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Program Notes - May 4 and 5, 2019

--by Julian Killough-Miller

Dmitri Shostakovich--Symphony No. 1

More than any composer of the twentieth century, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote symphonies that mattered. That is not to say that they were more interesting, or of higher artistic value, but that they mattered to the people that listened to them in a powerful way that will likely never be recaptured. As the appointed symphonic spokesperson of the Soviet state, Shostakovich was tasked with writing monumental symphonies that would be met with the official stamp of approval. In practice, this meant writing bold, colossal works that brought together diverse and conflicting elements into a unified and triumphal conclusion. But at the same time, the composer used his symphonies (or so they were received) to channel the frustration and tragedy of living through an era of cultural Soviet repression. The slow movements of his symphonies, especially, lend themselves well to expressing anguish and hopelessness. Instrumental music is a powerful beast to tame, and despite meeting the official requirements for a proper Soviet symphony, many listeners often detected a subversive undercurrent. To this day, musicologists are roiled in a debate over extent to which the symphonies should be interpreted as celebratory, subversive, or somewhere in between. The wonderfully elusive nature of the symphony will leave these types of questions virtually unanswerable. 

 

However, in his first foray into the form, Shostakovich was writing for a different set of adjudicators; the piece was his graduation thesis for the Leningrad conservatory, composed at age 19, in the early years of the Soviet Union. His bold first installment showcased an agile orchestrator who could veer between psychological extremes in a winding highway of virtuosity. Its reception was enormously positive, attracting both Soviet and international attention, launching the composer to near immediate stardom on the symphonic circuit.

 

Many of the young composer’s influences are on display here. The balletic mood of helpless puppetry and the idiosyncratic use of a clunking solo piano are reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The slow movement’s elevation through pulsating horns and searing tragedy conversely seem indebted to the lush romanticism of later Tchaikovsky, though with far more dissonant treatment. The levity and acerbic wit echo the athleticism of his compatriot Prokofiev. And not to be left out, the psychological exploration of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaireappears in the quirky and meandering first two movements. For a relatively short symphony, Shostakovich achieves astounding breadth of style and mood. And yet, his unique voice as a symphonist shines through, swirling all of the conflicting impulses into a whole somehow grander than the sum of its parts. 

 

The first movement begins with the awkward entanglement of a tinny trumpet and a burdened bassoon. Melodies weave and unweave in mercurial counterpoint. The woodwinds and pizzicato strings continue to putter along aimlessly. This music is more evocative of a tentative ballet scene than a focused symphonic texture. The unfocused beginning eventually lands on a lightly macabre dance for clarinet over a steady march of churning strings. For a second theme, we get a whispered waltz, with lilting woodwind melodies gliding above the muted oompahs of plucked strings. The nimble texture sounds sounds scherzo-like. The militaristic thrust of the trumpets and drums eventually gains enough momentum to shine through. But once again, the mood darkens and disintegrates into an inchoate series of strands. We end where we began. In its original meaning“symphony” connotes sounding together. But in his first symphony, Shostakovich presents a splintered, cruel, and cold world, devoid of sympathy for the human condition. 

 

If the proceedings of the first movement were grim, the second takes an even more dour view. After a false start by a voracious herd of cellos and basses, the movement settles on a jaunty sort of danse macabre. The shimmering scales of the piano add a carnivalesque touch. Once we reach the trio, the moto perpetuosuddenly freezes. The strings hover on a blank fifth, scratching at a tremolo with little vibrato as a puppeteer tugs emotionlessly at the strings of his puppets. Just as the movement began with a feint, the piano comes in with a comically misplaced punctuation point right after the horns have finished what seems like their final fanfare. Sounding like a new movement after the full caesura, the piano takes on a life of its own as a brutal percussion instrument, pounding away at chords and sucking the last breaths out of the frozen trio. 

 

While the somber mood remains, the irony and wit of the first two movements gives way to the sincere pathos of the third. There is a thread of Tchaikovskian despair that courses through the movement. Whereas the earlier movements showcased the fragmentation of melody, the third has a Wagnerian melodic unity, as if every gesture were part of the same, uninterrupted line. The dark shadings of the harmony and the impeccable feeling of the cold are signature Shostakovich. The heart of the whole symphony is revealed as a portentous melody is heralded first by the trumpets, then the strangled cry of a solo tuba, and finally cradled at rock bottom by the stern authority of the cellos and basses. In the postwar European moment where pathos was deemed passé, dark emotions still had to find an outlet of sincerity. Deep into the twentieth century, when it was no longer fashionable, Shostakovich would continue to use the communal forum of the slow movement as a cathartic and collective expression of grief. 

