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Thursday, 30 January 2014 19:14

Symphony Preview: Augmented Fifth + Video

Jaap van Zweden Jaap van Zweden stlsymphony.org
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The St. Louis Symphony's "Beethoven Festival" concludes this weekend with Beethoven's Greatest Hit, the "Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67." In an ingenious bit of programming, it's paired with another fifth: the "Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47," composed in 1937 by Dmitri Shostakovich. Jaap van Zweden conducts.

The pairing of these two symphonies isn't just a clever gimmick. Both works, as Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, are works "of strife or pathos progressing to exultant finales. That progression makes for a musical drama that is both elemental and thrilling." The fact that, in Shostakovich's case, the finale might actually have a double meaning just makes things that much more interesting.

But first, the Beethoven. Given the immense popularity this work has enjoyed over the centuries, it's easy to forget that its premiere on December 22, 1808 in Vienna was not a great success. The Fifth was part of a mammoth five hour program that included the Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, a couple of movements from the "Mass in C," a concert aria ("Ah, perfido"), and the Op. 80 "Choral Fantasy." Beethoven conducted and played the solo piano part in the Concerto and the Fantasy.

There was only one rehearsal before the concert, the musicians weren't up to Beethoven's demands, the auditorium was cold, and by the time the Fifth was played after intermission the audience was exhausted. Things went so badly that at one point the Choral Fantasy had to be stopped completely after a performance error. Not auspicious.

In fact, it wasn't until E.T.A. Hoffmann published an enthusiastic review of the newly published score in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung a year and a half later that everyone began to sit up and take notice of the Fifth. "Radiant beams shoot through this region's deep night," wrote Hoffmann of the music's dramatic effect, "and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits."

More and better-rehearsed performances followed. By the time Hector Berlioz wrote his "Critical Study of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies" he could state that the Fifth was "without doubt the most famous of the symphonies" and "the first in which Beethoven gave wings to his vast imagination without being guided by or relying on any external source of inspiration." Today the Fifth is famous not just on earth but in outer space as well; a recording of the first movement by the Philadelphia Orchestra was part of the Voyager Golden Record, included on the first two Voyager space probes launched in 1977 and now speeding through deep space.

Shostakovich's Fifth had a more successful premiere. Indeed, it's possible that the Fifth saved not only the composer's career but his life as well.

Shostakovich in 1935

When Shostakovich began work on the Fifth, he was in hot water with Stalin's regime. Stalin's rise to power marked a chilling of the intellectual atmosphere in the Soviet Union. All art was expected to serve the political interests of the state and to be as accessible as possible. The exuberant experimentation that followed the overthrow of the Czarist regime was now strictly forbidden. Composers were expected to write upbeat, patriotic stuff—or else.

Unfortunately for Shostakovich, his most popular work at the time was his surreal and lurid 1934 opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District". It had been playing to packed houses in Leningrad, but when Stalin decided to attend a performance in Moscow in January of 1936 he was not amused. The dissonant score baffled him and he was reportedly put off by the graphic violence on stage—ironic, considering the total body count of the Stalinist Terror. Stalin left at intermission and the next day an anonymous article on the front page of Pravda (approved and possibly even written by Stalin) condemned the music and libretto in the harshest terms. "Muddle Instead of Music," ran the headline. Not good.

"The opera disappeared overnight," notes Michael Tilson Thomas in an episode of the PBS series "Keeping Score" on the Fifth, "and every publication and political organization in the country heaped personal attacks on its composer." The 29-year-old composer started sleeping in the stairwell of his apartment building, hoping that doing so might spare his family when the secret police came to drag him off to a Gulag or worse. They never did, but he lost many friends and even family members to that outbreak of official violence now known as the Stalinist Terror.

After writing and then withdrawing a Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich finally began work on the Fifth in April of 1937. He completed it in less than three months. He set out to produce a work that would appear, at least on the surface, to meet the demands of heroic socialist realism. He even went so far as to accompany the first performance with an article in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva titled "A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism"—lest there be any doubt that he had Learned His Lesson.

And it worked. Official response to the November 21 1937 premiere by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravisnky (who would become a great champion of the work) was enthusiastic. Alexei Tolstoy set the official tone in a review in which he praised the "enormous optimistic lift" of the final movement. Shostakovich was officially rehabilitated.

But is the Fifth really the model of Soviet patriotism the commissars thought it was? In his liner notes for the St. Louis Symphony's 1986 recording of the Fifth (with Leonard Slatkin conducting) Richard Freed writes that the work "was born of [Shostakovich's] determination to be a survivor, and to keep his protests private—except insofar as the perceptive listener could hear them in his music." And, indeed, it appears that the audience at the symphony's premiere heard a deeper and less superficial message. "Many in the premiere audience were seen to weep openly," writes Mr. Freed. "[T]hey wept, Shostakovich himself felt, because 'they understood; they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.'"

Listening to it now, it's impossible not to hear despair and defiance instead of patriotic uplift, especially in the ominous mock fanfare of the opening and the succession of aggressive march tunes in the finale. The second movement Allegretto is a Mahlerian parody of a waltz, complete with squawking clarinet and, unexpectedly, a graceful little violin. And the third movement Largo clearly feels like lament for all the friends and family the composer lost to the Terror, memorialized with chorale-like string writing that calls to mind the liturgy of the banned Russian Orthodox Church.

This disconnect between what Soviet officials heard and what the composer intended is most evident, I think, in the final movement. The Soviet bureaucrats heard triumph, affirmation, and apotheosis. As well they might have, since Shostakovich, at the time of the symphony's premiere, described that finale as "the optimistic resolution of the tragically tense moments of the first movement." Even in the West, symphony program notes and liner notes for recordings described the finale with phrases like "the utmost in orchestral power and brilliance" (David Hall for the 1958 Stokowski recording) and "lusty and boisterous" (an unnamed annotator for the 1962 Karel Ancerl LP).

That all changed with the publication, in 1979, of "Testimony" by the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. Allegedly based on memoirs of Shostakovich, the book states unequivocally that the final movement of the Fifth was intended as a parody of militaristic triumphalism: "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.'" Richard Freed writes, as well, that "Shostakovich is on record as having stated that he intended no apotheosis in this finale."

Some recent performances and recordings, as a result, tend to emphasize the caustic and satirical aspects of the Fifth (Mr. Slatkin's is a good example). What approach will Mr. van Zweden take? We won't know until Friday night.

The essentials: Jaap van Zweden conducts the St. Louis Symphony in the "Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67" by Beethoven and the "Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47" by Shostakovich. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, January 31 - February 2, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org. The Saturday concert will also be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and on line at stlouispublicradio.org.

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