Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience

The Doric Quartet concludes tonight’s performance with Market Square Concerts’ second program of the season – tonight at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom: you can read more about it here – with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, one of the great works in the chamber music (certainly in the string quartet) repertoire.

We – musicians or music-lovers – often talk about “Beethoven’s Late Quartets” as if they’re this huge monolithic entity, something lurking in the background of a pleasant photograph of a nice family picnic in a pretty park yet behind them loom the Alps, sometimes brilliant and exhilarating or at turns dark and foreboding.

People hold up these quartets as a group whenever they need an example of something that is both demanding of respect as well as unintelligible. They have become a metaphor for the inscrutable which, in time, has eventually (finally) become… well, scrutable – that through familiarity and perseverance, they can unlock secrets of the universe if only we let them.

Back in the 1960s, some less than friendly critic reviewed a complex and, clearly (to him) inscrutable quartet by Milton Babbitt with the phrase: “This must be what a Late Beethoven Quartet sounds like to a dog.”

During the mid-1970s, a composer friend of mine with a similarly complex style attended the new music festival at Tanglewood and sent me a post card of this photograph (see right) with that caption on the back.

The technical demands – both on the performers’ as well as the listeners’ side – are considerable, and if their length isn’t an issue today (since many of us are used to Mahler’s hour-long symphonies or sitting for a couple hours to watch a movie), it certainly was in Beethoven’s day and it made concentrating on the music all the more a challenge.

The Op.131 Quartet isn’t the longest of them but it might be the most intense. Written in a time when audiences were used to quartets (or symphonies) being about a half-hour long and divided into four movements, giving them a chance to relax in the slight pause between movements, the seven movements of Op.131 progress without a break which places additional demands on the players, both in terms of mental concentration and physical endurance, as well as on the listeners.

It may not be a good analogy but I think it gets the point across: you need to be “in shape” to run a race, whether it’s the 500 meter event or the 5000 meter one. I’ve heard some musicians describe these quartets as “running a marathon” (in one case, a triathlon) which implies certain non-musical concerns as “pacing yourself” or being able to keep yourself “in the zone” to avoid focusing on… well, things like pain or exhaustion which would slow you down.

Okay, that may be a bit much and the analogy falls apart the instant you visualize four sweaty musicians in shorts and headbands racing to the finish line and one of them is a little bit faster than the others (pity the poor cellist, carrying such a cumbersome instrument). It’s more of an eight-legged race where all four of them have to cross the line together as a unit, but let’s not go there… the image is too funny (but a good skit for the likes of Monty Python).

Okay, now I’ve completely destroyed the serious – ahem, and I do mean “serious” – reverence with which the intellectual music-lover approaches (often genuflecting) these five quartets Beethoven composed in the last years of his life. For music-lovers who prefer “America’s Got Talent” to “Masterpiece Mystery,” their approach to a Beethoven Late Quartet might be figuring out (a.) how one can sit still so long; (b.) what one is supposed to listen to during all this and (c.) do not think about needing to visit the rest-room.

Art-lovers who complain about the dumbing down of today’s culture might be surprised to discover that Beethoven had to deal with the same issues in his audience.

So, where did these works come from?

At the end of the previous post about the Schumann and Chausson quartets, I mentioned how Schubert had died at 31, Mozart at 35, Mendelssohn at 38, how Schumann had tried to commit suicide when he was 44, how Chausson died in a biking accident at 44, and how Beethoven (who appears timeless as well as ageless in our imaginations) was 56 when he died, having completed the last of these five quartets only months earlier.

So I want to quote something from Elliott Carter, an American composer who died ten days ago, a little over a month shy of his 104th birthday – and, I might add, till then busily and seemingly constantly composing. 

In some interview during this long and illustrious career (but probably during the slew of interviews he granted as he approached 100), Carter said “As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

When I heard the Pacifica Quartet play all five Carter quartets back to back in one evening, the large auditorium wasn’t exactly packed but it was well-attended, given the event, and the crowd was very responsive and highly favorable. I recognized many of the people I used to see at new music concerts when I lived in New York City in the late-‘70s, now thirty years older (as was the composer who, already considered on the verge of retirement, had written two more quartets since then).

When the first of Beethoven’s Late Quartets were premiered in Vienna, they were met, on the one hand, by total confusion, yet were hailed by those who adored Beethoven and anything he wrote “uncritically” – what, today, we would call a niche audience.

Perhaps, someday, Elliott Carter’s quartets will lose the general bewilderment the average audience reacts with, just as Beethoven’s Late Quartets have finally attained this rarified status as unquestioned masterpieces.

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Did Beethoven have “a Carter Moment” when he realized the public didn’t care?

