Program 8

Rêverie in E minor, Op. 24

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)

Composed in 1898.

Premiered on December 17, 1898 in St. Petersburg, conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Soon after leaving the Moscow Conservatory in 1892, Scriabin began appearing as a concert pianist and had some of his piano pieces issued by Jurgenson, Tchaikovsky’s publisher. In 1894, the rival publisher Mitrofan Belaiff heard Scriabin play some of his own music and secured the rights to issue his Piano Sonata No. 1 and subsequent compositions. Belaiff supported the promising pianist-composer generously during the following years by rewarding him with high fees and competition prizes and by underwriting the European debut tour in late 1895 that culminated in a triumphant recital of Scriabin’s own works in Paris in January 1896. Soon after returning to Moscow, Scriabin composed a Piano Concerto and successfully gave its premiere in Odessa on October 23, 1897. He joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory the following year.

Despite Belaiff’s support of his burgeoning career, Scriabin, emotionally mercurial and never very tidy about maintaining his accounts, questioned the publisher’s payments around the time of the Piano Concerto’s premiere and a rift sprang up between them. In November 1898, soon after he had introduced the Concerto to Moscow, Scriabin went to St. Petersburg with a peace offering for Belaiff — an orchestral Prelude, his first purely orchestral work, which he had composed in secret. Belaiff was delighted with the piece but suggested the more evocative (and saleable) French title Rêverie, which they also rendered into Russian as Mechty (“Daydreams”). Belaiff showed the score to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who judged the work “delightful, wreathed in piquant harmonies and not badly orchestrated,” and convinced him to include Rêverie on his Russian Musical Society concert in St. Petersburg on December 17th.

Rêverie follows a nicely defined expressive arch, rising from its meditative opening mood to a point of expressive intensity near the center. A second crescendo begins but is quickly broken off by silence, after which the work comes to a dying close.

Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C minor, Op. 35

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Composed in 1933.

Premiered on October 15, 1933 in Leningrad, with the composer as soloist.

In 1927, Joseph Stalin secured the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev, his two chief rivals for power in the Soviet Union. A year later, he ended Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” in favor of the first “Five Year Plan,” a scheme intended to industrialize and collectivize the nation under his leadership. Stalin’s dictates had serious consequences for all Russians (most devastatingly for those caught in the ghastly “purges” of the 1930s), not excluding artists and musicians. The period of almost Dadaist artistic experimentation in the 1920s came suddenly to an end when artists were instructed that they had “social tasks” to perform with their creations, and that “formalism” — the ill-defined Soviet term for avant-garde or personally expressive works — was absolutely forbidden. Musical compositions of the time, because of their abstract nature, were less directly affected by Party policy than were literature or painting, but nevertheless showed a significant change in attitude from the preceding years. Alexander Mossolov (1900-1973), at first a modernist composer who had written songs to the texts of newspaper advertisements, created a sensation in 1927 with his ballet The Iron Foundry, an attempt to imitate the patriotic sound of a factory by including a shaken metal sheet in the scoring. To the genre of proletarian music, Shostakovich contributed the rattlingly jingoistic Second and Third Symphonies (To October, 1927 and The First of May, 1929), the ballets The Age of Gold (1930) and The Bolt (the former strongly anti-Fascist, the latter on an industrial theme), and the anti-bourgeois opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932, premiered 1934). A strain of sarcasm, carried over from the music of the early 1920s, is evident in some of these pieces, and was dominant in the scathing opera of 1930, The Nose, based on a story by Gogol. This satirical quality appears again, balanced by the required “social realism” (described by one literary critic as “fundamentally optimistic” and “conservative”), in the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35 of 1933.

Its blend of caustic humor and a certain steely expressivity have made the First Piano Concerto one of Shostakovich’s most popular works; he frequently performed it as soloist. He was an excellent pianist, but the lack of practice time — in addition to his creative work, he was also active in 1933 as the elected deputy to the Oktyabrsky District in Leningrad and as one of the organizers of the Leningrad Union of Soviet Composers — prevented him from playing much music other than his own. The composer’s student Samari Savshinsky described him as “an outstanding artist and performer. The crystalline clarity and precision of thought, the almost ascetic absence of embellishment, the precise rhythm, technical perfection, and very personal timbre he produced at the piano made all Shostakovich’s piano playing individual in the highest degree.... Those who remember his performance of Beethoven’s mighty ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, followed by a number of Chopin pieces, can only regret that his talent as a pianist was never fully developed or applied.”

