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.
This week’s music is the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The Firebird is a musical rendition of a Russian folk tale about a magical creature called a firebird, whose favorite food is golden apples. Prince Ivan, in an effort to overcome the evil wizard Kashchei’s rule over the kingdom, goes into Kashchei’s garden looking for a tree that grows golden apples. Ivan captures the firebird, but lets it go in return for one of its feathers. He is then captured by Kashchei, escaping only by waving the firebird’s feather and summoning the firebird to his rescue. The firebird leads Kashchei and his monsters in a dance that is so exhausting that Kashchei and his monsters fall asleep. This is known as the “Infernal Dance,” which you will hear today. Prince Ivan then, with the help of the firebird, kills Kashchei and frees the kingdom. The firebird flies away, never to be seen again.
Stravinsky wrote the score for The Firebird in 1910 as part of a collaboration with the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, and the music began his rise to international stardom. Soon after its premiere, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and his violin concerto, all of which were met with critical acclaim. The music of The Firebird is considered to be a prime example of Stravinsky’s style, but I find this claim to be misleading. Stravinsky’s style is hard to pin down due, I believe, to his astounding versatility. For instance, he wrote entire symphonies in the Baroque style, yet his violin concerto sounds more like a late Romantic composition. He wrote very modern-sounding pieces like The Rite of Spring while also crafting orchestral suites in the style of Mozart. In short, Stravinsky was a consummate master of composition who did not have a single style. The genius of The Firebird is yet another example of his brilliance. The music is glittering, dissonant, and sometimes even unnerving, yet Stravinsky finds unique ways to surprise the listener with flashes of harmonic resolution.
This week’s music, as part of our series on ballet music, is the Balcony Pas de Deux from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. First performed in 1940 by the renowned Mariinsky Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is the definitive musical expression of one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Prokofiev wrote the music for Romeo and Juliet at a time in his life in which he was under significant public pressure. European audiences had not liked his violin concerti, American audiences had dismissed his ballets, and Russian audiences had rejected his chamber music. On top of these pressures, Prokofiev was under close scrutiny by the Soviet government. Therefore, when Russian, European, and American audiences alike received Romeo and Juliet with adoration, a great weight was lifted off of Prokofiev’s shoulders.
The scene you will watch today, the Balcony Pas de Deux, depicts Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Notice how Prokofiev uses soaring lines in the violins to create a sense of rapture. Listen as well for the oboe solo that ushers in one of the main themes of the entire ballet.
Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Michael Sanderling and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.
Along with 15 masterful string quartets, Shostakovich also wrote 15 symphonies. Symphony No. 15 was premiered in 1972, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducting. Dmitri, nearing the end of his life, was too weak to lead to the orchestra himself.
Shostakovich once said of this symphony that it was a summation of his life in one work. He scatters little hints of this throughout the piece. For instance, the harmonic progression of the opening motif of the first movement, when written out in its German phonetic spelling, is “es-as-c-h-a,” a barely disguised representation of Shostakovich’s own nickname: “Sascha.” The second movement, which is based on a Russian funeral march, represents Shostakovich’s thoughts as he comes to the end of his life.
This symphony also quotes other great musical works quite often. It is probably safe to assume that, if this symphony is indeed Shostakovich’s life in one work, these musical references point us to pieces of music that were important to Shostakovich’s own musical development. Listen for the momentary imitation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement (some of you may recognize it from the TV series “The Lone Ranger”). The most experienced listeners among you may recognize the quote from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in the fourth movement. Shostakovich specifically references the famous “Ring of Nibelung” motif from the opera.
This week’s music is the 3rd movement of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet, performed by the aptly-named Borodin String Quartet.
Russian classical music changed in the late 19th century. Rather than attempting to copy the Italian masters, it began to focus on sharing Russian folk music with the world. Tchaikovsky was one of the early leaders of this movement, and he inspired a generation of young Russian composers that eventually came to be known as “The Russian Five”: Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov (Flight of the Bumblebee, anyone?), Mussorgsky, and – last but not least – Alexander Borodin. Borodin only wrote 21 pieces of music, and most of them were symphonies or operas. In fact, the other four members of “The Russian Five” despised chamber music and criticized Borodin for composing works for string quartet.
