An American Composer’s Perspective on Shostakovich, Vivaldi, the Beatles & Tchaikovsky
In the Plano Symphony’s signature programming style, tonight’s season finale concert presents a mixture of music from the worlds of both classical and popular music. The evening features works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Critical opinions of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) are divided. On one hand, there are glowing reviews that hail Shostakovich's music as full of "visionary power and originality." On the other hand, there are accounts that dismiss his work as "trashy, empty and derivative." Both are true. Shostakovich spent his entire career working in the Soviet Union, and the many original and powerful modernist works that he wrote were largely suppressed by the authorities as too radical and intellectual. Shostakovich was, therefore, officially forced to turn to simpler, less challenging music. As a result, the composer’s output shifted dramatically between dynamic, challenging scores written for his own artistic satisfaction and lighter, populist fare that adhered more closely to the communist "party line." Regardless of style, however, Shostakovich imbued all of his works with impeccable craftsmanship and his strong musical personality. The composer wrote his stirring Festive Overture, Op. 96 in A Major (1954) in three days for an anniversary concert commemorating the 1917 communist revolution. It was subsequently used as the theme music for the 1980 Summer Olympics.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was one of the finest Italian composers of the Baroque era. In his time, he was internationally known as a composer of operas, but today, he is best remembered for the many string concertos he wrote as Director of Music at the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà in Venice. Attached to the church was an orphanage for foundling girls, and Vivaldi's duties included musical instruction for the resident students. Vivaldi built an excellent orchestra which attracted audiences from all over Europe. Part of the allure was a large screen which was put up in front of the performers to shield them from public view --- the rationale being that the sight of so many lovely young girls in the physical act of making music would be too provocative for the audience. In 1740, under mysterious circumstances, Vivaldi suddenly left Venice and his girls. He made his way to Vienna, but his career never regained its former glory, and he died in poverty the following year. The young Franz Joseph Haydn sang as a choirboy at his funeral.
The Four Seasons is undoubtedly Vivaldi’s "hit tune." The work consists of four violin concertos that are based on four Italian sonnets, probably written by the composer, each depicting one of the four seasons. Two of the seasons, “Summer” and “Winter,” will be performed this evening. The music follows the text with cinematic precision. In “Winter,” two particularly charming examples are the playful dissonances at the opening to depict “biting, stinging winds.” Later, the text reads, “To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.” In his musical depiction, Vivaldi creates a delicate rain of pizzicato while the solo violin warmly sings a glowing and contented melody. Each concerto contains a wealth of this kind of literal programmatic representation, so if you have not heard the music while closely following the text, you have a treat in store.
Summer – Concerto in G Minor
Allegro non molto
Beneath the blazing sun's relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering, pines are scorched. We hear the cuckoo's voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard. Soft breezes stir the air….but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.
Adagio e piano - Presto e forte
His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning's flash and thunder's roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.
Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing corn.
Winter – Concerto in F-minor
Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds; running to and fro to stamp one's icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling, then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.
In 1964, an English pop group called The Beatles made musical history with their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show before a television audience of 70 million. The four members were John Lennon, guitarist, keyboard-player and singer; Paul McCartney, bass guitarist, keyboard-player and singer; George Harrison, guitarist, sitarist, keyboard-player and singer and Ringo Starr, drummer and singer. All four Beatles wrote songs, but when people speak of “the music of The Beatles,” they mean the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who, always working in collaboration, contributed the group’s most memorable hits.
Soon after the Beatles’ triumphant American tour, five of the top ten songs in the U.S. were theirs. Not satisfied with success with individual songs, they moved on to create concept albums that grouped songs into large-scale musical entities. Never before had a group drawn from such a wide variety of musical sources, including blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country, Renaissance modes, Indian folk music, the British music-hall tradition and the modernist Karl Heinz Stockhausen. Their recordings often featured timbres such as string quartet and avant-garde electronic sounds not previously heard in a commercial context. Their irreverent personae and refreshing musical ideas and innovations have had and continue to have an enormous influence on popular music around the world, so it is said that popular music “grew up” with the Beatles.
Since The Beatles are enjoyed and respected by all kinds of audiences, it is not surprising that the world of concert music should turn to their music. The first half of tonight’s concert will conclude with a newly-composed Beatles Fantasy for violin and orchestra by Maxime Goulet & Eric Jones Cadieux.
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1804-1893) was the leading Russian composer of his time, and, along with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), he was one of Russia’s two greatest composers of any time. In Russian, his name is pronounced “Chee- KOV-ski. ” Tchaikovsky brought his music to the United States when he was commissioned to compose and conduct a Festival Coronation March for the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. The concert also included the famous 1812 Overture. Stravinsky wrote that, as a child, he was thrilled to have caught a glimpse of Tchaikovsky at a concert. Stravinsky also said he was “impatient with music that does not sing or dance.” Tchaikovsky’s music always does both. Few composers have achieved equal success with both symphonies and operas. Tchaikovsky’s chamber works, overtures and particularly his ballets, such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, are known and loved throughout the musical world.
Looking back from the present to Tchaikovsky and his 19th-century Russian contemporaries, we find two types of composers: nationalists (“vodka composers”) and internationalists (“champagne composers”). The vodka composers, the famous “Russian Five” --- Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin --- primarily strove to celebrate the Russian tradition, often incorporating folk themes and basing their works on Russian history and legends. In their lifetimes, their music was played primarily in their homeland. On the other hand, champagne composers, such as Tchaikovsky and, later, Sergei Rachmaninoff, followed European, predominantly German, symphonic models. While their music took occasional sips of vodka, it also had an international flavor. Their careers extended far beyond Russia to Europe and the United States, and their music continues to be more widely performed than that of their more nationalistic contemporaries.
Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony in F Minor, Op. 36, is pure champagne, in the European, mostly Brahmsian, tradition, with just a touch of vodka in the form of a Russian folk tune, "In the Field Stood a Birch Tree," in the last movement. The 36-year-old Tchaikovsky had reached his full powers as a composer, and he dedicated the symphony to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, who was later to be the patron of Claude Debussy. In a letter to Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky provided his personal insights into the four movements of his work, paraphrased as follows:
“The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony: Fate, that fateful force that can never be overcome—merely endured. The bleak and hopeless feelings grow stronger and intense. Then, out of nowhere, a sweet and gentle day-dream appears. Some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons us away. Everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten. But no, these were only daydreams, and Fate awakens us. Life is, thus, an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with fleeting dreams and visions of happiness.
“The second movement expresses another aspect of sadness: that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from one's toil, one sits alone with a book—but it falls from the hand. There is a whole host of memories: happy moments when the young blood boiled, and life was satisfying; there are also painful memories, irreconcilable losses. All this is now somewhere far distant. It is both sad, yet somehow sweet to be immersed in the past.
“In the third movement, there are whimsical arabesques, vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine. The spirit is neither cheerful, nor sad. Amid these memories there suddenly comes a picture of drunken peasants and a street song. Then, somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes. These are images which sweep through the head as one falls asleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are strange, wild, and incoherent.
“The fourth movement. If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture the festive merriment of ordinary people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others, than irrepressible fate appears again and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad. O, how they are enjoying themselves! How happy they are that all their feelings are simple and straightforward. Reproach yourself, and do not say that everything in this world is sad. Joy is a simple, but powerful force. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.”
Tchaikovsky was pleased with his work, saying, "It seems to me that this is my best work…What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion? I only know that at this moment I... am blind to any shortcomings in my new offspring. Yet I am sure that, as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development..." Tchaikovsky was, of course, correct, and his Fourth Symphony remains one of most often-performed and best-loved works in the symphonic literature.