Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony no.5 in D minor, op.47

1: Moderato
2: Allegretto
3: Largo
4: Allegro non troppo

The singer Galina Vishnevskaya recalls a pointedly ambiguous statement made by Shostakovich in one of the many public submissions he had to make to the state during his life: “Our Party has so closely followed the growth of all musical life in our country. I have been aware of that close attention throughout my creative life.”

Shostakovich was particularly aware of that close attention in 1937. Since the attacks on his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and his ballet “The Limpid Stream” in Pravda the previous year he had found himself transformed overnight from the Soviet Union’s foremost composer to a non-person. The Great Terror that Stalin inflicted on Russia was at its height. Arrests and disappearances reached a vertiginous level. Stalin declared that 10 per cent of the population was subversive. The only way the police could make enough arrests to match this figure (which, coming from the leader himself, must be correct) was to detain people more or less at random. Like many others, Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by the door, ready for the knock in the night signalling the arrival of the secret police to take him away. T be seen in public without a smile was to court arrest. Solzhenitsyn summed up the times: “Black Marias by night, demonstrations by day.”

Shostakovich completed his Fourth Symphony in May 1936 in the wake of these attacks. A performance was planned, but it became clear that the consequences of playing such a work could be severe for all concerned. After some strained rehearsals, Shostakovich withdrew the symphony, claiming dissatisfaction with it. The extraordinary, dissonant and dissident work would not be heard until 1961.

The only work available to him was film and theatre music. This may have worked to his advantage: Stalin was a keen film buff, and his awareness of Shostakovich prior to the Lady Macbeth controversy would have been as a film rather than a concert composer. Loyalty was next to impossible to demonstrate when the leader’s whims made citizens into enemies of the state overnight. Usefulness was another quality entirely, and Shostakovich’s film work made him look useful. This may be how he avoided the gulag: it also gave the party and Stalin an opportunity to be publicly merciful.

From the tone of the Pravda articles, Shostakovich knew that at the least he was expected to make his musical language simpler and more obviously tonal. What is remarkable about the Fifth is not, however, the compromise in style. The melodies are less angular and the harmony more straightforward than the Fourth Symphony, true, but it wilfully ignores the demands of the party in one very important respect: the Fifth is an explicitly and overwhelmingly tragic work.

Its famous and verbose subtitle, “A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism,” was not Shostakovich’s invention. A journalist previewing the première in January 1938 coined it. The composer happily went along with the idea: it offered a very useful shield. He gave interviews in which he made vague pronouncements that the new symphony concerned “the making of a man.” The première in January 1938 was a huge success: it received a standing ovation nearly as long as the entire symphony. A long debate ensued, during which some astonishing logical somersaults were performed by party officials in order to explain why the symphony was in fact a straightforward, optimistic piece of Soviet Realist art. A “Hamlet” theory quickly became popular, which cast Shostakovich in the role of Shakespeare’s Dane. Thus the tragic element could be explained away as a superficial precursor to Soviet enlightenment. Shostakovich was rehabilitated – although he still kept the suitcase by the door, just in case.

The first movement’s opening gesture contains the seeds of almost everything that follows. It settles into an uncertain, shell-shocked mood, into which grotesquery gradually intrudes. A parody of the kind of four-square march beloved of totalitarian regimes throughout the world breaks out, before a climactic cry of anguish. This subsides into a deadpan passage in which a horn attempts to follow a flute into the stratosphere, before disappearing into an uneasy mist.

The second movement is a clodhopping affair brimming with irony. It attempts to display some finesse in its dance, but is never very far from a banana skin.

If the first half of the symphony is characterised by irony and distance, the third movement provides the emotional heart of the symphony. It was this intense, deeply tragic music that moved its first audience to tears. The effect of such deeply and genuinely emotional music on an audience that was effectively forbidden to have genuine emotion must have been overwhelming.

The finale continues to be the subject of controversy. For many years the official explanation was accepted without question in the West: that the “Hamlet-like” tragic (and therefore individualist and superficial) themes are overcome by the profound joy and triumph of the collective Soviet will. But one only has to listen to realise that the “triumph” is imposed. Any sign of genuine emotion is trampled by bullying brass. In a brief moment of hope, an undulating motif in the harp alludes to Shostakovich’s setting of Pushkin’s Poem “Rebirth.” But the “new and brighter day” promised does not dawn. Instead a darkly menacing restatement of the movement’s opening theme builds to a witheringly ironic conclusion: A crude, banal fanfare is upstaged by its own accompaniment of a single note hammered out 251 times, as Vishnevskaya describes it, “like nails being pounded into one’s brain.”

The conductor Boris Khaikin recalled a conversation he had with Shostakovich after the symphony’s premiere. The composer remarked, “I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo… It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I finished it pianissimo and in the minor?”

John McCabe: Symphony "Labyrinth"

John McCabe (b. 1939
Symphony “Labyrinth”

Underneath Edge Hill in Liverpool lies an extensive network of underground passages. The Williamson Tunnels were excavated between 1805 and 1840 at the behest of Joseph Williamson, an eccentric entrepreneur. Quite why he built them is not known for sure. Rumours spread at the time that they were intended to shelter a religious sect that believed that the end of the world was imminent. But it is quite possible that they represent nothing more sinister than a rich philanthropist’s desire to provide honest work for unemployed men returning from the Napoleonic Wars. Williamson himself declared that his workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self respect.”

In the 1830s, Williamson’s path crossed both figuratively and literally with George Stephenson: the great engineer bored his own tunnel through the area to carry trains to and from the new railway station at Lime Street. Over a century later, the young John McCabe’s imagination would be fired by the thought of Williamson’s labyrinth as he rode the trains. Occasionally he would catch a glimpse of a bird in flight in a small patch of sky seen through a ventilation shaft in the tunnel.

