Imagine I suggest we go to the museum together to look at some art.
What do you first imagine we’ll be looking at.
If you’re like most people, you’ll first assume that we’re going to look at paintings. And maybe a few sculptures?
Paintings have been very much on my mind of late. The ESO just premiered an incredible new violin concerto by Deborah Pritchard based on the astonishing series of paintings, “Walls of Water” by Maggi Hambling. Not only was Deborah’s concerto written in response to Maggi’s images, those images were projected (on a grand scale) behind the orchestra during the performance. I’ve always believed that great music can and must succeed as music, without needing any sort of visual crutch, and Deb’s piece does more than work as pure music. However, this carefully calibrated integration of musical and visual works of art made a huge, positive impression on nearly everyone there.
The next morning, I had a bit of free time in London- a rare treat- and so decided to make my way to the Tate Modern. The Tate’s curation has had its highs and lows over the year, but it’s always an inspiring place to go. I’d been exploring the galleries for a good 45 minutes before I came into a space that was primarily devoted to painting. Having come there with paintings on the brain, this really struck me- how much eclectic, diverse and varied the visual art world is that we realize. Imagine a trip to a museum, and you think you’ll be looking at paintings, just as you imagine going to a concert and imagine you’ll be hearing a symphony. I went to the museum and saw sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, collages and more before I’d really seen a single good-old painting.
The first painting a ran into at the Tate Modern the other day. Looks wild, but check out those rectangles.
What a tribute to our colleagues in the visual art world that on a perfect, sunny Sunday in October, this vast facility was packed, literally packed, with thousands of people coming to look at this eclectic collection of art that is so experimental, so radical, so varied that seeing a painting really seemed like a blast from the past.
Not even sure what to call this- a few bits of wood leaned against the museum wall. But it’s cool, and dig the parallel lines and right angles. It’s as if the frame is all that’s left of the art.
Again I was struck, as I so often am, by the astonishing divergence of fortune between contemporary music and contemporary art. Contemporary art is POPULAR. People come out in the thousands to see all kinds of weird, wacky, challenging, dark, twisted, radical and uncomfortable stuff. People also spend a lot of money on it- contemporary art is big business. Not so in contemporary music- it remains a tough sell. Most people coming to the Tate seem to want to be challenged. A high percentage of people coming to a classical concert don’t. They crave more of what they know- familiar works, familiar genres, familiar forms, familiar languages.
But is visual art really as free from familiar forms, gestures and genres as we assume? However diverse the works were that I saw that Sunday morning, 99% of them shared one obvious formal device- they were all enclosed in squares or rectangles. Sculptures, paintings, collages, videos- all surrounded by parallel lines and right angles.
This beautiful re-imagining of the human form by Alberto Giacometti shows a man standing on an iron square, mounted on a bigger, wooden square
Physics makes a powerful argument for parallel lines and right angles- buildings constructed in this way tend to stay standing. Those with diagonal weight-bearing walls tend to have a harder time. Right angles and parallel lines are a primarily human construct. Nature does not produce many rectangles.
Nature abhors right angles, and so does Frank Gehry, but think about what shape most of the windows are in this building….
But even in more radically shaped spaces (the Tate, itself a former power station, is a study in right angles), art tends to exist in rectangles. Everywhere you look, you see parallel lines and right angels. Even when the art is chaotic and irrational, the context is, almost always, the simplest and most rational one can imagine.
Does the simplicity and clarity of the frame or the framing device account, in part, for the mass popularity of contemporary visual art? Does the lack of such clarity of context account for the lack of a mass audience for so much music written in the last 80 years?
Penderecki once said of Classical forms: ‘Logic. You must have exposition, you must have development … nobody can do anything better.’ Is the tonic-dominant relationship our right angle? Is the ABA form, or its big brother, the Sonata Allegro form our parallel lines? Surely such an analogue is too simplistic, but it’s one worth thinking about.
It’s been mostly bad news for music since 2008 or so, but I do seem to be having a run of concerts and projects where more and more of the time, the work making the biggest impact on much of the audience has been the newest one. I’ve seen players and audience members deeply moved by brand-new or nearly-new works by John McCabe, Schnittke, Deborah Pritchard, Robert Saxton, Philip Sawyers, Andrew Keeling and James Francis Brown to name but a few. Don’t forget Mr Penderecki, either. Some of these works have been written in wildy dissonant and experimental languages, using tons of extended techniques, others have stuck to traditional genres and a tonally-informed musical harmonic language. All those which have made a strong impact possessed a powerful originality of thought and a keen mastery of the fundamentals of compositional technique. Charlatans are not hard to spot in contemporary music.
This rectangle filled with angsty squiggles by Jackson Pollock looks crazy, but the form is incredible simple and logical.
