Kavakos plays Shostakovich

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.

As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.

The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.

The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.

Enjoy!

T  

Free, but Happy

Hello all,

Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.

“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.

This third movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the definition of Romantic-era lyricism.

Enjoy!

T

100!

Hello all,

Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.

Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.

The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.

Enjoy! 

T

Tchaikovsky Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for today is the Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky, performed by three of the greatest Russian musicians of all time: Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), and Natalia Gutman (cello). This performance was shortly after Kagan was diagnosed with cancer that would lead to his untimely death at only 44 years of age in 1990. I am one of the many who believe that he would have become “the next Oistrakh” or “the next Heifetz” had he lived a full life. 

Tchaikovsky wrote this trio as one long transition from A Major to A Minor. His hope was that the listener would be able to grasp the long (90 pages!) journey from one world to another.

The first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a soulful melody in the cello that is passed around the trio throughout the rest of the movement. Listen for the many different permutations of this theme that Tchaikovsky creates.

The second movement is a set of ten variations on a theme that is introduced by the piano in the opening bars. First, the violin takes the theme. Second, the cello tries its hand at the melody. Third, the strings play pizzicato while the piano accelerates into a Scherzo variation. Fourth, the three combine again for a rich, soulful variation. Fifth, the piano seems to imitate bells with its ringing version of the main theme. Sixth, the cello leads the trio in a waltz. Seventh, the piano brings us back to a nearly identical version of the original theme. Eighth, the three instruments power their way through a busy Fugue. Ninth, the cello carries the trio through a slow and pensive meditation. Finally, the three instruments race to the finish in a light-hearted Mazurka.

The final movement is actually another variation on the theme that begins the second movement, but this time it is more developed. Listen for the way that Tchaikovsky finishes the trio with a combination of the second movement’s main theme and the theme from the opening of the first movement.

Enjoy!

T

 

 

The Year 1905

Hello all,

Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.

The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.

This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.

The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.

Enjoy!

T

Sketches

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Suite No. 1 from Mikail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasion Sketches. I’m willing to bet that none of you – even the most veteran musicians – have heard of this piece. However, one of the many goals of This Week’s Music is to popularize music that no one knows about!

Ippolitov-Ivanov was a Russian composer in the early 20th century who studied with the famous Rimsky-Korsakov. One of his first jobs was as a conductor in the region of Russia that is now Georgia. During his eleven years there, he fell in love with the soaring mountain peaks and rich folk heritage of the region. The Caucasion Sketches are his musical depiction of the rural Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, which, as a result of their position along a major trade route from the Black Sea to Moscow, were filled with an incredible amount of cultural diversity.

There are four movements in the Caucasion Sketches:

  • In a Mountain Pass
  • In a Village – listen for the English horn’s solo in this movement. It is supposedly a representation of an instrument native to the Caucasus Mountains region called the zurna.
  • In a Mosque
  • Procession of the Sardar – the Sardar was the leader or regional commander, and this movement depicts the pomp and circumstance that surround his arrival in the village.

Enjoy!

T

A Different “Four Seasons”

Hello all,

We are all probably familiar with Antonio Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons, but I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t heard of this Seasons composition. It was written for the Russian Imperial Ballet troupe in 1900 by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. However, unlike most ballets, Glazunov’s Seasons does not contain a singular storyline. Instead, it contains four distinct sections (perhaps a nod to Vivaldi?) that are named after the four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.

First, you’ll hear the Winter movement. Listen for the frantic way that Glazunov portrays ice, snow, and hail with the clarinets and strings. The falling snow is depicted as an almost Strauss-ian waltz.

Second, you’ll hear the Spring movement. In the ballet, this movement is introduced by two gnomes who light a warm fire amidst the snow and frost. The harp depicts the arrival of flowers and songbirds.

Third, you’ll hear the Summer movement. The clarinet returns with the “Dance of the Corn,” representing the growing of crops in the summer heat. Listen for the strings’ representation of a bubbling brook, which provides relief for the summer flowers.

Fourth, you’ll hear the Autumn movement. The dancers focus here on the harvesting of crops and the making of wine. Listen for the wild dance to Bacchus, the historical god of wine. The movement ends with the arrival of a warm autumn night and the emergence of stars in the sky.

Enjoy!

T

P.S. I couldn’t find a suitable video of a live performance, but I think the video above is actually quite helpful because it notates the changing of the seasons with text and images.

Bernstein #6 – The Age of Anxiety

Hello all,

We are completing our series on the life and music of Leonard Bernstein with one of his most under-appreciated compositions, the Symphony #2. This symphony is known as the “Age of Anxiety” symphony. The video you will see was made in 1986. The composer himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with Krystian Zimmerman on the piano. In the introductory interview, Bernstein says, “At least one of the characters [in the story of the piece] does find the core of faith, which is what . . . I am after in every work I ever write.”

The symphony was modeled after W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety.” After reading it, Bernstein wrote the following:

W.H. Auden’s fascinating and hair-raising poem The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue began immediately to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947. From that moment the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired an almost compulsive quality . . . . The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematical search for faith. In the end, two of the characters enunciate the recognition of this faith—even a passive submission to it—at the same time revealing an inability to relate to it personally in their daily lives, except through blind acceptance.

The symphony proceeds in two parts, each of which contain three sub-parts. This echoes the six sections in Auden’s poem. Part 1 includes the following:

  • Prologue – four lonely people sit alone in a bar, trying to drink themselves away from their problems. Listen for the clarinets here, who use a long descending scale to give an impression of despair and loneliness.
  • Seven Ages – this movement is a set of variations that look at a man’s lifespan from four different points of view. As you listen, try to figure out how the variations are related. Bernstein intentionally made each one an addition to the previous ones.
  • Seven Stages – This variation follows the struggle of the man’s attempted journey from pain and insecurity to comfort and security. The four characters in the Prologue dream of this journey together, and when they awake, they are closely united through this shared dream.

Part II contains the following three parts:

  • Dirge – the four people sing this mournful song as they take a cab through the city. They mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” a figure who has all the answers and can resolve all of their problems.
  • Masque – the four people struggle to find energy to enjoy their evening and eventually disperse. Listen for the sudden outburst of hectic jazz music in this movement, symbolizing the inability of today’s weary people to fully enjoy life.
  • Epilogue – all that is left is faith. The trumpet solo carries this theme to the end with purity and radiance.

Bernstein wanted to highlight the emptiness and anxiety that were left in the wake of WWII despite all the technological progress of his time. I believe his critique is doubly relevant today. We are more powerful and connected than ever, yet we are also more lonely and unfulfilled than ever. We work our lives away, sucked into screens and devices that alienate and control us, caught in the business of getting here and there. Just as Auden’s poem highlighted the emptiness and the search for faith that darkened the world after WWII, Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony reminds us of the emptiness that can burden even the most powerful society in history.

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #5 – Chichester Psalms

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.

Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.

As with many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation for composing the Psalms.

“For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”

Unlike most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words, the piece is “the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also adamant that the Psalms be sung in the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.

Here’s a quick rundown of things to listen for:

  • First movement: This movement is based on Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly, this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an almost unheard-of meter.
  • Second movement: listen for the boy soprano solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
  • Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued chorus without instrumentation.

Enjoy!

T