This concert featured pieces by four composers who were all innovators in the areas of harmony, orchestration, musical form, and music-drama. Here’s some examples of what they did and where they came from:
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)
Below is the first part of the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene in Der Freishchütz. Note Weber’s use of low, dark orchestral string colors and demonic shrieks from the woodwinds to represent cavorting with dark powers in this eerie space. The arrival of Max, the young gamesman, is accompanied by bright horn calls, our constant reminder that he is a man of the hunt.
[The production below, overall, is pretty cool and certainly very striking. If you are easily offended by rabbit pornography, however, I’d recommend skipping 1:40 – 1:50.]
Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)
The best part about researching 19th century composers is getting to read their own writings. This is especially true in the case of Berlioz. Never has there been or will be a more over-the-top, extravagant musician or man, prone to bouts of depression and, especially, exaggeration. Berlioz’s Memoirs make for immensely entertaining reading, and I recommend them highly. All you have to do is look at some of the chapter and page headings:
Berlioz’s memoirs take us back to a time when artists still presented themselves passionately, vividly, fearlessly. In recent times, this seems to have gone out of fashion.
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
The Civic Orchestra concert included the little known Wagner work Eine Faust-Ouvertüre. Another work dating from around the same period (1839 – 40) is the overture Wagner wrote for the German playwright Guido Theodor Apel’s Columbus. Here’s what it sounds like:
Wagner presented this piece on a concert that was attended by Berlioz. He writes in Mein Leben about the experience of presenting this work in Paris:
One great objection was the difficulty of finding capable musicians for the six cornets required, as the music for this instrument, so skillfully played in Germany, could hardly, if ever, be satisfactorily executed in Paris. I was compelled to reduce my six cornets to four, and only two of these could be relied upon.
As a matter of fact, the attempts made at the rehearsal to produce those very passages on which the effect of my work chiefly depended were very discouraging. Not once were the soft high notes played but they were flat or altogether wrong. In addition to this, as I was not going to be allowed to conduct the work myself, I had to rely upon a conductor who, as I was well aware, had fully convinced himself that my composition was the most utter rubbish – an opinion that seemed to be shared by the whole orchestra. Berlioz, who was present at the rehearsal, remained silent throughout. He gave me no encouragement, though he did not dissuade me. He merely said afterwards, with a weary smile, ‘that it was very difficult to get on in Paris.”
Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951)
Schoenberg is so well known both by lovers and haters of 20th century modernism as its radical founding father, that it’s interesting to remember his firm grounding in the Wagnerian Romantic tradition:
Well, it’s happened again – preparing for a talk at Symphony Center, I’ve come across way too much material for my allotted 30 minutes. Here are extra insights on the October 31, 2010 concert of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. To the various concert attendees who found their way here after hearing my talk – Welcome! Do feel free to peruse the rest of my web site, always being aware that it does not in any way represent the Chicago Symphony or Civic Orchestras.
Shostakovich, Chamber Symphony(1960)
(String Quartet No. 8 arranged by Rudolf Barshai for String Orchestra)
The Chamber Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich began life as his 8th String Quartet – the version that we hear in concert by string orchestras is simply an arrangement by the Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai. More than any other Shostakovich Quartet, the Eighth seems particularly suited for this kind of expanded treatment.
Shostakovich’s eighth quartet is a sort of mix tape of previous compositions, woven together with his “signature motto”, the notes DSCH as in Dmitri Schostakovitch (This actually requires a lot of explanation, and it requires us to pretend we’re German musicians for a moment: the German note name system calls our E-flat “Es” – hence the use of the letter “S” in this motto; similarly, the Germans refer to our note “B” as “H” for some reason. Also, you’re going to have to go German in the spelling of Dmitri’s last name, since American’s tend to prefer the spelling Shostakovich with no “c”.)
Here is the opening of the Quartet, with that exact motive in the cello part:
This is the theme that will connect the vast array of quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier works. Here they all are, in order:
1.) First Symphony (1926)
The original, a playfully sardonic duet for trumpet and bassoon:
In the quartet the music is greatly slowed down and sounds like the expression of an old man in comparison to the previous:
2.) Fifth Symphony (1937)
The tune, deep in the horns, really nothing but a descending line:
rendered much more demurely (even timidly, on might say) in the eighth quartet:
3) Second Piano Trio (1944)
Originally, Shostakovich gave this Jewish theme a delightfully eerie “oom-pah” dance rhythm, creating a soft, macabre folk texture:
In the second movement of the quartet, the same tune is presented in a texture that is best described as diabolical:
4) First Cello Concerto (1959)
The only difference between the original:
and the quartet version:
is the instrumentation.
