Triumphant Shostakovich

Program Notes

The music of two great 20th-century masters comprises this evening’s concert. We open with Benjamin Britten’s youthful and seldom-heard Violin Concerto. Dimitri Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 10—believed by some to be a portrait of Stalinist Russia—makes up the second half.

Violin Concerto, Op. 15

Benjamin Britten
(Born 22 November 1913, Lowestoft, England; Died 4 December 1976, Aldeburgh, England)

Composed: 1939

First performance: 28 March 1940; New York, New York

Last MSO Performance: October 2006; Vasily Petrenko, conductor; Hilary Hahn, violin

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubing English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle), harp, strings

Approximate Duration: 32 minutes

Benjamin Britten has been hailed as “the greatest English composer since Purcell.” His prodigious output includes operas, solo vocal music, chamber music, concertos, symphonic works, film music, and choral music. Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1945) is a singular masterpiece in the genre, and his War Requiem (1961) is one of the towering works of the 20th century.

In May 1939, Britten and his life partner, Peter Pears—a tenor whose unique artistry was to inspire many of the composer’s song cycles and operatic roles, including Peter Grimes—left England for North America. They went first to Canada, where they became “legal British immigrants.” The couple spent several enjoyable weeks in Toronto and arrived in New York in late June. In Toronto, Britten had continued to work on his Violin Concerto, begun in England the previous year. At his new digs on Long Island—staying at the Amityville home of William and Elizabeth Mayer—the music continued to take shape, and was finished in September while the composer was on vacation in St. Jovite, Québec.

After submitting the new concerto for consideration to Jascha Heifetz, who pronounced it unplayable, Britten turned to an old friend—and a fellow student of the English composer Frank Bridge—the Spanish virtuoso Antonio Brosa. (Along with the composer, Brosa had given the premiere of Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano in 1936.) Brosa premiered the work at Carnegie Hall the following March, with the New York Philharmonic and Sir John Barbirolli.

The concerto set in three movements, but eschews the usual fast-slow-fast configuration; instead, a central Vivace is surrounded by movements at slower tempos. A short phrase for timpani, answered by the cymbal, opens the Moderato con moto. This becomes the accompaniment for the violin’s haunting chromatic tune, and recurs during the movement. The second subject is more angular, more rhythmic. At the movement’s climax, a melodic cadenza descends from the violin’s highest notes, with double- and triple-stops based on the opening percussion motif. The second-movement is a take-no-prisoners scherzo in E minor. Vigorous and energetic, it is forceful and at times extravagant in its brilliance. A pleading middle section in A minor provides contrast before a slow crescendo to an orchestral tutti introduces a blazing cadenza.

This leads directly to the valedictory Passacaglia, Britten’s first use of the Purcellian form that was to become an integral part of his compositional vocabulary. Its theme—a scale ascending and descending in alternating whole- and half-steps—is announced by the trombones, heard for the first time in the concerto. Nine continuous variations then follow. Its serious musical expression casts the movement as a threnody. An ardent pacifist, Britten seems to pour out his sorrow over the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, where the fighting was at its bloodiest when he was completing the concerto.

“It is at times like these,” the 26-year-old composer said, “that work is so important—so that people can think of other things than blowing each other up!... I try not to listen to the radio more than I can help.” Though the concerto received mixed reviews, one person who heard a distinctive voice was the American composer Elliott Carter, who wrote that “nobody could fail to be impressed by the remarkable gifts of the composer, the size and ambition of his talent.” Prescient words, indeed.

Recommended Recording: Ida Haendel; Paavo Berglund, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)


Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93

Dimitri Shostakovich
(Born 25 September 1906; St. Petersburg, Russia; Died 9 August 1975; Moscow, Russia)

Composed: 1953

First performance: 17 December 1953; Leningrad, Russia

Last MSO Performance: April 2005; Andreas Delfs, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling e-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, military drum, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, xylophone), strings

Approximate Duration: 45 minutes

Widely regarded as the greatest symphonist of the mid-20th century, the Russian master Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 works in that genre. Additionally, his impressive compositional catalogue includes six concertos for various instruments, chamber music (including 15 string quartets), solo piano music, two operas and an operetta, several cantatas and oratorios, three ballets, 36 film scores, incidental music for 11 plays, choral music, and songs. 