 

A snare drum roll and cymbal splash rudely awaken us from our sentimental revery. We enter into a tense atmosphere of high orchestral drama, where melodic strands do battle to take predominance of the finale, like the conversational beginning to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. The rapid shifts in mood points to an exterior drama, almost a cinematic one. It is worth noting here that as a boy, Shostakovich took on work playing piano accompaniment for silent films. And one can almost hear the Chaplinesque tragicomedy in this movement especially. After all, many of Chaplin’s characters were puppet-like in their helpless dance against the unpredictable machinations of the string pullers. The piano trills and a glistening glockenspiel of the slow section elevate the stakes of symphony— redemption may be possible yet. The Petruska-like atmosphere of whimsical cruelty returns with tinny trumpets and blistering trills. An ominous timpani takes center stage, interrupting the cacophonous shriek of the orchestra with a funereal blow. For the remainder of the symphony, solo strings sing elegies to the fallen. The falling melody from the previous movement is flipped to on its head; now it rises up aspirationally. In its closing pages, the momentum builds in a sort of sneering postlude. While it delivers a smashing conclusion, it is certainly not a hopeful resolution. 

Florence Price--Juba Dance and Finale

The story of Florence Price and her music is a truly American story. The first black female composer to have a work performed by a major symphony orchestra, Price received a revival in interest last year in 2018, due to the uncovering of some lost pieces in an old summer home of hers, outside of Chicago. Both the New York Times and The New Yorker ran retrospective articles on her legacy, and lamented her exclusion from the canon of American “Greats.” After all, her music was both groundbreaking and well-received in its day. 

 

Born in Arkansas in 1887, she studied at composition at NEC and eventually moved to Chicago, where her the conductor Frederick Stock took up her First Symphony in 1934. Its ease of communication and confidence of style earned the composer high praise. The bold first symphony exudes Americanness, but from a perspective that was tragically underrepresented in the concert halls of America. Just as Brahms’s first symphony seems to take up the mantle of Beethoven’s last, Price cleverly takes on Dvořák's last symphony, the “New World” as a model for elaboration, putting her hat in the ring as the old Czech emigree’s true successor. In his New World symphony, Dvořák sought to pen an opening manifesto to spark a new, authentic outgrowth of American national music. 

 

While some see the first symphony as indebted to Dvořák’s work (especially in the first and last movements), one can also see it as a canny career move to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the establishment as an American composer. By operating in a well-established idiom familiar to listeners, she gains their trust, and then subversively brings her voice front and center.

 

 We must remember that in Price’s time, gaining recognition as a female composer was near impossible. For a black female composer, the doors were all but closed. Sadly, the pantheon of “great” composers was, for the most part, the exclusive domain of white men. As she put it herself in her letter to the esteemed conductor Sergei Koussevitzky (which notably, went unanswered), “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, to begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” Despite these obstacles, she was able to produce a body of work that engaged with both the European and African-American musical experience in a bold new way. 

 

The third movement, a Juba dance, is a delightfully American creation. Nineteenth century symphonies often used dance movements to incorporate folk dances with a pastoral bent. For her symphonic debut, Price chose a form with a deep history in African-American expression. The Juba dance, (also called “hambone”), emphasizes rhythmic slapping of the body, partly because drums were forbidden from communal rituals of enslaved communities. Price foregrounds the drums and cymbals in her movement, an assertion of her indomitable spirit, but also a reminder of the cruel legacy of slavery. While slide whistle effects and gleeful string melody soar over the syncopated rhythms with joy, labelling the movement a Juba dance secures its status as a subversive entry of a new voice and a new perspective into the American classical canon. 

 

The brief finale returns to the harmonic and melodic language of the “New World” symphony, rife with pentatonic tunes, and featuring an unceasing stream of triplet melodies. Although the language is accessible, the sheer speed and succession of the burbling melodies is dizzying. The perpetual motion drives the finale forward with an unyielding elasticity. The electricity finally comes crashing into a resting place as a set of insistent cymbals are unleashed to bring the movement to a final roar. 

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky--Violin Concerto

The Violin Concerto in D Major is such a fixture of our modern repertory that it is hard to imagine the lengths Tchaikovsky had to go through for this treasured piece to see the light of day. What sounds tuneful and lovely today was seen as irrevocably déclassé and gauche by the musical elites of Western Europe, despite its seemingly uncontroversial nature.  

