Friday, February 24, 2017

Bedřich Smetana: My Life and Welcome To It...

Smetana in 1878
Who: The Dover Quartet
What: Caroline Shaw's "Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)", Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life"), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 in A Major
When: Sunday afternoon, February 26th, at 3:00, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Truman Bullard at 2:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom, on N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg between Seneca & Emerald Streets.
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The Dover Quartet, the most recent winners of Chamber Music America's Cleveland Quartet Award, recorded the first movement of Bedřich Smetana's 1st String Quartet, the one he called “From My Life.”

They'll be playing the whole quartet on Sunday's program at Temple Ohev Sholom. You can read more about the other works on the program in earlier posts: Caroline Shaw's Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks) here; and Dmitri Shostakovich's 2nd String Quartet in A Major, here.

If you've been following the earlier posts, remember what I said about composers responding to reality through their art? Well, speaking of reality, it does get more "Reality Quartet" than Bedřich Smetana's "From My Life."

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When Beethoven was going deaf – or, more accurately, showing the first serious signs of his impending deafness – he continued to compose his 2nd Symphony. In the midst of working on the finale, he wrote the devastating Heiligenstadt Testament which, to us, reads like a suicide note, and yet there is nothing in the music he composed that would indicate what was happening in his personal life. But then, while Beethoven's struggle with Fate in his 5th Symphony is often described as “the artist overcoming his deafness” (“I will seize Fate by the throat,” he had written to a friend the year before the Testament), that struggle transcends the very nature of the music, becoming universal rather than personal.

When Bedřich Smetana was going deaf, he wrote a string quartet about it. Well, not entirely about it, but the quartet he composed at that time focused on various parts of his life, an autobiographical summing-up, perhaps, in which his impending deafness makes a dramatic appearance in the last chapter.

He had lost hearing in his right ear by September of 1874, following a throat infection (complete with a rash) that led to a blockage in the ears. Forced to take time off from his duties as artistic director of the opera theater in Prague where he'd been having run-ins with the administration – the official press release explaining his absence stated he had “become ill as a result of nervous strain caused by certain people recently” (art and politics, nothing new, there) – and by October, had lost all hearing in his left ear as well. The next January, he wrote in his journal, “If my disease is incurable, then I should prefer to be liberated from this life.”

It wasn't until the next year, however, that he composed his first string quartet which he himself subtitled “From My Life.” Completed in late-December, 1876, the quartet reflects different periods of his life beginning with a musical depiction of his romantic ideals of a nationalist style for his native Bohemia (listen to the clip by the Dover Quartet at the head of this post), the “love of art in my youth,” he wrote, “my romantic mood and the unspoken longing for something which I could not name or imagine clearly.” The first theme, a dramatic viola solo beginning with downward leaps, stood for “Fate's summons to take part in life's combat” and that the opening falling fifth which recurs at the end of the quartet was “a warning as it were of my future misery.”

This is followed by a lively dance (a polka), full of memories of a joyful youth, played here by the Juilliard Quartet:

The Prague Chamber Music Society rejected the work as unplayable, too advanced in style and too challenging to play, mostly because the key signature of the Polka's middle section was in five flats with “much modulation” and too many double stops creating intonation issues for the performers.

The third movement is one of “great emotional depth, a paean to love, which transcends the adversities of fate and finds harmony in life.” This clip is with the Alban Berg Quartet:

In the last movement, “the composer describes the journey that led to an understanding of the true essence of national art, only to be interrupted by the catastrophe of his incipient deafness. The end is almost resigned, with only a small ray of hope for a better future.”

In this live performance, the Doležal Quartet plays the finale as part of a ceremony broadcast live on Czech TV (please ignore the 'news crawl' across the bottom of the screen, but speaking of reality's intrusion...):

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It's in the last movement where, in the midst of a lively celebration, a high note in the violin played as a harmonic (giving it an entirely different, almost other-worldly sonority) represents the sound he heard inside his head, the onset of his deafness.

And yet, in reality, that high note occurs only once and at the very end of the last movement (in the Doležal performance, the high E is almost lost) and its immediate impact is to cut off the flow of the finale (which seemed about to end, anyway), before recalling the opening motive and then reminiscing over the second theme of the first movement and an idea from the opening of the last, before ending on a long sustained if undulating E Major chord (thanks to the viola's underpinning) – resigned but, yes, hopeful. And certainly dramatic. (Curiously, the idea of leaving it as an E Minor chord at the end might have an entirely different emotional response.)

In July of 1874, he noticed his ears were blocked and he felt giddy. His doctor advised him to avoid any musical activity (he was, at the time, composing the first of the Ma Vlast tone-poems). “I am to stay at home for almost a week,” he wrote in his diary. “I cannot go out and have my ears wrapped in cotton wool since I must have complete quiet. I fear the worst—that I will become permanently deaf.” He described it as “a pounding and intense hissing in the head, day and night, without ceasing, as if I were standing underneath a huge waterfall.”

Asking to be temporarily relieved of his duties at the theater, Smetana went to see his doctor again who tried electric shocks and then gave him “an ether douche.” “For the first time for ages,” he wrote, “I can again hear the entire range of octaves in tune. Previously, they were all jumbled up. I can still hear nothing with my right ear.” Twelve days later he lost what hearing he had briefly regained: he was now totally deaf. Friends sent him money to pay for trips to Germany to see specialists but there was no further improvement, temporary or otherwise.

Business issues regarding his salary from the theater's association led to his giving up his apartment in Prague to move in with his married daughter in a town north of Prague. He complained of a “piercing whistling sound” that “haunted” him every evening (in the quartet, it's represented by a high E; in reality, it was more like an A-flat major chord). He could not work for more than an hour at a time. Yet during this time, he was also composing perhaps his most famous, certainly his most performed piece, the tone-poem “The Moldau.” The following year he completed a new comic opera, The Secret.
The Vltava (Moldau) River flows through Prague

About a year after completing the string quartet, he wrote to a friend, “I should like... to be able to work without having to worry, but unfortunately those gentlemen of the [theater] association – and fate – will not allow that. When I continually see only poverty and misery ahead of me all enthusiasm for my work goes, or at least my cheerful mood vanishes. ...When I plunge into musical ecstasy [when composing] then for a while I forget everything that persecutes me so cruelly in my old age.”