The third movement of Quartet No. 2 is Borodin’s most famous composition. It is titled “Nocturne,” and it’s sweet melody has captured the imaginations of listeners around the world. Written as an anniversary gift for Borodin’s wife, the Nocturne evokes a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and meditation. Listen as the main theme, which begins in the cello, gets passed around the entire quartet.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
The “Rite of Spring” was a complete scandal when it was first performed. Stravinsky wrote it as the score for a French ballet in 1929, and the audience was horrified by Stravinsky’s disregard for conventional harmonic structures. When combined with Russian Ballet director Serge Diaghilev’s jolting choreography, the dissonant sounds of Stravinsky’s music were anything but “spring”-like. However, this notoriety ended up serving “The Rite of Spring” well. It is now performed just as often in orchestral settings as it is in ballet settings. The music has come to define an era of music.
“The Rite of Spring” is based on a representation of Russian rituals and culture that Stravinsky had been wanting to compose for many years. The themes are simple and dark, depicting furious storms and violent struggles. Stravinsky described it as “a musical-choreographic work . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” There is no specific storyline that unifies “The Rite of Spring,” just a serious of separately choreographed scenes that represent moments in time.
We are breaking into twentieth-century music for the first time in the Top 25! Our music for today is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
When Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann died, he left behind a lifetime of imaginative drawings, paintings, and designs. At an exhibition in honor of Hartmann’s work, his good friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, was inspired to make a musical representation of Hartmann’s images. He therefore composed a set of piano pieces that represented his walk through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works. He wrote eleven short pieces that depicted himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The pieces were never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.
After Mussorgsky died, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the administrator of Mussorgsky’s estate, discovered the piano pieces and began musing about the possibility of putting them to full orchestration. However, it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who finally transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for full orchestra in 1922. In keeping with his incredibly bright and colorful style, Ravel added a flair and imagination to the piano pieces that is unforgettable. However, Ravel was also very familiar with Mussorgsky’s compositional style and made sure to remain as faithful as possible to the original score.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures at an Exhibition is its orchestration. The orchestra consists of the usual winds, brass, strings, and timpani, but it also includes English horn, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, rattle, whip, and celesta. This unconventional arrangement is in line with Mussorgsky’s tendencies. He is reported to have detested symphonies and operas as overly conventional and boring.
Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll hear:
The piece opens with a Promenade. This depicts the moment that Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition. The tempo is relatively slow and heavy, which may reflect Mussorgsky’s considerable girth and slow gait.
The first movement is the Gnomus, which represents Hartmann’s Christmas-time depiction of a gnome eating chestnuts. Listen for the disjointed, awkward leaps in the music, which represent what Mussorgsky thought of as the gnome’s “droll movements.”
Second, you’ll hear The Old Castle. This movement features the alto saxophone and represents the two medieval castles that Hartmann was fond of visiting.
Third, there is Tuileries, which represents Hartmann’s drawing of his favorite park in Paris.
Fourth, you’ll hear Bydlo. In this movement, Mussorgsky is describing Hartmann’s picture of a Polish wagon called a “bydlo” that is being drawn by a team of oxen. Listen for the hoofbeats!
Fifth, there is the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This movement represents Hartmann’s picture of a group of young boys and girls playing together.
Sixth, you’ll hear Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This movement is in reference to two of Hartmann’s paintings that Mussorgsky himself owned. Goldenberg, a renowned merchant, is represented by the authoritative opening salvo, while Schmuyle (or “the poor one”) carries a grating, unsteady character.
Seventh, there is The Market Place. Hartmann painted over 150 watercolors of the marketplace at Limoges, France, and this movement depicts the hustle and bustle of the market.
Eighth, you will hear Catacombs. Hartmann was very fond of wandering the lamp-lit passageways underneath the city of Paris, and this movement depicts his journeys therein. If you listen carefully, you will hear a mournful and somber version of the opening Promenade at the end of this movement.
Ninth – and perhaps most famously – there is The Hut on Chicken’s Legs, or Baba-Yaga. One of Hartmann’s most famous sketches was a picture of the mythical witch Baba-Yaga. Russian folklore told stories of her lair deep in the forest, which was apparently perched on chicken’s legs.
Finally, there is The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann was not only an artist. He was also an architect, and he entered a national competition to determine who the architect would be for the Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky had always been impressed by his friend’s plan for the gate, and this movement reflects the grandeur of the structure. Ravel’s masterful and colorful orchestration creates an incredible finale.
Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by
Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and
Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.
As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to
see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most
symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most
concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas,
however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes
four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an
expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to
sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and
Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).
A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the
greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest
of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very
well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as
you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully
stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might
do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms).
Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but
certainly not subtle (as in Bach).
The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.
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.