by Ubaldo Valli, Binghamton Philharmonic Program Annotator
In 1598, a group of Florentine noblemen wanted to revive what they thought was the tradition of ancient Greek drama that combined music and theater. They failed. Instead, with the premiere of Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, they invented opera. Soon, opera swept through the Italian peninsula, with hundreds of operas being written for new theaters specifically built for their performance.
As Italy produced some of the most popular music of the day, opera soon swept through Europe. Italian opera was performed in France, Austria, Germany, England… And, as it was literally Italian opera, in Italian. (Perhaps the best example of Italian opera’s dominance was a German composer, Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759), writing operas in Italian for audiences in London.)
Interestingly, the rise of opera paralleled the rise of nationalism in Europe. As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince, “two peoples, preserving in other things the old conditions, and not being unlike in customs, will live quietly together, but when states are acquired in a country differing in language, customs, or laws, there are difficulties.” Unsurprisingly, after importing Italian stuff, countries wanting to preserve “the old conditions, and not being unlike in customs” began to produce their own versions of opera. France, proudly produced tragédie lyriques (ironically established by an Italian import, J. B. Lully (1632-1687)), Germany developed the singspiel (Mozart’s The Magic Flute for one) and England, via Henry Purcell and John Blow, did their best to help English opera take root. (You can thank Handel for helping to nip that in the bud).
The rise of nationalism also paralleled a quest for cultural identity by ethnic groups rebelling against hegemonic dominance that suppressed their language, traditions, and culture. The result: a demand for native languages, local traditions, and cultural autonomy. Poles began to speak Polish, Norwegians began to read Norwegian folktales (collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe), and elaborately embroidered traditional clothing became the rage in Budapest. Unsurprisingly, there was a corresponding increase in demand for operas that were rooted in cultural identities.
So how can an opera reflect a cultural identity? Typically, plots are taken from native sources, such as folk tales, designers' use of local visual motifs, and the like. But perhaps the most important way that an opera reflects a cultural identity is that it is sung in a native tongue. And the music composed using a native tongue reflects the unique forms and accents of those native words. The composer and critic Virgil Thomson made the point for American composers by advocating an American method of “how to project the meaningful syllables…how to distort for passionate statement, to go into and out of patter, to syncopate the line for avoiding methods that fit German or French or Italian, but not English.” Leos Janacek found methods for Czech, George Gershwin and Thomson found (very different) methods for American, and then there was Mikhail Glinka.
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was born in Novospasskoye near the border of what is now Belarus into a wealthy, noble family. A sickly child, he was raised and pampered by his grandmother and uncle before being sent in 1818 to a boarding school in Saint Petersburg that catered to the children of the gentry, graduating in 1822. After graduation, he took an undemanding job in Saint Petersburg as a civil servant that allowed him time to dabble in composition and to mingle in the high society social circles where he became friends with Russian movers and shakers, intellectuals, and writers such as Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Although realized he loved music above all else after hearing at age 10 a clarinet quintet, and, in spite of his violin, piano, and voice lessons, his songs and piano pieces played at those high-class salons were those composed by a dilettante.
It was ill health that led him down a different path. Glinka left the civil service and, in 1830, took his doctor’s advice to spend some time in Italy to regain his health. He settled in Milan where he got to know many of the leading European performers and composers of the time, composers such as Donizetti, Bellini, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn (he seemed to have a knack for meeting important people). And he absorbed their music like a sponge. But Italy and Italian music became a dead end for Glinka when he realized that he needed, as a Russian, to write “in a Russian manner”, so he left Italy in 1833 to join his sister’s family in Berlin. While in Berlin, Glinka took composition lessons with Siegfried Dehn (1799-1858). The lessons were transformative. “He (Dehn)…not only put my knowledge in order, but also my ideas on art in general – and after his teaching I began to work clear-headedly, not gropingly.”