He was in his early 50s.

For those of us who think deafness means a loss of hearing and a descent into silence (which for many people, it may be), Smetana's descriptions sound frightening. In recent times (decades, really), more attention has been paid to a condition called tinnitus, an official name now for what used to be called simply "ringing in the ears." The impression Smetana's deafness was (or at least began as) a case of tinnitus, given its brief appearance at the end of his quartet, may seem natural: to have written music describing the actual sounds, especially the pounding and hissing sounds he experienced day and night, the idea of standing under a waterfall, may have been more than a musician, at least in the 19th Century, might have been able to recreate (or an audience to put up with).

American composer Brent Michael Davids realized he had developed tinnitus and composed his own quartet in which the pitch he heard - in his case, a high A - is played constantly by some member of the quartet throughout the entire piece. As James Oestreich describes it in his 2005 New York Times review, "As that sustained pitch slowly shifts from one instrument to another, the remaining players work around it, producing skittish tremolos, slides and scrapes that hint at other aural aberrations as well. Short-breathed, repetitive melodies break through occasionally and come to dominate in what might be called an apotheosis. But the real apotheosis follows, with the tinnitus tone surrounded by suggestions of chirping crickets." The sound of crickets can sometimes mask the intrusive sound, as Davids explains, allowing him to "tune it out for periods of time." "And the conclusion of this unsettling piece," Oestreich writes, "vividly illustrates the relief they can provide."

(When the Miró Quartet performed it here with Market Square Concerts that season, it was indeed an uncomfortable experience, allowing us to hear for fifteen minutes or so what the world sounds like to someone with tinnitus. When I asked a friend of mine who has tinnitus if that's what it's like, that constant sound, he admitted he could not hear that specific recurring pitch: it was masked by his own.)

Perhaps the idea of writing such an autobiographical quartet was more cathartic, something to take the composer's mind off reality (again with the reality!) rather than being merely self-pitying. After all, the part of the quartet that specifically concerns his deafness is a very small part of it, yet almost the only thing about it anyone seems to mention!

Smetana's quartet is certainly the first of its kind, as far as autobiographical chamber music is concerned: it's not just the idea of its telling a story but turning a personal experience into music. Did the idea come from Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique? (He had met Berlioz when he was a student and would conduct his Romeo et Juliette in 1864.) At any rate, Leoš Janáček would later write two such string quartets, one inspired by Tolstoy's tale of adultery, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and then “Intimate Pages,” inspired by love letters written to his mistress.

Smetana & Bettina, 1860
Speaking of personal relationships, another issue plagued Smetana at the time of his deafness. He had married his second wife, Bettina Ferdinandiová, 16 years his junior, in 1860. They had two daughters, both of whom survived their father. But the relationship with Bettina became increasingly unpleasant. "I cannot live under the same roof with a person who hates and persecutes me," he'd wrote to her in a letter. They considered divorce but chose instead to remain, however unhappily, together.

To conclude this brief summary of a life, I should mention that, despite his continuing to compose and the belated success he was finding with the premieres of Ma Vlast, Smetana began having bouts of forgetfulness, being unable to remember what he had just written down, barely writing four measures of music a day (difficult when you're composing an opera). Forbidden any musical activity, he was not even allowed to read for more than fifteen minutes.

Still, five months later, he succeeded in finishing a second string quartet, worked on a new orchestral suite, started sketching another opera (this one inspired by the very un-Czech story of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) before he suffered an attack we would describe as dementia, affecting his mental equilibrium. He began having hallucinations and had to be watched in case he injured himself. Unable to recognize his family, he tried to escape from the house and eventually had to be placed in what was then known as Prague's Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum where he died less than three weeks later.

His family (and most others) had long assumed his deafness, difficult to evaluate with the technology of the day, was the result of syphilis, something no one in polite society discussed. But modern research tends to point to other possible causes, none of which can be definitively proven.The official cause of death, however, was listed as senile dementia.

He had recently turned 60.

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It occurred to me, overhearing a concert-goer at the symphony a couple weeks ago, surprised to find Sibelius was “that recent” (presumably meaning since he died in 1957, not that the violin concerto was written in 1905), that we often tend to overlook specifically when the composers of the music we're listening to lived. I know my dad once told me he had no idea when Bach or Tchaikovsky lived – “they could be contemporaries” for all he knew – but it didn't keep him from enjoying their music. Preparing this post, I realized I'm not all that sure where to fit Smetana into this musical time-line. He's not, I admit, a composer high on my list though I enjoy the music most of us in this country are aware of. We speak of Dvořák and Smetana as one of those “pairs” like Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, or Wagner and Liszt. Usually, that leads to the misconception they were friends and colleagues, not just contemporaries, which is not the case.

Smetana is referred to as the “Father of Czech Music” but Dvořák, at least in this country, is considered the “Greatest Czech Composer” or, more accurately, the “Most Popular Czech Composer” even if few concert-goers could name many more.

First of all, let me point out that Dvořák was born in 1841. When Smetana was born – listed as Friedrich rather than Bedřich in the register since German was the official language – it was 1824 and Beethoven had not yet completed his 9th Symphony. When Smetana gave his first public performance as a budding pianist at the age of 6, Berlioz was working on his Symphonie fantastique. Mendelssohn was 21 and Brahms wouldn't be born for another three years.

As a fervent patriot in his mid-20s, Smetana participated briefly in the “uprisings” in the spring of 1848, only one part of a continent-wide series of uprisings and revolutions that led to the national awareness of many ethnic minorities then under German or Austrian control. There were other issues as well – in Paris, in Dresden (where Wagner and Schumann were both affected by it) – but in Prague it was primarily a revolt against the German-speaking oppressors. Like most of these revolts, this one too ended in failure. (It's interesting to note the new, young Emperor of Austria who held sway against the 1848 uprisings was the same one still in power at the start of World War I in 1914!)