That childhood memory provided the impetus when he came to compose a work for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to perform in celebration of his home town’s 800th anniversary in 2007. “Labyrinth” is John McCabe’s seventh symphony, and like Sibelius’s seventh is cast in a single movement. It has no programme, although McCabe concedes that the bird glimpsed from a train can be heard in the piccolo that begins the symphony, while the sinewy lines that soon emerge in the cellos and basses perhaps suggest the darkness of the abandoned caves beneath Edge Hill. From this darkness, the symphony strives towards light, a struggle that reflects the turbulence of Liverpool’s history. A gradual, constant acceleration leads to a driving climax, which then evaporates, leaving the opening idea subtly transformed, as though we are now in the clouds with the bird we glimpsed at the outset.

Janáček: Taras Bulba

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba

1. The Death of Andrei
2. The Death of Ostap
3. The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba

Nikolai Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba tells the story of a Ukrainian Cossack and his two sons. Ostep is the more adventurous and true to the Cossack nature of the two, while Andrey is a romantic. They set out to join the war against the Poles who have occupied the western Ukraine. They besiege Dubno Castle. Andrey falls in love with a Polish girl, and renounces his heritage to help her and the besieged Poles. Taras discovers his son’s betrayal and executes him. Ostep, meanwhile, is captured during battle and tortured by the Poles. Taras attempts to disguise himself to reach the prison to see his son, but his ruse fails, and he witnesses Ostep’s execution from the crowd. Finally, Taras is caught in battle, tortured and burned to death by his captors. Even as he dies, Taras calls on his men to continue the fight, and predicts that a great Tsar will come to rule the world.

Leoš Janáček read the novel in 1905 and made extensive notes. At a time when the Czechs were still ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Taras Bulba’s tale of a nation’s struggle to free itself from oppression struck a chord. However, it was not until 1915 that he began work on his orchestral work based on Gogol’s tale. The First World War was raging, and the Czech nationalist movement was gathering pace, inspired by Russia’s offensive against Austria-Hungary at Galicia. By the time he completed Taras Bulba in 1918, the war had left the empire exhausted. Later that same year the creation of the state of Czecho-Slovakia brought an end to 200 years of Austro-Hungarian rule.

Trying to map the plot of Gogol’s novel onto Janáček’s music in any more than a vague way is problematic. Janáček’s memory of a story he had read a decade earlier would seem to be less than crystal clear. His own note on the work, written in one long, breathless sentence for the Prague première, perhaps reveals that the spirit that is more important than the detail:

“Not because he beat to death his own son for betraying the nation – Part I (the Battle of Dubno);
not because of the martyr’s death of his second son – Part II (the Warsaw torments);
but ‘because the fires, the tortures that could destroy the force of the Russian people are not to be found on earth’ – for these words that fall into the fiery sparks and flames of the stake at which the sufferings of the famous Cossack ataman Taras Bulba finally ended – Part III and conclusion, did I compose this rhapsody in 1915-16 based on a tale written by N.V. Gogol. Leoš Janáček.”

Ullmann: Symphony No.2

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)
Symphony No.2 in D major (“Theresienstadt Sketchbook”)
(Reconstructed from the Piano Sonata No.7 by Bernhard Wulff)

1. Allegro
2. Alla marcia, ben misurato
3. Adagio, ma non tanto
4. Scherzo: Allegretto grazioso
5. Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folksong

Terezín (Theresienstadt), about an hour's drive from Prague, was built in 1780, as a garrison town. The Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph II wanted to ensure that the borders of the Czech territory he had conquered would not be overrun by German hoards from the north. In the event, the town was never used for its intended purpose. Instead it found an effective alternative role as a high security prison. When the German invasion finally came in 1940, Terezín reached its final form as a concentration camp. At its height, the ghetto was home to over 60,000 Jews. The town had been designed to house a population of 5,000. Food was scarce and disease rife.

This was not so different from any other concentration camp. But Terezín was distinguished by one extraordinary fact: its cultural life, which flourished. The plan was to dispel rumours of death camps by promoting Terezín as a cultural beacon. To this end, many Jewish intellectuals were sent there. Artistic activity and the performance of otherwise banned musical and theatrical works was at first tolerated, and later actively encouraged. The results, paraded to visiting representatives of the Red Cross and filmed for a propaganda film, were held up as proof that the Czech Jews were living an idyllic life, separate from the “native” Ayrians (who had been encouraged to immigrate by the Nazis).

Terezín was host to many talented composers, but Viktor Ullmann was perhaps foremost. A former pupil of Schoenberg, he had in the years preceding the war forged his own style, building on but completely distinct from his teacher’s. When war broke out and the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia Ullmann found himself transformed overnight from an internationally renowned composer into a nonentity. His music was barred from performance and he was forbidden to appear in public. In 1942 he was sent to Terezín. For the next two years he was heavily involved in the musical life there, not only as a composer and pianist, but also as a critic. His surviving (by no means always kind) reviews of the musical productions there are one of the most important sources of information about artistic life in the ghetto.

That a vivacious artistic culture should thrive in a concentration camp seems scarcely believable. In an essay written towards the end of his time there, Ullmann reflected on the morality of art in captivity. “Theresienstadt was and is for me a school of structure. Before, when one did not feel the force and weight of existence because of comfort, this magic of civilisation, it was easy to create beautiful form. Here, where one must daily overcome the substance of life, where everything goes against the Muses: here is the masterclass... I must stress that I have bloomed in my musical work at Theresienstadt, without inhibition, and that in no way did we merely sit down and weep by the rivers of Babylon that our will for culture was inadequate to our will to live. And I am convinced that all those who have struggled to wrest Form from Art and Life will say that I was right.”

