This week’s music is the most famous of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the eighth, performed by the legendary Emerson Quartet.
Shostakovich was in East Germany to write the score for a film about the bombing of Dresden when the inspiration for the eighth string quartet arrived. Three days later, the composition was completed. Shostakovich dedicated it to the “memory of victims of war.”
The eighth string quartet is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Indeed, it is one of the most emotionally powerful works of art to come out of the twentieth century. It is a work of shattering strength and tremendous depth, the kind of work that can leave a listener stunned in their chair, the kind of work that can raise memories long buried and remind us of the fragility and rapidity of life. It is a work that plumbs the depths of human psychology. Like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, it is a consumate artistic masterpiece.
All five movements of the quartet feature quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier compositions. For instance, first symphony and first cello concerto are reference in the first movement, and the reference to his own initials we saw last week in his fourth string quartet is scattered throughout the second, third, and fifth movements. Shostakovich is reported to have said about the quartet that it was “written in memory of its composer,” which suggests the references to his name were a sort of preemptive requiem.
What should you listen for? If I answered that question completely, this post would turn into a PhD thesis. But here are a few things to keep an ear out for:
Shostakovich’s name. It’s everywhere. As we saw last week, Shostakovich signed his name D-E flat-C-B natural in his tenth symphony, his fourth string quartet, and now his eighth string quartet (a permutation of his initials, DSCH, with the B natural substituting the H in German musical nomenclature). Shostakovich places this little signature all over the place, in every key and instrumentation imaginable.
The second movement. There’s simply nothing like it. This is Russian music at its fire-breathing, hair-raising best.
The symbolism in the fourth movement. The start of the fourth movement features a low drone in the first violin, interrupted by three loud strikes that get repeated several times until they reach a harmonic resolution. These strikes represent the gunfire of warfare, and the droning sound of the first violin represents the sound of distant aircraft. Once the strikes resolve, the droning becomes the first four notes of the dies irae portion of the Catholic requiem mass (which is ironically the same notes as Shostakovich’s signature, DSCH, just in a different order). To call this kind of musical symbolism powerful would be a gross understatement.
The fifth movement’s tribute to Bach. As we saw last week, Shostakovich could not resist paying homage to his hero, J.S. Bach, in almost everything he wrote. And the fifth movement is structured in a classic Bach-style fugue. It’s easy to miss because of the achingly sad, elegiac beauty of the fifth movement, but the fugue is there, hiding just under the surface.
This week’s music continues our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich with the first movement of his string quartet No. 5, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet. The composition was written during the dark last days of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union and premiered by the Beethoven Quartet in November 1953.
To call the fifth string quartet groundbreaking would be an understatement. By this point in his career, Shostakovich had become quite comfortable with the string quartet form and was beginning to bend it to his stylistic will. For instance, he discarded the conventional separation of the piece into movements and joined all three movements together in one continuous piece. He also became more comfortable, given the approach of Stalin’s death, with drawing melodic material from his fellow Russians. An example of this can be found in the first movement, which begins with a tight, careful exposition that grows into a startling eruption that carries a “fff” dynamic marking. It appears again at the end of the movement, then again in the middle of the third movement. As it turns out, this melody came from a 1949 trio for clarinet, violin, and piano written by one of Shostakovich’s most famous composition pupils, Galina Ustvolskaya.
It is a rule of thumb that the influence of Shostakovich’s idol, J.S. Bach, can almost always be identified in his music. And the fifth string quartet is no exception. The first four notes played on the viola, for instance, are a permutation of the D-E flat-C-B natural motif that occurs in Shostakovich’s tenth symphony and was made famous in his eighth string quartet (which we will hear next week!). This is almost certainly an imitation of Bach, who often signed his initials B-A-C-H (B natural) in his music.
We are continuing our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich with the fourth movement of his fourth string quartet, performed by our old friends, the Jerusalem Quartet.
For those of you familiar with Shostakovich’s work, you can hear elements of his later style in the somewhat dissonant tendencies of the fourth movement. His love of certain forms of dissonance—and in particular, flattened scale degrees—stemmed from his love of Jewish folk music. To Shostakovich, Jewish folk music was “close to my idea of what music should be.” He wrote: “Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music. All folk music is lovely, but I can say that the Jewish folk music is unique.”