Katerina, Smetana's 1st wife
Smetana had married Katerina Kolářová in 1849 and they had four daughters, three of whom died in infancy. One of them showed early talent as a musician but died of scarlet fever in 1855, prompting him to write an elegiac Piano Trio in G Minor in her memory.

Unable to establish a career in Prague (perhaps because of his recent political role), Smetana and his family moved to Göteborg in Sweden where he heard they were looking for music teachers. With the exception of a few visits home – during one of these, his wife, already in frail health, died en route – he remained in Sweden until the early-1860s when “a more liberal climate” in Bohemia prompted him to return to Prague. The Provisional Theater (so called because it was intended to be a temporary home for Czech music until a National Theater could be built) opened in 1862. The building eventually became part of the new theater when it finally opened in 1881.

During the early-1860s, his first years back at home, Smetana began work on two operas on Czech stories: a historical “grand” opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, and a comedy about a romantic tangle involving a marriage broker, a village girl, and the boy she'd rather marry, The Bartered Bride.

One of the musicians in the theater's orchestra in 1862 was a violist named Antonin Dvořák.

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Dvořák started his musical life as a fan of Wagner, even played viola in the orchestra when Wagner came to Prague to conduct an all-Wagner program of opera excerpts. Not surprisingly, some of Dvořák's early works (those rarely played early symphonies and operas, for instance) have a Wagnerian sound about them, not the folk-inspired voice we associate with the mature composer. He had been composing since 1861 (when he was 20) – this is about the same time Smetana was trying to establish himself in Prague – but his first public appearance as a composer didn't occur until ten years later.

Then, in the mid-1870s, he started entering the competitions for the Austrian State Prize (keep in mind that Bohemia, as the Czech Republic was known then, had been a province of the Austrian or Austro-Hungarian Empire from the 16th Century until 1918) and, in addition to winning some grants and prizes, in 1877 garnered the attention of Johannes Brahms who agreed to ask his own publisher to publish some of Dvořák's music.

Now, so far, there's not much mention of Bedřich Smetana in Dvořák's story. True, in 1866, Smetana became the director of Prague's Provisional Theater where Dvořák was one of the players, the same year The Bartered Bride was not a success and they may have known each other but there was never anything like a friendship between them and Smetana never seemed to have any role as a teacher or mentor to the younger composer. They certainly would never have "hung out" together, discussing how to create a national music style! Or did they?

Antonin Dvořák in 1868
It was Smetana's job, as artistic director and conductor, to foster new Czech music. But when Dvořák submitted his opera, The King and the Charcoal-Burner, in 1871, the score was returned, declared to be “unperformable.” Given the musical politics of the day, espousing Wagnerian concepts of opera was to many musicians the equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. And Smetana, who not only admired Wagner, he was a friend of Liszt's, had enough political problems with the theater management not to champion a young and inexperienced Wagnerite like this Dvořák fellow.

As it was, Smetana was forced to resign in 1872 following opposition from prominent subscribers but was reinstated after the management received an ultimate signed by most of the theater's musicians, including Dvořák. Now given more authority, he planned to produce more Czech operas, though he himself had little time for composing.

Then, in 1874, Smetana became ill, lost his hearing, and retired from the theater. Moving to a town outside of Prague where he could live with his one daughter while hoping to recuperate, as I mentioned, he composed his first string quartet in 1876 which he subtitled “From My Life.”

This was the year Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung was given its first full production at Bayreuth, and the year Brahms finally finished his 1st Symphony.

Dvořák's career didn't really get started until 1877 when he received the backing of the great Brahms (and more importantly, his anti-Wagnerian friend, the critic Eduard Hanslick). By this time, Dvořák had passed over from being a Wagnerite to following in the footsteps of Brahms, but it was his use of Bohemian folk music that caught Brahms' attention which resulted in his request for Dvořák to compose a set of dances for piano duet, modeled after Brahms' own “Hungarian Dances” which would be attractive to the amateur audience. And so, with the appearance of his “Slavonic Dances,” Dvořák's career was on its way.

By this time, Smetana was out of the active music scene, though his music, what he had already composed – at this time, much of Ma Vlast and several more operas were in the future – proved enough to influence a whole generation of younger composers.

As for one bit of connectivity between Smetana's and Dvořák's time-lines, there's this tantalizing bit: after Smetana's string quartet was finished in December of 1876, it was given a "private performance" in Prague sometime in 1878 (the public premiere wasn't until March of 1879) in which the violist was Antonin Dvořák.

And Dvořák began writing his Slavonic Dances, the fruits of his new connection with Brahms & Co., sometime in 1878. These do not quote actual Bohemian folk-songs but incorporate the essence of the sound in its use of dance-forms and -rhythms, similar to what Smetana had done.

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As for being the “Father of Czech Music,” or at least the Nationalist School that developed in Bohemia following the 1848 uprising, Smetana did not do it by utilizing existing folk-songs which is what we normally assume. He did not learn to speak Czech until the 1860s when he was already in his late-30s – before then, he spoke only German, the official language of society, education and commerce – and much of the music he composed followed certain guidelines established by Wagner though not necessarily imitating his style (as one writer more knowledgeable of Smetana's operas pointed out, people who complained of his Wagnerism apparently were not familiar with much of Wagner's music). He was a patriot which might seem a problem in a German-dominated society like Prague's, but he was a “radical patriot” as opposed to a “conservative patriot” and that was the problem, Wagner or not.