Glinka left Berlin and returned to Russia to be with family after his father’s death in 1834 and found himself back in the intellectual salons he had frequented before going to Italy. There, again hobnobbing with the influential and powerful, he found the opportunities to “clear-headedly” compose “in a Russian manner.” The result: in 1836, A Life for the Tsar, the first opera completely sung in Russian on a Russian subject, received its premiere in St. Petersburg. In his music for A Life for the Tsar, Glinka adapted the conventions of early 19th Century Italian opera to the necessities of telling a Russian story based a Russian text by using Russian folksongs as its basis. It was a great success, with the Tsar and his court attending the first performance.
With one opera under his belt, Glinka approached his friend Pushkin to write a libretto for another based on Pushkin’s mock epic poem Russlan and Ludmila, but Pushkin died in a duel before he could write the libretto. Glinka then turned to a string of writers who contributed bits and pieces to a libretto describing Princess Ludmilla’s kidnapping on her wedding day by an evil wizard and her rescue by her betrothed, Russlan, a Russian knight who must cut off the beard of the wizard, awaken the enchanted Ludmilla with a magic ring, save the city of Kyiv from attack, attack a giant sleeping head, defeat a dwarf and a giant who are brothers...(I am not making this up). What it did not have was a coherent plot, but Glinka did his best and the opera was first performed in December 1842. Unlike Life, it was not a success with the public or critics and its failure caused Glinka to abandon composing opera.
It was a success, however, for Glinka the composer. The fantastical plot allowed him to continue developing a Russian musical idiom based on folk music and the Russian language, and to create innovative techniques to depict the wizard’s spells. And these ideas found their way into the one part of the opera that has found its way into the standard repertoire.
The Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, unencumbered by a bad libretto, allows Glinka’s music to shine. It contrasts a vigorous opening idea inspired by a wedding dinner Glinka attended (“I was up in the balcony, and the clattering of knives, forks and plates made such an impression on me that I had the idea to imitate them in the prelude to Russlan”) with a lyrical melody played by the bassoons, violas and cellos before ending with one of the many innovations that Glinka employed in the opera–the use of a descending whole tone scale. (For those of you who are interested: The western equal temperament scale is divided into whole steps and half steps and a half step typically gives the music a strong sense of direction. Sing do-re-mi…and stop at ti. You can feel the half step between ti and do pulling you up to do. A whole-tone scale has no half steps, so it feels very different, almost unmoored. Music using whole tone scales was rarely heard until 50 years later as in music of Debussy, Janacek, and Puccini).
Glinka’s example in forging a Russian classical music idiom may not have been successful in his lifetime, but it took root in the following generation which acknowledged him as their master. Perhaps Tchaikovsky acknowledged Glinka’s seminal influence on Russian music best, writing “all of an oak tree is in an acorn."
One of music’s great mysteries is the career of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). He composed prolifically, getting to his Op. 116 by 1929. After that, while there was chatter of the Boston Symphony premiering an Eighth Symphony, Sibelius published only a few arrangements of his own music and some scattered songs for the remaining third of his life. No one knows why.
Of course, there are theories. Sibelius was notoriously self-critical (late in his life he was caught burning manuscripts in the kitchen stove) and over the years he ruthlessly pruned his compositional style and music to their essence. Did his relentless attempts to distill his music to the barest essentials leave him with nothing left to write? He lived a long life, born the year of Lincoln’s assassination and dying after the Korean War. Did he feel that he was locked in the past with nothing left to say to the musical world of Stravinsky, jazz, and rock and roll? He was lionized as a Finnish patriot who helped establish a Finnish identity in a country dominated by Russia, receiving an artist’s pension from the government starting in 1898. Was he simply content to live a comfortable life, allowing himself to be celebrated as the grand musical master of Finland? Sadly, Sibelius never provided any answers.
But before Sibelius’ compositional silence, the world waited to hear the latest from Sibelius’ pen. While he composed incidental music, songs, and a smattering of chamber music, his best pieces were a series of symphonic poems (music based on an extra-musical idea, in Sibelius’ case, Finnish culture), and the tone poem’s musical antithesis, seven symphonies (built on internal musical logic). However, there was one great exception–the Violin Concerto Op. 47.