The symphony you hear tonight is a reconstruction: it has a dual existence as Ullmann’s seventh piano sonata. By the time he wrote it in August 1944, dedicating it to his children, such luxuries as manuscript paper were a distant memory. He wrote piecemeal on whatever paper came to hand. The manuscript is a fragmentary piano score, with notes for orchestration. It is unclear to what degree it was intended as a piano work or a short score for an orchestral work. Quite possibly Ullmann abandoned his initial ideas for orchestration simply because the resources were not available. Perhaps they reflect a hope for a day when he might be free again and able to write for a symphony orchestra once more.

The music contains many quotations, partly autobiographical, and partly coded messages to his fellow inmates. Mahler’s Song of a Wayfarer, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Richard von Heuberger’s operetta The Opera Ball are all quoted, as is Ullmann’s own opera The Emperor of Atlantis, also written for performance in Terezín. The latter is the source of an unusual feature of the symphony: the presence in the orchestra of a harpsichord, which also appears in the opera.

The “Hebrew folksong”that forms the basis of the Finale is in fact a Zionist song by Yehuda Sharett. It sets a poem by the Russian Jewish poet Rachel, in which the she imagines herself as her biblical namesake. Ullmann’s variations draw attention to its resemblance to the Slovak national anthem (also banned by the Nazis) and the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are God’ s Warriors”. The famous chorale “Now thank we all our God” and the four-note motto derived from Bach’s name. Such Germanic Protestant music may seem incongruous in a Jewish ghetto, but it should be remembered that many of the prisoners would have previously considered themselves secular and German. Bach’s music especially was cherished as an important, and comforting part of their own culture.

Liberation came to Terezín in early 1945, too late for Ullmann: On October 16th 1944, having been persuaded by his friends to leave his manuscripts in their care, he was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On arrival he was sent directly to the gas chambers. For all the darkness surrounding its creation, however, the lasting impression left by the music is one of great courage and determination. The music itself, and the fact of its survival, is a remarkable testament to the tenacious spirit of Ullmann and his fellow prisoners. Its diversity of influences and materials represents a plea for tolerance that is still all too pertinent today.

Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911 version)

Igor Stavinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911 version)

Scene 1: The Shrove-tide fair
Scene 2: Petrushka’s cell
Scene 3: The Moor’s cell
Scene 4: The Shrove-tide fair (towards evening)

The Russian puppet-show Petrushka was a familiar fixture at the fairs of Stravinsky’s childhood. It was these he had in mind when he sketched an idea for a piece for piano and orchestra in 1910, in between his ballet The Firebird, and the next production he was due to write for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Rite of Spring.

Like many ancient national traditions, the show is a nineteenth century import. Petrushka himself is Russia's version of Mr Punch. The plot is essentially the same: the protagonist has a succession of confrontations with authority figures, all of whom he whacks with a large stick. Eventually he is tried and executed for murder, and goes to Hell. Diaghilev was taken by the music, and the idea of a production based around the carnivals, and asked Stravinsky to rework it as a ballet.

Anyone familiar with Stravinsky’s music will probably now be scratching their head, as the above plot bears very little resemblance to anything in the ballet. In fact, Stravinsky voiced the concern early on that librettist Alexandre Benois’s scenario for Petrushka contained very little Petrushka. What Benois (12 years older than Stravinsky) remembered most vividly from the carnivals of his youth were the Harlequinades – plays based on characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Thus Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina are in character closer to Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine than what Stravinsky remembered from his youth. The closest Petrushka comes to his traditional demeanour is in the second scene in his cell (which derives from Stravinsky’s initial sketches) and in the closing pages where Petrushka’s ghost appears – which may raise the question, is the final apparition a ghost, or the real Petrushka? This is only one element of a disturbing undercurrent of the ballet: puppets behave like people; people behave like puppets; and the audience, which finds itself viewing events from the perspective of both as well as its own, may wonder where it fits into the scheme of things.

The combination of Stravinsky’s music, the exotic setting of the Russian carnivals and the flamboyant production values of the Ballets Russes added up to an instant hit. Not everyone was pleased with the result: many Russian critics condemned Stravinsky for his stylistic experiments and appropriation of folk materials. They saw it as a debasement of the legacy of Rimsky-Korsakov. This is a curious reaction given that Stravinsky’s veneration of his teacher is written in every note, sometimes to a plagiaristic degree.

When Stravinsky emigrated to America in the 1940s, he rewrote and rescored a number of his early works, principally to be able to copyright them under US law, but in some cases the changes were quite radical. The latter incarnation of Petrushka is largely unchanged in its music, but the orchestration is radically altered: by slimming down his forces, Stravinsky gave the work a new and lucrative life as a concert work. However, when he came to re-record the ballet towards the end of his life, he performed Petrushka in its original garb: more extravagant and theatrical than its leaner, concert-hall oriented revision.


The curtain opens on the eve of the St. Petersburg Shrovetide fair, sometime in the 1830s. – we hear the cries of the sideshow barkers drumming up audiences and street songs sung by drunken revellers. A barrel organist accompanies himself on the cornet (a rather rude song about the actress Sandra Bernhardt that Stravinsky had heard on a barrel organ while staying in Beaulieu on the French Riviera) while a dancer joins in. At the other side of the stage, another dancer performs to a music-box.

Two drummers appear in front of a little theatre and attract the crowd’s attention. The Charlatan, an old conjuror, appears from behind the curtain. He plays his flute, and the curtain rises to reveal three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor. The Charlatan brings them to life by touching them with his flute, and they dance.

Petrushka is thrown into his cell and the door is locked behind him. The puppets have been filled with human emotions by the Charlatan’s magic, and Petrushka most of all. He curses the Charlatan for imprisoning him, and suffers at the knowledge of his own ugliness. The Ballerina enters, and he attempts to woo her. But she is terrified and runs away. He flings himself at the wall in frustration.

In contrast, the Moor is vain and stupid. The Ballerina finds him attractive, however, and uses every trick in her book to seduce him. Just as she succeeds, Petrushka bursts in, mad with jealousy. The Moor throws him out.