On the other hand, I’ve done two new works by composers I really admire in the last couple of years that I, sadly, felt just didn’t work in the end. Both composers where just as technically accomplished as any of the musicians listed above- both have written other pieces I adore. However, neither piece seemed to work- the audience could sense it, we felt it on stage. Somehow theses pieces didn’t arrive, didn’t cohere, didn’t deliver- they just didn’t work.
Can a picture of a bus stop in Armenia be high art? You betcha, as long as it’s Ursual Schulz-Dornburg who takes the shot and puts it in a rectangle.
Is Sonata form the parallel lines of music? Of course not, but, as listeners and performers, we sense that the beginning and ending of a musical work represent the most powerful relationship in a piece of music. It’s more than a hunger to return to the tonic key- Mahler, with his progressive tonality, showed us that sometimes a piece finds closure without returning to home, and yet he, of all composers, also understood the deep, instinctive relationship between the beginning of a journey and it’s fulfillment. When a piece works, the line at the beginning finds its parallel in the line at the end- the ideas of the piece, their working out, and the shape of the piece find a satisfying and logical relationship.
“Logic,” said Maestro Penderecki. “Nobody can do anything better.” Exposition and recapitulation forming parallel lines, development lying at a right angle? What I find more and more with audiences (if you can get them to the venue in the first place) is that they can happily grapple with any musical language if they can perceive the structure of a work with the kind of clarity of function we perceive in the rectangle that frames a painting, a video, a sculpture or a new visual idiom, yet to be defined and realized, but, more likely than not, one to be found lovingly bracketed in parallel lines and right angles. The simpler and clearer the form, the more powerful the impact of the content. The more radical you can be.
Rothko showed us you could become one of the 5 greatest painters of the 20th c by painting rectangles.
That’s not conservatism- that’s finding a framework for originality that works.
Everything in this headline and the following bullet points is either completely false or wildly misleading.
If the national papers cared at all about female composers, they’d be discussing music written by women. They aren’t because they don’t.
Women, young and old, are writing great music by the bucketload right now. They don’t need a “transformation of their confidence” via a transfusion of BS. They need opportunity and recognition. Same goes for the blokes.
The new recording on Avie Records of Schnittke’s String Trio by Ensemble Epomeo is released on October 27th in the UK, November 10th in the USA, but available direct from the Downbeat Store via the link above. The disc also includes string trios by Penderecki, Kurtág and Weinberg
Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio, composed in 1985, was commissioned in celebration of Alban Berg’s centenary. Schnittke later arranged the work as a Piano Trio, and his friend, Gidon Kremer, transcribed it for string orchestra. 1985 was to be the busiest year of Schnittke’s prolific creative life, the culmination of a period of development, distillation and maturation that had begun with the Piano Quintet of 1978. Schnittke’s biographer, Alexander Ivashkin says of this period in the composer’s life that “For many people, the Quintet seemed to be almost a betrayal of his principles…From the polystylistic surface of his earlier compositions, Schnittke goes deeper into the sphere of a musical language in which all the stylistic elements are combined in a single homogeneous whole.” From the late 1970’s through early 1985, Schnittke was possible the busiest composer alive, and was constantly interrupted by friends, colleagues and scholars. His health, never robust, began to show signs of deterioration. His recurring migraines, which had begun in his early thirties, became more severe and frequent.
Theodor Adorno wrote of the String Trio’s dedicatee, Alban Berg, that “his entire oeuvre was directed toward…reshaping music as a metaphor of vanishing… music to say adieu to life.” Schnittke, who had spent his entire adult life in the Soviet Union, was of Jewish and Volga German descent and had spent a formative part of his childhood in Vienna. He shared with Berg a sense of fascination with decay: “I set down a beautiful chord on paper—and suddenly it rusts,” he said of his own music. The String Trio shows the searing influence of late Shostakovich, but also Schnittke’s deep absorption with the Viennese masters, particularly Mahler and late Schubert, an affinity shared with Berg, who according to Adorno “assumes a position in extreme antithesis to that which the musical tradition calls healthy, to the will to live… as had Schubert before him, as had Schumann, and perhaps also Mahler.”
The Trio is in many ways a strikingly Classical work. The first movement (Moderato) is in Sonata form, and the work has a strong tonal centre of G minor. Schnittke is extremely economical in his material, developing a few key ideas with striking facility and originality. A great deal of the work’s rhythmic and thematic material is derived from the gentle melancholic dance theme which opens the trio.
The second thematic group (Meno mosso) is based on a lamenting theme first heard in the viola alternating wide dissonant intervals:
And a mournful melody heard first in the violin and cello:
This would later become one of the main themes of his First Cello Concerto
However, the most important and pervasive musical idea in the String Trio is a harmonic relationship Schnittke refers to as “common mediants,” or chords which share their third, such as C minor and B major. In the String Trio, Schnittke seems to put this relationship to every possible use, including using it as a chord progression, as in the massive fortissimo outbursts that occur twice in the first movement and once in the concluding Adagio:
He also uses it as a sonority, stacking the two chords on top of each other as he does in the dissonant choral that returns several times.
