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.
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 Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner’s famous opera Lohengrin. It is performed by the Gurzenich Orchestra under the baton of James Conlon.
Lohengrin is one of the most (over?) dramatic storylines in the opera repertoire. Elsa (no, not the Elsa from Disney’s Frozen) falls in love with a mysterious knight who will not reveal his identity to her. After repeated tries to discover his name, Elsa succeeds in getting the knight to admit – on their wedding night – that he is Lohengrin, a mythical divinity sent to protect Elsa from harm. But there’s a catch: part of Lohengrin’s divinity involves a curse, and the curse means that he must disappear if his identity is ever revealed. He suddenly vanishes, leaving Elsa so stricken with grief that she dies on the spot.
The Prelude to Act III that you will hear today comes right before the wedding, when things are still going well for Elsa. It isn’t long before everything does downhill in a hurry. But at this point, life is still good. Wagner therefore opens the Prelude with a shimmering wave of brass and percussion that create a sense of excitement and forward movement. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear a tambourine near the beginning.