Posts Tagged: Symphony No. 11

CSO Addenda: Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich

As is usually the case when I prepare my pre-concert lectures at the Chicago Symphony, I end up with way more information than I can share in the 30 minutes allotted.  Here are some extra insights on the March 4-6 concerts. Welcome CSO patrons!

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Any piece with as many gorgeous tunes as Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto is just asking to be pillaged for its melodies, and thus we have Wikipedia’s list of several works as being derived from or inspired by this piece.  Let’s see if we agree with them:

1st movement

Frank Sinatra’s “I Think of You

Here’s the Rachmaninoff:

OK, no argument there.  [BTW, does anyone else agree that the Hollywood session player in Nelson Riddle’s orchestra sounded WAY better on the horn solo than the principal in the New Philharmonia Orchestra?]

The Wik then goes on to list no fewer than four songs by Muse which supposedly quote the first movement:

1. “Space Dementia”:

which is pretty obviously an homage to the opening of the concerto:

[BTW, does anybody agree that Moshe Atmon is a way better pianist than the guy from Muse?]

then #2. “Butterflies & Hurricanes

and #3. “Ruled by Secrecy”

which both quote the end of the movement’s first theme:

As for “Megalomania”, the closest thing I could find was this:

which I would hardly call a “quote”, but does share certain melodic and harmonic ideas with the concerto.

2nd movement

Unfortunately it can’t all be Frank Sinatra and English alt-prog-art rock.  When it comes to the gorgeous second movement,

we go from the semi-decent:

(which has a questionable connection to the original),

to the bad:

to the truly, spine-cringingly, awful:

Interestingly, that last excerpt is nothing but the original Rachmaninoff with some cheeze-fried vocals laid on top.  It comes out the absolute worst because it puts the original composition in such stark relief.

3rd movement

Let’s cleanse our ears, shall we, with some more grade-A Frank:

which, it hardly needs saying, is this:

Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”)

As it’s title would indicate, Shostakovich took the 1905 Russian Revolution as the subject of his 11th Symphony.  Theories abound as to other, hidden meanings behind this work (especially the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the communist government).

Perhaps the most widely known piece of art concerning the 1905 Revolution is Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark silent film from 1925, Battleship Potemkin.  Below is the much acclaimed “Odessa Steps” sequence.

(Please note that this clip contains music from Shostakovich’s 11th and 5th symphonies – not the original score by Meisel which was lost and has since been restored.)  The whole film can be viewed here.

The Symphony “1905” was a turning point for Shostakovich — he had outlived Stalin and was now in the position to regain some sense of sanity and ease, if not full official favor.  His troubles with the government had begun in the year 1936, at which point Joseph Stalin, eager to send a message to the artistic community, denounced Shostakovitch’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as immoral and anti-soviet.  Let’s watch a bit of the opera and see if we can spot anything that Stalin may have found objectionable.  Remember to look very closely now:

At first glance, it looks pretty tame, but that Stalin always had a fine eye for detail.  Anyhoo, that led to this very famous headline from the Soviet newspaper Pravda:

which roughly translates to “Muddle instead of Music”, and which began a nightmarish 20 year period of heavy government repression and scare tactics aimed at keeping Shostakovitch in line.

I’d like to recommend two more valuable resources pertaining to Shostakovich’s music and life:

The first is the audio guide to chapter 7 of Alex Ross’s phenomenal book, The Rest is Noise.  Even if you haven’t read the book or don’t have a copy handy, the audio guide gives you a nice synopsis of the chapter on music in the 1930’s and 40’s USSR.

The second is an article by everybody’s favorite Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian-psychoanalytic philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, entitled “Shostakovich in Casablanca“.  In this article, Žižek compares Soviet repression of classical music to the Hollywood Hays code, in terms of what the censors expected and how an artist was meant both to abide by the code and simultaneously to circumvent it.  He posits that Shostakovich found whatever success he could with the Soviet regime because he understood this Janus-faced censorship, whereas Prokofiev just couldn’t figure it out.

That’s all the extra goodies for this concert series.  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 has nothing to do with the content on this site…