He also will re-harmonize a melody, for instance playing the same tune once in G minor then again in G-flat major.
Finally, the common mediant relationship replaces the normal tonic-dominant relationship as the main tonal constructive device—the exposition of the first movement ends not in D major (the dominant of G minor), but in the common median key of G-flat major. Likewise, the first movement ends in F-sharp major (the common mediant of G minor) before moving without pause into the Adagio which begins with four bars in the dominant before settling back in the tonic of G minor.
For all its structural clarity, the opening Moderato is one of the most dramatic (and physical) movements in the chamber music literature—for this performer, it always feels like a life-and-death struggle.
As in the Penderecki Trio (also on this CD), the second movement (Adagio) of the Schnittke is essentially an extension of, and in this case, a meditation on, the ideas of the first. If the first movement is life-and-death, this movement seems to be only the latter- the lilting opening dance theme of the Moderato now inverted and transformed into a bleak funeral march. In the final pages, Schnittke begins to pull together the themes of the work for a final summation. After a final titanic outburst, and a return of the dissonant chorale (both versions of his “common mediant theme), and a volcanic final statement of the theme from the Cello Concerto the viola sounds the elegiac trumpet call for the last time:
Finally, the opening dance melody returns for one final, complete statement in the home key of G minor.
After one final cadence on a pristine C major chord, the work collapses into the abyss- the cello and viola sound a death-knell, and the violin seems to depart the corporeal world.
Schnittke’s String Trio was premiered on 2 June, 1985 at the Moscow Conservatory. The musicians involved, Oleh Krysa, Fyodor Druzhinin and Valentin Feigin, described the work as possessing “unusual, grim, almost alarming notes—perhaps premonitions…” Only a few weeks later, on a very hot 21 July, Schnittke collapsed while socializing with friends. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced clinically dead three times before recovering consciousness.
More on the Schnittke at Vftp
Composer Kile Smith on the Schnittke String Trio
Review- Epomeo Play Scnittke at Scotia Festival of Music
Early thoughts on Schnittke from Vftp
There’s a nice feature piece in the October 18th issue of The Tablet by journalist and critic Rick Jones. Click here to subscribe.
You can read his reviews of selected Bobby and Hans CD’s on his blog
Robert Schumann Symphony no. 1- KW/OOTS and Yannick Nezet Seugin/COE “Two Springs”
Schumann Symphony no. 2 and Gál Symphony no. 4
Critic Andrew Achenbach writes in the current issue of Gramophone Magazine about the new Nimbus CD of orchestral music by Philip Sawyers. Buy your copy today, or better yet, subscribe.
Buy your copy of the CD in the Downbeat Store.
“Here are three recent works of strong personality, genuine substance and warm-hearted integrity…uncommon skill in handling instrumental forces…performed here with thrilling conviction and formidable assurance by soloist Maja Bogdanovic… and the Orchestra of the Swan under its excellent Principal Guest Conductor Kenneth Woods…Sawyers’s excitingly integrated music marries a generous lyrical impulse to a genuine thematic substance and marvellously invigorating contrapuntal flair… dashingly eloquent advocacy by the Steinberg Duo… Boasting admirable sound and judicious balance, this rewarding collection earns the strongest recommendation”
Via the Saint Louis Dispatch
“Michael Brown protesters interrupted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday night, causing a brief delay in the performance at Powell Symphony Hall.
The orchestra and chorus were preparing to perform Johannes Brahms’ Requiem just after intermission when two audience members in the middle aisle on the main floor began singing an old civil rights tune, “Which Side are You on?” They soon were joined, in harmony, by other protesters, who stood at seats in various locations on the main floor and in the balcony.
The protesters then unfurled three hand-painted banners and hung them from the Dress Circle boxes. One banner listed the birth and death date of Brown, who was shot by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
The five-minute interruption was met with a smattering of applause from some audience members, as well as members of the orchestra and chorus. Others simply watched as the orchestra remained silent.”
I wasn’t there, obviously, but I’m inclined to say the protesters did the right thing- certainly that their actions, to me, seem both justified and appropriate.
There have been many political protests at the Proms over the years, some poignant and effective, some simply disgraceful. It all has to do with motivation for the protest, respect for the audience, appropriateness of context and respect for the music. Interrupting the piece would have been disrespectful to music, musicians and audience. Protesting before a Requiem seems poignant and appropriate- someone ought to be singing in memory of any and all people killed by violence. Maybe the protest helped people hear the work with more open ears and raw nerves- probably upsetting, but eye opening. One friend of mine questioned whether staging a protest on private property was fair to the hall, the orchestra and the audience. I’m not sure I agree. If the concert hall can’t be the center of civic life, a hub for intellectual discussion, a place to share ideas, a place we can mourn, cry, scream, love and heal together, we may as well burn every concert hall to the ground. When we value genteel niceties and professional convenience over the existential questions of right and wrong, life and death, we, as artists, have probably made ourselves completely irrelevant.
