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Tag: Johann Sebastian Bach

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


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

      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

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


“Suite Française” (2014)

 "Madonna and Child Pentaptych" - Luca di Tommè Madonna and Child Pentaptych

Luca di Tommè


Suite française“, had it not been for
its musical associations, would’ve
been called a “quintette”

a suite is, of course, a series of five
dance movements, a sarabande, a
minuet, a gigue, for instance, most
commonly with reference to Bach’s
Baroque masterpieces

which is to say that without its dance
implications, a suite would’ve been
called simply a sonata with five
movements, or a duet, trio, quartet,
and so forth, depending on the
participating instruments

in fiction, a sequence of five books
equals a quintet, see Durrell’s
Avignon Quintet“, for instance

in art, five panels are called a
pentaptych, see above

five books had been intended for her
Suite française“, but in 1942 their
author, Irène Némirovsky, was arrested
for being Jewish, and died later at
Auschwitz, she’d completed only two
of her intended manuscripts, a tragic
account of day-to-day life during the
Second World War

these texts were only discovered by her
daughters in 1998, who then had them
published in 2002, in just one volume
called Suite française

the superb movie came out last year

it’s a whiff of another era, a
recollection of things past

also a timely consideration of the
flawed foundations of any occupation,
I thought


psst: incidentally, in French, capital
letters are eschewed – gesundheit –
after the first initial, therefore
the French title, Suite française“,
sports a lower case f

the film, Suite Française uses
the English construction


Evgeny Kissin – a bouquet of composers‏

midway in my considerations about music I
came to myself in a dark wood for the straight
way was lost, if I may paraphrase Dante for my
own purposes, I’d digressed to Elizabeth Barrett
Browning, Audrey Hepburnand others, and
forgot what I had been talking about with
respect to the development of music, but have
been wonderfully, and perhaps even karmically, 
put back on track by this correspondingly 
Evgeny Kissin had provided a resplendent
haven’t yet finished enjoying often, but
found among his other Internet offerings
at first I wondered about the Schubert/Liszt
connection in the written introduction to the
program, they’d been united by a forward
slash, implying that there’d been some kind
of cooperation, but I hadn’t ever heard of
those two ever meeting  
upon very little investigation however I found
out that Liszt had merely transcribed of course
some of the Schubert lieder, something which 
Liszt was wont to do, Liszt transcribed
everybody and everything, most famously all
of Beethoven’s symphonies, writing them
up for piano only, so that more remote areas
could also enjoy them, in often even there 
aristocratic salon settings
lieder are songs in German, a lied, a song,
works Schubert produced in astonishingly
great number
Liszt was paraphrasing Schubert for his own 
Lisztian purposes of course, artists do that, 
which is to say he was giving them much
more Lisztian fanfare and, not unwelcome,
I might add, extravagance, Schubert could
be pretty dry, I think, in his lieder,
uncharacteristically, even his fun ones, 
despite their being ever so eminently
und der Bach  from Die schöne Müllerin“, one
of his song cycles,Ständchen” from
Schwanengesang“, another cycle, Gretchen
 am Spinnrade“, and Erlkönigare all poems
of celebrated German poets Schubert set for
accompanied voice, and that Lizst, and Kissin,  
transform into something pretty special   
next on the program Schubert takes independent
flight with his wondrous “Wanderer” Fantasy,
opus 15, D760
a fantasy is not a sonata for having only one
movement, but note this fantasy goes through
all the motions of a sonata, fast, slow, fast, each
with its own structural contrasts, but without
any of the intervening pauses
so is a fantasy just a sonata without breaks, or is
a sonata just a fantasy with hiatuses, had the
sonata become a fantasy, had the fantasy
become a sonata, definitions were being
upended, then again that’s what revolutions
are about
before Beethoven this had been unheard of
when music hadn’t yet learned to actually talk,
mean something, Schubert, like Beethoven,
not only talks, not only narrates, as in for
 “Pastoral“,  nor either describes, as in
but actually speculates, ponders, moves 
metaphysically forward, in thrall to his
vagabond spirit much more than to his
wayward heart 
hence, incidentally, the more abstract, less
geographical, “Wanderer”, to compare with
for instance Liszt’s more panoramic
see also Caspar David Friedrich here for 
a close contemporary counterpart of his
in art
music has become no longer merely narration 
then but philosophy, it is finding its way like
the rest of us, and for the rest of us, to the
Bach then intervenes here with a Siciliana, a
Baroque composer in Kissin’s Romantic
clothing, but the shoe entirely fits, and
hauntingly, you’ll remember Bach was
composing for the harpsichord, which
had none of the piano’s resonance 
Brahms then returns us to a more abstruse
Romanticism, “7 Fantasies”, his opus 17,
pushes the limits of melodic continuity, you
can’t sing Brahms, you’re not even drawn to     
seven fantasies in one opus, incidentally,
suggests a sonata with seven movements,
with all of the permutations that have been  
suggested already for the fantasy I talked
about, it’s open season on sonatas, in
other words, and by extension their less
segmented fantasies  
it is the history of art 
the final piece is totally transcendent, some
incidental music from Glück, from his sublime
Orfeo ed Euridice“, one of my very favourite
operas, Orpheus approaches the Underworld
in order to retrieve his beloved bride, we are
about to enter the Elysian Fields, the actual,
original Champs Élysées, or Elysium, with
him, the moment is unforgettable
others have led us into the Underworld, most
notably Homer in the “Odyssey“, Virgil in the
Aeneid“, and of couse, somewhat more
recently but just, Dante in his Divine Comedy“,
even Bosch in his Garden of Earthly Delights”  
Glück is the one whose hereafter you won’t
not  remember  

Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K365‏

  Blind Man's Bluff - Jean-Honore Fragonard

                               Blind Man’s Bluff(1769-70)

                                               Jean-Honoré Fragonard
the spirituality that is everywhere in Bach, the
sense of musical exploration and ultimate solace,
will not be found again in the history of music
for another hundred years, in Anton Bruckner
then, 1824 – 1896, a profoundly devout Catholic
organist – Bach, 1685 – 1750, was Lutheran –
then for another hundred years again, in Olivier
Messiaen, 1908 – 1992, again a profoundly
devout Catholic organist, perhaps a
reincarnation, like a Dalai Lama 
already in his day Bach was being considered
old-fashioned, gasp, the new age was revelling
in courtly extravagance, see also for instance
François Boucher, and Fragonard, featured for
your convenience above
Mozart would fit right in, for a good time call
Wolfgang Amadeus  
Mozart takes the tools that Bach created, the
newly installed well-tempered clavier and does
what kids do with their parents heritage, play
with it, Mozart doesn’t explore, he entertains,
notes are the toys in his sandbox, and he makes
the very most of it, never leaving his kindergarten
sanctum, nor would anybody be as effervescent
again for, this time, another 150 years, with
Prokofiev, 1891 – 1953, even more outrageous,
though ultimately not for that more famous,  
being perhaps for many too out there, fun like
jack-in-the-box, too unnervingly unpredictable, 
Mozart, though eminently delightful, is
appropriately predictable for his epoch
of all of his works my favourite, is what I put
on for instant exhilaration
it never fails me



