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It is quite possible that nowhere does time seem so clearly the fourth dimension as in Schubert’s last works. They give us a glimpse of the face of a wanderer who knows that the end of his road is only too near. Yet so used is he to wandering that he cannot stop; instead, he hedges and, forsaking the matters of this world, he finds sanctuary in unknown spaces away from the chiming of clocks. Such spaces are plentiful in Quintet in C major. They function as themes, yet they only have anything in common with those of the Classics when music runs in a broad flow. More often than not, however, it encircles and confuses us.
• This impression is already there in the first growing chord of Allegro ma non troppo. One could devote an entire book to this marvellous introduction. We find its bass motif at the bottom of a vivid figure of the main theme that moves over a falling triad – and now it becomes clear why Schubert needed two cellos. The theme grows and then breaks off at sharp chords, to make way for a lyrical space of oblivion, circling around far-off keys with a dreamy melody, sung by several instruments over a uniform and measured pizzicato. There is a subtle game of contrapuntal nature between these voices, slowly saturating the sound until it reaches an almost symphonic volume. The game is up when a no-nonsense epilogue appears, serving as the basis for the development. The epilogue comes in two varieties: the first dramatic, augmenting in blunt dissonances, where some voices enter although some others have not yet had their last word, and the second lyrical, marked with a soothing memory of the second theme. Although the recapitulation is a requirement of the classical form, it allows us yet another moment of oblivion.
• The uniqueness of Adagio, derived from the spirit of the second theme of the preceding movement, consists in its absolute and uncompromising continuity. Between the calls of violin and the responding pizzicato of cellos, the middle voices weave a cloth of chords that breathlessly flow one into the other without even a fraction of a second’s worth of silence. The impression of deep contemplation, of severance from reality, is powerful indeed. This makes the violent central episode even more excruciating, with its plethora of dissonances born in a way similar to those in the development of the previous movement, with its seemingly constant quest for just the right key. As it dwindles, it leaves a mark in the recapitulation: disquieting trills and passages in cello. Its close is filled with “parting” cadenza phrases; the last of these can be treated as Schubert’s musical motto, so frequently does it appear in his compositions.
• Scherzo (Presto) is such a suggestive rapture of folk-coloured temper that its incessant changes of key and colour could at first be perceived as a symptom of good humour – were it not for the fact that there is so disquietingly many of them. The trio (Andante sostenuto) explains the context: a boundlessly sad, almost funereal melody, no longer in free flow; instead, it is arrested at every phrase, and its poignancy is emphasised by the major key.
• The final Allegretto relates in its mood to the main fragment of Scherza. The dancing and sharply syncopated rhythm of the refrain is reminiscent of a polka, but its melody once again must have lost its key and there is always a dissonant note in its heroic hurrahs. Successive ideas usher in an increasingly lyrical climate, with just a touch of reverie, and all seems to proceed, if not to a happy ending, then at least towards harmony and a soothing of passions. Wrong: the coda brings a feverish acceleration and the whole ends in a despairing cry in high registers and a weird grimace (C-D flat-C), as if a suddenly-frenzied pageant were struck by a thunderbolt.
The premiere, performed by the famous Hellmesberger quartet, took place in Vienna as late as on 27 November 1850.
Schubert’s Impromptus are collected in two sets of four: op. 94 and op. 142 (numbered as D 899 and D 935 in the widely used Deutsch catalogue). The name itself, first given by Tobias Haslinger, the publisher of the first two opus 90 works, was then adopted by Schubert for both collections, preserving the continuity of numbering from 1 to 8. The split into two collections was probably due to an offer by Schott, a publisher from Mainz; since it failed to materialize before the composer’s death, the second set of Impromptus was published posthumously as op. 142 in Vienna eleven years later (NB by the same Anton Diabelli immortalized by Beethoven’s variations).