Classical music was once the most political of art forms. Beethoven wrote the Eroica in support of Napoleon’s struggles for liberty and freedom from an oppressive monarchy. When Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, Beethoven famously scratched out the dedication to the fallen hero. Wagner may have been a toxic soul, but he was deeply engaged in political ideas and clearly saw his music as, among other things, an instrument of social and political change. Sibelius’s music helped fuel the Finnish struggle for liberation from Russian occupation, and Verdi’s helped bring together Italy into a modern and united country. Mozart’s three great operas based on libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte were provocative and highly controversial political statements questioning the birthright of the ruling class, the inherent nobility of the noble, and the wisdom and decency of those who rule. Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, the War Requiem, is a pacifist cris de coeur, that not only reminds us of the utter futility of industrial scale mass murder, but also of the fundamental humanity of those on both sides of any conflict. Shostakovich described much of his music as a gallery of tombstones- memorials to victims of Stalinist terrors and Nazi atrocities. Rostropovich’s performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto during the 1968 Russian crushing of the Prague Spring remains one of the musical and social high-points of Proms history. I could go on.
It has been a widely accepted truism in my lifetime that music and politics ought to be kept separate. There is a kernel of wisdom in this idea. Music ought to bring us together, not drive us apart, and I know that by keeping my political ideals out of the discussion to the best of my ability in the workplace, I’ve been able to form countless friendships and vital collaborations with people who have very different political outlooks and world-views from me. The social act of making and sharing music has provided a framework and a forum for me, and them I hope, to find common ground. It’s important we nurture that fragile shared public space.
On the other hand, if we can’t agree on the rightness and wrongness of certain things, what is the point of that public space? If we can’t find some common ground in our understanding of massive historical events and social problems, what hope to we have of improving the human condition? How perfect is it that the protesters sang “Which Side are You on?” I read that as referring to the side of life or the side of death, the side of love or the side of hate, the side of peace or the side of murder. Too many people seem to be seeing it terms of the side of white people or the side of black people, the side of the cops or the side of Mike Brown. Simply agreeing on the pleasant sound made by a fine orchestra and chorus performing Brahms is not enough. Classical music, worried about alienating funders and scaring off audience, has completely neutered itself in my lifetime. Politics is a combative business- a rough and imprecise way of working through the problems society faces. All too often, in order to appear reasonable and unbiased, our social discourse offers equal time to both right and wrong. Art can help us to illuminate and clarify what is right and what is wrong by engaging and awakening our sense of empathy. Which Side are You on? We hope you’re on the side of empathy.
We call a Requiem a “Mass for the Dead” but that’s a misleading bit of shorthand. It’s better thought of as a “Mass of Remembrance for the Survivors” (my teacher, Gerhard Samuel, wrote an important work called “Requiem for Survivors” that explores this very idea). A Requiem exists to give voice to the pain of loss and to help us find reason and comfort in our darkest hours. The media belittles and trivializes human life at every turn. If this week’s protest helped anyone to listen to Brahms’s music with more empathy, to think about the value of Mike Brown’s life and the loss being endured by his family, I think that’s a positive thing. If the performance that followed the protest could have given some solace to Mr Brown’s family or the survivors of any of the many violent deaths plaguing our society, that would have been a wonderful thing. If we can’t agree that killing is wrong, that violent deaths are always a tragedy, what hope do we have? If the words of Brahms’ Requiem are simply a framework for some beautiful music that let’s the performers show how accomplished they are and let the audience relax after a busy week, I don’t know why we’d bother struggling on to raise money to put on concerts. This is supposed to be life or death stuff- infinitely raw and relevant.
“You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.
I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother”
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UPDATED- Monday, 6 October
It’s been wonderful to see the very strong and overwhelmingly positive response to this post. It’s particularly nice to be able to engage with new readers. Welcome to everyone visiting for the first time.
Almost all the comments I’ve received here have been very positive. One area of discussion that has emerged is the effect the protest had on some of those in the building. One commenter was particularly concerned that elderly patrons and the ushers, who often tend to be older, might have felt threatened or feared for their safety in the early moments of the protest. Thomas J, playing principal horn in the concert, commented below ” I can only say that while the protest ultimately proved beautifully sung and peaceful, to those of us about to commit ourselves to this profound work and it’s attendant need for focus, more than a few of us felt unsettled,” going on to say “We simply didn’t know what else was up the protesters’ sleeves, and saw no one to allay our fears.” I have every confidence that the musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony rose above the disruption and delivered the kind of performance that everyone there needed to hear- they’re one of the greatest orchestras in North America and their musical shoulders are very broad.