Outside, it is now evening, and the carnival is in full swing. The wet-nurses dance. A peasant with a bear enters, and the crowd scatters. A merchant enters, with two girls on his arm. He throws bank-notes into the crowd as the girls dance to an accordion. The coachmen dance, joined by the wet-nurses. A group of mummers burst in, and their leader, dressed as the Devil, provokes the crowd into dancing with him.

The revels are interrupted by a commotion. Petrushka runs out of the theatre pursued by the Moor, who pulls out his sabre and strikes Petrushka down. The crowd falls silent in horror.

The Charlatan arrives. He picks up Petrushka and shakes him. Seeing that the corpse is only a puppet, the crowd disperse. As the Charlatan pulls the body back to the theatre, he looks up and sees Petrushka’s ghost, threatening and mocking him and everyone he has fooled.

Debussy: Ibéria

Claude Debusy (1862-1918)

1. Par les rues et par les chemins (In the streets and byways)
2. Les Parfumes de la nuit (Perfumes of the night)
3. Le matin d'un jour de fête (The morning of a festival day)

When Debussy composed Ibéria, the central part of his orchestral triptych Images (and the first to be written), he was at a turning point in his life. The notoriety that characterised his early successes had become international fame with the first productions of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. The cult of “Debussyism” reached its peak, and scandal was replaced by expectation.

As is often the case, success was to be swiftly followed by a backlash. Those who had championed his earlier work found his new music staid in comparison. Those who had always considered his style to be a threat to the very foundations of all musical orthodoxy found more grist to their mill.

Shortly after he completed Ibéria in December 1909, Debussy exhibited the first symptoms of the cancer that would eventually kill him. In June 1912 his transformation from enfant terrible to yesterday’s man was brought home forcefully to him when he sat at the piano with the young Igor Stravinsky and played through the piano score of The Rite of Spring.

Some say that Images betrays a falling off of inspiration. This is unfair. Ibéria, in particular, shows off Debussy’s masterly and original way with an orchestra to the full, including what is for him an unusually unrestrained percussion section. Debussy had a strong mystical streak, which came from his involvement with the Symbolist movement. One of the aims of the Symbolists was to create art so evocative that it actually becomes the thing it depicts. In his attempt to achieve this, Debussy jettisoned traditional ideas of musical structure and form. A letter he wrote to a friend reveals something of what he aimed at: “You can’t imagine how naturally the transition works between ‘Parfums de la nuit’ and ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’. It sounds as though it’s improvised.”

Brahms: Symphony No.3

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Poco allegretto
4. Allegro

Like Elgar, Brahms hid a complex personality behind a construct of gruffness, sturdy suits and facial hair. He was immensely self-conscious about his place in musical history, and went to great lengths to make sure that as little as possible of his life became public knowledge. But the crusty image of “Herr Doktor Brahms” belies a life born in grinding poverty. His teenage years were spent playing piano in brothels to make ends meet, where he was subject to abuse of all kinds. He was irrevocably scarred by his early experiences. He felt deeply lonely, yet incapable of allowing himself any great intimacy. He was notorious for his caustic wit and an exasperating combination of misanthropy and self-pity. “I have no friends!” he would often exclaim in later life (to his friends).
By the time he came to write his third symphony, the blue-eyed, handsome youth had long since disappeared beneath the façade. He was held up as the figurehead of the conservative opposition to the revolutionary music of Wagner and his followers. This was not a position he sought or welcomed, despite his reservations about the Wagnerian cult. He remarked acidly on more than one occasion that he understood Wagner’s music far better than any of his most rabid acolytes. But as the pre-eminent composer of symphonies and chamber music in a world dominated by Wagner’s ideas of the “Total Art Work”, he felt himself to be the last of a line.
In 1883 Brahms was about to celebrate his 50th birthday. He was, after Wagner’s death early that year, indisputably the foremost composer in Germanic culture. Not that his mind was entirely focussed on his artistic reputation. He was in the grip of one of his perennial infatuations, in this case a young singer called Hermine Spies. An outpouring of vocal music followed. His decision to take his summer holiday in Wiesbaden rather than his customary destination of Bad Ischl may not have been unconnected with the fact that she was there during that summer. What if anything went on is a matter for conjecture: this is one of those episodes that Brahms was more successful in removing from record. But in a light and airy country house in sight of the Rhine, as luxurious, he claimed, “as if I were trying to imitate Wagner”, he began his third symphony.
Brahms more than almost any other composer resists interpretation, but there are clues as to the influence of extra-musical thoughts. The opening three chords derive from a cipher. His friend and early champion, the violinist Joseph Joachim, had a motto: the notes F-A-E, standing for “Frei aber einsam” [free but lonely]. Brahms rejoined with F-A-F, meaning “Frei aber Froh” [free but happy]. This arresting opening plunges us deep into the current of the Rhine – almost literally, as the main theme is adapted from the Rhenish Symphony of another of Brahms’ friends from his youth, Robert Schumann.
These associations ran deep for Brahms. Both Joachim and Schumann had provided crucial support early in his career. There were less happy memories too. He had fallen out with Joachim three years earlier over the latter’s divorce, and it is perhaps significant that Brahms’s first attempt at a rapprochement would be to ask Joachim to conduct the Berlin premiere of the Third Symphony. Schumann loomed large in Brahms’s life beyond his role as mentor. As the elder composer succumbed to madness and died in an asylum, Brahms fell head over heels in love with his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. Whether these feelings were consummated is still a subject of speculation, but she was undoubtedly the great love of his life. The presence of these motifs in the symphony suggest that thoughts of his past must have been present, and to be thinking of his lost friends and lost loves while he was pursuing the young contralto must have been a source of much soul-searching. The overall mood of the opening movement is heroic, but it is heroism undermined by instability: the rhythms and harmonies are in constant flux.
The middle two movements are more subdued and introverted. The second begins restfully enough, but there is a melancholic undertow. The third movement’s exquisitely yearning main theme made it an instant hit at early performances. In those days when no one worried about whether or not to clap between movements, it was often encored.
The finale begins quietly and tensely before erupting. Elements of the previous movements are woven into the design, which seems to be striving towards a heroic conclusion. Brahms often takes a moment in his finales to reflect before he races for an affirmative ending. But on this occasion things take an unexpected turn. The ensuing valediction nods towards Wagner, and reveals the opening theme’s true nature. It would be an unthinkable way to conclude such monumental music had Brahms not done it and made it seem so right.