Yet when he was writing this string quartet in 1949, Shostakovich was adamant that it would never be performed. A year earlier, he had been fired from his position as professor at the Moscow Conservatory because of his public opposition to Soviet ideological correctness. And Stalin had banned all Jewish music and literature only a few months before the quartet was composed. Shostakovich was therefore certain that his fourth string quartet would remain unheard for the foreseeable future. As it turned out, the quartet was not heard publicly for many more years. It received its first public performance nine months after Stalin died.
The fourth movement (starting at 14:12 of the video) begins with a simple viola melody inspired by a Jewish folk tune. But don’t let its simplicity deceive you! Wait a few minutes and Shostakovich will be pounding it through dense, multi-layered fugal imitation and dozens of changing meters. He combines the sadness of the Jewish folk melody with the violent excitement of a pulsing dance motif that creates an unforgettable blend of adrenaline and terror.
Shostakovich wrote his second string quartet while staying at a retreat center for writers and composers outside of Moscow. It was later premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that Shostakovich ultimately chose to premiere all of his string quartets. I find this choice of ensemble particularly interesting, given that Shostakovich’s compositions, like Beethoven’s, are often divided into three chronological categories: early, middle, and late.
The fourth movement (starting at 24:04) is based on a folk tune that Shostakovich featured in his second piano trio. First, you will hear a sombre (and, in my opinion, extremely Russian-sounding) E-flat minor dialogue between the first violin and the cello. The two instruments trade the folk tune back and forth until the viola ushers the ensemble into a second folk tune in A minor. Shostakovich then puts this new theme through a series of ever-intensifying variations that culminate in a frenzy of punched chords. The movement concludes with a recapitulated variation of each theme and a full-throated and stirring rendition of the original folk tune.
I realize we could probably make a series out of the times I’ve started a series and then pivoted to another topic. But the annual New Year’s Day performance of Johann Strass’ Blue Danube waltz by the Vienna Philharmonic only happens once a year, so I believe I’m justified in today’s diversion.
To that end, our music for this week is the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic on January 1, 2020 under the direction of Maestro Andris Nelsons.
Every year, the Vienna Philharmonic gives a New Year’s Day concert that ends with the famous Blue Danube waltz. The concert has been taking place since 1939 and has featured some of the greatest conductors of all time: Ricardo Mutti, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, and more. It will take place on January 1, 2023 at 11:15 am Eastern Time. Unfortunately it will not be live-streamed, but most classical music radio stations around the world broadcast the program live. The program will also include a number of other waltzes, selections from a ballet, and more.
The Blue Danube waltz hardly needs any introduction, other than to say that it is easily the most famous waltz of all time. You will hear the famous theme in the cellos and the horns.
This week’s music marks the beginning of a new series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. We will be kicking off the series with the fourth movement of his String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet (the fourth movement starts at the 10:41 mark in the video).
Before getting to the fourth movement, here’s a bit of background on Shostakovich as a chamber music composer:
He did not begin writing chamber music until age 32, much later than most of his Russian colleagues. When he started composing the first string quartet, Shostakovich wrote, “I began to write it without special ideas and feelings. I wrote the first page as a sort of original exercise in the quartet form, but then work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly.”
Unlike his symphonies, Shostakovich intended his early string quartets to be light-hearted. In his own words: “Don’t expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it ‘spring-like.'” In keeping with the view in Moscow musical circles at the time, Shostakovich did not view chamber music as a series musical pursuit. Ironically, his string quartets have become some of the best-loved compositions of the twentieth century.
The contentment, ease, and lightness you will hear in this string quartet are a sharp contrast to the turmoil in Shostakovich’s life at the time he wrote it. His Fourth Symphony had received a disastrous premiere in Moscow, and Shostakovich had given up hope that he would ever write a great symphony.
The fourth movement (starting at 10:41 in the video) returns to the home key of C Major. The end of the movement hangs the listener over a ledge of C Minor before resolving to the tonic. I chose this movement for the first installment in our series because it is a preview of some Shostakovich tendencies that you will become familiar with as we listen to his other string quartets. For instance, the fourth movement showcases the punchy metric effects Shostakovich would later perfect in his eighth string quartet. It also features shifting meters (later perfected by the American composer Aaron Copland) and classic “Shostakovich-style” harmonies that seem to be bitter, tart, and sweet at the same time.
This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, performed by the Spanish cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in London’s famous Wigmore Hall.
After the composition and discovery of JS Bach’s six cello suites, no great solo works were written for the cello for almost 200 years. Kodály, although not a cellist himself, composed this sonata in 1915 in homage to the genius of Bach. Ironically, the performance of this suite was delayed in a manner similar to the performance of Bach’s suites because of World War I.