I think these are perfectly legitimate issues to raise, and I hope the protest organizers will take them to heart. If the goal of this movement is justice and healing a divided society, empathy and respect for others has to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Hopefully, the peaceful and respectful nature of this protest will help allay fears of members of the general public present going forward. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful protest than one which consists of singing and dropping folded hearts, but protest of any kind in these strange and violent times has the potential to make perfectly well-intentioned people very uncomfortable. While the sentiment of “black lives matter” is obviously one that needs to be articulated as part of the movement, I found the switch from singing to shouting surprisingly jarring and wish only that those words could have been set to music as well. I would implore anyone involved in or considering future protests to think of the state-of-mind and well-being of those people you are asking to be your witnesses. Make sure they know your intentions are respectful and peaceful. Build empathy by modelling empathy.
Update 7 October
Thanks again to everyone for reading and commenting.
As this moment begins to run its course, I think a word of praise is due to everyone at the Saint Louis Symphony who have, as far as I can see, handled the entire event and its aftermath with total class and professionalism, from the musicians to the broadcast team. Well done, everyone- a perfect example of how a great orchestra is more than just great performances.
Update- 9 October
A podcast follow-up from WQXR in New York. I talk about the relationship between classical music, politics and protest with host Naomi Lewin and author and Washington Post culture writer, Philip Kennicott . Naomi also interviews Sarah Bryan Miller, music critic of the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
There’s also this article from the Riverfront Times which is a nice summary and discussion of what you’ve just read here.
This Friday I’m conducting the winds of the English Symphony Orchestra in a program of wind ensemble masterpieces by Hans Gál, Mozart and Dvorák. You should come- it’s going to be fantastic!
It’s no secret I’m a cellist, so I have grown up outside the wind ensemble tradition (although the wonderful Dvorák Wind Serenade actually has a significant cello part, which I’ve played many times). In spite of this, I absolutely LOVE (love!!!!!) conducting wind ensembles.
I still remember the first time I conducted an all-wind group. It was the Stravinsky Octet for Winds. WOW! The differences between conducting winds and strings are very striking to someone who has grown up playing in and conducting groups that always include string players. Wind players are fundamentally different to string players. Wind players learn their music. They make very few counting mistakes and almost never play a wrong note. They play together- AT THE SAME TIME!!!!! It’s as if they really care that chords start and finish in an organized manner, and, in spite of the ridiculous and seemingly irreconcilable differences in sound characteristics between the different instruments, they seem to be able to come to agreement not only on when to begin notes, but how to begin them. This kind of clarity, precision and professionalism is not something one encounters often in the presence of string players.
I love conducting winds and I love the repertoire. Granted, there are not as many A-list masterpieces for winds as there are for string ensembles or orchestras (you know you have a serious repertoire shortage when you hear people describe any work by Percy Grainger as a masterpiece), but the twenty or so greatest wind ensemble works are among the most rewarding pieces to study and perform I can think of. Mozart’s Gran Partita? Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments? Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum? Hartmann Symphony no. 5? These are GREAT pieces.
Messiaen’s Et exspecto. I will conduct it for beer with any group good enough to play it.
So, every time I conduct a wind concert, I have an absolute blast and I find myself thinking that I wish I could do it more often. There should be more wind concerts. So many more people have experience of playing wind instruments- surely you would think this would all translate into a huge audience for professional wind ensembles. An audience as big and enthusiastic as that for orchestras?
Well, no. How many wind ensembles played at the Proms this year? You guessed it! Why?
Well, depth of repertoire is an issue, but the body of good music for winds has expanded hugely over the last 50 years as wind conductors have made heroic efforts to commission new works from all kinds of leading composers. Someday, we’ll have enough wonderful music for winds that we’ll never have to pretend that some of “those” pieces by Grainger and Holst are actually any good.
The answer came to me today as I was making lunch for the kids. I thought it might be a good time to listen to a recording the Dvorák Wind Serenade- one can always learn from listening. I found a live performance directed from the sarrusophone by one of the nation’s leading wind virtuosos (I’m not saying which nation!). I figured a wind virtuoso’s expertise was just the thing I, as a cellist, needed to take in as I get ready to do the piece again (I’ve conducted it four or five times and played it a good 15).
Now, I love the Dvorák Serenade the way bankers love money. The mere thought of the piece makes me smile. There’s not a bar, not a chord that I don’t adore, that isn’t infused with happy memories of playing this warm-hearted, beautifully-crafted and richly-inspired music with friends and colleagues.
And yet, but the midpoint of the first movement today, I found myself fantasizing about chewing my own left arm off. There may even be teeth marks just below the shoulder where I made a start before hitting the mute button. Here I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, flawlessly played, and I was DYING of boredom.