J.S. Bach – Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard

though Bach wrote several works for solo violin – 
the astonishing feat of keeping you entertained
for again, like his work for the cello, with one
note only at a time for a couple of nevertheless
rapturous hours – this performance of the sonatas 
for violin and keyboard, which at the time would’ve
been the harpsichord, is live, complete, and too
sublime not to take precedence over his equally
mesmerizing solo stuff, unavailable anyway yet
cohesively on the Internet, before taking leave
of this mighty master, as we eventually must, 
for more contemporary pastures 
Bach was the end of an era, of civility, of order,
of, after Newton, the apparently clockwork
universe, where all would be ultimately
mathematically comprehensiblethough God, 
somewhere beyond the paradoxically
indecipherable still infinite, would remain
obstinately for a while the watchmaker
you can hear this in Bach’s music, each intricate
piece coming to an always thoroughly satisfying
end, like absolution, like sonic grace 
this would change, the dissolution of the idea
of God, the basis of the rights of kings, would
logically have to founder on the primacy of
individual rights, democracy, and the
positioning of the heart at the centre of
philosophical speculation, which is to say, 
after a Classical intervention, the Romantic
yes, of course, it was saying, to staunch and
irrevocable reason, indeed the mind, but the
heart has also its ratiocinations of which
reason knows naughtas Blaise Pascal,
1623-1662, iconic mathematician, physicist,
philosopher, had so incisively stated, who
even so early had understood the ineluctable
place of passion in the affairs of men   
you’ll note the more languid pace of the violin
that the keyboard at this point cannot accomplish,
but that the pianist here mimics with only spare
use of the hold petal, which would give notes
otherwise a too reverberant, too self-indulgent 
the music of Bach by the time of Mozart was
considered unfashionably dated, and was lost
for nearly a hundred years, to be revived
decisively by conductors and performers only
in the mid-nineteenth century, Mendelssohn
among the most noteworthy of these proponents 
today I can think of no other more consistently
profoundly satisfying composer, pace even the 
very Homer of music, the monolithic Beethoven  
but of course that’s just my opinion   
psst: Polling Abbey is a monastery in Upper
         Bavaria, a short distance from Munich

Johann Sebastian Bach‏ – the Cello Suites

if the Well-Tempered Clavier is the alphabet of
even today our music, the six Cello Suites of Bach
are its apotheosis
again, suites are a series of dance forms, menuets,
sarabandes“, entirely stylized at this point in
history, nobody danced to them, they were enjoyed
intellectually as idealized memories of earlier, more
spontaneous, comparatively less fully civilized, times,
it would’ve been thought, a conceit of every epoch 
what is mighty to my mind is that this sublime
musical mission was devoted to the cello, even then
a secondary instrument, a mere accompaniment,
which grounded however with its stolid, even
lumbering, authority, like an overlooked patriarch
among the more effervescently expressive brood of
forthright and more limber maybe upstarts, who 
clamored for position like youngsters defining
their pretensions, not least of which the recently
incarnated harpsichord, or clavier, that
multifaceted, and iconic, wonder 
the cello can play one note only at a time,
something the harpsichord was now overcoming,
singly, because no other instrument could then,
nor still cannot, accomplish
which will explain the primacy historically of the
piano, which of course can play up to ten notes
at a time, theoretically, if you don’t take into
account large thumbs, fingers, their spans,
which could extend that number to x potentially
a cello must accompany itself, or rely on the
inspiration of its own simple, necessarily
unsupported, melody 
the Cello Suites of Bach have performed this
feat unimpeachably, even miraculously, for the
past nearly three hundred years, one note at a
time, describing intimately and profoundly a
certain unvarnished representation of the 
awesome structure of the very universe   
wow, man, extraordinary 

Bach piano concertos, BWV1056 & 1052‏

the secular masterpieces that Bach wrote were sidelines
to the music that he was commissioned to compose, he
was severally employed by throughout his life Saxon
aristocracy to adorn essentially their churches, and,
not coincidentally, their political image 
Bach wrote especially, in other words, for the Church,
the Protestant, and more specifically, Lutheran, Church,
by the way, who, it appears, had forsaken graven images
but apparently not quite music, a natural devolution of the
ecstasies of the senses propounded to varying degrees by,
it would appear, all religions, a heretical notion in my
opinion considering the majesties of the world of which
we partake but once through all eternity 
and to have extinguished Bach for me is inconceivable,
in a world where we need even more Bach
all this to conclude that Bach was essentially jamming
when he composed his more frivolous pieces, for friends
and fellow musicians, the works we listen to mostly now
in what has been to date our most irreverent world, God
died culturally in the sixties, the more liturgical works
having, though not been lost, taken on a more retiring
you’ll note a very cerebral, less bombastic, sober yet
always musically playful and inventive attitude in Bach,
that is entirely pre-Classical, not concerned with an
actual audience, hence jamming 
this is music for the sake of music coming from a glib
and effervescent soul just having fun with his pals and
taking on the alphabet, the possibilities, of these new 
well-tempered instruments    
we get to listen 
psst: wait till you here what he does with the cello