The musical style of the First Piano Concerto reflects the playing of its author. Its taut writing for the solo instrument, its pointed melodic and harmonic leadings and its brittle temperament are complemented by its novel scoring for piano, string orchestra and what Robert Bagar called “a comical trumpet obbligato.” When he performed the Concerto, Shostakovich accorded the trumpeter the importance of a virtual second soloist by having the player sit at the front of the stage, next to the piano, and sharing the applause with him at the end of the work. Eugene List, who was soloist in the American premiere in 1934 (when he was just sixteen years old), explained the success of the Piano Concerto No. 1: “It is contemporary without being too ‘far out’ for the average concert-goer. It has youthful fire and audacity, tongue-in-cheek jollity, a number of satirical allusions to well-known classics, and brilliant piano writing. It also has a beautiful slow movement. The trumpet solo part is strikingly effective; and the scoring in general is brilliant and unusual.”

The Concerto is in four continuous movements, with the third movement acting as a slow introduction to the finale rather than as an independent essay. The opening Allegro moderato is in modified sonata form. After a prefatory flourish from piano and trumpet, the soloist presents a serious melody growing from the tones of the C minor triad. The violins soon present a complementary theme of similar nature, which is then elaborated by the piano. A sharp change of mood ushers in the secondary motives: a mock-fanfare from the soloist above a martial string accompaniment, and a natty little tune tossed off by the trumpet. The middle portion of the movement is given over to a development of the letter and the spirit of the secondary themes. The recapitulation begins with the violins’ complementary theme rather than with the piano’s serious opening melody, which is held in reserve to serve as a coda.

The slow movement breathes a scented, nostalgic air that seems almost more French than Russian. (Had some of Poulenc’s early works found their way to Shostakovich’s ear?) The main melody is a wistful waltz in slow tempo, given first by muted violins. The piano enters with its own melody, which gathers intensity as it proceeds. The theme and mood of the opening return when the trumpet recalls the principal melody.

The following movement, an introduction to the finale, comprises two cadenzas for the soloist: the first is unaccompanied; the second, prefaced by a sad melody for the strings, is supported by the orchestra. The closing movement is a brilliant, bubbling affair of several episodes whose sparkling vivacity recalls some of Haydn’s symphonic finales. The cadenza near the end, added because a pianist friend of the composer was disappointed that the Concerto’s original version allowed no provision for a closing solo display, is an ironic treatment of a theme from Beethoven’s rondo titled Rage over a Lost Penny.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102

Dmitri Shostakovich

Composed in 1956-1957.

Premiered on May 10, 1957 in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Anosov with Maxim Shostakovich as soloist.

The life and music of Dmitri Shostakovich abound in dichotomies. In 1925, he was accompanying silent films on a battered piano in a frigid Leningrad cinema; a year later, after the premiere of the First Symphony, he was hailed at age twenty as the leader of the first generation of post-Revolution Soviet composers. During Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, he worked on the giant Seventh Symphony between tours of duty as a fireman. He was denounced in 1948 as a musical scoundrel; in 1954, he was honored as “People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R.” and two years later given the Lenin Prize. He was the chief adornment and most visible representative of Soviet culture for almost four decades though he did not formally join the Communist Party until 1962.

His music, as well, is filled with stark contrasts. Beginning with the Symphony No. 1, many of his individual works juxtaposed satire and pathos, grandeur and tragedy. The avant-garde style of his first mature decade — grotesque humor, biting dissonance, steely expressivity — was followed beginning with the Fifth Symphony by much music of conservatism and universal appeal. Symphonies (Nos. 11 and 12) extolling Lenin and the Revolution were succeeded by a musical condemnation of Soviet anti-Semitism in the Thirteenth Symphony. While maintaining a singular personality throughout his oeuvre, Shostakovich displayed a wider range of musical attitudes than perhaps any composer except Gustav Mahler, by whom he was indelibly influenced.

The dichotomy dividing Shostakovich’s works between those primarily for public display and those that were more introspective and reflective of his deepest thoughts veered in his later years toward the latter — the wondrous series of string quartets and the last three symphonies are the principal evidence. Standing beside these inward-looking pieces, however, is a large amount of immediately appealing music embodying one of his most important tenets: “I consider that every artist who isolates himself from the world is doomed. I find it incredible that an artist should wish to shut himself away from the people.” One of the best-crafted among this group of film scores, tone poems, jingoistic anthems and occasional instrumental works is a piano concerto that Shostakovich wrote in 1956-1957 for his son, Maxim, who was just finishing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory. The outer movements, both marked Allegro, are propelled by an almost demonic energy grown from a hybrid of march and galop. They call for an invigorating display of virtuosity — nimble, powerful, percussive by turns — that gives the soloist ample opportunity to display his technique. In contrast, the slow middle movement, for piano and strings only (with the exception of a single entry by the solo horn), is of a lyricism and tenderness reminiscent of Chopin, filtered perhaps, in its harmonic suavities, through Poulenc.

Symphony No. 15, Op. 141

Dmitri Shostakovich

Composed in 1971.

Premiered on January 9, 1972 in Moscow, conducted by Maxim Shostakovich.