In Four Impromptus op. 142, it is easy to observe many characteristic features of Schubert’s style. The singing theme in No. 2 (Allegretto in A flat major) is a reminder of Schubert the songwriter, and the middle movement, defined as Trio, with a persistently emphasized syncope in the bass and a triplet figuration that rises and falls in a single wave, acquires, in this singing context, the character of a dramatic and ballad-like commentary. No. 3 stands out as variations, a form very infrequent in cycles of small piano pieces. The theme has been taken from the incidental music Rosamunde, Fuerstin von Zypern (from the Entr'acte following act three). After an airy Fifth Variation, Schubert returns to the original theme in a slow and lyrically-dwindling finale. The final Impromptu is a graceful scherzo in 3/8 metre. Figurations often run to the top register, and the semiquaver motion is arrested five times with general pauses before the theme’s recapitulation. A downward-running octave through the entire keyboard closes the cycle with a virtuoso effect.
Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) became the icon of Russian poets of the ”silver age”. It was her musical education (her mother was a pianist) that might have been the source of the musicality of her poetry, which grew into an expression of revolt against traditional form, into deliberate provocation. Joseph Brodsky once said that Tsvetaeva kept the rhythm of her poems like the metronome that measured out the course of her childhood. Caught in a web ideological traps, “the eternal rebel”, as she was often called by her monographers, finally committed suicide.
Shostakovich put to music six poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, first in a 1973 suite for alto and piano op. 143, and produced another version, with chamber orchestra, the following year. He wrote the songs for Irina Bogachova, a young singer endowed with a beautiful alto voice, who premiered the cycle on 27 December 1973. In the words of Krzysztof Meyer, “this is exceptional music, at once intellectual and ascetic, like Violin Sonata; the emotion is concealed in the background and the musical means are limited and of utter simplicity.”
Six poems by Marina Tsvetaeva remain in the sphere of confessional and reflexive lyricism: Moi stikhi (“My poems”) and Otkuda takaya nezhnost? (“Why so gentle?”), Dialog Gamleta s sovestyu (“Hamlet’s dialogue with his conscience”) Poet i tsar (“The poet and the tsar”), Net, bil baraban... (“No, the drum rolled”), and the invocative Anne Akhmatovey (“To Anna Akhmatova). The music is derived from the melodious poetic phrase itself; its function is to convey the message in a beautiful example of the union of word and tone.
Opus 143 is part of the composer’s final phase; it represents Shostakovich’s so-called late style, characteristic in its escape into the sphere of metaphysics and symbols, in a simplified language and its focus on ultimate values. The songs – and his entire chamber music – became, for the composer, the enclave of personal and moving statement, free of the Stakhanovite mask. In a lyrical situation, the “genius enslaved” – in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn – could express himself as an artist deeply affected and experienced by the evil of the world he had to live and write in. The song survived...
Dmitri Shostakovich - Chamber Symphony op. 110a
An arrangement of Violin Quartet No. 8 in C minor by Rudolf Barshai (1967)
Shostakovich allegedly said of his Violin Quartet No. 8 in C minor: “I have dedicated it to myself.” Indeed, the composer’s musical monogram D-ES-C-H (which stands for D-E flat-B in the German notation) appeared as a leitmotif in the first bars of the piece; it had already been used in Tenth Symphony and also appeared, together with a quotation from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, in his later Viola Sonata.
The work was written in July 1960 (in a record time of three days) at Gorisch near Dresden, where Shostakovich was working on the music to a German-Russian film, Five Days, Five Nights. The quartet honoured the memory of “Victims of Nazism and war” – hence its poignantly tragic expression.
The piece consists of five connected movements. Its three Largos are the principal elements of its dramaturgy: the first and the last define the limits of the form, while the middle one, funereal in character, serves as the focus of expression. The symbolic space opens here with a threefold exclamation, somewhat after the manner of Beethoven’s fate motif, the key being a quotation from the Russian song Broken by the hardships of captivity and Shostakovich’s self-quotation: a motif from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which, in 1936, brought the regime’s harsh criticism on the author. The Largos are separated by scherzoid elements: Allegro molto is a dark and motoric toccata and Allegretto, according to Krzysztof Meyer, seems “a waltz made unreal.”