Richard Strauss: Horn Concerto No.2

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No.2 in E flat

1. Allegro – Andante con moto
2. Rondo (Allegro molto)

In 1945 an old man walked down the stairs of his country retreat with his hands up and surrendered to the American soldiers who had entered with the words, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” He cut a very different figure to the young turk who had scandalised early 20th century audiences with dissonant operas on such scandalous subjects as Salome. The First World War swept aside the certainties of nineteenth-century Europe, and almost overnight the former leading modernist found himself out of step with the times. As the younger generation scandalised Viennese ears with such horrors as atonality and jazz, Strauss assumed the mantle of Establishment: conservative, safe and above all respectable.
It was rather unfortunate that over the next twenty years the Establishment took a turn for the worse as Hitler came to power. Probably more through naivety than anything else, Strauss decided that he could stand apart from politics. Not everyone agreed with this stance. The nature and morality of Strauss’s relationship with the Nazis continues to provoke heated debate even today. The works of his last years are marked by a conspicuous sense of retreat from a world that had left him far behind.
Strauss wrote his first concerto for horn as a young man for his father to perform (the elder Strauss declared it too difficult), and his second, part of the remarkable fecundity of his last years, was written as a tribute to his memory. He only intended it to be performed once, and that is reflected in its absolute straightforwardness of mood. Barely a hint of the war that raged as he wrote it in 1942 is to be heard. Beyond the occasional moment that hints of darker things, the concerto exists largely in a Mozartean utopia, the hunting calls that abound perhaps an echo of an imagined past when life was more chivalrous, less complicated.

Elgar: Froissart

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19

Elgar’s public image – the tweed suit, the extravagant moustache, the very image of the establishment country gent – was assiduously cultivated. He did this so successfully that the most popular idea of him today is still the gruff patriot, churning out tunes to wave flags by. The reality was rather different. To be born a Catholic in the provinces was the mark of an outsider in Victorian England. It took years of struggle and disappointment before he achieved his status as England’s foremost composer.
Froissart is an early work. It was commissioned by the Worcester Festival, but actually composed in London. Elgar had moved there with his new wife Alice in 1889 hoping to make his mark, but he struggled to make an impact. He had to commute back to Malvern to earn money teaching the violin, and the arrival of his first child put further strain on his finances. At one stage he was forced to pawn Alice’s pearls. Disillusioned, he retreated to Malvern in 1891, and would not return to London for a decade. Despite these misfortunes surrounding its composition, he retained affection for the piece in later years.
The overture is named for the medieval French writer Jean Froissart. Froissart worked as a merchant and a clerk before he became the court poet and historian to Philippa of Hainault, the consort of Edward III. His Chronicles, written as he travelled round England, Scotland, Wales, France, Flanders and Spain, are one of the most important contemporary records of the period leading up to the Hundred Years’ War.
Froissart’s value as a reliable historian is disputed, but what appealed to Victorian England was his depiction of the values of chivalry. Rather than any specific event, Elgar evokes the spirit of dashing nobility. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Keats that sums up the Romantic enthusiasm for this ideal: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high.”

Mahler: Symphony No.9

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.9

1. Andante comodo
2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers (Etwas täppisch und sehr derb) (In the speed of a leisurely Ländler [folk-dance] (somewhat clumsy and very crude)
3. Rondo – Burleske
4. Adagio

“…So in the first place it is completely untrue that any affaires have brought me down. I have not been brought down at all. I am leaving of my own accord because I wish to have complete independence… after ten years of hard work I have decided to leave a post which has remained mine to keep, right up to the moment of my final decision; of that I can assure you most decidedly.”

Not the words of a disgraced cabinet minister fending off accusations of misconduct, but part of an interview that Gustav Mahler gave to the Neues Wiener Tagblatt in June 1907, following his resignation from the Vienna State Opera. Disquiet about the way the House was managed had been growing over several years. Direktor Mahler became the focus of a campaign that made uncomfortable accusations about the artistic direction of the House, as well as its financial management. Many asked why Mahler was drawing an exorbitant salary from an opera house that was going to rack and ruin while hawking his own compositions on long foreign tours.

Then as now, a superstar conductor who seemed less than wholeheartedly committed to his prominent, well-paid job was sure to provoke resentment. But the complaints were the result of more than artistic or economic concerns. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout Vienna and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Mahler was acutely aware of this. He had had to deny his own roots and convert to Catholicism in order to obtain the post in Vienna. He once commented, “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian amongst Germans, as a Jew throughout the world. Always an intruder, never welcomed.”

Having jumped before he was pushed, Mahler wasted no time: even before his resignation was officially accepted, newspapers announced that he had been appointed to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. No wonder he felt able to be so bullish in his public comments about his departure from Vienna. But his fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse. In July 1907 Mahler’s elder daughter Maria-Anna contracted diphtheria and died suddenly, aged five. A few days later his doctor diagnosed a disease of the cardiovascular valves and ordered him to limit his physical activity. The condition was not deadly; Mahler’s doctor almost certainly exaggerated the gravity of the situation, in order to persuade his workaholic patient to limit his routines. Nevertheless, these two blows hot on the heels of the plotting in Vienna left Mahler devastated.