Historically, the symphony is a public genre. In the 18th century, when the form was derived from the opera overture — the sinfonia — by Sammartini and his Italian colleagues, it was used as an imposing opening concert piece to call attention to the importance of what followed. It differed from the chamber music of the day in its use of large orchestra, its broad expression and its performance for a sizeable assembly of music lovers in a spacious hall. Though the symphony underwent many changes at the hands of Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and the others capable of handling its challenge, the form continued to be the bearer of the grandest emotions, while a composer’s more personal thoughts were confided to chamber music or songs or other intimate works. It was only late in its development that a way was found to turn the symphony inward, to make it a vehicle of introspection as personally revealing of its creator (and moving for the listener) as the masterworks of the chamber literature. The composer who joined together these public and private worlds to create works of an unprecedented expressive range was Gustav Mahler. Especially in the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, it is precisely this juxtaposition of the inner and outer life that gives his music much of its emotional power and incomparable poignancy.

The effect of Mahler on the music of Dmitri Shostakovich was pervasive. In the grandiloquent program symphonies (No. 7, “Leningrad,” for example) or the works with voices (No. 13, “Babi Yar,” and No. 14) or the large tonal canvases painted in starkly varied colors (No. 8 and No. 10), Shostakovich’s indebtedness to the Austrian master is striking. Perhaps nowhere are the parallels closer, however, than in the last symphonic works of each man — Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. These pieces share a quality of introspection that is both revealing and enigmatic, as though the composer had opened the recesses of his soul only to then stand behind a shielding scrim. This music’s intimacy is largely created through attenuated orchestration and texture, which acquire a chamber-like clarity and immediacy, and against which the mass of the full orchestra can serve as a powerful foil. As in Mahler’s creations, these qualities in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 invite a search for its “message.” Mahler’s works are “songs of farewell,” a summing up not just of an individual life dedicated to music, but also of the entire historical tradition of which he saw himself as the last representative. The Ninth Symphony and Das Lied, however, are not works of exhausted bitterness, but rather of nostalgia and acceptance and gentle resignation. Shostakovich’s last Symphony (though reports from the Soviet Union noted, without the substantiation of the manuscript, that he had completed two movements of another symphony) may very well have a similar expressive content of thoughts and visions at life’s end. Testimony varies, however.

Discussion of the emotional engine driving the Fifteenth Symphony has been fueled by Shostakovich’s use of quotations: a familiar snippet from the William Tell Overture (his earliest musical memory, according to the composer) in the first movement, and motives from Wagner’s Tristan and The Ring of the Nibelungen in the finale, as well as references to his own earlier music and even the inclusion of his musical “signature” — the notes, D–E-flat–C–B (D-S-C-H , the composer’s transliterated initials, in German notation). The least likely explanation of the first movement, probably nothing more than a diversion to deflect criticism, is one attributed to Shostakovich by his son, Maxim, who conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 15. This reading set the music in a toyshop at night, with the dolls coming to life and a toy soldier tootling William Tell on a miniature trumpet. The music, however, speaks of more profound things. Maxim himself thought that the Symphony “reflects the great philosophical problems of a man’s life cycle, from the appearance of certain childish emotions to the acquisition of energy, vitality and wisdom. In the Finale, the storms subside and there emerges triumphant a sincere feeling of humanity and great philosophical peace.” Eugene Ormandy, who recorded the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, felt the finale “could be entitled ‘They Shall Not Be Forgotten,’” referring to the Soviet war dead. He supported his view by noting the use in the movement of an ostinato bass first encountered in the Seventh Symphony, “Leningrad,” commemorating the ghastly Nazi siege of that city in 1941.

In his purported memoirs, Testimony, the composer offered yet another explanation: “I love Chekhov; I often reread Ward Six. And I feel sorry that I didn’t do as much work on Chekhov as I had wanted to.... I have a work based on motifs from Chekhov, the Fifteenth Symphony.... I never did learn to live according to Chekhov’s main tenet. For Chekhov, all people are the same. He presented people, and the reader had to decide for himself what was bad and what was good. Chekhov remained unprejudiced. Everything churns inside me when I read Rothschild’s Violin. Who’s right, who’s wrong? Who made life nothing but steady losses? Everything churns within me.”

Shostakovich’s Fifteenth is one of the great 20th-century symphonies, and, like other musical masterworks from throughout history, will sustain many interpretations in its performance and philosophy. From the pellucid opening movement, into which the William Tell fragment is seamlessly woven, through the plangent lament and funeral march of the Adagio and the cheeky insouciance of the scherzo, to the enigmatic finale, with its references to the “Fate” motive from Wagner’s Ring, the opening melodic gesture of the Tristan Prelude, the ostinato from the “Leningrad” Symphony and the ticking percussion sounds from his long-unperformed Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich created a composition steeped in reference and suggestion. That the work speaks personally for the composer is without doubt, since he inscribed it with his “DSCH” signature and kept it for himself, in effect, by giving it no dedication. Yet this creation is also a universal statement, one that can touch every sympathetic listener in an individual way.

©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

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The Peninsula Music Festival - 10347 Highway 42

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