His first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, was a historical drama about a 13th Century German occupation, and most of his subsequent operas were about legendary heroes rather than real-life people like the peasants who populated The Bartered Bride. This would seem to be his “masterpiece,” viewed from its world-wide popularity, but it wasn't until 1870 that the fourth and final version of it – which also added those three famous dances – became a hit. Still, when it was staged in St. Petersburg, Russia, the next year, one critic said it was “no better than the work of a gifted fourteen-year-old boy.” (Odd, you might think, considering the famous school of Russian nationalists known as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful,” not having any sympathy for Czech nationalism, but keep in mind, at that time, their familiar works were several years in the future, including Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, its first complete performance not until 1874; Tchaikovsky had so far not yet composed even his 2nd Symphony.) The Bartered Bride wasn't heard in Vienna until 1892, eight years after the composer's death, and only then started to gain any gradual international success, the only one of his eight operas to do so.

When we think of “Czech Nationalism” (or any ethnic nationalism in music), we tend to think of those pleasant peasants who dance beside the waters of the Moldau (how ironic the Bohemian river is known internationally by its German name rather than as the Vltava) or frolic through the village square of The Bartered Bride. Dvořák became a “Czech Nationalist” because he used folk songs and dances in his music – and even when he used what he thought were American folk songs in the mid-1890s for his “New World” Symphony, they still sounded like Czech tunes.

(The same argument continues today regarding “American Music.” Can “American Music” only be something like Aaron Copland's folk-song-inspired Billy the Kid or is Elliott Carter an example of American Music because he happens to be a composer who spent most of his 103 years writing in the United States?)

If your argument is popularity, then when you visit the Czech Republic, you should be aware that there Smetana is held in much higher regard than Dvořák and more of his works are heard in the opera and concert repertoire. When Smetana began conducting new Czech works in the 1860s, there really was no “tradition” of Czech music, especially music sung in Czech: these composers may have been Czech-born (like Smetana) but their music was German in style and ethos. Anything in Czech was more on the level of operetta and even then, pretty poor. The most “famous” Czech composer of operas immediately before Smetana was a fellow named František Škroup who died in 1862, few of whose 16 stage works, according to a couple of sources, ran for more than two performances. There were dozens of famous Bohemian musicians in the late-18th and early-19th Centuries, many of them fine composers, but they all gravitated toward Vienna or Paris if they wanted to make a living, especially back in the days of Haydn and Mozart. Prague, musically, was basically a vacuum as far as its national musical identity was concerned. And it was slow to change.

If nothing else, Smetana did change all that, making a case for music in the native language with a national "voice." Without him, even without the direct contact of teacher or mentor, it's quite possible Dvořák might have continued imitating Brahms.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Shostakovich and a Quartet In Spite of War-Time

The Dover Quartet in concert at Rice University
Who: The Dover Quartet
What: Caroline Shaw's "Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)", Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life"), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 in A Major
When: Sunday afternoon, February 26th, at 3:00, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Truman Bullard at 2:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom, on N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg between Seneca & Emerald Streets.
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This weekend, the Dover Quartet, latest winner of the Chamber Music Society's Cleveland Quartet Award, finds time in its busy schedule to pass through Harrisburg and bring with them three works: the most recent was premiered only a little over a year ago by Caroline Shaw. The closest thing to a war-horse on the program is the Smetana. The program concludes with a rarely-heard work by Dmitri Shostakovich whose string quartets in general do not figure as frequently at American concerts as they should.

And this one, incidentally, he composed while living in a reconverted hen house!

While you can read about Ms. Shaw's new work in this earlier post, here, and about the autobiographical quartet Smetana called “From My Life” here, this post is about Dmitri Shostakovich, his 2nd Quartet (complete with two different performances you can listen to), and the context in which it was composed – or perhaps I should say “contexts,” since there's the events going on around the time he composed it in 1944 and then, to conclude, how it fits into the context of the other works he had written up to that time.
It has been said that to totalitarians, all music is "program music." That is, it tells a story whether the composer intended it or not, and this story needs to support those in political power if it is to be found acceptable. This struggle between art and reality is at the heart of much of Shostakovich's career.

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Dmitri Shostakovich
The String Quartet No. 2 in A Major by Dmitri Shostakovich was composed in 1944 in just 19 days during a summer stay at Ivanovo, something of a “writer's colony” for composers (see below). It's in four movements: the first, called an “Overture” is really a traditional sonata-form, however driven (and almost constantly marked forte, loud); the second, much longer movement, is a series of “recitatives” (from an operatic convention distinguishing between near-spoken presentation and the lyrical essence of the aria) within a slow movement's “romance” (in Russian, the term “romance” also means “song,” like lied in German or chanson in French); the third is a waltz but far removed from a Viennese waltz, a darker, hushed, more mysterious soulful wisp of a dance in the not always soothing night; the finale is a set of Theme and Variations (after an introduction) but in the key of A Minor (not the happy ending the party would have preferred in a good proletarian work) on a theme that sounds vaguely like something out of folk song or, at least, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

The slow movement of the 2nd Quartet is nearly as long as the first three movements of the 1st Quartet combined. In fact, the entire quartet remained his longest quartet until he wrote the last one in 1974, a year before his death.

Here are two recordings of the complete 2nd Quartet. The one with the score is interesting for those who read music and wish to follow along. But I don't care for the interpretation. The first one is by the Borodin Quartet who not only performed the work for Shostakovich, the violist in this ensemble is the son of the friend Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to!

The Complete “String Quartet No. 2” by Dmitri Shostakovich, with the Borodin Quartet:

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and with the Fitzwilliam Quartet (with score):

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Perhaps, to avoid alerting the authorities to his Western heresy, he marked the 1st movement “overture” rather than “sonata” (I mean, why point that out?).

Do the long recitatives in the slow movement (solo passages of considerable rhythmic flexibility, mostly for the violin over sustained chords) represent some kind of inner drama? While everyone waits for the lovely arias in an opera, the real “action” of the drama takes place in the speech-like patterns of the recitatives, easier to understand and not beholden to conventions of repetition and the focus on beautiful melody – certainly the “romance” that follows lets the melody unfold in long lyrical lines. Could it be a kind of farewell to the operatic stage since Shostakovich, after the denunciations of 1936 never returned to the operatic stage except to write light-hearted works that are more akin to what we'd call “musical comedies” (like Moscow, Cheryomushsky, a satirical operetta about the housing shortage, in 1958).

