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Category: Richard Strauss

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 2 in B major, opus 14 – “to October”

carpenter-1929.jpg!Large

    “Carpenter (1929) – note the industrialization 
                                       of the subject, however 
                                       Cubist, for better or for 
                                       worse

      Kazimir Malevich

             _________

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 2 doesn’t 
sound like a symphony – one movement
only, a chorus – but was never meant to, 
it had been conceived as a piece in 
commemoration of the October 
Revolution, a significant event in the 
Communist cosmology, and
commissioned by that very polity, 
hence the name, to October

but later, the symphonic poem was 
included chronologically, thus no 2,  
in the Shostakovichian oeuvre – if 
you’ll excuse that pedantry, “oeuvre” 
being too sweet a word for me not to 
resist its austere territoriality – the 
Symphony no 2 in B major being 
first performed in 1927 

it starts a shade above inaudibly, which 
I often find irritating – unless, of course, 
it’s Wagner, or Richard Strauss, who 
knew what they were doing – suggesting 
something significant is rumbling, 
brewing on the musical horizon, after 
which we enter in a lively fashion upon 
a dance, full of folkloric flavour

but the harmonies are atonal, discordant, 
a society, however traditional, is in disorder, 
tonality, one of the stalwarts of Classicism, 
along with tempo and repetition, has been 
upended, distorted, the commune, the 
community, can, no longer unburdened, 
with only discordant harmonies, dance, 
though you can feel them trying

Ravel does something similar in his 
La valse“, where, with a distortion  
of tempo, the world is spinning  

with only a change in volume, intensity,
in Shostakovichthe music becomes 
martial, autocratic, peremptory, nearly 
even frightening

I found at this point that the subtlety of 
the move from the conviviality of dance  
to the aggression delivered by a more 
forceful music, marches and so forth,
lay in a mere alteration of the musical 
pulse, from seduction to, indeed, rape, 
in a simple change of rhythm – thus is it 
written in our very sensibilities 

a violin obbligato then intervenes, 
strangely, but welcome, in a piece of
brash, by this point, agitprop, but 
soon becomes as vociferous as 
earlier the crowd who wanted to, 
however awkwardly, dance

the obbligato, incidentally, instead of
an out and out solo part, as also with 
the piano in Shostakovich’s First 
Symphony, suggests the work of a
a community, a Soviet ideal, rather 
than that of an individual asserting 
hir particular predominance, if you  
listen between the lines

a particularly impressive chorus 
eventually delivers a tribute, a  
hagiographic poem, to Lenin, which 
Shostakovich abjured, but delivered 
nevertheless for the money, and for 
the influence, reportedly, however 
ignominiously, for he was young, 
not fully formed, innocent yet  

it resembles, of course, a cantata, a
religious chant – see Bach, one of the 
evident muses of Shostakovich – but 
which addresses here a political 
system, a cute trick of contemporary 
secular regimes, the several –isms 
within our post-religious ideological
societies 

watch for it

note the spoken, or rather, prosaically 
proclaimed last verses of the oration,
hortatory, don’t you think, or what

R ! chard

psst: incidentally, few composers are as 
          political, though few have been 
          under such ideological pressure,
          as Shostakovich

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Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 1, opus 10, continued

Dmitrij_Dmitrijevič_Šostakovič_(Дми́трий_Дми́триевич_Шостако́вич)

        Shostakovich in 1925

                   __________

                                        for Barbara, who died recently,
                                                 she would’ve loved this 

Shostakovich was just nineteen when
his Symphony No.1, opus 10 was 
first performed – it had been his 
graduation piece the previous year
from the Petrograd Conservatory –  
by, then, which is to say 1926, the 
Leningrad Philharmonicrenamed the 
Saint Petersburg after the fall of the 
U.S.S.R., the name it had held before 
the Bolshevik Revolution, the oldest 
philharmonic orchestra, therefore, 
incidentally, in our Russia, going  
back to 1882 

the work was a complete success, not 
surprisingly, if you’ll consider its scope, 
its power, and its novel musical 
interpolations, I mean a piano as an 
integral orchestral instrument rather 
than as a distinct, however interrelated, 
component, a pas de 40 instead of 
pas de deuxsomething I can’t remember 
anywhere else having seen for piano 

not to mention the drum roll between 
the last two movements, drums making 
splash in an orchestral setting, who’d 
‘a’ thunk it, though Richard Strauss had
done just that in his extraordinary 
Burleske” several decades earlier,  
another youthful work, Strauss only 21

but meanwhile back in Russia, before 
too seriously digress, Shostakovich  
was immediately compared to another 
earlier young prodigy there, Alexander 
Glazunovwho’d himself put out his 
own First Symphony, the Slavonic“,
at age 16, introducing, incidentally, his 
own instrumental novelty then, an oboe 
obbligato, which by very definition is 
lovely
  