I think, if you look at their music, composers have always managed to compartmentalize their creativity. The symphony, for Beethoven, was a public work written for large audiences, and so therefore had a specific and direct stylistic approach, whether we’d say it catered to the popular taste or not (and since we can hardly name another composer who wrote a symphony that’s as much a part of the repertoire as any of Beethoven’s that was written between 1800 and 1825, it’s fairly easy to decide who won that race). The string quartet had only four players and was generally designed for small audiences in smaller locations – the public concert was not a long-standing tradition for orchestral music and the idea of public concerts for chamber music was something newly championed by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh in Vienna during the 1820s, around the time Beethoven began composing these Late Quartets. One of these first public concerts featured a Haydn Quartet and Beethoven’s ever-popular, youthful Septet: the place was so crowded “people had to stand in front of the doors.”

Mozart and Schubert could write delightful music for people to dance to in public or private and Beethoven could produce hundreds of arrangements of British folk songs for voice and piano trio for the amateur audience. These were not intended to be “masterpieces” at a time when composers didn’t dwell on “the future” but on the “here-and-now.” Beethoven wrote these songs for money, not out of any belief he was writing great music: a composer has bills to pay just like anybody else. You can’t spend all your time contemplating the cosmos and, along the way, hope to find enough money in the silver linings to cover this month’s rent.

And certainly, no great composer has turned out a more populist work than Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory,” intended to ride the public euphoria over the news that, apparently, Napoleon’s control of Europe was beginning to crack. In fact, Beethoven was anxious that the premiere not be delayed lest it become old news and the public response to his music was lessened by its being “so last month,” this in a time long before instant news but when the public already had the ability to forget important events (Hurricane Sandy, for instance) with the advent of the next big story (insert “latest sex scandal” here).

Not long after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies, Beethoven went into something of a “dry spell.” If he wasn’t concerned about having written himself out, his fans certainly were very concerned. He thought, perhaps, a change of scenery might do him good, leaving Vienna for Paris or London, though this may have been a ploy to bring in some much needed financial support (which it did, from patrons who did not want to lose their Beethoven). Between 1815 and 1818, though, he had enough other things on his mind – continued bouts of illness but more serious, this time (he was in his mid-40s, then) but also that nasty business with his newly widowed sister-in-law over the custody of his nephew – but it also reflected itself in his thinking about “new directions” in his musical style.

We often think of Beethoven as deaf, especially given the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802. But he was not “stone deaf” at the age of 31: it progressed more or less gradually, sometimes better but mostly getting worse until he had to resort to notebooks for people to write down their end of the conversation. He began using these around 1815 – by the time he died, twelve years later, there were 400 such “conversation” books (considering as often as he moved, it amazes me that he kept all these).

While some critics dismissed the turn his Late Period Music was taking as the work of a man who could no longer hear, it certainly turned his “musical ear” inward but it’s not the only reason for this change of approach. Never having been deaf, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world of silence and not hear anything – especially the music you love – going on around you: of course you would start creating your own inner music, especially a composer. You wouldn’t be unable to write it down simply because you couldn’t hear yourself play it at the piano, though Beethoven (even when deaf) still worked out details at the piano as he composed. He was able to coach a quartet preparing the first of these late quartets despite being unable to hear them play: he followed the motion of their bows and watched their fingers! Beethoven, as you would expect, had learned how to adapt, painful as it might have been to do so: but he did survive.

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In his biography of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon points out the attitudes that were developing in the audiences of Beethoven’s day. Given the breakdown in communication with government censorship (which, if anything, increased after Napoleon’s defeat) and after all the constant warfare in the news, the times were very stressful and audiences tended to use the arts as a form of recreation until “serious art” was becoming increasingly marginalized. “Artist and audience rise to defend the sanctity of art at those moments when its social function has become endangered and its aesthetic and ethical purposes called into question” (p.415).

(If any of this sounds familiar, raise your hand.)

Aristocratic patronage was becoming a thing of the past (even in tough economic times, the nobility still had difficulties paying their own bills and several of Beethoven’s most prominent supporters were forced to renege on their pledges) and “enlightened attitudes toward the arts” were also eroding. In this sense, Beethoven’s new style – what we call his “Late Period” – seem to crystalize the avant-garde ideas of Vienna’s intellectual elite.

Beethoven was never not writing for an audience (unlike the war-cry waged against contemporary composers in the 1960s, dismissed as willful academics writing for each other, when an article by Milton Babbitt was entitled – by an unwitting copy-editor – “Who Cares If You Listen?”) . He was writing for a different audience – a more discerning audience. If, like Carter, he became aware the general public didn’t care, he knew there were some who did, whether he was writing for himself alone or not. What would catch their interest and generate their support would be, their shared interests and ideas aside, they would recognize the validity of a very sincere musical language that is not intended to pander to the common denominator. In this sense, both Beethoven and Carter are similar: by being uncompromising in their beliefs, they were creating music that, someday, like-minded people would take an interest in.