The waltz has been described as “mechanical” and “menacing,” certainly a far cry from what the word “waltz” brings to mind (even a Russian raised on Tchaikovsky and Glinka). How one interprets this may vary with the phrasing, the dynamics, but certainly it's in a dark key – E-flat Minor (6 flats) – which happens to be a tritone away from the registered tonality of the quartet: the tritone is the interval of an augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) that the Medieval age used to call “the devil in music,” an interval that was generally “banned” in good music and which, to the 19th Century romantics, had a whiff of brimstone about it. Certainly, the Borodin Quartet's reading of it is much “spookier” (indeed hair-raising in the middle) than the Fitzwilliam's more controlled approach: beginning at 22:00, though “edgy” and “spiky,” the English quartet lacks a certain fear and drive one hears in the Russians' performance (beginning at 21:30). Same notes, same dynamics – but it becomes an almost entirely different piece! Hmmm...

The finale's variations, once it moves from its E-flat Minor introduction to the accepted center of A – well, A minor but the most proletarian of listeners would expect it to finally resolve to A Major by the end, right? – is based on a folksy theme that Shostakovich introduced in the Piano Trio No. 2's first movement, but seemed to discard. Perhaps he realized it had more potential and he decided not to “throw it away” entirely. Certainly, the flavor of folk-music would curry favor with those who expected something of Socialist Realism in their art? He had completed the Piano Trio in mid-August and immediately began work on the 2nd Quartet which he finished the following month, so this tune was still on his mind.

While most musicians writing about the 2nd Quartet describe it as “far removed” from the War going on around him, perhaps they're not listening to performances like the Borodin Quartet's? When I hear the middle section of that waltz and dramatic moments of the variations (from around 30:00 to 32:30 in the Borodin's recording), I wonder if the anxiety of the war hadn't reached him after all?

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It is impossible for us, living in the United States or any country of Western Europe in the 21st Century, to appreciate the social and political environment that grew out of an event that happened 100 years ago and became known as the Bolshevik Revolution, political turmoil that had long been brewing in Russia, and finally erupted in November of 1917 to overthrow the old aristocratic Imperial society and replace it with the Soviet Union and its Communist ideology. The impact of that context on the arts is one thing to read about, but another thing to have lived and created in. I'm not saying that it would have been better for Shostakovich (or any of the others) to have lived in the West or if Russia's revolution had replaced an autocratic tsar with a benign Western democracy, once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 history seems to have proven that one autocrat has merely replaced another.

Without getting into the impact Stalin and his regime had on Shostakovich's career and creative mindset, much less his life, let's just focus on the historical implications leading up to the summer of 1944 when he composed his 2nd String Quartet with a few statistics to place it into some perspective.

Stalin, 1943
Since Joseph Stalin came to power in 1922 as General Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, he consolidated his power following the death of Lenin in 1924 and ruled as the nation's dictator until his death in March of 1953. Through his “cult of personality” and controlling the people through political repression and the use of the secret police, purging the party of any opposition to achieve his goals, millions of people died.

Shostakovich was himself a victim of Stalin's displeasure and feared for his life as several friends and colleagues were “disappearing” during the Purges – known as “The Great Terror” – between 1936 and 1938. Anyone not familiar with the story behind his Symphony No. 5, “A Soviet Artist's Practical Response to Just Criticism” as someone dubbed it, and how it placed him once again in the Party's favor can read more about it in my blog-post, “Music & Politics: Shostakovich's 5th & 10th Symphonies,” here

Firmly rehabilitated, Shostakovich composed, among other works, his famous Piano Quintet in 1940. It was originally intended to be a string quartet but he felt he needed to add a piano, joking with friends that, as string quartets would tour and want the composer to play the piano part, he would finally get a chance to do some traveling.

Unfortunately, events would intervene.

Hitler engulfed Europe in war beginning in 1939 with his invasion of Poland, but then the Nazis invaded their former ally the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Three months later, the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) began and would last for 872 days until January of 1944. Over a million Red Army soldiers died or were declared missing, another almost 2.5 million were wounded or sickened. During the siege, 642,000 civilians died, mostly due to starvation and disease, with another 400,000 of the nearly 2 million people who'd been evacuated.

Shostakovich, composing the "Leningrad" Symphony during the siege
On August 9th, 1942, Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, known as “the Leningrad Symphony,” was performed by the surviving members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra. Most of the musicians were starving (several collapsed and three died during rehearsals). Though the composer had been trapped in the city during the course of the siege when he composed the piece, he managed to be evacuated before its performance.

Meanwhile, from August of 1942 to February of 1943, the Nazis also laid siege to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in Southern Russia. The Axis forces suffered 850,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured) but the Soviets, ultimately “decisively” victorious, suffered over 1,000,000.

During World War II – known as the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia – there were about 10,600,000 casualties in the Soviet armies plus another 10,000,000 civilian deaths due to military activity and “crimes against humanity” (this would include Soviet victims of the Holocaust) and yet another 6,000,000 due to war-related famine and disease, a total of 26 million people or a little less than 14% of the country's total population.

Shostakovich writing at Ivanovo, 1943
In the summers of 1943 and 1944, Dmitri Shostakovich was allowed to go to a former country estate northeast of Moscow in the town of Ivanovo (pronounced i-VAN-uh-vuh) where the Composers' Union had just established something of a government-supported artist's colony – if one thinks of such things comparable to the MacDowell Colony or Yaddo in the United States. Opened only the year before, this “House of Creativity and Rest for Composers” (it is sometimes described as a “rest home for musicians,” but not in the modern American sense!), it was being renovated from a country estate once owned by a relative of Nadezhda von Meck, the famous patron of Tchaikovsky in the 1870s and '80s. The house survived the collapse of the Soviet Union: the present-day Union of Composers and its Music Foundation still, apparently, have maintained it since 1991.

