Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shostakovich & his (kind of) Classical Symphony

This weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features pianist Tanya Bannister playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. Ms. Bannister had appeared last year with Market Square Concerts in a recital that featured Brahms’ take on Handel, works by Chopin and a new piece she’d premiered earlier that season by Christopher Theofanidis, “All Dreams Begin with a Horizon.”

This week - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - Stuart Malina conducts a program that is essentially “classical” in its sound-world (you can read my up-close-&-personal post about the Mozart Concerto here). In addition to real Mozart, there is Richard Strauss’s Mozartean “Serenade for Winds,” written when the composer was 17, plus Ravel’s image of The Good Old Days, a suite of pieces originally for piano evoking the 18th Century Age of Couperin, one of France’s greatest Baroque composers. Each movement of his Tombeau de Couperin was originally dedicated to friends who died in World War I, making it a different kind of “memorial.”

No one has ever dubbed Shostakovich’s 9th, which concludes this program, his “Classical Symphony.”

For those who are familiar with his dramatic 5th, the huge war-time symphonies like No. 7 and No. 8, or the big brooding Mahler-like 10th, the 9th fits in like The Odd Man Out. Considering it was written right after World War II ended in the defeat of the Nazi Invaders (the Soviets called this “The Great Patriotic War”), most people expected a triumphant conclusion to the earlier War Symphonies, a victorious celebration of Soviet Power and a portrait of Stalin as Hero of the People. Plus, given Beethoven as a precedent, people felt it would also carry the weight of a “Soviet Artist’s Reply to Universal Brotherhood.”

Perhaps because the 9th was the first Shostakovich symphony I remember hearing when I was in high-school, I didn't have the benefit of comparison or any of the build-up of expectations. I was able to enjoy it for what it seemed to be on the surface: a symphony that pays a bit of homage to Haydn, especially in the first movement with lots of little quirks and twists, some obvious and some fairly subtle, making me think he was purposely out to do Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony his way.

But to those in its very first audience, sitting there in Leningrad (once again St. Petersburg) in November of 1945, it must have seemed a disappointment, considering all the advance buzz they must have been hearing.

After the 7th (written during the siege of Leningrad) and the epic tragedy of the 8th (written during the horrors of the Nazi occupation), Shostakovich himself described what would be his next symphony, already begun before the war was officially over but in the anticipation of its conclusion, as a vast work for large orchestra, chorus and soloists - in fact, very much like Beethoven's 9th - that it would describe in music the heroism of the Soviet people and the Red Army, that it could be described in one word – "Victory!" He discussed writing the opening movement with his students, even played some of it for them in 1944: one of them recalled it as "majestic in scale, in pathos, in breathtaking motion."

Then he stopped working on it for three months. Once he started it again – and apparently starting it over – he completed it in a little over a month. But now, it was nothing like what he had talked about before; the majestic music he had played was nowhere in sight. He described it himself as being totally different from the 7th & 8th Symphonies - light and transparent, by comparison. "Musicians will love to play it," he said, "critics will delight in blasting it."

One writer explained the sense of the audience at the premiere: “We were prepared to listen to a new monumental musical fresco, something that we had the right to expect from the composer of the 7th and the 8th Symphonies, especially at a time when the Soviet people and the whole world were still full of the recent victory over Fascism. But we heard something quite different, something at first astounded us by its unexpectedness.”

Still, the audience heard, according to another writer, something that “charmed the listener with such perfect form that it seemed as though every sound had been exactly matched and that every tinge of color and every secondary tone subordinated to a sapient purposefulness.” What that was, was another matter...

One critic wondered if this was a "respite" from his large-scale works and, given the tragedies of the war years, was this the time for a composer to be "going on vacation, to take a break from contemporary problems?" Another considered it "childish." Well, compared to a celebration over the defeat of Nazism, sure, but is that the music's fault or the critic's fault for presuming something the composer may not have been intending?

Not only did it not win the Stalin Prize that year, it was eventually placed on a "do-not-play" list, banned by the central censorship board of the Soviet government, removed from that list only a couple of years after Stalin's death. It is still one of his less frequently heard symphonies (other than the 2nd and 3rd which almost no one does anymore, anyway).

It seems a little slim to bear all that weight! But yet it got Shostakovich in a lot of trouble in the late-1940s. When his music was condemned by Stalin and the rest of the Soviet bureaucracy in 1936 following the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (which Mr. & Mrs. Stalin walked out on), he composed his 5th Symphony (also bearing expectations from Beethoven) which became subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism." In 1948, when his music was again condemned, along with music by many of his colleagues, the problem was his being too much influenced by the West, especially the German symphonic ideal of... well, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Mahler. This might be a typically political reaction (if not xenophobic) to the culture of "the enemy" but it took composers to task for not writing music that was "good" and "uplifting" for the Soviet people.