The music of Quartet, following the composer’s favourite strategy, is a mesh of self-quotations and, as he himself confessed, allusions to Wagner or Tchaikovsky.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor op. 40 is the work of a young composer – its author was barely 28 then. Yet it can hardly be called an early piece, since the Russian composer completed his brilliant First Symphony as a 19-year-old, and one of his most significant masterpieces, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District – at the tender age of 26. The date of his Sonata in D minor (1934) coincides with the premiere of the above-mentioned opera; its naturalism and radicalism caused some of Shostakovich’s greatest problems with Soviet authorities. The years 1934-37 were a period of dynamic change and of a quest for a new language in the composer’s oeuvre. This was not an evolution: the pieces written at that time are very different in style, evidencing a frantic search for new identity in the difficult reality of the time.
Cello Sonata is a very early symptom of the rejection of the futurist intensity of the composer’s early works. This rejection was to lead him to a more moderate style relating directly to the Classic-Romantic heritage that will strongly determine Shostakovich's post-1936 works, above all Symphony No. 5. Yet this return to tradition cannot be interpreted as a conformist’s gesture of denying his earlier ideas: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and especially Mussorgsky and Mahler were always the foundation of the composer’s spiritual universe.
In fact, soon after the completion of Cello Sonata, the composer once again turned to the most radical means in his uncompromising Fourth Symphony – a work that did not have its premiere in those times.
Sonata in D minor was written for Victor Kubatsky, the excellent concertmaster of the cello section of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and the founder of the Stradivarius Quartet, Shostakovich frequent duet partner in that period.
Its expression is determined by the composer’s typical conflict between deep and meditative lyricism, with a multitude of hidden codes and meanings, and piquant grotesque, full of dazzling sound effects.
• Movement One, Allegro non troppo, is a sonata allegro in which both the main theme introduced in the cello and the subsidiary theme initiated by the piano are lyrical in character. Also significant is a short and agitated bass motif in the piano, appearing towards the end of the exposition and dramatising the later course of the work. In the recapitulation, themes come in an inverted order, and the main theme serves as a basis for an almost mystical Largo.
• The concise Movement Two (Allegro) is a frenzied and reckless scherzo, with Jewish motives, so frequent in Shostakovich. The expansive and virtuoso course of musical narration is twice interrupted by a trio with characteristic flageolet passages of the cello.
• Movement Three is a meditative, two-theme Largo, with an expression presaging the first movement of the later Sixth Symphony.
• The "indomitable” Allegro in the finale is a temperamental rondo based on a very Prokofievan theme. Its irony, spiciness and instrumental virtuosity (the spectacular octave perpetuum mobile of the piano) impart on this highly whimsical music its unique colour.
Dmitri Shostakovich decided to write his Cello Concerto strongly impressed by Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra op. 125. He only made good his intent after some time, in the summer of 1959. The premiere took place soon after the completion of the score for his Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major op. 107, on 4 October 1959. Mstislav Rostropovich, the dedicatee of the piece, performed with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Evgeni Mravinsky.
One could say that Rostropovich’s virtuosity and dynamic style are part and parcel of the concerto’s score, bringing together technical brilliance with powerful expression and Shostakovich’s characteristic ability to create music permeated with inner energy and flowing onward with iron consistency. The cello solo exposes the thematic material of the first movement with no orchestral introduction and never eases on its domination, playing almost throughout. It is at first accompanied by the wind section alone; later, the orchestra's accompaniment is also very lucid. A privileged role has been entrusted to the French horn, which at times partners the cello like a solo instrument would. The second movement (Moderato) first develops in a chamber-like aura. After an exposition of the theme by string quintet, the French horn intones a phrase of several bars that will recur after the violently rising gradation achieves the climax in fortissimo as a dramatic cry dwindling into silence. Highly original is the shape of Movement Three, closely connected to its predecessor. This extended solo cello cadenza with typical rhapsodic and improvisational phrases leads straight on to the finale, the unquestioned realm of virtuosic bravado, ideally suited to its rhythmic impetus and its playful themes.