Shostakovich and a number of other composers lived, worked and played in relative isolation from the reality of the war while staying at Ivanovo, able to create without distraction. Here, Shostakovich composed his 8th Symphony in 1943, two chamber works during August and September of 1944, his Piano Trio No. 2 and his Second String Quartet. Most of what became his 9th Symphony was written there in 1945. He would return the following year with his children, Galina and Maxim.

A more recent cabin at Ivanovo (1997)
As Aram Khachaturian later recalled, “the musicians lived there [at Ivanovo] enjoying great freedom, without any limitations as to how long they stayed, coming and going as they pleased. Huts were rented and barns repaired for us to work in. I worked in a little log cabin, and Shostakovich in a poultry barn. And how we worked! ...As we worked, we played our music for each other, sought advice and exchanged opinions... Were we influenced by nature and our surroundings? Or was it the feeling of victory around the corner? [The first news of Nazi defeats were only just arriving.] Or simply that we were getting properly fed?”

In Moscow, not long after the premiere of his war-ravaged 8th Symphony in November, 1943 (it had been composed mostly at Ivanovo earlier that summer) and after learning of the sudden death of his close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich had begun writing his 2nd Piano Trio – the famous one: hardly anyone knows the first one – but completed the last three movements at Ivanovo on August 13th, 1944. He had already read news about the uncovering of the concentration camps at Treblinka in the wake of the Nazi retreats, how Jewish victims “were being forced to dance on the graves they had just dug.” The opening of the 4th Movement takes on a whole different meaning when viewed in this light, with its use of Jewish folksongs. (Listen to a riveting performance by Sviatoslav Richter, Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman, here.)

Shortly after that, he began work on his next piece, a string quartet.

In the earlier post for this concert, I had written about how composers work when faced with realities that often seem to belittle anything an artist could possibly create: how does one "make" art with all of this weighing down on you? As Alex Ross points out in his New Yorker article, “Making Art in a Time of Rage,” an artist can either engage – as Shostakovich did with his 7th and 8th Symphonies and the 2nd Piano Trio – or disengage. This is apparently what he chose to do with the Quartet No. 2 in A Major. It has no program, no title, no indication of the world that existed outside his former poultry barn in a little town on the edge of a birch forest, miles from Moscow.

Mikhail Meyerovich, a composer no one in the West would likely recognize, had recently graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where Shostakovich had been the chairman of his examination committee. As a result of the good review he got from this committee, Meyerovich was allowed to attend Ivanovo and spent a month there at the end of summer, 1944. He recalls:

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When I arrived I saw Shostakovich, who was still a comparatively young man [he would've been 38 years old]. Shostakovich was not too fond of the other composers of his own age and he spent most of his time with me and my friend, his former pupil Yuri Levitin; we were the youngest composers there. He used to search us out and suggest we play some four-hand piano music. We took walks together. ...I discovered him to be a very lively man who was always in motion and could not spend a minute without some occupation. Now he played billiards, now he played football [that is, soccer]. He insisted we join him in a game of football; he played with passion, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the game. Once I inadvertently knocked his glasses off his nose. I was embarrassed, but he said, 'That's all right. That's what the game is about.'

Composer, Daughter & Friends, 1946
It was a mystery to me how he managed to compose so much music at the same time. He had just finished his famous Piano Trio and was working on his Second String Quartet. I wondered when he did the actual composing. The Trio took him a month. The quartet was written in under four weeks [most sources say 19 days] before my very eyes. But nobody saw him at a desk or at the piano. I was intrigued and began to observe him closely. He would play football and fool around with his friends; then he would suddenly disappear. After forty minutes or so, he would turn up again. 'How are you doing? Let me kick the ball.' Then we would have dinner and drink some wine and take a walk, and he would be the life and soul of the party. Every now and then, he would disappear for a while and then join us again. Towards the end of my stay, he disappeared altogether. We didn't see him for a week. Then he turned up, unshaven and looking exhausted. He said to me and Levitin, 'Let's go to an empty cottage with a piano in it.'

He played us the Second Quartet. He had only just completed it, as the score had that very day's date on it. He played it somewhat haltingly, as if sight-reading.”

[an interview quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.]
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Shostakovich completed the quartet on September 20th and dedicated it to his friend, the composer Vissarion Shebalin (best known for writing string quartets) “in honor of the twenty years of their friendship.” Earlier that month, he had written to Shebalin,

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“I worry about the lightening speed with which I compose. Undoubtedly this is bad. One shouldn't compose as quickly as I do. Composition is a serious process, and in the words of a ballerina-friend of mine, 'You can't keep going at a gallop!' I compose with diabolical speed and can't stop myself. ...It is exhausting, rather unpleasant, and at the end of the day you lack any confidence in the result. But I can't rid myself of this bad habit.”
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Both Quartet and Trio were premiered on the same concert on November 14th, 1944 in Leningrad. The Trio had an instant success and would go on to become one of his most performed works, winning a “Stalin Prize” (the Soviet equivalent of a Pulitzer) which amounted to 100,000 rubles in 1946. The 2nd Quartet was well-enough received but has always been overshadowed by the Trio.

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Dmitri Shostakovich is best known for his symphonies – he wrote fifteen of them – particularly (in this country) his 1st (written when he was still a teen-ager), his 5th (viewed as a kind of “Fate” Symphony though at the time referred to as “a Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism”), sometimes the 9th (a light-hearted disappointment to his critics who were expecting, at the end of World War II, a vast triumphant paean to Stalin) and then after that probably the 10th (which appeared after Stalin's death) and maybe the 7th (written during the Siege of Leningrad) and the 8th (another tragic war symphony, it was composed in the summer of 1943).

The 2nd and 3rd are usually dismissed as propaganda pieces, written to celebrate the recent revolution. The 2nd, premiered in 1927, is called “To October!” with “Proletarians of the World, Unite!” inscribed over the score's first page. The 3rd, written in 1930, celebrates “May Day,” a brief one-movement work ending with a chorus celebrating the Revolution and urging workers of other countries to join in.