The only exception to this was Beethoven’s agreeing to replace the original finale of the Op.130 Quartet, the B-flat Quartet that was already long and demanded which ended in a long and even more demanding fugue which came to be known as the Great Fugue (the famous (or infamous) Grosse Fuge). Why did he agree to this? He adamantly refused to substitute a new finale but when the publisher was willing to publish it separately in both a quartet score and a four-hand piano arrangement (so the work would not only not be lost, it might even find some continued existence being played and studied in private homes – the usual intent of piano duets – which might ensure its being understood in the future). And, not to dismiss it too lightly, he would get more money for it.

Schuppanzigh wanted the first of the late quartets to be completed – Op.127 – to be premiered at one of his new-fangled public chamber music concerts. Now, these audiences were still not large, but more people would hear them than would normally experience chamber music in a prince’s home for his family and guests. There were eight different performances of Op.127 during the two months after its premiere and some 500 people attended these various concerts.

Schuppanzigh’s premiere in March, 1825, was a disaster which the violinist largely credited to the quartet’s inadequate rehearsal time. Beethoven, then, coached them on it before their second performance with greater (or rather, with any) success.

The next quartet to be performed was Op.132, first heard in a private gathering in September 1825, then twice in public concerts in November. Op.130 – with its Grosse Fuge finale – was first heard in March, 1826 and was “eagerly sought after” by two other quartets for their concerts.

In August of 1826, the new Op.131 Quartet was rehearsed at the home of publisher Matthias Artaria and Karl Holz, Beethoven’s friend and temporary amanuensis as well as the 2nd violinist in Schuppanzigh’s quartet, told the composer that Artaria “was enraptured, and the [opening] fugue, when he heard it for the third time, he found wholly intelligible.” Note that “for the third time”…

Holz also told Beethoven that Op.132 had already been played in Berlin but added, “they have no idea there how Beethoven should be played.”

Schuppanzigh, in the months following this, told Beethoven that another performance of Op.127 was applauded “with enthusiasm.” The new finale for Op.130, replacing the Fugue, was determined to be “altogether heavenly” by the musicians.

There were other performances – mostly private – during the next year, 1827, the year Beethoven died. There was also a famous and very private performance in November 1828 for an audience of one: the dying Franz Schubert who wanted to hear Op.131 and which his friend, this same Karl Holz, brought his friends over to play it for him (unfortunately, as enthusiastic as he was about it, Schubert suffered a relapse of his illness that made his friends “frightened for him”).

Given the timing of Beethoven’s own deteriorating health – a sad story in itself – neither Op.131 nor the last of the set, Op.135, were performed in concert during the brief remainder of his lifetime. Op.131 didn’t receive its first actual public performance until 1835 – and Solomon points out (p.417) that between Beethoven’s death in 1827 and 1850, these quartets were played in Viennese concerts only four times! Op.130 and Op.135 once each, Op.131 twice.

On the other hand, during their first decade, these quartets were performed in Berlin, Leipzig and Paris.

It does not mean they were universally successful. A critic in Leipzig found the Grosse Fuge “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” describing it as “a concert that only the Moroccans might enjoy.” (This, I expect, is the 1826 equivalent of dogs listening to Late Beethoven Quartets…)

Holz himself – as well as Beethoven’s friend and former amanuensis Anton Schindler – failed to appreciate Op.130 as a whole, yet Holz reported its first audience was “inspired, astonished or questioning.” Some found no fault with it only because they held the composer in such awe. (Are these like those people today who try to impress others with their intelligence by pointing out they like Elliott Carter’s music when in fact they have no idea what they’re listening to – or who read the latest ten-pound tome of a New York Best Seller but have never gotten past page 37.)

On the whole, most of the audiences would have preferred the early Septet if only because (a.) it was popular, (b.) it was easy to listen to and (c.) it reminded them of the good old days.

Ludwig Spohr, one of the great violinists of the day (with the possible exception of a fellow named Paganini) and also one of the more frequently performed composers of his day (making him, technically, more popular than Beethoven, in general), told the story in his Autobiography that his quartet had started to play one of Beethoven’s latest works (I do not remember if he identified the specific work) when it started to break down and Spohr realized “my accompanists clearly did not understand” what they were playing. So instead they substituted one of his own quartets which was met with considerable more success and a favorable response from their audience.

Part of the problem was that Spohr did not understand the role of the quartet in these works: gone were the days when it was a first violinist accompanied by three other string players, when he had all the tunes, the cello supplied the harmonic bass-line and the 2nd violinist and violist chugged away filling in the inner harmonies. Beethoven’s Late Quartets are all about the single organism, four people playing equally as one.

Not too many years ago, I attended the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto by the Philadelphia Orchestra and was blown away by it. The second half of the program was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in one of the worst performances I’d ever heard of it – sloppy even for a less talented regional orchestra much less a world-class organization like this! Aside from the amount of rehearsal time allotted to any given concert these days – the economy of the arts is another topic – it reminded me that when Beethoven is badly played, the critic blames the performers, but when a critic condemns a new work, something he’s never heard before, how does he know it is not being badly played? In this case, it would always be the composer’s fault.

