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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
We spent the first few weeks of our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein exploring his more popular and public compositions, such as West Side Story and the educational performances he gave to children around the world. For the remaining weeks of the series, we are going to take a look at some of his more obscure compositions, starting with the Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion. The violinist in the video is Vadim Gluzman.
Plato wrote Symposium as a dialogue between several speakers on the topic of love. It was originally a play that contained five parts, and Bernstein named the movements of the Serenade after those parts: Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, & Alcibiades. Accordingly, the music introduces a new voice or viewpoint in each movement. You will notice that Bernstein recycles certain themes in each of the movements, building upon his earlier work to create a comprehensive whole. Listen for the repeated re-emergence of the opening solo violin theme throughout the latter movements.
Bernstein must have known that we would be learning about his music via these Music Emails because he wrote a description of each movement for his listeners.
“Pausanias (Lento; Allegro marcato). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato. II. Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime-storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm. [Aristophanes sees love as satisfying a basic human need. Much of the musical material derives from the grace-note theme of the first movement. The middle section of this movement incorporates a melody for the lower strings (marked “singing”) played in close canon.] III. Eryximachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato-scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor. [This section contains music that corresponds thematically to the canon of the previous movement, Aristophanes] IV. Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song. V. Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. Love as a daemon is Socrates’ image for the profundity of love; and his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements, and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party. [Speaking through the voice of Diotima, Socrates proposes the notion that the most virtuous form of love is the love for wisdom (philosophy).]”
“Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them. So when we ask, ‘What does it mean; what does this piece of music mean?’ we’re asking a hard question. Let’s do our best to answer it.”
Leonard Bernstein, 1958
While Leonard Bernstein’s legacy was cemented by West Side Story and his other great compositions, his influence extended far beyond Broadway. In many ways, he inspired and educated a generation of youth through his Young People’s Concerts. He performed these concerts all around the country and on television to thousands of young people, inspiring them to learn more about the greatest music in the world.
The video you will watch today was originally aired on
January 18, 1958. It was titled “What Does Music Mean?” Bernstein uses the
various instruments of the orchestra to show the audience what makes the music
of William Tell Overture and other
famous pieces so special. I find it informative and am sure that, despite its
orientation for children, it will be beneficial to you as well. Bernstein is a
talented teacher and a gifted communicator, and his excitement about music is