By Julia Grella O’Connell, D.M.A., Director of Education and Community Engagement
Tonight’s concert takes us on a journey through time and space in reverse chronology. The first piece on the program, Wang Jie’s Five Faces of Joy, was composed fully 200 years after the last piece, Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Wang lives and writes in twenty-first century America; Beethoven worked in Vienna, the cultural capital of nineteenth-century Europe. And to the side and yet somehow at the center of this time-space continuum is Prokofiev’s Russia, long a cultural bridge between East and West.
Across space and time, Wang, Prokofiev, and Beethoven each challenge our assumptions about classical music as a staid emblem of the status quo. Each of tonight’s composers wants us to hear his or her music instead as a force for belonging and community, and ultimately as a pathway to freedom.
Wang Jie has written about “the feeling of belonging” she experiences when she hears her music performed: “I [don’t] write . . . for myself. I want classical music audiences to feel . . . that sense of kinship, [of] feeling at home with my music . . . [and] its truthfulness.” Truthfulness for Wang is the recognition that “there is no creation without a tradition and a community that supports it,” and that even “the composers who are no longer with us continue to mentor [us] . . . I hear their voices welcoming me: ‘You are one of us.’”
Indeed, Wang — a woman and an immigrant, born in 1980 in Shanghai — is one of them. She grew up in a country just emerging from the Cultural Revolution, when classical music was banned as “the bourgeois music of the exploiting classes.” Her father was also a composer, employed by the Chinese government to produce patriotic choral works for propaganda purposes. At night, however, he shared with his young daughter what he called “sacred time with pure music,” teaching her to transcend time and space by copying out the scores of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Debussy. Wang calls Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 a “companion piece” to her Five Faces of Joy. The symphony was deeply important to her as a child, and to this day she says, “it always makes me think of joy.”
Prokofiev wrote his joyful “Classical” Symphony in 1917 during a period of world-historical upheaval. The February Revolution that year had deposed Tsar Nicholas II and established a temporary Provisional Government in Russia; by October, the Bolshevik Revolution would sweep that government away, execute the Tsar, and lay the foundations for the Soviet Union. During the summer between these two revolutions, Prokofiev retreated to a house in the countryside and began to experiment with the musical techniques of an earlier age, explaining that he wanted to write a symphony “in the style of Haydn.” But he slyly interjects the sounds of modernism into his “Classical” symphony, infusing the old style with unlikely key modulations and aggressive speed. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 elevates classical formalism during a time of modern chaos, drawing an artistic boundary within which both composer and listener can play with musical and historical time.
The style of Haydn, however, is also the style of Beethoven, classicism’s greatest exemplar. When Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in 1809, the formal aesthetic of his former teacher Haydn was beginning to give way to a heightened emotional sensibility in his work, a privileging of the life of the inner man over the fading Enlightenment values of order and restraint. In this concerto, Beethoven grapples with ways he can bend music to convey extra-musical meaning, making it expressive of the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit.
During his compositional process, Vienna was under siege from Napoleon’s army. Beethoven wrote to his publisher that all around was "nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts." It’s unclear why the concerto was nicknamed “The Emperor,” a title that Beethoven would surely have scorned considering his disdain (after his earlier hero-worship) for the Emperor Napoleon. While he employs the bold, militaristic themes common to his heroic period, in the “Emperor” he integrates the piano in a new way, blending the soloist and the ensemble into a seamless whole, with the piano offering a deeply touching lyricism against the striding, ballistic rhythms of the orchestra. The piano takes Beethoven’s aggressive themes and transforms them — ruminating on them, dreaming over them, and fashioning a rhapsodic, quasi-improvisatory meditation on the depths of resignation and hope. Beethoven breathes life into the orchestra with his solo piano writing in the Concerto No. 5, animating his formal articulation of rhythm with a profoundly humane vision of the capacity for longing and joy.
Thus, when Wang Jie asserts that “there is no creation without a tradition and a community that supports it,” she is declaring her place in the living, breathing fellowship of classical music and its practitioners, from Beethoven to Prokofiev and beyond. And we, as listeners, are a crucial part of this fellowship: when we bear witness to this great music, we acknowledge the freedom of the human spirit unencumbered by boundaries of any kind. From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the totalizing reach of Soviet culture to the deprivations of war-torn Vienna, Wang, Prokofiev, and Beethoven assure us that true freedom exists apart from, and counts more than, any transitory liberties that history may grant or revoke. As you listen tonight, you are taking your place in that invisible community created by music, one that transcends time and space and has the ability to convey joy on all who hear.
© 2023 Julia Grella O'Connell