So it has taken a long time for Beethoven’s Late Quartets to be publically accepted. I’ve often joked that we, as an audience, had to get through Wagner and Mahler and Schoenberg before we could look back at something composed now almost 200 years ago and say “oh, isn’t that incredible!”

It may take a while before the public “gets interested” in some new music initially dismissed as unlistenable, unintelligible and esoteric. But for those of us who climb the mountaintop, the view can be exhilarating.

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Shostakovich & his Symphonies Before the War

With the Harrisburg Symphony playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 a few days after an over-heated Presidential election season finally came to an end , I thought it might be worth looking into the politics behind Shostakovich’s symphonic world, especially pertaining to the 5th and 6th.

(The symphony performs it tonight, Saturday Nov. 10th at 8pm and again tomorrow, Sunday Nov. 11th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Timothy Dixon offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 and the winner of this year’s Rising Star Concerto Competition, Julia Rosenbaum, a 16-year-old cellist playing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.” You can read my preview post at the symphony blog, here.)

The 6th Symphony has always struck me as a bit odd: a very long, dark, deeply intense first movement that takes about 17-19 minutes to perform, followed by two extroverted movements that, together, total maybe 12-13 minutes. The proportions are one thing – my first thought was perhaps there wasn’t time to write a suitable finale to balance the first movement until, of course, you realize nothing can come after this finale. Actually, my very first thought, when I heard this for the first time on an afternoon radio broadcast back in the ‘70s, was that someone had gotten the wrong record cued up for the second half and we were hearing, I don’t know… movements from one of Shostakovich’s light-hearted populist ballets? But no, I later discovered, checking a different recording I found at the music library, that’s the way it was written. How… imbalanced? Out of proportion? Was he writing the first movement for something then decided he couldn’t go in the direction it was pointing and stepped back – probably to avoid criticism from Stalin’s government, perhaps? – or what?

Of course, Shostakovich was an especially private composer who rarely dropped hints about what was going on in his mind when he composed, no matter what enticements we might hear in the music. And what we might hear today might be very different from what a Soviet listener heard in 1939 – or what a Soviet bureaucrat might have heard, compared to a concert-going music lover (a.k.a. “intellectual”).

The 6th is very much wrapped up in the aftermath of the political hot water Shostakovich found himself in in 1936 after Stalin walked out of a performance of his already popular opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and an attack on the composer and his style appeared in Pravda, the Soviet Union’s principal Communist Party newspaper: “Muddle instead of Music,” it was called, and the upshot was that Shostakovich found his music suddenly being pulled off concert programs and commissions for new works were being canceled or started drying up.

He had already begun work on his 4th Symphony, a vast hour-long complex of three very dissonant movements, at turns bleak or violent. He completed it a few months after the article appeared in Pravda. It was in rehearsal later that year but as the process unfolded, the management of the orchestra prevailed on Shostakovich to withdraw the work and cancel the performance. No explanation was given and the decision was made to look entirely the composer’s own. He put the symphony aside and premiered it only in 1961, some 25 years later, but never adjusted the symphony’s number or revised it.

You can read more about the political and artist aspects of this period in Shostakovich’s life in an earlier post about his 5th (and also 10th) Symphonies

Politics being what it was, as Stalin tried to control the opposition (if not eliminate it), it seemed even artists were not immune from what became known as Stalin’s Terror – resulting in a series of purges which began the following year. During that time, many of Shostakovich’s artist friends and colleagues were rounded up and arrested. His brother-in-law, a physicist, was arrested in the middle of the night and sent off to exile with his wife without warning. Shostakovich’s mother-in-law was also arrested and exiled, also with no explanation.

A young man just beginning to make his mark on Soviet music, Dmitri Shostakovich, not yet 30 when the worst of all possible bad reviews had first appeared in print, had been befriended by the music-loving General Tukachevsky who was later arrested for his presumed role in a plot to assassinate Stalin. In the spring of 1937, Shostakovich was then called in and interrogated about his “relationship” with General Tukachevsky: these were musical evenings, dinner parties where Shostakovich was one of the guests, but the interrogator kept referring to these “meetings” and asking, for instance, who else attended (“only members of the family circle”), were any politicians present (“no, no politicians”), what they discussed (“music”), and, even though Shostakovich swore politics was not discussed in his presence, what had he heard about the plot to murder Comrade Stalin? Since he refused to answer any more questions, he was told by his interrogator to return on Monday (this, having taken place on Friday) with the warning that perhaps, with the weekend to think about it, he would recall every detail he had heard about Tukachevsky’s plot. Convinced he would be arrested, he made the necessary preparations with his family and returned to the KGB building only to be told he could go home: his interrogator, Comrade Zanchevsky, “wasn’t coming in, today, so there is no one to receive you.” Later, he discovered that his interrogator had himself been arrested.

That was how Dmitri Shostakovich avoided arrest. Not that it couldn’t come at some other time, but he came that close to it, already.