5) The Young Guard (1948)
There seems to be a lot of confusion in the literature about the nature of the next quotation. The quote itself is minuscule – a four-note motive from Shostakovich’s score for the 1948 film “The Young Guard”:
This motive itself comes from the very first notes of a revolutionary song which features prominently in the plot of the movie. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see a group of young girls who have been imprisoned by the Nazis for their resistance during World War II (these are in fact the Young Guards of history). As they sing this anthem, they defy their captors and work up the courage to fight back; the young men in the next cell over join in:
When it appears in the quartet, the four-note motive is cut short by three violent bow strokes:
The internet being the mind-boggling thing that it is, you can actually watch the entire film on YouTube (in Russian and German, without subtitles):
This is the only quote in the piece that is not from one of Shostakovich’s own previous works. It is a revolutionary song, said to be Lenin’s favorite. There is a wonderful page that contextualizes this song in terms of Russian Revolutionary music here. There is a page devoted to this particular song in its many iterations here (in Russian). It goes a little something like this:
and it’s used in the quartet like this:
7) Katerina’s arioso from the fourth act of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:
which itself sounds a little bit like a mixture of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:
and “Bess, You is my Woman Now” from Porgy & Bess:
and is used in the quartet like this:
David Fanning: Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (2004) – google books
Michael Mishra: A Shostakovich Companion (2008) – google books
Richard Taruskin: Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (1997) – google books
For anyone who has even a moderate interest in the Shostakovich String Quartet repertoire, I would seriously recommend dropping 42 bucks at the Amazon mp3 store (50 bucks on iTunes) and buying the recordings of all 15 Shostakovich Quartets by the confusingly named “Beethoven” Quartet. These performers collaborated extensively with Shostakovich himself and gave the premieres of several of his quartets including the Eighth. You could also spend just 5 bucks and get the Eighth Quartet individually. Amazon, iTunes
For a more recent, fast, polished, full-throttled reading of this piece, I highly recommend the Emerson Quartet’s recording. Amazon, iTunes
As for recordings of the Rudolf Barshai-arranged “Chamber Symphony” version, it’s very difficult to find one in which both the orchestra and the conductor seem to be in the spirit of the piece: often, the technical demands of the string writing are too difficult for and entire orchestra to play together up to tempo, or the conductor indulges too much in Shostakovich’s ‘mood music’. One recording that I highly recommend is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s reading with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. iTunes
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 (1888)
OK, so I totally geeked out on the Shostakovich stuff, so just watch this and enjoy it:
As is usually the case when I conduct the research for my pre-concert lectures at the Civic Orchestra, I end up with way more information than I can share in the 30 minutes allotted. Here are some extra insights on the Dec. 8 concert, featuring music of Schumann and Henze. Welcome Civic Orchestra patrons!
Confusingly, Schumann’s 3rd Symphony is actually the fourth symphony that he conceived – what we now know as the Symphony No. 4 had been composed a full 10 years earlier; we currently number it fourth because Schumann revised it after completing his 3rd Symphony. Schumann composed the 3rd Symphony as an introduction to his new home of Düsseldorf. It is full of warm spirit, and folk charm.
This is all the more surprising given that Schumann was very cold to his new surroundings and was hardly charmed by the folk. The Board of the Musical Society of Düsseldorf had been very keen to acquire the hot young composer from Dresden, and it was only with significant reluctance that Schumann accepted the post of Music Director.
Certain sights in the Rhineland (for which is Rhenish* symphony is named) did inspire him though. The fourth movement of Schumann’s symphony was inspired by his viewing the Cologne Cathedral, which, as this 1856 photograph clearly shows, was still under construction when he would have seen it:
This cathedral would become the world’s tallest structure from 1880-1884, and it inspired Schumann to compose music that he imagined to be “An Accompaniment to a Solemn Ceremony”.
Symphony No. 3, 4th movement
Schumann did not last long at his post in Düsseldorf, however — it seems that, then as now, a good composer did not necessarily a good conductor make. Apparently Schumann was simply unequipped to bring an orchestra or a chorus up to snuff. Contemporary reports note that he
appeared totally immersed in the score, paying little attention even to the musicians; he lived in the tones.
Schumann became increasingly dissatisfied with his post, noting in his diaries that each rehearsal was “more dreadful” than the last. Musical politics were hardly any better in the 19th century than they are now, and he became particularly paranoid when he read an anonymous review of one of his concerts, “because he suspected the author was a member of the music committee.”
The public themselves didn’t much go in for Schumann’s concerts – they found his programming unfriendly and noted that he was only interested in severe, modern music, i.e. his own, and that of Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner. Audiences today don’t know how good they have it!