Arnold Schönberg was not only one of the greatest experimenters in novel sound structures; his contribution to deconstructing traditionally-understood means of vocal technique and his resulting exploration of new dramatic potential of the human voice are also not insignificant. The sweeping post-Wagnerian emphasis and melodic beauty known from his early chamber Verklärte Nacht or his symphonic Pelleas and Melisande quickly receded before new and disquieting expressionist means: violent register leaps, broken melodic line, irregular rhythm consciously erasing the bar line and sudden changes in dynamics. Pierrot lunaire of 1912 presented yet another metamorphosis. For maximum directness, the vocal speaks instead of singing (an effect also experimented with at the end of the neo-Wagnerian Gurrelieder). Still, the pitch of intoned notes is precisely defined and the Sprechstimme concept is logical if – as evidenced by later performing practice – vocally ambiguous. Schönberg’s late works go even further in this respect. Quite often, the composer does away with singing and opts for expressive recitation of the lyrics to allow a direct, an almost naturalist access to the word.
A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) is a blend of a cantata and a theatrical monodrama. The spoken part is scored in a very precise rhythm, but the pitch – contrarily to that in Pierrot – is not determined. The composer only marks directions for falling or rising intonation on the single line. The text is a poignant quasi-reportage of a man from the Warsaw ghetto, separated from his loved ones and participating in a roll-call for execution. It climaxes in the executioners' brutal shouts of "Abzählen”, followed by the stirring scene of counting out the future victims. Over this apocalyptic image rises the song of men’s choir, intoning a hymn to Adonai.
The work is held within a framework of strict dodecaphonic construction. A twelve-tone series and its inversion transposed down a fifth is presented at the very beginning; later on, it goes through all possible modifications and transpositions. The symbolic meaning of the technical means employed is discussed by Luigi Rognoni: “In this sound space, in its finite and infinite total chromatics, the prayer Shema Israel is spontaneously born, deriving its form from the very musical material itself, seemingly from the chaos, the abyss, into which humanity descends to discover anew light and hope in God”.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
A Survivor from Warsaw op.46
for Narrator, Men’s Chorus and Orchestra (1947)
I cannot remember ev’rything! I must have been unconscious most of the time...!
I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed!
But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time.
The day began as usual. Reveille when it still was dark. „Get out!” Whether you slept or wether worries kept you awake the whole night. You had been separated from your children, from your wife, from your parents. You don’t know what happened to them... How could you sleep?
The trumpets again. „Get out! The sergeant will be furious!” They came out; some very slowly, the old ones, the sick ones, some with nervous agility. They fear the sergeant. They hurry as much as they can.In vain! Much too much noise, much too much commotion! And not fast enough!
The Feldwebel shouts, „Achtung! Stilljestanden! Na wird’s mal oder soll ich mit dem Jewehrkolben nachhelfen? Na jut; wenn ihr’s durchaus haben wollt!”
The sergeant and his subordinates hit everyone: young or old, strong or sick, guilty or innocent...It was painful to hear them groaning and moaning.
I heard it though I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down. We all on the ground who could not stand up were then beaten over the head...
I must have been unconscious. The next thing I heard was a soldier saying, „They are all dead!” Whereupon the sergeant ordered to do away with us.
There I lay aside half conscious. It had become very still – fear and pain. – Then I heard the sergeant shout, „Abzählen!”
They started slowly, and irregularly: one, two, three, four, „Achtung!” The sergeant shouted again. „Rascher! Nochmal von vorn anfangen! In einer Minute will ich wissen, wie viele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere! Abzählen!”
They began again, first slowly: one, two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing the SCHEMA YISROEL.
Shema Yisroel Adonoy elohenoo Adonoy ehod Veohavto es Adonoy eloheho
behol levoveho oovehol nafsheho oovehol meodeho Vehoyoo haddevoreem
hoelleh asher onohee metsavveho hayyom al levoveho Veshinnantom levoneho
vedibbarto bom beshivteho beveteho oovelehteho baddereh ooveshohbeho
Deuteronomium 6, 4-7
Hear, o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all they might.
And these words which I command thee this day shall be upon thy heart.
Thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children,
speaking of them when thou sittest in thy house
and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down and when thou risest up.
Deuteronomy 6, 4-7