Sibelius started playing violin at the ripe old age of 14 and, for a while, aspired to be a concert violinist (his unsuccessful audition in 1891 to become a member of Vienna Philharmonic audition may have been the final blow to that dream). But he knew his way around the violin and, as “There's still a part of me that desires to become a violinist, and this expresses itself in unusual ways,” he began to write a violin concerto in 1902 at the encouragement of the German violin virtuoso Willy Burmester (1869-1933). Burmester, who was supposed to premiere the concerto, ended up regretting working with Sibelius. After a promising start (Sibelius wrote to his wife that “I’ve got some lovely themes for a violin concerto”), Sibelius spent more time drinking in his favorite Helsinki hangouts than composing. Then, needing cash, Sibelius rescheduled the concerto’s premiere, even though the orchestration was incomplete, for an earlier date that Burmester could not attend. That concert was a failure. Sibelius withdrew the concerto and, unsurprisingly, extensively revised it, intending that Burmester premiere the new version. But, on the advice of his publisher, in 1905 Sibelius gave that first performance to another violinist, Karl Halir (1859-1909). An angry Burmester refused to ever play the concerto.
While Burmester was justifiably aggrieved, he missed out on playing one of the great Romantic violin concertos. Sibelius came of age as a composer just before the magnificent stylistic splintering of concert music at the beginning of the 20th Century, absorbing the later romantic scores of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner and filtering it through his interest in Finnish culture and folk music. The concerto combines Sibelius’ intimate knowledge of violin technique with his mastery of a late Romantic style that he subsequently refined and transformed. But perhaps more impressive was how Sibelius uses those virtuosic violin techniques to combine the atmosphere of his Finnish inspired symphonic poems with the internal musical logic of his symphonies. The wickedly hard violin part, using all the tricks of the trade, sounds as if the soloist is improvising in the moment, while the composition as a whole is both moody and evocative (go online to read all the comparisons to the Finnish landscape) while having an internal, motivic cohesiveness that is often felt rather than heard.
The concerto follows the conventional three movement pattern of fast-slow-fast. After starting with a soft, haunting opening (one of those “lovely ideas”), Sibelius follows the general framework of “sonata form” by writing sections in contrasting keys signaled by different tunes. The tension between these ideas is then exploited, then resolved to provide a sense of closure. But Sibelius uses his own solutions within that framework when he expands on the precedent set by Felix Mendelssohn in his violin concerto, which Sibelius studied as a violin student. Mendelssohn composed a cadenza (an extended, typically improvised, section for solo violin) that he placed at a structural point within the movement, rather than at the end, but Sibelius did Mendelssohn one better. Rather than place the cadenza at the end of the section exploring the tensions set up earlier–the “development section”–as Mendelssohn did, Sibelius composed a cadenza that is the development section, thereby balancing the need for the soloist to strut their stuff with the integrity of the musical structure. The second movement is in three sections (A-B-A). The first section, featuring a songful violin solo, and the third section, with the violin playing arabesques over the orchestra singing the song, bracket the stormy middle section - a sort of musical Oreo cookie. The last movement is a wild ride, filled with a rhythmic drive and virtuoso hotdogging that the writer Donald Tovey described as a “polonaise for polar bears.”
If this all sounds a little too intellectual, not to worry. The soloist’s virtuoso fireworks, backed by a dynamic orchestral accompaniment, provide a visceral experience that you will find hard to forget.
If you ever want to have a musical discussion equivalent to the theological debate of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, bring up the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. You know – three shorts and a long – DA DA DA DUM. The ink spilled, the theories posited, the people shouting “I have the answer!”... These provocations boggle the mind. Just take a look at pages 109-126 of Gunther Schuller’s book The Compleat Conductor in which he essentially condemns just under 90 recordings for getting this opening wrong. (I will lend you my copy.)
Sadly, the same level of controversy has attached itself to music composed by the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Ay, there’s the rub–Shostakovich was a Soviet composer. As he was 11 during the 1917 Russian Revolution, the whole of his career, from his admittance to the Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory in 1919 to his death in 1975, was in Soviet Russia. And Soviet Russia became, to say the least, a problematic place for an artist.