We in the United States tend not to be aware of such issues when it comes to our artists, if we are even conscious of them, so I mention this only as background to understanding something about the 5th Symphony he composed next and the 6th Symphony which followed it a year later.

Most concert-goers might be aware of the nature of the 5th Symphony and its subtitle, “A Soviet Artists Reply to Just Criticism” which, incidentally, did not originate with the composer but with a critic somewhere and Shostakovich, perhaps a little too shell-shocked still, could not figure out a way of gracefully declining the nickname.

Mravinsky & Shostakovich, 1930s
Suffice it to say, the 5th was a huge popular success and the young conductor Yevgenny Mravinsky who premiered it held the score over his head to the on-going cheers of the audience. These two links will take you to videos of the work recorded by Mravinsky first in 1973 with an unspecified orchestra (but I would assume the Leningrad Philharmonic) and again in 1983 with the Leningrad Philharmonic on tour in Minsk. There are, perhaps, better recordings and maybe even better (certainly different) performances available on YouTube – it’s a very popular work – but how often do you get to see the person who first brought it into the world?

The 5th premiered in December of 1937. He had begun work on it in mid-April, earlier that year. Now, look back a few paragraphs and read about that interrogation again: that took place in the spring of 1937.

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Following the success of the 5th Symphony and his rehabilitation as a Soviet Artist, Shostakovich announced he would soon be working on a “grandiose symphony dedicated to Lenin.” Reports indicated it would be a four-movement symphony with chorus (and soloists, in some mentions) setting poems by Mayakovsky and two non-Russian Soviet poets, one from Kazakstan and another from Dagestan.

In her substantial collection of first-hand reminiscences, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Elizabeth Wilson includes this statement from Isaak Glikman, a close personal friend of Shostakovich’s and a well-known Leningrad theater critic and historian. [My comments are italicized in brackets.]

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The Sixth Symphony was scheduled for the opening of the 1939 autumn season of the Leningrad Philharmonic. It was impatiently awaited.

Shostakovich & Sollertinsky, 1930s
Long before the premiere Dmitri Dmitriyevich [Shostakovich] showed the symphony to Ivan Sollertinsky and me [Sollertinsky was a close friend and, among other things, artistic director of the Philharmonic]. He played the finale through twice and, against his custom, praised it himself: ‘It’s the first time I ever wrote such a successful Finale.’ [This, after having recently completed the Fifth?!] ‘I think even the most fastidious critics won’t have anything to pick at.’ He said nothing about the first and second movements. But we spoke enthusiastically of the majestic beauty of the first movement, the Largo, the brilliance of the Scherzo and the overwhelming and intoxicating finale. I immediately fell in love with it , and, with little regard for the composer’s self-effacing modesty, I enthusiastically expounded, ‘If Mozart and Rossini had lived in the 20th Century and had collaborated in writing the finale of a symphony, it would have turned out like this…’

The premiere of the Sixth Symphony took place on November 5th, 1939, under Mravinsky’s baton and it enjoyed an enormous success. The finale was encored – a rare occurrence at a premiere of a symphonic work – but the enthralling atmosphere that pervaded the hall at the premiere of the Fifth Symphony was lacking. That particular concertr had been a unique event, even unrepeatable, you might say, had not Shostakovich gone on to write the Seventh, Eighth and Fourteenth Symphonies which all had a similar force of inspired revelation.

For very grave reasons, Dmitri Dmitriyevich was unable to attend the Moscow premiere of the Sixth Symphony. He asked me to go in his stead to attend the rehearsals and the concert and to write to him with my impressions. I did so, remaining in Moscow for quite a protracted tsay. I would write the letters in the evening and send them to Leningrad with somebody travelling by the night train, so that Dmitri Dmitriyevich already had them in his hands next morning.

Naturally, I hid from the composer the inevitable musicians’ talk. With rare exceptions, it drove me to despair. Some musicians held that the conceited young composer, having dared to break with the tradition of the symphonic cycle, had produced a formless piece in three movements. Others maliciously implied that Shostakovich had locked himself away in an ivory tower and no longer knew what was going on around him; the result was that the opening Largo was so dull and inert as to bring on a stupefied torpor. And a third group just laughed goodheartedly, saying that the finale was nothing than a depiction of a football match with its successes and reversals of fortune. This vulgar and trivialized opinion has unfortunately persisted and gained widespread credence.

[Reading this, I’m reminded of my own initial reactions to hearing the piece: perhaps the recordings I heard were “dull and inert” and, in the finale, vulgar enough to suggest a football match’s frenzy?]

Glikman in later years
However, all these discussions were swept aside at the premiere of this brilliant work, when it was played at the Grand Hall of the Conservatoire. But, strangely, when I returned to Leningrad, I could not rid myself of the memory of these conversations for a long time.