Along with his older contemporaries Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Shostakovich represents the summit of 20th-century Russian music. Unlike them, however, the whole of his compositional output was created within the confines of Soviet aesthetics. He was educated entirely under the Soviet system, and his loyalty to his country and to his government never wavered, even during those times when he himself fell into disfavor with the powers-that-be. It is a credit to his remarkable genius that he overcame the limitations of the “socialist realism” expected of him, to the point where it no longer impeded his musical creativity.

Joseph Stalin died on 5 March 1953. With his death came a change in political leadership and a gradual loosening of the restrictions placed on artists, musical and otherwise. Shostakovich, rather than taking advantage of this creative freedom, seemed happy to continue to compose within the inexact parameters of socialist realism. His Symphony No. 10, which dates from that year, contains some of his greatest music. While certain factions in the West proclaimed the work a sort of musical “rehabilitation” of its composer, Shostakovich’s Op. 93 stoked a heated debate inside the Soviet Composers’ Union. The right-wing opposition asserted that the symphony was “non-realistic” and too pessimistic in its outlook. Ultimately, the liberal faction won—by dubbing the new work an “optimistic tragedy.”

Though some scholars argue about the “program” of the Tenth Symphony, and question whether any extra-musical interpretation should be given it, others maintain it is a depiction of Stalin and the Stalin years. It has been aptly described as “48 minutes of tragedy, despair, terror, and violence and two minutes of triumph.” The opening Moderato is dark and brooding, rivaling Mahler and Bruckner in its length. Wandering low strings finally give way to a clarinet melody, which is then taken up first by the violin and then by the entire orchestra. After a solemn brass chorale and a lengthy restatement of the clarinet motif, a solo flute begins a second group of material, which becomes an eerie waltz. The bassoon, again stating the clarinet’s theme, leads us to the movement’s portentous middle section. Here, Shostakovich employs shrieking piccolos and an ominous snare drum to build to a sustained emotional deluge.

The second moment is a violent march, the supposed depiction of Stalin. By far the shortest portion of the symphony, it is furious and relentless in its use of fast-moving 16th-notes. The military drum is again used to great effect, and a brief passage of quiet prepares the final explosion, making it all the more sinister.

The Allegretto is built upon two musical motifs: 1) the DSCH theme, representing Shostakovich; 2) the Elmira theme, representing Elmira Nazirova, a student with whom he fell in love. Using the German transliteration of his name (D. SCHostakowitch) as well as German notation, where E¨ is called “es” and B§ is called H, the sequence D-E¨-C-B spells DSCH.

Shostakovich’s musical signature: DSCH

Elmira’s theme, stated 12 times, is always presented as a horn call. It is similar to the opening motif of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), which Shostakovich had been listening to around the time he wrote the Tenth Symphony.

Elmira’s theme

The DSCH motif is first introduced by flutes and clarinets about a minute into the movement. Elmira’s motif come a bit later, always sounded by the solo horn. As the movement progresses, the two themes recur repeatedly, and at the close, the horn obsesses over Elmira while the flute and piccolo play the Shostakovich signature.

The Finale opens with slower (Andante) music comprised of two elements, a meditative theme for low strings and several solos for the woodwinds. The clarinet launches the Allegro and we’re soon back in the frightening territory of the opening movement. The DSCH motif, stated fff by the full orchestra, brings this to a halt. In the music that follows, the motif hovers in the background before a chuckling bassoon solo takes us back to the allegro material. Shostakovich builds the music to a huge climax, undergirded by the DSCH motif, a resolute assertion that he has outlived Uncle Joe.

Recommended Recording: Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.