This time, Shostakovich's response, basically, was to not write at all. At least not any big grand public works likes symphonies or operas. He wrote string quartets for small performing groups and small, more elite audiences. He also wrote a set of preludes and fugues inspired by Bach - how German can you get? It wasn't until after Stalin's death that he wrote his next symphony which may have been the original 9th delayed, though instead of a tribute to Stalin and celebrating the victory of the Soviet people, it's more a portrait of a tyrant and the victory of the people who, like the composer, managed to survive the dark years of the Stalin Era.

But all that is far removed from the 9th Symphony, perhaps on purpose, at least in the outer movements. Here were have perky little tunes, a jaunty trombone dominant-to-tonic V-I cadence pattern to introduce the second tune (nothing terribly modern-sounding, here) -- all things that Prokofiev had done with his tribute to Haydn in his first symphony, the "Classical Symphony," written in 1917. But there are things here that go slightly... wrong: this is not the Classical well-ordered world we would expect from someone writing in an 18th Century style. Suddenly, measures start having extra beats or tunes wander off in unexpected directions. When the second theme should return as expected, the trombone dutifully plays his V-I cadence set-up but the orchestra just keeps going. And going. The trombone persists -- V-I... V-I... V-I! V-I-V-I -- and things get more intense until - ah! - finally, the theme returns. You can just sense the sigh of relief. It's a joke worthy of Papa Haydn himself.

But the middle movements are full of pathos and the darker side to all this. There is no humor hidden in here and even when what passes for a scherzo gets going, it eventually collapses into the darkness again.

Both the second movement and the brief next-to-last movement (if it isn’t really an extended introduction to the finale) are like soliloquies in this darkness – perhaps very suitable for people who were looking back privately on the death and devastation they experienced in the recent war. The scherzo is perhaps Shostakovich’s most spritely, almost inconsequential and circussy before it evolves into the stentorian brass chords of the next movement without a break. Though it is purely subjective, to me it sounds like an official committee interrogating an individual or, to use an earlier precedent of Beethoven’s, from his 4th Piano Concerto, “Orpheus and the Wild Beasts.”

The last movement then begins with an almost what-the-heck shrug of the shoulders as the bassoon, without a break, turns from severe pathos to chuckling merriment, starting off a finale which also includes quotations from his 1st and 6th Symphonies (now what might be the significance of those?) before reaching an exuberant but not protracted ending.

A question had come up on Facebook (believe it or not) when a musician friend (and former member of the Harrisburg Symphony) asked for serious replies about what made Beethoven’s “Eroica” sound heroic.

A lot of comments followed about Napoleon, about simple triadic themes, the fact it was in E-flat Major (like the “Emperor” Concerto and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, “A Hero’s Life”) and so on. I threw my professorial weight into it (“serious” replies, after all) that it didn’t, in fact, sound “heroic” at all except we are programmed to think it does after long familiarity with it and its title.

Simple triadic themes (and there was nothing heroic in the earlier uses Beethoven made of the triadic theme of his last movement) nor the key of E-flat Major would have little to do with it, by themselves (and Beethoven never called his piano concerto “The Emperor,” btw), though his greatly expanded sense of form may have been inspired by Napoleon’s larger-than-life nature (even if one can only “experience” form in hind-sight). If he were writing a musical portrait of Napoleon – it was originally dedicated to him – why would he have written a funeral march in the 2nd movement? And so on. Bruckner’s 7th Symphony has lots of triadic themes and greatly expanded structures but no one associates heroism with it – but of course it’s in E Major, isn’t it...

Well, along comes Shostakovich’s 9th – anticipated as a musical portrait of Stalin the Soviet Hero – which IS in E-flat Major, also has triadic themes, even a surprise out-of-key experience at the end of its first theme, just like Beethoven’s has; the 2nd movement (one could say it’s like attending a funeral) has a theme that is also triadic. While the structure in Shostakovich’s symphony is not “expanded to epic proportions” (would that automatically turn it into an epic?), it is much clearer than Shostakovich’s usual symphonic rhetoric and certainly closer to 1800 than to 1945. Shostakovich’s 9th clocks in under a half-hour, closer to one of Haydn’s London Symphonies, rather than the Eroica’s 45-50 minutes or Shostakovich’s own earlier symphonies which often surpass an hour’s length.

So in many ways, Shostakovich’s 9th may be the opposite of Beethoven’s 3rd (if not his 9th) or perhaps it’s Beethoven’s Eroica up-side down (comparing more than just the themes) – could that fit in with Shostakovich’s image of Stalin the Dictator puffed up as Hero?

The composer was famously tight-lipped about any kind of extra-musical suggestions in his music - he's gone from being viewed in the West as a party hack to being a closet dissident writing secret anti-Communist programs into his symphonies - but where the 9th fits into all this is anybody's guess.

But that's what make art Art. Socratic indulgences included, the great thing about Art is it can be all of the above or none of the above and still be Great Art.

- Dr. Dick

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