In the early days of the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution, the young Soviet state was home to an artistic vanguard, free from interference from the government as officials focused on more pressing concerns. Innovations in movies (Battleship Potemkin directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), theater (The Moscow Art Theater founded by Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) and the techniques of Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940)), and the Constructivist movement in architecture and art were popular at home and influential abroad. (You can thank the vanguard for the quick cutting style of MTV videos and the acting technique of Marlon Brando). And music was part of that vanguard. Leon Theremin (1896-1993) invented his eponymous electrical musical instrument (which the player does not touch. It is the sound you hear listening to Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys or the soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still). Rimsky Korsakov’s grandson Georgi (1901-1965) founded the Society of Quarter Tone Music, and composers wrote music evoking the sounds of rapid Soviet industrialization as Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973) did in his ballet movement entitled The Iron Foundry Op. 19.
This was the artistic environment of Shostakovich’s early career. And he thrived. His Symphony No. 1, written by the 19-year-old composer as his graduation project, was played throughout the world after its 1926 premiere. He wrote ballets, operas, and lots of scores for plays and movies (Meyerhold hired Shostakovich to play piano for his theater productions).
The artistic freedom of the Soviet Union began to change when Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) became Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin used his position to exile, assassinate, or imprison his rivals to consolidate his power, becoming the undisputed ruler of the Soviet Union by 1929. Lenin had said "Every artist…has the right to create freely according to his ideal... However, we are Communists, and we must not stand with folded hands…We must systematically guide this process and form its result.” After 1929, Stalin unfolded his hands.
Wielding complete power, Stalin transformed the Soviet government and economy (for example, the collectivization of agriculture), and also worked to transform Soviet society itself to reflect Stalin’s vision of the ideological ideals of communism. He was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. Stalin said, “You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves,” and he meant it. In 1936, Stalin began a massive purge of opponents, real and imagined. Millions were arrested and hundreds of thousands died in what became known as the Great Terror.
Artists and intellectuals were not above suspicion. Stalin knew the power of the arts, saying “The writer is the engineer of the human soul,” and set about to define how the arts would support the ideals of communism. In 1934 the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers established guidelines for Socialist Realist art, which required realistic depictions of the everyday life of the proletariat in a way that was both supportive of the Communist Party and accessible to the Soviet citizen. Those not following these guidelines were not just enemies of the political state, but enemies of Stalin’s new Soviet society and could be branded as disloyal “counter-revolutionaries.” Many were. Meyerhold and the writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) were executed and ironically Mosolov, whose music celebrated Soviet industrialization, was arrested and sentenced to prison and internal exile.
Shostakovich soon experienced this new reality. In 1934 his opera Lady Macbeth of the Minsk District, Op. 29 premiered in Leningrad (the Soviet name for Saint Petersburg), followed by multiple productions around the world. At one point there were three simultaneous productions in Moscow alone! In short, the opera was a hit. It was such a hit that in 1936 Stalin attended a performance. Well, part of a performance. He did not like what he saw and especially what he heard (including the most aurally graphic depiction of intimacy since Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) and left before the final curtain. But that final curtain was just the beginning for Shostakovich.
Two days later, the opera and Shostakovich were condemned in an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” published in Pravda, the official paper of the Communist Party. Calling Lady Macbeth “a confused stream of sound”, the article accused Shostakovich of having "ignored the demands of Soviet culture" and that the opera was “a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” Shostakovich feared for his life, sleeping on the staircase outside of his apartment with a packed suitcase so that his family would not see his arrest.
However, unlike many of his friends and family members, Shostakovich was not arrested and executed. Rather, his career came to a dead stop. Commissions, concert opportunities and royalties disappeared, performances of Lady Macbeth were halted, and, fearing that its somber vision would fail to follow the precepts of socialist realism, Shostakovich canceled the premiere of his Symphony No. 4.
Shostakovich knew that, to survive, he needed to compose something that would redeem him in the eyes of the commissars of culture. He could have continued writing scores for approved movies and plays or decided to compose tub thumping panegyrics (as he did in 1949 with Song of the Forests, Op. 81, an oratorio celebrating Stalin’s work in reforesting areas devastated during World War II). Instead, he wrote a symphony.