The 4th was... well, given the hot water Shostakovich found himself in in 1936 following Stalin's condemnation of his already popular opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (“Muddle Instead of Music”), the 4th, a giant leap forward in what a symphony could be in a modern post-revolutionary country, presumably scared the composer into withdrawing it from rehearsal and not presenting it until 1961, seven years after Stalin's death (for a hair-raising bit, check out this brief excerpt, here). It takes nearly an hour to perform and calls for a huge orchestra, is a purely abstract work, unlike more “proletarian” symphonies being premiered in the '30s by Nikolai Myaskovsky (#16, “The Aviators”) and Vissarion Shebalin (a song-symphony called “The Heroes of Perekop”), and lacks any redemptive apotheosis in the view of party politics. His earlier two symphonies were now being disavowed because their propaganda value was negated by a musical style too far advanced for the proletariat.

Whether the 4th was withdrawn because of the composer's fears over official criticism or whether it was canceled by disapproving party officials, a more palatable and certainly more conventional symphony appeared in 1937, his 5th, which not only “rehabilitated” the young composer in the government's eyes, but made him famous world-wide.

Gone, now, was the enfant terrible of the post-Revolution's avant-garde with his spiky dissonances and the idea of pushing the instruments (and the listener) past their limitations. Gone were the stories – like his operas, Lady Macbeth and The Nose – meant to shock.

Six months later, Shostakovich began a kind of exercise in “quartet writing,” wanting to see what he might do with a medium that, until then, had usually been dismissed in Russia as an outlet for dilettantes (too Western an art-form, it was frowned upon by Nationalists like the “Russian 5” as well as the Communist party operatives looking to inspire the people). This C Major Quartet became a short, traditional, certainly “classical” work in four brief movements and when he finished it in mid-July, he wrote, concerned people would compare it to his recent symphony and find it lacking: “Don't expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.”

It also lacks any kind of propaganda value, no proletarian inspiration behind its mood or “story” (the “what's it about?” syndrome so many listeners have). It's purely an abstract work in the tradition of great composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. And yet it's odd for a composer accused of “Western formalism” to write something so typically Western and form-based! But there was the difference between the public world of the symphony with its need for popular approval and the more private world afforded by chamber music with its smaller, more elite and intellectual audience.

Plans for a second quartet began to take shape not long afterwards, but he decided it should become a piano quintet instead, perhaps his best known chamber-work, which he premiered in 1940. An actual second quartet didn't appear until that summer of 1944, a year after he'd completed the vast and tragic 8th Symphony.

In all, Shostakovich would write 15 string quartets as well as 15 symphonies, though the quartets don't follow the same career-long span his symphonies do: one could argue that, having written the 2nd when he was 38 after writing eight symphonies, and in his remaining 30 years he composed seven more symphonies but thirteen more quartets, there are really no “early” quartets as we think of a composer learning his craft and finding his stylistic way.

After the 2nd Quartet, there followed a period of a couple years of relative peace and a chance for Shostakovich to enjoy his fame. Then in 1947 came “The Zhdanov Affair” in which a cultural minister, perhaps at Stalin's orders, condemned several of the leading Soviet composers of the obscure charge of “formalism” – too much of an interest in Western European forms that went against the grain of what was considered good “socialist realism,” art that spoke to the people.

This time, rather than write “an artist's reply to just criticism,” he simply stopped publishing his music. It was difficult to make a living – shunned by his colleagues, unable to teach as he would like, and lacking any income from commissions for new works or royalties from performances of most of his old ones. It wasn't until things began to thaw following Stalin's death in 1953, but that is another story.

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Caroline Shaw & the Gardens of Dumbarton Oaks

Who: The Dover Quartet
What: Caroline Shaw's "Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)", Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life"), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 in A Major
When: Sunday afternoon, February 26th, at 3:00, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Truman Bullard at 2:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom, on N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg between Seneca & Emerald Streets.
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"How do you capture the tragic, beautiful loneliness of existence, and the complete, ecstatic joy of existence?" asks composer Caroline Shaw. “The way that I am able at least to get at some of that stuff for myself is through music. What is it about music that is different from other things?”

Considering the work following her “Dumbarton Oaks” quartet on this weekend's concert with the Dover Quartet – officially, it's Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks) – is the quartet Bedřich Smetana subtitled “From My Life,” ending with its famous evocation of his impending deafness, perhaps this might be a good question to preface the entire program: music can entertain, but it can also bring meaning to our existence – and it can bring meaning and expression to the lives of its composers.

We tend to think of composers who get up in the morning and write a piece of music which we will listen to and think “that's nice” or “I didn't like that so much as that other one” often without imagining these composers exist within time, within a period of history during which things happen, during which events affect our lives, during which people who create create in response to events either by engaging them or by disengaging from them.

It is interesting and perhaps curious, 16 years later, to look back on what artists thought about their art and their role as creative artists after September 11th, what impact anything they could create might have in a world changed by current events, events that perhaps trivialize everything else. Now, with political and social events unfolding daily around us with the new administration in Washington, artists are again wondering “how to respond” (I recommend Alex Ross's New Yorker article, “Making Art in a Time of Rage”).

This weekend, the most recent winners of Chamber Music America's Cleveland Quartet Prize, the Dover Quartet, will come to Harrisburg for a concert that includes three works – none of them by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or any other of those typical great Classical composers one expects to find on programs of chamber music: there's a new work (though premiered in 2015, the first work has occasionally been listed as “Commissioned Work TBA”) by a composer who is described as the “youngest winner of a Pulitzer Prize” in Music; the closest thing to a war-horse on the program is Smetana's Quartet “From My Life”; and the second half is the second of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets which rarely get performed in this country (except for the autobiographical No. 8).

(You can read about Shostakovich's 2nd Quartet in this post and Smetana's Quartet “From My Life” in this one.)

But the Dover Quartet – who do perform Beethoven and Mozart and the rest – have chosen a program that may be more thought provoking than mere entertainment, but then “entertainment” is a loaded term in itself that doesn't have to mean “banal” to be entertaining. Whether you remember television being described as “a vast wasteland” in a speech by President Kennedy's newly appointed FCC chairman in 1961 or not, with its string of “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons” (today, one could replace the Western with, say, Reality TV shows), you might wonder “what is the world coming to?” You might add, with the help of the arts, we have found a way to survive the past.