The trauma of all this is reflected in the vast triptych of works he composed between 1907 and his own death in 1911: the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde [The Song of the Earth], the ninth symphony and the unfinished tenth.

It is ironic that the piece we hear tonight was his last completed work: A common superstition of the time was that following Beethoven’s epic final symphony, and Bruckner’s death weeks from completing his, nine symphonies represented some kind of limit. To go beyond this number was to search after knowledge forbidden to mortals. Mahler, a man of his time, was not immune to such thoughts, and shied away from numbering Das Lied von der Erde as his ninth symphony – which, it is clear from his letters, is what he considered it to be. He then began what we know as his Symphony No.9, consoling himself that as it was really his tenth, he had circumnavigated the issue. Tempting fate rarely ends well.

The symphony’s design is unusual: two vast, largely slow movements, between which come two shorter interludes. The main theme, heard after a stuttering, unsure opening, is filled with an insatiable longing, always stretching out for a resolution, never quite finding it. It carries on almost directly from the closing bars of Das Lied von der Erde’s ‘Abschied’ [Farewell], to the extent that it almost seems like an instrumental commentary on the vocal work. Over and over the music reaches for joy and triumph, and over and over it is battered into numbness. Towards the end of the movement a solo violin transforms the main theme into an ironic quotation of Johann Strauss’s waltz Freut euch des Lebens! [“Rejoice in Life!”]

If the opening represents crisis, the subsequent movements may stand for the classic pattern of reaction to grief: denial, anger, resignation and acceptance. The second movement is based on the traditional Austrian country waltz, the Ländler. This had always been a symbol for Mahler of the joys of life, of simple revelry and love of nature, but here it becomes something else: the joy has gone, and what is left is an empty and shallow distraction.

The subtitle “Burleske” suggests more distraction. But in contrast to the disconnected Ländler, this extraordinary outburst throws the listener into a seething mass of activity. Having left Vienna for New York, Mahler had quickly fallen out with the management of the Metropolitan Opera, and left for the New York Philharmonic, which he also fell out with. It is tempting to see a reflection of this professional turbulence and hyperactivity here. The music strains and splinters at the edges in a complex mass of sound that teeters on the edge of chaos. For a brief moment the clouds roll back and a glimpse of hope emerges. But it is a mirage, and eventually the restraints are broken and the movement races out of control to its car-crash conclusion.

The distractions cannot continue, and the finale returns to the world of the opening movement, at once lushly beautiful and filled with anguish. The main theme’s allusion to “Abide With Me” may or may not be intentional, but the reference is entirely appropriate. The vision from the Burleske returns, now merely a memory. Later there is one more quotation, from the fourth of his Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children], ‘Oft denk’isch, sie sind nur ausgegangen’ [Often I think they’ve just gone out]:

“Wir holen sie auf jenen Höh’n
Im Sonnenschein! Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n!”
[We’ll go and fetch them up on the hills
In the sunshine! It’s a beautiful day up on the hills!].

From here everything retreats slowly to silence, and in the last moments, a suggestion of acceptance.

Copland: Symphony No.3

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Symphony No.3

1.Molto moderato - with simple expression
2.Allegro molto
3.Andantino quasi allegretto
4.Molto deliberato - Allegro risoluto

From Ives’s use of hymn tunes and marches, through Gershwin’s ambition to take jazz and Tin Pan Alley to the concert hall, to Torke’s appropriation of rock dynamics, American composers seem to be consistently concerned with how music for mass consumption and more academically-minded sounds might relate to each other. This is not something that is so common in Europe, where until very recently there has been an unspoken consensus that, the odd essay comparing the Beatles and Schubert aside, the two shall never meet.

Aaron Copland brings all these cultural issues into sharp relief. A Jewish New Yorker like his contemporary Gershwin, he studied in Paris with the most influential European teacher of the first half of the twentieth century, Nadia Boulanger. This elicited suspicion from many back in America: a composer steeped in old-world traditions composing modernist music. But he attracted as much disdain from the European elite when he turned his attention to writing deliberately populist works like El Salón México, a clever and deceptively simple piece that convinced most of the avant-gardists who might have been his allies that he had irredeemably debased himself.

This is more a reflection of differing political and social concerns on either side of the Atlantic than anything else. While depression in the 1930s made Europe a place of gathering storms as Nazism and Fascism rose up, in the United States a relatively optimistic air was building thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and this sense of rebuilding the nation was reflected in the arts generally. It is surely not coincidental that as Copland perfected his “American” sound in the early 40s with his ballets Billy The Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing much the same with Oklahoma, which premièred in 1943.

This resurgent sense of national pride went hand in hand with a renewed interest in the grandest musical forms, and the symphony became a fashionable medium for an American composer to express himself in; the 1930s saw a slew of grand orchestral declarations. When it became known that Copland was engaged in writing a symphony the expectation was for something epic. He himself would later wryly admit that he “certainly was reaching for the grand gesture.” Work began on the symphony in 1944 and continued for two years.

The grandest gesture in what is Copland’s largest orchestral work is probably his most famous music: the Fanfare for the Common Man, which heralds the finale. In fact the fanfare existed before the symphony, written to a commission for the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942. It is sometimes suggested that the fanfare is bolted on to the symphony, but this is unfair: Copland had it in mind as the symphony’s climax very early on. The extraordinary fame that it has achieved since gives us a warped perspective on it. At the time it would have seemed to Copland that it was just an occasional piece that would soon be forgotten, but too good an idea not to use in a new context.

The fanfare’s contours are reflected in the whole work, from the grand opening, which gives that sense of wide open spaces that Copland had perfected in the ballets he had written in the early 40s. Anyone familiar with Appalachian Spring will recognise the dancing rhythms and pastoral interludes that characterise the second movement. The third movement reflects some of the concerns of the opening, beginning with a brooding version of a theme heard on trombone in the first movement, before gradually speeding up to a central climax so dramatic that the listener could be forgiven for thinking that it marks the start of the finale. But things die down again, and when the finale does follow on directly, it begins tentatively in the flutes before the full brilliance of the fanfare breaks out. From here the music takes flight before reaching a conclusion whose grandeur and significance was summed up by Leonard Bernstein: “The Symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or something.”