 

Tchaikovsky started writing the concerto on a retreat to the Swiss shores of Lake Geneva to cleanse his spirit away from his catastrophic marriage to Antonina Miliukova. We now know that the composer’s sexual orientation played a substantial role in the failure of their union, but their stark emotional incompatibility also made any reconciliation between the two nearly impossible. The composer suffered severe writing block during their brief two and a half months of living together and felt as though he had to get away. The joy and freedom expressed throughout the concerto give us a view of a creative mind restored, once again bearing creative fruit. 

 

But beyond the piece’s happy composition, staging the premiere was another saga unto itself. The composer originally intended that the piece be premiered by (and dedicated to) Iosif Kotek, but the violinist turned down the offer, fearing that a feebly received performance could stymy his budding career. Even though the violinist helped Tchaikovsky to tailor the piece to be idiomatic and brilliant for the violin, the composer feared that dedicating the piece to Kotek would result in damaging gossip amongst his network; it seems likely that the two were engaged in a relationship, at least at one point. Next, came the consummate violinist Leopold Auer, who also turned the piece down, once again fearing poor reception. In a long letter, Auer praised the composer generally, but expressed his grave misgivings about the piece. However, after the piece finally did premiere under the bow of Adolph Brodsky and the baton of Hans Richter in December 1881, Auer did his part to pass on the concerto’s torch by championing it among several of his most influential students. 

 

It would be hard to characterize the Viennese premiere as a smashing success, however. After a three-year lag, the piece was still prepared hastily by Richter. Rehearsal for the premiere was scant and most of the time was dedicated to correcting wrong notes in the parts. Although Brodsky received adequate applause for his performance, the orchestra was hissed by the crowd. By some accounts, they accompanied the solo violin sheepishly, barely rising above pianissimo. To make matters worse, Eduard Hanslick, conservative critic extraordinaire panned the concerto in an influential critique. His review was filled with the deepest loathing and anti-Russian sentiment culminating in the following zinger: “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for the first time confronts us with the hideous idea that there may be compositions whose stink one can hear.” We can now laugh away this multisensory invective, but at the time it really stained Tchaikovsky’s reputation among the Viennese elite. Of course, as one of the most popular violin concertos of all time, it is difficult experience the piece through the lens of its unquestioned acceptance in the canon. Still, it’s important to remember how risky new compositions were for a composer’s reputation in the wake of romantic era, especially when premiered on foreign soil! 

 

In its opening bars, we experience the sense of calm that Tchaikovsky had adopted in his lakeside retreat from his anxieties. This will not be a tension-less affair however, as dissonant clouds roll and prepare the soloist’s entrance in the first minute. After some introductory phrases, we land upon the “big melody,” one of Tchaikovsky’s most soaring. Irresistible in its joy and energy, this melody propels the action of the rest of the nearly twenty-minute movement. With virtuosic fireworks aplenty, the first movement is a display of technical mastery that still never loses its melodic momentum. There are also exquisite moments of tenderness and intimacy aplenty to accompany the hurly burly of the soloist’s pyrotechnics. 

 

The original second movement had to be swapped out in favor of the present one during the rehearsal period. Tchaikovsky and those around him came to the consensus that the original movement did not fit properly within the landscape of the concerto, so he quickly penned the Canzonetta that we hear today. Its languishing sighs add emotional depth to the otherwise jovial work. The soloist whispers a prayer over a gently rolling waves of orchestral harmonies. This is Tchaikovsky’s direct emotional appeal at its finest. Without burdening the concerto with pathos or gloom, the Canzonetta aches with the yearning and sincerity. 

 

The last movement bursts forward with folksy charm and energy. Some of the Viennese audience at the premiere found this movement to be insufferably banal, especially arch-conservative critic Eduard Hanslick. His review of the movement is redolent of not only disdain, but anti-Russian sentiment: “The adagio is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over, but it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see a host of savage, vulgar faces, we hear crude curses, and smell the booze.” It is hard to understand how anyone could hear that in the music without already having strongly prejudiced ideas about the composer’s homeland lodged in their brains. 

 

Although Tchaikovsky seems secure to us now in the European canon, he was not welcomed with open arms by the xenophobic Viennese establishment and his Russianness would continue to play a role in his reception. The music brushes by with an unstoppable momentum and the coarse bowing of the violin does suggest a less refined, more exuberant folk idiom. The bumptious joy of the finale cannot be harnessed; even in the slower passages, we expect it to come bursting out at any moment. Especially when compared with Tchaikovsky’s gloomier moments in his later symphonies, the violin concerto stands out as a testament to the irrepressible nature of joy.