Wondering why there is no wind version of the Berlin Philharmonic? Well, other than a perfectly understandable fear among the public that going to a wind concert will expose them to the risk of hearing Percy Grainger’s music, the likelihood of being bored to tears has got to be a prime concern for the average ticket-buyer.
Why was I so bored? Well, I suppose the title of this blog post gives a hint. Like too many (but by no means all!) wind performances, the whole thing was one big shapeless mass of mezzo-forte. The sound was about as varied as a bowl of old oatmeal. I found myself waiting for the next printed subito forte just so I could groan in outrage when they continued prancing along with their smug, self-satisfied reduction of Dvorak’s affectionate masterpiece to high-class aural wallpaper. Something inside me snapped. Coming after two mind-numbingly bland and precious recordings of the Harmoniemusik from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (I mean really- how can anyone make Don Giovanni, DON GIOFREEKINGVANNI, boring in any medium?!?!?!), I decided something had to be said.
How does this happen? How is it that a group of professional musicians can give a televised performance of a great work that is all basically one dynamic? Surely, an ensemble that has players using double and single reads, horns and (in the case of the Dvorak) bows to make their sound can’t actually achieve a completely one-dimensional, characterless sound? Well, the sad fact is that a clarinet playing mezzo forte doesn’t sound all that different from an oboe or a horn playing mezzo forte. And all those cello pianissimi? Mezzo forte.
Of course, wind instruments do offer some amusing acoustic challenges in terms of dynamics. The flutes and oboes sit next to each other in orchestra. Of course they do- the two instruments are totally incompatible. The flutes can’t play loud in their low register, the oboes can’t play soft in theirs. Clarinets, who sit behind the flutes and oboes (so that they can smirk judgmentally at their colleagues’ lack of dynamic control) can play infinitely soft and terrifyingly loud (which reminds me- when did the bass clarinet surpass the trombones as the loudest instrument ever invented?), so I can only assume that playing an entire Dvorák Serenade mf is their way of mocking their less flexible colleagues. Bassoons really don’t seem to do dynamics at all, but one is so pleased any time they’re not a whole-tone sharp that we don’t dare get greedy. They’re trying, that’s the important thing. Horns can achieve a breath-taking range of dynamics, colours and articulations—so much so that they’re able to play in both woodwind and brass ensembles, an astounding feat of versatility. Unfortunately, most horn players seem unable to remember what constitutes “brass mode” and “woodwind mood” and often seem to end up blasting away in Mozart woodwind pieces and tooting delicately in Bruckner symphonies.
In orchestra, players often have to project over huge string sections, so an expert flutist will learn to belt out a solo marked piano with a lot of power but with a very sweet sound. It’s loud in terms of decibels, but soft in terms of character. This is exactly right. On the other hand, there are plenty of times in orchestral repertoire when the winds don’t all have the melody, the strings aren’t messing everything up, and piano or pianissimo really means piano or pianissimo. There are even times when composers clearly want players to achieve something dynamically against the grain of their instrument’s acoustical properties. Dvorak often writes low, soft, sustained, exposed parts for the 2nd oboe. The most famous example is the second movement of his cello concerto, where the poor second oboist is left hung out to dry while the first clarinet gets to astound the audience with his/her effortless artistry in dispatching one of the most beautiful melodies ever written (to make it worse, Dvorak has the principal oboist, who could have offered his/her colleague a bit of cover, and the second clarinettist, who could have played the same part effortlessly, sitting idle, smirking in judgment). Professional second oboists spend years agonizing over this short passage. I’m told there is great and mysterious reed maker living 20 days hike into the remotest mountains of Tibet who only makes reeds for this passage. Ask any good second oboist- a 20 day hike for a reed that can make this passage manageable is time well spent.
A conductor has to accept that there are some situations in which one has to be realistic about how big a dynamic range you can ask for, but, by and large, I’ve found that wind sections of all levels of ability can do far more with dynamics than most people think, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you ask nicely, listen to their concerns, and respect that they do have to deliver under pressure, one finds that almost anything is possible. Trust is key. Your colleagues have to trust that you really have valid and well considered reasons for wanting the piano‘s softer than the forte’s (can you think of any?), and you have to trust that when the musicians say they’re really, really giving it their all and can’t physically play any softer, that they’re telling the truth and not just being lazy.