Gershwin: An American in Paris

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
An American in Paris

“George Gershwin is the only songwriter I know who became a composer,” noted Irving Berlin in 1961. Crossover is a discredited concept now, but Gershwin stands almost alone in having achieved a genuine cross-fertilisation of different genres.

He drew rather less complimentary reactions from most of the American classical establishment. “Nauseous claptrap” was the verdict of the New York Telegram on An American in Paris at its premiere in December 1928. Hardly less dismissive was the Evening Post, whose critic declared, “For those not too deeply concerned with any apparently outmoded niceties of art, it was an amusing occasion… To conceive of a symphonic audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.”

He found a more receptive audience in Europe: when he toured his Piano Concerto there earlier the same year, Ravel, when asked what he would like as a birthday present, declared that he wanted to meet Gershwin. The ensuing meeting, where Gershwin asked Ravel for composition lessons (as he was wont to do to almost every major composer he met, so self-conscious was he about his lack of formal training), resulted in Ravel’s observation, “why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?”

It was during this European visit that Gershwin bought a number of car horns in Paris. The results of his experiments with them can be heard at the outset of An American in Paris. Described as a “Tone Poem” on the manuscript, it presents a lively sequence of events, from the opening street scene to the grand romance of the slow central section. Freed from the formal constraints imposed by traditional orchestral genres, the piece proceeds in a rhapsodical, almost stream-of-consciousness manner that perhaps, along with such touches as the car horns, puts him closer in spirit to Ives than is generally recognised. One more European who recognised his significance was Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote after Gershwin’s untimely death: “I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them.”

Ives: Decoration Day

Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Decoration Day

When the young Charles Ives scoffed at John the village stonemason’s off-key singing in church, his father corrected him: “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.” George Ives was an inveterate experimenter who encouraged his son to open his ears to sounds outside the scope of conventional music theory. Ives recalled his memories of his father leading the singing at camp-meeting services that were a feature of the revivalist Christianity prevalent in New England at that time: “Father…would always encourage the people to sing their own way. Most of them knew the words and music (their version) by heart and sang it that way. If they threw the poet or composer around a bit, so much the better for the poetry and the music. There was power and exaltation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity.” The clusters of sound and wayward harmonies and rhythms that fill his music reflect these childhood memories.

Decoration Day is the second of four pieces that together are known as the Holidays Symphony. Ives wrote on one of the sketches, “Symphony, but not called Sym.”, and on another occasion remarked, “These movements may be played as separate pieces. These pieces may be lumped together as a symphony.” The holiday that it portrays commemorates those who died during the Civil War of 1861-65. As with much of Ives’ music, it has its roots in earlier works: in this case an organ piece of his own based on the hymn tune “Adeste Fidelis” (better known nowadays as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March by David Wallis Reeves. A number of other popular and hymn tunes of the time can also be heard by the attentive ear.

The villagers gather and the parade forms and marches to the graveyard, where the graves are decorated and hymns sung. Then all march back to the village to the strains of the Second Regiment, below which can barely be discerned the sombre thoughts of the soldiers. Finally, “in the silence the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the town, and the sunset behind West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the day.”

Michael Torke: Bright Blue Music

Michael Torke (b. 1961)
Bright Blue Music

Duration: 9'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2009, 2000

One of the characteristics of much music composed in the last 30 years or so is a new sense that the bitter arguments about musical style that have characterised the history of music in the 20th century are now an historical irrelevance. A composer need no longer feel weighed down by dogma, and can employ whatever techniques and styles he feels suit whatever it is he wants to write. This is an attitude that the grandfather of modern American music, Charles Ives, would have approved of: he once wrote, “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good I can’t see. Why it should always be present I can’t see. It depends, it seems to me…on what one is trying to do, and on the state of the mind, the time of day or other accidents of life.”

This brings us to Michael Torke and Bright Blue Music, a piece filled with startlingly straightforward harmonies. He came to public attention early, with two pieces – Ecstatic Orange and The Yellow Pages – written while he was still a student at Yale. These were the first two parts of his series of pieces collectively known as Color Music, and the reader will need no further prompting from a programme note to deduce that Bright Blue Music also belongs to this sequence.

Torke gives two reasons for his strategy. One is that by using the simplest, most obvious harmonies he is freed to concentrate on other things: “Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

“That bright blue color contributed towards the piece's title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.” The result is a ten-minute burst of uninhibited exuberance and joy, or as the Chicago Tribune’s critic John van Rhein puts it, “like John Adams getting stoned and listening to Der Rosenkavalier.”

Sibelius: Symphony No.3

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
3. Moderato - Allegro ma non tanto

The early years of the twentieth century were a busy time for Sibelius. After years of struggle he was finally establishing his name as a composer, and conductors such as Toscanini and Henry Wood were performing his works. The English were taking to his music particularly, and so it was natural that he should be invited to visit the country by another prominent (though now half-forgotten) musician, Granville Bantock, who conducted the British première of Sibelius's First Symphony in March 1905 during the composer's stay.

England's appeal to Sibelius may not have been entirely unconnected with Bantock's generous hospitality, so lavish that Sibelius declared that he "never made the acquaintance of English coinage." While such attentions were understandably welcome and helped smooth the way for the Royal Philharmonic Society's proposal that he should bring his planned third symphony to England in 1907, there is a dark undercurrent: Sibelius had a drink problem, and such unconstrained bonhomie cannot have helped matters. His new publisher Robert Lienau's desire for more new works was an unwelcome pressure, and drove him further into the bottle. Progress on the new symphony was therefore slow, and the Society had to wait until February 1908 for its première. Bantock conducted, and Sibelius expressed his gratitude by dedicating the symphony to him. A pattern had been set, and Sibelius's subsequent career would be characterised by increasing self-doubt, struggles with alcoholism and consequent procrastination.