Kodály was fascinated by the music of Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók, both of home he had encountered while studying composition in Paris many years earlier. He and Bartok eventually became two of the most well-known Hungarian composers in history. In fact, the two of them made several trips around the Hungarian countryside for the sole purpose of collecting folk tunes. You can therefore hear Hungarian folk and influences in this music at many different points.
The link above only contains the first movement of the Sonata, but you’re welcome to listen to the other movements at your leisure. This first movement is the grandiose exposition of the sonata. Kodály uses this movement to explore all of the main themes that he wants to develop throughout the rest of the sonata. The second movement simply takes one of these themes and meanders through it with a melancholy and introspective attitude. The third movement is a rollicking folk tune that Kodály transcribed entirely from a rural village musician.
Kodály was extremely confident that this sonata would become very popular. He even predicted that, within 25 years of its composition, every serious cellist would want to play it. Posterity has been friendly to him; almost every single international cello competition now requires a performance of this sonata if the cellist hopes to advance to the final rounds.
This week’s music, in the spirit of the American Thanksgiving Day holiday, is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. This is arguably the most well-known and widely-loved piece of music ever written by an American composer.
Two years after the premier of his amazingly popular Rodeo, Appalachian Spring was written in 1944 as a ballet titled “Ballet for Martha.” Dancer Martha Graham had been commissioned to choreograph the ballet, and Copland wasn’t sure what he was going to call it. A year later, after the ballet was met with widespread success (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for the musical score), Copland created the orchestral suite that you will hear.
Appalachian Spring evokes images of rolling Blue Ridge mountains, open prairie-lands, soaring northern peaks, and youthful exploration. It captures much of the adventurousness inherent in the American ideal. Ironically, Copland wasn’t even thinking about the Appalachians when he wrote the piece. As he said, “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”
While all of the melodies in Appalachian Spring are memorable and evocative, the highlight is the unmistakable “Simple Gifts” theme that begins at 23:27. Based on the Shaker hymn by the same name, this melody was Copland’s attempt to pay homage to the Shaker influence on American culture. Since they were writing for a ballet, Copland and Graham initially chose “Simple Gifts” because of its references to dancing:
When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d To turn, turn will be our delight ’Till by turning, turning we come round right.
This week’s music is a piece that routinely features in the conversation of “most beautiful music of all time”: the Overture to Act I of Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal.”
Parsifal was written in 1882. The storyline is the search for the Holy Grail and the adventures that arise along the way. Parsifal, who doesn’t arrive until later in the story, confronts numerous curses, betrayals, and other challenges on his journey to uncover the Holy Grail. He is eventually crowned king. The story, which has equivalents across the literature of multiple ancient civilizations, is timeless, but I think the music is the best part.
This overture is a trumpet player’s dream. The trumpet is featured as the primary melodic instrument, and it has multiple moments in the spotlight. Listen at 2:15 for the trumpet’s first presentation of the melody – one of the most beautiful and well-known melodies in all of music. You’ll hear another presentation of the melody, this time with more harmonic support from the strings, at 4:30. I appreciate the way this video focuses on the trumpet player and gives you a close-up view of his performance.
This week’s music is the Souvenir de Florence by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
This string sextet was composed during a time in Tchaikovsky’s life that was devoid of inspiration. Historians have found journal entries from this time in his life that evoke despair and depression. In several of them, Tchaikovsky doubts his ability to compose at all. It is therefore surprising that this cheerful and upbeat composition is the result of such a time in Tchaikovsky’s life.
The composition is structurally very easy to understand. As a rule of thumb, every theme is presented by a single instrument family. In other words, the exposition of a theme will begin in the two violins, progress to the two violas, and end in the two cellos. Although these voices will of course be independent of each other at times, they always resolve in their original pairs.
We are very fortunate to have some of Tchaikovsky’s letters to his colleagues about the piece. We know from these letters that the first movement needs to be played with “great fire and passion.” Similarly, we know that he wanted the slow second movement to reflect a summer thunderstorm with muted lightning in the distance. Tchaikovsky also ventured into relatively uncharted territory by incorporating a fugue format into the third movement. This is a structural and stylistic marker that was much more common 200 years before Tchaikovsky’s time. However, he bravely builds the entire third movement around a fugal system in which the pairs of instruments continuously add and subtract identical thematic material above and beneath each other.