Program Notes: Concert 6

A World Between Wars

Last Summer we performed a program of Great Russian Masters. This opened the door for a deeper inquiry which led to our Spring pre-Season concert event; Tyranny & Hope: Russia’s Lost Voices of the Future-a program of music by Russian composers who were either censured or silenced by the Stalinists and the German Siege of Leningrad.

Tonight’s program is in many ways a continuation of this journey into this lesser known or forgotten musical past. It features two works by Shostakovich composed before the siege. We also hear a work from a Czech composer and a Spanish composer who had dramatically different lives and experiences in those war years.

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg. When he entered the conservatory there in 1919, his home had been renamed Petrograd. When he graduated from the conservatory in 1926, he found his city now called Leningrad. The turmoil of the time is unimaginable. There was the Russian Revolution of 1905, the February Revolution of 1917 during which Lenin assumed power, the Russian Civil War of 1918, the Polish-Soviet War of 1919, the invasion of Georgia in 1921, Stalin’s rise to power upon Lenin’s death in 1924, the industrialization of the Soviet economy in 1928, the establishment of the GULAGS in 1930, the Great Purge of “anti-Soviet elements” of 1937, all leading up to the German occupation and Siege of Leningrad starting in 1941.

Shostakovich first received widespread critical acclaim as a composer when his First Symphony, his conservatory graduation piece, was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1926. He entered and won an honorable mention at the first International Chopin Piano Competition in 1927. Soon after, he met Bruno Walter who was so taken with his First Symphony that he performed it with the Berlin Philharmonic. A year later Leopold Stokowski conducted the American premier with the Philadelphia Orchestra. From then on Shostakovich put his energy into composing, limiting his piano performances to playing his own works

His most successful piece of the 1930’s was his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The piece was premiered in 1934 and was a huge success until it was officially denounced by Stalin in 1936. It was not performed again until Shostakovich revised and renamed it in 1962.

The 4 Preludes for violin and piano which begin this program are from a set of 24 Preludes written for the solo piano in 1932 and 1933. Shostakovich modeled his preludes on those of Frederic Chopin. These short, tightly structured works cycle though all the chromatic major and minor keys in the same order Chopin had followed.

Shostakovich’s friend, first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, Dmitri Tsyganov, asked for and was granted permission to transcribe the pieces for violin and piano. Shostakovich was delighted with the result and said, “When I hear the transcriptions, I forget that I actually composed the Preludes for piano. They sound so violinistic.”

The Piano Quintet, opus 57 that ends the program was composed in the summer of 1940. Shostakovich performed the premier with the members of the Beethoven Quartet. The public and the critics were thrilled with this music. Shostakovich was awarded the Stalin Prize for the piece. The cash prize of 100,000 rubles was the largest sum ever given for a musical work.

The piece is in five movements. The outer pairs are played without pause making the overall effect that of three large sections. Throughout the piece, the five instrumental voices are divided and grouped in varying numbers. The full effect of the entire ensemble is reserved for moments of great intensity making the impact all the more powerful. The piano writing is lean, the instrument often contributing single line melodies in lieu of dense chords. The tempo indications are slow throughout the piece. The result is that the central Scherzo (marked a conservative allegretto) seems wild by comparison. The final movement emerges from the stillness of the Intermezzo. In the course of the movement, the opening material of the piece gets reintroduced as does a recognizable Russian folk tune commonly played at circuses. The piece sweetly trails off into the distance.

Erwin Shulhoff was born in Prague in 1894. Antonin Dvorak recommended him for admission to the Prague Conservatory when he was just ten years old. He subsequently attended the Leipzig Conservatory and then the Cologne Conservatory, graduating in 1914 with degrees in piano and composition. He was a considerable talent and won two Mendelssohn prizes, one for piano in 1914 and one for composition in 1918.

In 1919, disillusioned after four years of service in the Austrian army, Shulhoff joined the Communist party and moved to Dresden where he established a series of “Progressive Concerts“ to promote composers of the Second Viennese School. He then moved on to Berlin where he immersed himself in the Dadaist movement and discovered American Jazz. He became a great jazz pianist and used the musical idiom in his concert works.

By 1923 Shulhoff was back in Prague and, for the next several years, saw success as a performer and composer throughout Europe. In 1929 he got a teaching position at the Prague Conservatory and worked as a pianist for the Czech radio between 1935-38. When the German’s invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, he could no longer legally work. He attained Soviet citizenship and travel visas to Russia for himself and his family in 1941 but was arrested and imprisoned before they could get out. He was working on his Seventh and Eighth symphonies there when he died of tuberculosis in prison in August 1942.

The Hot-Sonate of 1930 is thoroughly rooted in jazz idioms yet was never intended to be taken as specific jazz styles or dances. The movements are all constructed using normal classical practices such as clear melodic themes, development, and melodic recapitulation. It was premiered in 1930 over Berlin Radio by soloist Billy Barton and the touring house band from London’s Savoy Hotel. It was published later that year for alto saxophone and piano.

Rather than the traditional Italian terms for tempo which would normally preface each movement, Schulhoff indicates a metronome speed for the pulse. The first movement has the feel of a jazz stride, the second unfolds like a free improvisation, the third has a sultry blues feel, and the last swings hard before closing with a snippet of the opening stride melody.

Gaspar Cassado was born in Barcelona and got his first training from his father, Joaquin, a composer and organist. At age seven he started cello lessons and gave his first public recital at age nine. Pablo Casals heard that concert and offered to teach the obviously talented boy. The family moved to Paris in 1910 to make this happen. Cassado also began composition lessons with Ravel and Manuel de Falla then. When WWI began he moved back to Spain where he spent the war years developing his compositional skills with his father’s guidance.

After the war Cassado returned to Paris and began steadily building an international performing career. He toured everywhere including the US where he received rave notices like this statement in the New York Times from January 1937:

“One searches in vain to recollect another cellist possessing the fecund imagination, the tonal resourcefulness, and the infinite variety of effects made known by Mr. Cassado.”

He continued to perform and tour throughout WWII. In 1949 the cello pedagogue Diran Alexanian wrote a letter to the New York Times protesting Cassado’s positive acceptance by the American public claiming that he had performed in the Axis countries during the war and was therefore a collaborator. The actual truth of the situation has never been fully examined, and many of the claims were untrue. Public reaction was swift and Cassado’s career effectively shattered.

The Piano Trio in C Major was composed 1926 and revised in 1929. The pianist at the premier was Giuletta von Mendelssohn-Gordigiani. She was a frequent collaborator and responsible for expanding the young cellist’s career into Italy, a country he so loved that he took up permanent residence in Florence in 1934. The piece beautifully evokes the national music of his native Spain in a straightforward yet highly expressive voice. The writing is virtuosic and fully exploits the color possibilities of each instrument. The first movement is both highly dramatic and soulful. The second movement, marked to be played heavily and at a moderate tempo, uses the Flamenco scale (modern phrygian mode), recognizable Spanish folk melodic elements, and guitar-like strumming effects. After a brief recitative, the music transitions to the final rondo with a dance theme in the violin. The piece wanders further afield between repetitions of the main subject than either Telemann or Mozart might have done but is in every way a solid classically structured Rondo.

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