After the Sixth Symphony, which aroused so much censure, Shostakovich wrote his Piano Quintet in the summer of 1940 [only seven months later]; it was received with great acclaim by public and critics alike, and opinion was unanimous. Each performance by the wonderful Glazunov and Beethoven String Quartets with the composer at the piano were hailed as a great event in the musical life of Leningrad and Moscow.
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At Premiere of Piano Quintet, 1940
There follows an anecdote about the composer’s real reason for adding a piano to what was planned as his 2nd String Quartet: he figured the quartets couldn’t play it without him, so he would finally get to do some traveling again: “I’ll get a chance to see the world.” Glikman ends by saying “but from the expression on his face, it was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. We had this conversation in the summer of the year preceding the war” (1940).

Incidentally, if anyone wondered what happened to the Grand Symphony dedicated to Lenin, similar reports were made again pertaining to the up-coming Seventh Symphony, which, however, written during World War II and the horrific siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, turned out to be quite a different work. Then, once the Eighth Symphony, another of his War Symphonies, was premiered, there was talk of a grand symphony in honor of Stalin which, without explanation, turned out not to be the heroic celebration that would culminate the War Years in Music, but to be a rather slight, in fact a rather Haydn-esque work that left people (at least the bureaucrats) scratching their heads.

In my post about the 5th & 10th Symphonies, I refer to the view of Shostakovich serving as the national "Holy Fool" (in Russian, yurodivy) not the simple-minded "village idiot" we in America think of but in the classic Slavic sense of the Fool who is touched by and therefore nearer to God, often respected and, in a sense, feared by others. The most famous example of this would be the Simpleton in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov where the fool confronts the tsar and asks him to murder the children who stole his penny like Boris had murdered the Little Tsaryevich Dmitri, something that would have earned any courtier immediate execution. But in this dramatic scene (beginning at 4:00), instead Boris asks the Simpleton to pray for him. Unfortunately, the Fool replies, he cannot: the Virgin does not allow it. In the great Forest Scene which ought to be the opera's final scene, the Simpleton has the final word, lamenting the fate of the Russian people (in this clip, beginning around 5:40). In Western literature what wiser fool is there than King Lear's?

Perhaps Shostakovich thought the world had become completely unbalanced and that the "whacky" finale to this intense opening movement of his new symphony was like the dancing of the Holy Fool? There is more to think about this in his 10th Symphony, the first new symphony he composed after Stalin's death: his use of the D.SCH motive (Shostakovich's monogram translated into musical pitches) at the very end seems to celebrate Shostakovich's survival as much as the wild dance of a finale might celebrate Stalin's death.

But all this, as I mentioned, is really conjecture. We might say "since Shostakovich never admitted it in print," but then there were many examples of articles or letters signed by Shostakovich which had been written by party officials and which he signed merely to avoid political confrontation. Was he more cynic than simpleton? Semyon Volkov's largely discredited Testimony, claiming to be interviews with the composer shortly before he died and rather confessional in nature, might even be more fiction than anything resembling fact despite Volkov saying the composer signed the transcripts he had handed him, authenticating the material.

That, however, is another topic entirely and one that apparently will never be resolved.

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One more excerpt from Elizabeth Wilson’s collection, this one pertaining to that 5th Symphony premiere. It appears not all government bureaucrats were convinced it was a masterpiece as it had been acclaimed by the audience. These are from reminiscences by another director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mikhail Chulaki who, in 1948, would join in with the government in condemning Shostakovich for his “formalist” aesthetic in writing symphonic works after the German model.

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In other words [the Fifth Symphony] was accessible to professional listeners without making concessions to the pretensions of the general public – that same general public which so bombastically referred to itself as ‘the People’ (or took upon itself to speak in the name of ‘the People’)…

But there was another category of persons who had a particular allegiance to art – the bureaucratic stratum. They formulated the judgements of the authorities through writing official reports in which they tried to divine what the bosses’ opinions of the matter might be. And for God’s sake [interesting choice of expression, given the godless Communist society, here], should you get it wrong, it could cost you your position. Their anxiety to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ was motivated by the wish to ensure their own safety. They therefore assessed composition by the quantity of dissonances and their deviations from the standard ‘norms’ of folk and classical music…

[Given reports of the Fifth Symphony’s premiere,] this… provoked extreme displeasure in official circles, since it was seen as an explicit comment in regard to the criticism expressed on the pages of the Party press [regarding the dangers of “excessive success”]. Surely, the composer could not have ‘restructured’ his outlook and created a 100% Soviet symphony in such a short period of time? And what is more, no official opinion on the symphony had yet been formulated. So what did this mean – a demonstration?

Immediately, two high-up officials from the committee responsible for the arts, V. N. Surin and B.M. Yarustovsky, were sent to Leningrad. They were present at one of the next performances of the symphony. Their brief was to find out how it was that the concert organizers had managed to inspire such a loud and demonstrative success. Yarustovsky… having just personally witnessed Shostakovich’s unheard-of triumph, made a constant stream of snide remarks, shouting to make himself heard over the noise in the hall. “Just look, all the concert-goers have been hand-picked one by one. These are not normal concert-goers. The symphony’s success has been most scandalously fabricated,” and so on. In vain did I, as director of the Philharmonic, try to convince the rabid official that the public attending the concert had bought tickets at the box office in the normal manner. Yarustovsky, supported by the silent Surin, remained implacable….