Of course, there can be push back (especially once your colleagues figure out if you’re a pianist or a string player). I once had the principal flutist of a fine professional orchestra in the USA say to his music director after my first rehearsal “Wow, this guy sure does want our piano‘s soft. Does he know what he’s doing?” Thank heavens, my colleague said “yes,” and the next rehearsal was better. There are, sadly, wind players whose (non-)dynamic approach seems to be carved in granite, but with patience and charm, even they sometimes can be persuaded to try new things. I once cajoled a flutist into dropping below fortissimo for the first time in many decades. The trumpets came up to me after rehearsal to say how lovely it was to be able to hear themselves at last. The secret to my success in that scenario? Honest answer- I don’t know. Some days you eat the bear, and some days…
After all, what bigger musical crime can there be than to bore our audience to death? It’s far better to risk the occasional sqwawk or cack, than to have your public conclude that listening to the Dvorak Wind Serenade is the most boring way to spend 25 minutes ever created. Achieving a truly enormous dynamic range in all kinds of styles and registers on the sarrusophone may be difficult, but overcoming difficulty is supposed to be what we do. If I taught sarrusophone, I’d damn well make sure my students had the softest low C of any sarrusophone players in the country, not tell them throughout their formative years “don’t try to play too soft, you might squeak.” At the end of the day, if human beings can learn to play the cello in thumb position (I still remember the pain the first time I tried it in in a lesson), get through airports without committing violent crimes and unravel the mysteries of sub-atomic particles, surely we can offer the universe a realization of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade that would enable the interested listener to guess where the great man wrote “p” and where he wrote “f.”
Next time I have to get my left-arm sowed back on, I’m comin’ for you and namin’ names, Mr. fancy-pants sarrusophone virtuoso.
PS- Apologies to any Grainger fans out there. Please don’t take my humorously-intended remarks to heart. I’ll spare you all the half page of spanking jokes I was going to make at his expense.That would really whip up a lot of bad feeling.
Ken will be conducting this work with the musicians of the English String Orchestra on Saturday, the 13th of September, 2014 in Christ Church, Malvern.
The ESO will be repeating this work on their concert at Elgar Concert Hall in May 2015, and will be recording the complete Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies for Avie Records for release in 2016.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony opus 110a, an arrangement for string orchestra of his String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, opus 110, was the first of five orchestral transcriptions of his string quartets by his friend, the violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai. Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet stands at the centre point of his fifteen works in the genre. Shostakovich’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire stands alongside that of Béla Bartók as the most important addition since Beethoven’s mighty sixteen quartets. Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Quartet in the astonishing span of just three days between the 12th and 14th of July, 1960 while in Dresden working on the soundtrack for the film Five Days, Five Nights—a film about the Allied firebombing of that levelled that city in the closing months of WW II. When the work was published, its roots in Dresden were underlined by its dedication “To the victims of war and fascism.” Many early listeners detected all sorts of musical evocations of the city’s destruction. (I even know of one American conductor who, in an act of chutzpah and genius, persuaded the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut to read selections of his own tribute to Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five, at a performance of the Chamber Symphony version of the quartet. Any excuse to hear Vonnegut read his own prose!).
Leningrad as seen by photographer Alexey Titarenko. His images, inspired in part by the music of Shostakovich, will be included in our upcoming Avie recording
However, the true meaning and origins of this unique work gradually rose to the surface. Shostakovich was notoriously grudging in revealing anything about his music’s inner symbolism to even his closest friends, but in the case of the Eighth Quartet, he confessed early on that “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.” To his son, Maxim, he said, simply “it’s in my honour, dedicated to me.”
The confessional nature of the quartet is made explicit in its first four notes—Shostakovich’s musical motto DSCH, or D, E-flat, C, B. This motive first began to appear in disguised form in his Jewish-inflected Fourth String Quartet in 1948, later becoming the triumphant theme of his Tenth Symphony, premiered and published just after the death of Stalin in 1953. Never before, however, had Shostakovich opened a work with this motto, nor treated it with such intensity. The hushed, forlorn and fugal atmosphere of the opening evokes that of the opening of Beethoven’s greatest string quartet, his Opus 131 in C-sharp minor (the two works also have many structural similarities).
Beethoven’s model shows him at his most intimate and confessional, and so, too, it is Shostakovich’s response.
Beethoven’s last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich’s Eighth
It is not, however, only the DSCH motto which underlines how personal this work was. Early in the first movement, Shostakovich quotes the opening of his First Symphony, the work that had launched then 19-year-old composer to international superstardom.
What had been cheeky and mercurial in 1926 has become deeply tragic and resigned by 1960.
A page later, he quotes his own Fifth Symphony, the work that had marked the central turning point of his career, and the most tumultuous point in his fraught relationship with Stalin and the Communist Party.
This musical quote points to a key biographical detail of Shostakovich’s life in 1960. After standing outside of the Party’s ruthless apparatus for his entire career, Shostakovich was finally forced to join the Communist Party that year, a step that caused him great personal shame and emotional distress. In fact, such was Shostakovich’s anguish that his friend, the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky, reports that “he thought it would be his last work—hence the self-quotations and the inclusion of a funeral march… A few of the composer’s friends knew that after finishing the work, Shostakovich had intended to kill himself; luckily they managed to persuade him not to do it.” Shostakovich went so far as to not attend the Party ceremony at which he was to be inducted- an act which could have been suicidal in and of itself.