Speaking of modern music…
*”Rhenish” has got to be about one of the most delicious words in the English language – particularly because of how much it skews the noun that gave it birth (Rhine).
The German-Italian composer Hans Werner Henze was sort of exactly what one expects from a 20th century European musician – scarred by WWII, devoutly Marxist, brazenly homosexual – and his music is a mixture of all this and more.
The central episode of Henze’s life seems to be the major scandal that surrounded the December 1968 première of his oratorio Das Floß der “Medusa” which presented the saga of the Medusa, a ship that had been abandoned by its captain and crew in the early 19th century. Henze (somehow) cast this as a broad political allegory about the life of Che Guevara. So what happened?
The trouble at the first performance … started before a note of the music was heard in the auditorium. Groups of left-wing students showered the audience with leaflets protesting against materialism, the consumer culture and various political causes. A poster of Guevara was put up on the podium, only to be torn down and ripped up by the local director of radio who had organized the concert. The students retaliated by placing a red flag on stage. This provoked complaints form the members of the chorus and an appeal was made to Henze to remove it.
Eventually, people, including the librettist, were beaten and arrested by the police. Apparently 1968 was a tough time to be a classical musician.
Here’s some of what the audience didn’t get to hear that night:
Henze composed his 8th Symphony in the early ’90’s on a commission from the Boston Symphony. It is a highly theatrical work – in fact, the composer took his inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a bit of a lighter work in comparison with it’s immediate predecessor, the Requiem of 1992:
A huge amount of Henze’s extensive output is available on CD, including all of his symphonies up through No. 10 (composed in 2000). You can download much of his music from iTunes here, or you can browse CDs at Amazon here. For those interested in more about Henze’s life, I highly recommend Guy Rickards’ tripartite biography Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze available at amazon.com here.
Feel free to leave a note in the comments section to share your opinions of the concert! Also, feel free to peruse the rest of my site at your own risk, in full awareness that hereafter, the Chicago Symphony/Civic Orchestras have nothing to do with the content on this site…
I was just in Chicago giving another talk at Symphony Center on Monday and, as usual, I came totally over-prepared and unable to cover even a fraction of what I wanted to talk about. The subject was Appalachian Spring and Symphonie Fantastique — kind of a disparate program, but from a lecturer’s point of view, it’s a dream come true: both pieces have so much interesting background and, more importantly, so much that you can hear in the music. Plus, there’s just so much documentation and critical appraisal from which to draw.
Here are some snarky little addenda to my talk, and interesting things I found while researching:
1) The Berlioz is written for 2 Ophicleides. OK, nothing groundbreaking about that point, but rarely does one get to hear the instrument in action:
That’s Douglas Yeo of the BSO. (The audio, not the picture)
Here’s what Berlioz had to say about the Ophicleide:
There is nothing more coarse, I might almost say more monstrous or less fit to harmonise with the rest of the orchestra … It is as if a bull escaped from its stall had come to play off its vagaries in the middle of a drawing room.
That’s from the Treatise on Orchestration and Instrumentation (p. 175).
Seems kinda harsh, no?
Here’s a lovely little poem I found about the Ophecleide. I think it’s just charming:
The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent.
It’s pitch was vague, it’s tone was dim,
It’s timbre, rude and burpant.
Composers, in a secret vote,
Declared its sound non grata.
And that’s why Wagner never wrote
An Ophicleide sonata.
Thus spurned, it soon became defunct.
To gross neglect succumbing.
Some were pawned, but most were junked,
Or used for indoor plumbing.
And so this ill wind, badly blown,
Has now completely vanished.
I nominate the Heckelphone
To be the one next banished.
Farewell, offensive Ophicleide,
Your epitaph is chiseled.
“I died of Ophicleidicide.
I tried, alas, but fizzled!”
LOL! If there’s anything funnier than ophicleide humor, I haven’t found it.
2) I think the Symphonie Fantastique contains the single worst bar in the entire standard orchestral litterature. To wit:
First, there’s the call from the flute, then the response from the horn in the distance, then – Hey there Hector, not quite. I don’t think we can let that transition slide… just where did he come up with those pitches? No, that won’t do at all.
3) OK, this I did talk about, but I just can’t resist including it, because Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording with SanFran is just so damn good. Have you ever heard rhythmic dissonance quite like the end of this clip?
I’ve found that since I have to edit my remarks at these talks on the fly, it’s a real good idea to keep a closing line hidden up your sleeve, a real zinger to cap things off and leave the crowd smiling and eager to listen. Just my luck, my boy LB had the perfect such material:
Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.