[Eventually] the Leningrad District Party Committee… [arranged] a special performance of the symphony for the [bureaucrats]. In my capacity of director of the Philharmonic, I was called up by the local committee responsible for the arts to see a certain Rabinovich, a very decisive, butch lady [that’s an exact quote, by the way]. I can reproduce the following dialogue exactly, as it is imprinted on my memory word for word.
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However, in the interest of what passes for space, I must summarize: Chulaki’s suggested program included the overture and some arias from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla, Tchaikovsky’s Overture, “Francesca da Rimini” and then, after intermission, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Rabinovich, unfortunately, didn’t like it and suggested there too many “symphonies,” saying ‘We need something for the People – and besides, what’s this “Franchyoska”?’ When he explained it was a not-too-long fantasy overture, Comrade Rabinovich told him they could do “both symphonies” on the first half and then conclude with a performance by the Red Army Ensemble. Unfortunately, the latter were on tour and unavailable so she suggested the Moisseyev Dancers and their orchestra of folk instruments, first suggesting that, since they already had an orchestra on stage, why not use the Philharmonic instead of the folk orchestra of balalaikas and shepherd’s flutes? The question of room on stage for the dancers with an orchestra of 105 made no sense to her: “well, put your orchestra in the pit!”

Eventually, the concert was given: Tchaikovsky’s overture and the new 5th Symphony of Shostakovich were given on the very long first half and the Moisseyev Dancers filled the second half, dancing to their own orchestra after all.

To resume Chulaki’s reminiscence:

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Many years later, as fate would have it, Shostakovich and I were being treated at the same [medical] clinic. We recalled that mammoth concert put together for ‘the People’ by the official lady, Rabinovich. Shostakovich told me how he had been walking up and down in a state of agitation in the so-called ‘blue’ foyer outside the hall. There you could hear everything perfectly. Francesca da Rimini was coming to an end and his hour of agony was approaching. [He obviously had reason to be nervous: what if the bureaucrats decided his symphony was not an adequate response to their criticism?] Just as the clapping started, after the end of the so-called ‘Franchyoska,’ the writer X [so identified in Chulaki’s letter], the nicest and kindest of men, and one of the country’s most well-loved and -read writers, came running into the foyer. Throwing himself on Shostakovich’s neck with tears of gratitude in his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘Mitya [the nickname for Dmitri], I always knew that you were able to write beautiful and melodic music!” Shostakovich was so touched by this show of friendship and loyalty that, as he told me laughingly, “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was [by] Tchaikovsky.”
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And these are the people who determined that Shostakovich was a bad composer who needed to be disciplined and nearly drove him to suicide…

- Dick Strawser

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Glikman's and Chulaki's reminiscences, quoted from letters, essays and interviews, are found in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Faber & Faber (London 1994), 2nd Edition, paperback, released in the United States by Princeton University Press in 2006 in time for the Shostakovich Centennial Year.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Elliott Carter, On His Passing

Elliott Carter died yesterday afternoon at the age of 103.

So I suppose it shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me when I decided, going to bed after the local 11:00 news (which of course would never mention such an item in all the election hoopla), to check my e-mail and find something there from the publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, announcing his passing.

I haven’t felt this bereft over the death of a living composer since Benjamin Britten died on Dec. 6th, 1976. He had been ill for some time – he had heart surgery postponed so he could complete the opera Death in Venice – and his recovery was not very hopeful. But still, the news came as a shock mostly because, now, I knew there would never be another new work by a composer who had been my favorite living composer.

In the past 36 years since then, Elliott Carter has become my “favorite living composer.” It’s ironic that, with the Britten Centennial coming up a year from this month, Carter attended his Centennial Celebration and in fact had written several new works for the occasion. There was something of an expectation, having made it to 103, he would make it to 104. He was about five weeks shy of his next birthday.

I remember sitting in a friend’s apartment when I was a senior in college and the news on the radio announced the death of Igor Stravinsky. As a student, I was still unfamiliar with a lot of his more recent music beyond the three great ballets which began his career – ironically, the Centennial for the premiere of his most famous work, The Rite of Spring, is also next year. I had been disappointed in many of his neo-classical works in the 1930s and ‘40s, by comparison, and though I liked works like Threni and the “Huxley” Variations, I didn’t quite understand them or their significance in his catalogue of works. I can’t say I grieved after Stravinsky’s death – saddened by it, yes, but it was different. I was not yet 22, Stravinsky was 88 – it seemed such a ripe old, nearly unattainable age – and though I was conscious the man called “the world’s greatest living composer” was not the most popular living composer during his lifetime, certainly not for the works he composed in the last 50-some years of his life, I was aware his death meant a loss for a world that was so important to me.

