rhythm a scrambled, off-balance feel. The Moderato movement opens with a plaintive clarinet solo, later taken up by the flute. It is very Russian sounding. Tension builds as the strings take up a slightly drunken-sounding ascending scale theme. The lonely flute and clarinet return with pizzicato string accompaniment, the theme is passed to the trombone, and the strings let out a descending sigh.

The Presto reprieves the rising and falling scales but against a very different them—evoking a bouncy, balletic tip-toeing with racing clarinet and piccolo. A heroic trumpet solo blasts through. The movement is followed immediately by a Largo, introduced by a melodramatic brass chorale, giving way to a mournful bassoon solo, which some identify as a Jewish theme, perhaps in protest of Stalin’s pogroms. The movement comes to a false cadence, then transitions into the Allegretto, starting with a playful bassoon romp, then building into a triumphal, mad rush to the end.

Notes by Emily S. Plishner