It was a bold and smart move. The musical authorities would find it difficult to ascribe specific meaning to a purely instrumental work and the prestige of a new symphony would appeal to them. And indeed, the acclamation from both the public and the government for the premiere of the Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 in November 1937 was a triumph for Shostakovich and restored him (for a while) to official approval. Agreeing with a journalist to subtitle the symphony A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Reply To Just Criticism, Shostakovich wrote that “The theme of my Fifth Symphony is the making of a man. I saw a man with all his experiences in the center of the composition, which is lyrical in form from beginning to end. In the finale the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and joy of living.” Talk about support for the communist ideal of the triumph of dialectical materialism!
The music Shostakovich wrote was seemingly clear and direct, more rooted in traditional harmony than Lady Macbeth, and with obvious links to Tchaikovsky and to the Communist Party’s favorite bourgeois composer–Beethoven. Written in four movements, the symphony morphs from an opening anguished d minor to a bright D Major ending, a la Beethoven Symphony No. 5. The first movement has a musical structure (sonata form) favored by Beethoven and uses repeated recontextualized small melodic ideas to hold it together, another Beethovian technique. The second movement, a sardonic scherzo, cribs Beethoven’s device of having the return of earlier loud music played softly by plucked strings, while the wrenching, plangent third movement (which omits the brass) echoes Tchaikovsky’s echoes of Russian Orthodox choral church music. The last movement, a march that initially gets faster and faster, transforms, after the collapse of the march, into a final apotheosis in D Major.
Everyone walked away happy–for a time. The “proletarian” audience embraced the symphony, the Communist Party celebrated one of its leading composers finding his way to create music that supported the Party and the State, and Shostakovich found a way to compose that informed his later compositions (and that allowed him to find official favor with all the benefits that entailed). But, after the cultural thaw that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, rumors began to circulate that this model Soviet composer and citizen had encrypted musical protests in his compositions, including his Symphony No. 5. Those gloves came off with the publication in 1979 of Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich which presented Shostakovich as a hostage of a state and ideology he hated and as a man who did indeed hid protests in the music that the Soviet Union celebrated. More gloves came off in 1980 when the musicologist Laurel Fay published her article “Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?” that raised serious questions about the authenticity of Testimony.
Thus began the Shostakovich Wars. The true character of Shostakovich and his music was fervently, sometimes violently debated in books, articles, and editorials filled with accusations and counter-accusations. Family and friends of Shostakovich vouched for the essence of Testimony while sometimes questioning its truthfulness. (Shostakovich’s son Maxim said, “I would still say it’s a book about my father, not by him.”) Even the opening of Soviet archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, which added piles of information, provided no definitive answers. The debate still rages today.
You might ask “So what? What difference does it make?” If the essential character and meaning of Shostakovich’s music is unclear, the choices a musician makes with Shostakovich’s music will be as different in effect and as hotly debated as those for the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The prime example is the final section (coda) at the end of the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Was Shostakovich really “a committed Communist who…considered his music an expression of the Russian people, in line with the doctrines espoused by the Central Committee of the U.S.S.R.”? If so, the arrival of music in D Major in the coda should be played with a sense of arrival and triumph. Leonard Bernstein did exactly that, conducting it twice as fast as Shostakovich indicated. Click here.
Or was “Shostakovich’s music…a semantic minefield, laced with irony and punctuated with hollow triumphs trotted out to keep Stalin at bay”? If so, the arrival of the coda should be played with heaviness, fatality, and a sense as being as “false as a Potemkin village.” Shostakovich’s colleague and friend, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich did exactly that, conducting at the much slower tempo as indicated in the score. Click here.
Which should it be? The answer as to what the true character of Shostakovich and his music is will probably never be resolved, but his music will still be heard. So, the next time you hear something by Shostakovich, rather than asking “So what? What difference does it make?”, you might ask “Does this speak to me? If it does, why does it?” Your answer will allow you to enjoy and appreciate Shostakovich’s music better than any salvo from the Shostakovich Wars.
© 2023 Ubaldo Valli