In this context, we might find Smetana's Quartet “a touch of reality” as it describes various points in its composer's life as Smetana seeks to express “tragic, beautiful loneliness of existence, and the complete, ecstatic joy of existence.” And Shostakovich, writing his quartet at the height of World War II and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, as an example how a composer “disengages from reality” to create something that transcends it and by its very nature finds in the act of creation a way to resist.

And how does Shaw's tribute to “Dumbarton Oaks” fit into this?

Actually, I've no idea, not having heard the work, except to know that any artist these days contends with so much reality – both hopeful and distressing: again, the very act of creativity is to resist and transcend that reality – perhaps by turning chaos into order, by finding beauty in things easily overlooked, by finding ways of expressing joy or catharsis, art reminds us that, despite everything going on around you, you still have a soul.

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Say to a musician or music-lover “Dumbarton Oaks” and a Bach-like string of notes comes cascading out of a work by Igor Stravinsky, his Concerto in E-flat for chamber orchestra which had been commissioned by Robert and Mildred Bliss to celebrate their 30th Wedding Anniversary at their estate in Georgetown, Washington D.C., a place they called “Dumbarton Oaks.” Hence the subtitle by which Stravinsky's three-movement, classically-inspired work is always known.

Caroline Shaw was the first “Early-Career Musician in Residence” at Dumbarton Oaks which is now operated as a museum and research center by Harvard University to whom the Blisses gave the house with its grounds and gardens in 1940. Ms. Shaw was commissioned to write a piece to celebrate the museum's 75th Anniversary while working in the house which has its own rich history.

Originally part of a grant from Queen Anne to Colonel Ninian Beall in 1702, which he called the “Rock of Dumbarton” after his homeland in Scotland, the central part of the existing house was built around 1801 and served as the residence for Vice-President John C. Calhoun in the 1820s. It was enlarged in the mid-19th Century and named “The Oaks.” In 1920, the Blisses bought it and combined the names as “Dumbarton Oaks,” embarking on a renovation and expansion project for both the house and its grounds.

During the late summer and early fall of 1944, at the height of World War II – also the same exact time Shostakovich was composing his 2nd String Quartet – the mansion hosted a conference that resulted in the founding of the United Nations.

Currently under further renovation, the museums will not be open to the public until the Spring of 2017, but the gardens are still open during public hours.

a screen capture of the garden in autumn from the Dumbarton Oaks website

In this clip, Caroline Shaw and Dumbarton director Jan Ziolkowski talk about her being the “Early Career Musician,” what being “in residence” at Dumbarton Oaks meant and how she was preparing to write a new piece for its 75th Anniversary:

“Before her new work’s performance, Shaw explained briefly that the title Plan & Elevation carries a double meaning. It refers not just to architects’ drawings of structures from above and on each side, but also to how Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks, in Shaw’s words, often 'have a plan that develops and changes over their time here in ways they didn’t expect.' Plan & Elevation takes inspiration from the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens – you can explore them with this link, here – and consists of five movements, each named after one of the 'rooms' of the gardens: the Ellipse, the Cutting Garden, the Herbaceous Border, the Orangery, and the Beech Tree (Shaw’s personal favorite).”

It may be February, in fact it may be warm for February, but what nicer way to spend a Sunday afternoon than wandering through the gardens of a historic house like Dumbarton Oaks, musically as well as metaphorically?

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As I mentioned earlier, Caroline Shaw, a triple-threat of a composer, violinist (who plays the viola), and singer, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013 for her "Partita for 8 Voices,"  written for her a capella vocal group, Roomful of Teeth. There's a curious dichotomy, here: with a name like "Roomful of Teeth," the title "Partita" seems rather out-of-place, not just because a "partita" is an 18th-Century instrumental form being performed, here, by singers. 

A partita is, among many things, a "suite" in Baroque days, and usually a suite of formulaic and often stereotypical dances, bringing to mind the sarabandes and gavottes that populate much of the instrumental music of the early-1700s, not all of them masterpieces offered to posterity compared to Bach's Partitas for keyboard or for solo violin (or the suites for solo cello or the Orchestral Suites, for that matter). And like Bach's D Minor Partita for solo violin which ends with that magnificent Chaconne (originally a dance-form), Shaw ends her four-movement suite, following an Allemande, a Sarabande and a Courante, with another similar old dance, a Passacaglia, however brief.

Sounds very old-fashioned, no? Until you listen to it.

Partita,” the composer explains, “is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another. It was written with and for my dear friends in Roomful of Teeth. Inspired by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305.”

“This is a deceptive sort of music,” blogger J. Bryan Lowder writes, “with an elegant, easy smoothness built from distinct and fascinating bits-and-pieces. Listening to it is a little like examining a great mosaic, both from a distance and occasionally with a magnifying glass, the better to see the grout between the tiles. Perhaps coincidentally, one of Shaw’s idiosyncratic style guidelines is “silk shoes gliding over marble mosaic.” She’s trying to tell her musicians how to sound, but she might as well have been telling us how to listen—no description could be more apt.” (Read the entire post from Slate's Culture Blog, here.) 

Here is just the final movement of the Partita, recorded at its World Premiere in 2009 by Roomful of Teeth with the composer, third from the left.

Keeping in mind that not all works by one composer necessarily sound alike, style and "voice" aside, and that the challenges of writing for an 8-voice a capella group and for a string quartet each have their different inspirations and their problems-to-solve (technical and aesthetic), I think whatever you may think of this music you will recognize she has an exceptional creative voice (puns intended) and I look forward to hearing this more recent piece to see how she expresses herself further, with or without the considerable pressure of having won a Pulitzer Prize so early in her career.

- Dick Strawser

"Stay tuned" for further posts on the quartets by Shostakovich and Smetana.