After the meditative opening Largo, the second movement is a study in violence and madness, culminating in a screaming quotation of Shostakovich’s famous “Jewish Theme” from his Second Piano Trio. Jewish music held a special place in the composer’s heart, and he is quoted as having said that “Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be… Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music.”
There is more madness in the third movement, with the DSCH motive now twisted into a macabre waltz- it is as if the composer is mocking himself.
This movement also includes a quote from the opening of Shostakovich’s recently-completed First Cello Concerto.
[Only many years later did Shostakovich reveal that that piece includes a demonic-sounding reference to Stalin’s favourite folk-song, Suliko.]
The fourth-movement is another Largo, but has elements of both fast and slow music. It begins with three short, savage chords in the strings, “And the knocks on the door by the KGB,” said the composer’s son Maxim, “you can also hear them here.”
This gesture has a second meaning, as it is also a reference to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet (his last completed work). Beethoven underscored these three chords in his work with the words “Muss es sein?” or “Must it be?”
Lebedinsky tells us that Shostakovich intended this to be his last work, too, and this gives this quotation particular existential power. Beethoven answered his own quetsion “Es muss sein!”(“It must be!”).
Again, Shostakovich quotes the theme of his First Cello Concerto, those four now-famous short notes now presented slowly and with terrible intensity. In fact, this theme was first used by the composer in a scene called “The Death of the Heroes” from his score to the movie The Young Guard in 1947-8.
Here is how it sounded in The Young Guard:
There follow two more devastating quotations- first of the revolutionary song “Tormented by the Horrors of Prison.”
Then, in the solo cello, a quote from the Act 4 of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This scene in the opera is the one in which Katarina realizes the depth of her betrayal by her beloved Sergei. Already condemned for the murder of her husband, she now realizes the man for whom she sacrificed everything has forsaken her, and she throws herself into the icy waters of a Siberian river. Katarina, of course, took Sergei’s lover Sonetka, to her grave with her.
(aria begins at 40:09)
Here, this music is transformed to announce Shostakovich’s planned suicide- he intended to go to his death alone.
The fifth movement is another Largo, returning full circle to the soundworld of the opening, with a complete fugue on the DSCH motive. The final quote, again of his First Symphony, brings a life’s journey heartbreakingly full circle:
The work was premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet, but it was Shostakovich’s habit to organize a private reading of his quartets with his young colleagues in the Borodin Quartet. When the Borodin’s played the Eighth Quartet through for the first time at the composer’s house, their first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky reported that “We finished the quartet and looked at Shostakovich. His head was hanging low, his face hidden in his hands. We waited. He didn’t stir. We got up, quietly put our instruments away, and stole out of the room.”
Copyrighted recordings are excerpted here under Fair Use provisions of international copyright law.
Beethoven- String Quartet in F major, opus 135 performed by Masala String Quartet (Kio Seiler, Eva Rosenberg, Sheridan Kamberger, Kenneth Woods. Produced by Andrew Hasenpflug
Shostakovich 8th Quartet performed by the Borodin String Quartet
Shhh…. don’t tell them I’m not still 45.
A new review from Music and Vision Daily for Philip Sawyers’ Cello Concerto, Second Symphony and Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings on Nimbus Records. Click here to read the whole thing (subscription required). A short sample follows:
“….And now here is Philip Sawyers with an effortless demonstration that the history of music can proceed in an unbroken line and that music of yesterday can easily accommodate the best products of today. As an ex-cellist myself, I know the lyrical strength of the instrument, its readiness for sardonic humour, and its almost desperate need for sensitive orchestrationif the movements of a concerto are to work. If only I still had the technique to master this fine piece, I should start learning it tonight. The opening gives a good idea of the work’s calibre.
“It is somehow satisfying to know that both the Concerto and Symphony No 2 were commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival. It is as if the noble spirit of the ancient Crystal Palace still spread its benign influenceover local music, stipulating at the same time that the Symphony should be scored for the same forces as Beethoven 7. It is a powerful one-movement work, evolving and recapitulating with a sureness of touch that makes a very cogent argument.
“There is much pleasure in observing with what freedom and resource Sawyers shows passing but fleeting respect for 12-note techniques in both the Symphony and Concertante. That is as it should be. To have piano and violin as soloists in a concerted work is unusual. Haydn and Mendelssohn had shown that it could be done successfully, and Sawyers has also managed a work of great accomplishment. The start could hardly be more compelling.
This CD reflects great credit on all the performers, but most on a composer previously unknown to me.
Copyright © 17 August 2014 Robert Anderson,
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