The Third Symphony represents a new maturity in Sibelius's style. Gone is the romanticism of the first two symphonies. In its place is a new, pared down sound, restrained in its emotions and textures. The moderately-sized orchestra that Sibelius uses could not be more in contrast to prevailing fashions in 1908 – Mahler had recently produced his Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand" whose extravagantly large forces were much more in tune with mainstream tastes. It is interesting to note that one of the few other composers defying fashion at this time was Schoenberg, whose Chamber Symphony is similarly a reaction against the overblown excesses of late Romantic music. Within a decade, the First World War would put an end to large orchestras (not least through the wholesale slaughter of thousands of young men who might otherwise have taken up the profession) and stripped-down neoclassicism would become the trend. Sibelius's music stands apart from these trends though. He is not interested in the ironic recycling of archaic clichés, but taking the principles of symphonic thought as the starting point for something entirely new. When Sibelius and Mahler met, around the time that the Third Symphony was being composed, their differences were encapsulated in Sibelius's declared fascination with the possibilities of creating symphonies bound together by intricate relationships between all the musical ideas and motifs, and Mahler's insistence that "the symphony must be like the world: it must embrace everything!" He did not see that Sibelius's approach could create the sense of an entire world just as effectively as his own, more diffuse structures.

The Third Symphony is in only three movements: The first movement's quietly vigorous opening opens out into bright cold sunlight, tempered by Nordic melancholy. Then a withdrawn, will o' the wisp of an intermezzo precedes a finale that starts fleet-footedly before mutating into a noble conclusion. It is often said that the way Sibelius constructs his music is by taking scraps and building up themes from them. This is precisely how the last movement of this symphony works – but it is in fact the only movement in all Sibelius's symphonies where this happens.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61

1.Allegro ma non troppo
3.Rondo. Allegro

Franz Clement, the dedicatee and first performer of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, is a man recalled by some with horror. At the concert in December 1806 when he gave the first performance, rather than play the whole concerto through in one go he performed the first movement in the first half of the concert and the remaining two in the second half. In between he interspersed a number of other pieces, including a set of variations of his own composing, played on one string with the violin held upside down, before continuing with the remaining two movements of Beethoven’s piece.

A little perspective is required. Those who complain po-facedly about this sullying of the concerto’s artistry would do well to remember the dedication to Clement that Beethoven scrawled on the manuscript, which consists mainly of a tortuous pun on the violinist’s “clemency”. Beethoven clearly saw no contradiction between the expression of divine ideas and a cheap joke, and there is no reason why we should be troubled by such things.

That Clement performed the concerto at sight with no rehearsal may be true or may be a tale put about to bolster his reputation as a technical master, but Beethoven certainly finished the concerto very late. Again, though, this was not such an unusual situation as it appears to us. Late into the nineteenth century, virtuosi such as Liszt were accustomed to rolling into whichever town was next on their tour itinerary and only then organising concert dates and assembling the necessary local musicians to form an orchestra. Spontaneity was the order of the day, and if we like to believe we treat this music with more reverence we might also consider what we have lost in the process.

Although now one of his most loved pieces, the Violin Concerto remained relatively unknown until Joseph Joachim took it into his repertoire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until then it was more likely to be heard on a very different instrument: as a violin concerto was not an enormously sellable genre, Beethoven rewrote the solo part for piano.

The concerto is unusual for Beethoven in its overall feeling of sublime calm, which is not to say that there is not plenty of drama to be had in the vast opening movement, which is filled with incident and surprises. The second movement is so filled with rapturous stillness that it takes a sudden and violent interjection to dispel the mood and prepare for the energetic finale, whose joyfulness and cheeky touches (including the soloist’s only two plucked notes in the entire piece) remind us that humour and profundity can make perfectly happy bedfellows.

Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op.80
4.Mort de Mélisande
Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande has been a source of inspiration for a number of composers: in the wake of Debussy’s opera, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Cyril Scott all composed works on the subject. Before any of these eminent modernists turned their attentions to the subject, however, Gabriel Fauré’s score composed for the first performance of the play in English in London in 1898 gained the distinction of being the first music inspired by the drama to be heard in public.

Fauré was overworked at the time and so entrusted his pupil Charles Koechlin with the orchestration of the music. Fauré himself subsequently revised three movements for a larger orchestra in 1901, and the addition in 1909 of the famous Sicilienne completed the four movement suite that we hear tonight.

The circumstances of the work may seem unlikely, but Fauré made several attempts to establish himself in London. However, he never managed to impress the English as much as did his titled contemporary Dr Edvard Grieg. Indeed, the reception of his music was decidedly lukewarm: “It is scarcely satisfactory, being wanting alike in charm and in dramatic power… its continued absence of tangible form, not to speak of its actual ugliness at many points, is such as to disturb rather than assist the illusion of the scene,” wrote the Times.

Such sniffy judgements were not uncommon for a composer who was and often still is dismissed as a purveyor of lightweight salon songs. But this is to misunderstand how his music works. Those looking for lurid expressions of breast-beating despair in the death of Mélisande, for instance, will be disappointed. Fauré’s music eschews melodrama, and prefers to make its point in more undemonstrative, subtly shaded ways. Its exquisitely attractive surface should not blind the listener to its great subtlety and originality, an art that conceals itself. Often seen as a marginal figure of the late nineteenth century, Fauré really deserves to take his place as a farsighted figure of the early twentieth century, whose influence, through such composers as his contemporary Satie and his favourite pupil Ravel, has persisted through a significant strand of the past century; rarely if ever drawing attention to itself, but there nevertheless.