The one thing that struck me was someone being interviewed – I don’t recall who – was asked in typical interview fashion, “So who do you think is now The World’s Greatest Composer?”

It made me think of a record collection of 12 LPs (if you remember them) which was called “The Music of the World’s Greatest Composers” and which ranged from Bach’s 1st Brandenburg Concerto (1720s) to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) which, even in the ‘60s when I was given this for Christmas, seemed to leave a considerable lapse with no representative music from anyone writing in the last fifty years.

Listening to the radio interview, I tried to think who that composer might be who would inherit Stravinsky’s crown. I didn’t know of that many “current” composers – after all, the way most of us discover music is through recordings, going to concerts, listening to broadcasts on the radio or television (at least in those years): the living composers I was most familiar with would have been Britten or Samuel Barber, I guess.

So I was surprised when the respected figure being interviewed said “I would have to guess it would probably be Elliott Carter.”

And I said, basically, “Who?”

As I’ve broadened my musical tastes after being able to broaden my musical experience as a more voracious listener, I came to understand why he thought Carter might be considered “The Greatest” though that didn’t necessarily mean “The Best” or, certainly, “The Most Popular.” All of these elements are fairly meaningless and impossible to define: the No. 1 Novel on most lists of Greatest Novels Ever Written (whoever determines these) has usually been James Joyce’s Ulysses though it would never qualify as one of the “Most Often Read Novels.”

But does that mean it can’t be a “Greatest” Novel? Sometimes, the more enduring art is that which is respected more than it is loved.

I can’t say I like every piece of music Carter ever wrote but as I became more familiar with it and heard many live performances – I’ve written a great deal, here, about some of these: the string quartets, the world premiere of his recent Clarinet Quintet, for example – I came to understand something behind the music that made it speak to me far deeper than many other composers’ works.

His 1st String Quartet was probably the first work of his I heard that I enjoyed and, after a few hearings, came to love. His concept of space and time – the independence of each instrumental line in terms of both content or character as well as perceived tempo – resonated with me a lot more than many other composers of the day, though stylistically, as I was looking around for my own voice, I would say Britten on the one hand and Messiaen and Penderecki (then still in his more avant-garde ‘70s mode) on other stylistic hands were more significant for my own sound.

But eventually, I found that more and more Carter’s music resonated with me much more deeply, especially after I had a chance to hear the then all-three Carter Quartets in 1979, meeting the composer in front of me at the line for tickets the day before the concert – he was then 70 and was considered to be close to retirement age for a composer. More recently, I’d heard the complete string quartets of Elliott Carter: he had, only a few weeks earlier, turned 99 and written two more. There was hope he might get around to composing a sixth before too much longer...

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Unfortunately, the poster at YouTube does not mention which recording he’s using, but if you don’t have time to listen to the whole quartet, listen to the opening few minutes of clip 1, and also the opening 20 seconds of clip 4 which reminds me of a tribute to an early mentor of his, Charles Ives, not to mention a brief “swing” section beginning at 1:31 (which reminds me that Carter, rather than listening to Beethoven, might more often be found hanging out in the jazz clubs in The Village) in addition to the ending, beginning around 5:10.

At the moment, I don’t have the time to write as much as I would like (or could), but whoever inherits the mantel of “World’s Greatest Living Composer” is a moot point, for me, not because by this time I’m now forty years younger than Mr. Carter was, such things are – like the invention of “The Three Bs” – more about marketing than music.

Ironically, I am finishing up a novel in which the villain (Tr’iTone) is trying to find the Fountain of Inspiration so he can become The Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived. One of the characters is an American composer named Howard Zender (the name is a play on E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End with its famous epigram, “Only connect!”) who is clearly modeled after Elliott Carter (though he is only 90-something, here). In fact, in the original draft of The Lost Chord he was Elliott Carter and I even imitated many of his speech patterns, initially, having listened to numerous interviews of his over the last decade, but then decided it was, perhaps, too much an invasion of privacy to turn him into a novel’s character outright as it might be a misuse of intellectual property absorbing his ideas and his personal sound. (I’m still debating, given the Forster connection, about changing his name to Howard Zenn, especially amusing (to me) considering his music is anything but Zen-like.)

But now, I wish to go compose again, something I have not done for over a year – spending most of it working on this revision of The Lost Chord. In the past, his music inspired me to start composing again in 2000 after a long hiatus and I feel the resonance stirring again (speaking of that lost inner chord).

At the moment, I don’t know how it will surface but I am sure, once again, I will discover that the public, frankly, doesn’t care.

One thing Carter and his music have taught me: write for yourself. By sticking to his convictions and what mattered to him, he has written music that is above all sincere, not meant to appeal to any particular –ism in our very –ismatic society.

And no artist can do more than that.

- Dick Strawser