Glazunov also mentored, by the way, 
Shostakovich at the Petrograd, proved
to be instrumental indeed in his 
progress

it’s interesting to put these last two 
together, to compare, the Glazunov, 1881,
follows the traditional Romantic 
imperatives, tempo, tonality and 
repetition, but with more bombast, to my
mind, than its European counterparts,
its fields are the Russian steppes with 
troikas, horse-drawn carriages, flying 
across vast unhampered vistas of the 
Russian snow-covered, therefore 
pristine, tundra, to whet the unbridled 
Russian spirit, the Europeans, Brahms,
MendelssohnMahler, conversely, 
are confined to the hunt, however ever
glorious, but with shrubs, copses,   
thickets, if not veritable forests, to blur
the sonic arena, inspire dreams, 
consequently, less far-reaching than  
those of Johnny Appleseed even, of 
the North American Prairies poets,    
their own far-flung, boundless  
imaginations, inspiration, you can 
hear it all, blatantly, in the resonance
of the horns

you’ll note the movements follow 
essentially the same rhythmic order 
in either symphony, the first two fast 
enough, then a third that’s somewhat 
slower, a variation from the strictly 
Classical order of fast, slow, fast, then
a last, eclectic, movement 

but Shostakovich is more atonal, 
melodically divergent, an eccentricity 
he’ll later polish to a degree of 
politically subversive brilliance

for not submitting, however, to the rule 
of repetition, which is manifest, though,  
in GlazunovShostakovichI find, leaves
us trying to find our bearings as his music 
rolls along, kind of like in biographical 
movies, when you start looking at your 
watch to determine how many life 
incidents remain in this particular, 
however significant, existential drama

as spectacle – and it must be noted that 
symphonic displays were at the time 
indeed spectacles – there was no 
phonographic, photographic 
equipment to transmit such 
experiences, the symphony itself was 
the show, it had, right there, itself, to 
wow the audience

in all of these cases, all of them did 

Shostakovich, however, of all of them 
remained eventually potently 
pertinent, powerfully paramount, 
watch

R ! chard

“Pohádka” (“Fairytale”) – Leoš Janáček

"Fairy Lake" - Martiros Saryan

Fairy Lake (1905)

Martiros Saryan

________

for the recital season coming up,
my friend, the musicologist, has
once again been called upon to
write reviews of featured pieces

out of giddy exhilaration at his
playful essays, he sent me
several draughts he’d already
composed around piano and
cello pieces, of mostly familiar
enough faces, Schumann,
Beethoven, Strauss, but of Leoš
Janáček
I’d only heard mention,
none ever of his compositions

his Pohádka“, or Fairytale“, is
a programmatic piece, which
means it accompanies a story,
like a soundtrack does a movie,
but Pohádka is based on a tale
of Vasily Zhukovsky, a Russian
epic poet, and is not accompanied
by a film, nor a ballet for that
matter – see “The Nutcracker” or
“Sleeping Beauty” for that – but
lives and breathes on its own
merits

Kashchei, Lord of the Underworld,
objects to the union of his daughter
with a charming prince, represented
here by the piano and the cello
respectively

they run away and find refuge with
another potentate who prefers the
prince for his own daughter, and
casts a spell on him so that the
prince may love her, instead of
Maria, the princess, which he does

Maria, forsaken, in a pique at this
turn of events, turns into a blue
flower

o, to turn into a blue flower
whenever I’m in a pique, I thought,
I only wish, and succumbed
forthwith to the improbable story

the spell is lifted, however, from
both, of course, however much I
might prefer to remain a blue iris,
say, anemone, or hyacinth, when a
magician, don’t ask, turns up to
set everything aright, and they
live happily ever after

the version you’ll hear is
transposed for piano and double
bass, a somewhat deeper, thrilling
register, or that may be just the
bassist, but the magic entirely
remains, if it isn’t completely
enhanced, rendered definitive
by this superb performance

my friend says Janáček has
neither musical forebears, nor
descendants, but composes in
a world of his own, an utterly
enchanted world, I surmised

what do you think

listen, just click

Richard

psst:

“con moto”, by the way, means
“with conviction”

XXXVlll. First time he kissed me, he but only kissed – Elizabeth Barrett Browning‏

from Sonnets from the Portuguese

XXXVlll. First time he kissed me, he but only kissed

First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
Slow to world-greetings, quick with its “Oh, list,”
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss. The second passed in height
The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,
Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.
The third upon my lips was folded down
In perfect, purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, “My love, my own.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

________________________

had the sonnet allowed for more lines,
instead of its strict fourteen, this poem
could not ‘ve not become indecent,
“purple”, she says, indeed

nor, for that matter, more clear, Elizabeth
has succumbed to his one, two, three
kisses, enough to now call him [m]y love,
my own”

meed is a reward, and archaic

chrism is holy anointing oil, nearly also
now, but sacramentally, lost

so intimate a declaration as this would’ve
been unprecedented in 1845-46, when
these poems were written, though we’re
used to much more flagrant stuff nowadays

that this had been written by a woman
must’ve been nearly scandalous, though
such was allowing the Romantic Age, and
this “most flagrant” expression would
become eventually its very symbol, the
exploration of the human heart, the highly
intimate revelations of an individual soul

Elizabeth Barrett Browning holds the top
spot here, nobody does it better

in intrinsically less overtly graphic music,
Chopin

Richard Strauss does a similar thing in his
opera “Salome” several years later, several,
indeed, decades later, 1905, but in reverse,
Salome wants to first of all touch John the
Baptist’s skin, he won’t allow it, undaunted
she asks to touch his black hair, nor will
he allow that, she insists further on a kiss,
which doesn’t either come, the scene is
lurid and shocking

“nothing in the world is as red as your
mouth”,
she begs, “let me kiss it, your
mouth”

my dear, I cautioned

later she will dance the Dance of the Seven
Veils
“,
lately performed even, after the veils
are, one by one, off, naked

for which she gets John the Baptist’s head,
and finally gets her kiss

honest

the version I saw was unforgettable,
though it had taken a free ticket to
get me there

Richard

psst: you’ll note, incidentally, that this poem
is not an avowal, but a confidence,
spoken to us, not to him, a not
insignificant factor