Mid-century Yin and Yang: The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra plays Britten and Shostakovich

Shostakovich and Britten.
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Shostakovich and Britten.
Shostakovich and Britten.

Concert at Ozawa Hall, Monday July 16, 2013 Britten, Pas de Six from the ballet “Prince of the Pagodas,” op. 57a, conducted by Ciarán McAuley; Britten, “Les Illuminations,” to poems by Arthur Rimbaud, op. 18, sung by Laura Strickling, soprano and conducted by Alexandre Bloch; Shostakovich, Symphony no. 11 in G minor, op. 103, “The Year 1905,” conducted by Stefan Asbury Pairing Britten (b. 1913) with Shostakovich (b. 1906) makes for good programming with lots of parallels and contrasts. Both composers were ‘conservatives’ who, by the 1950’s, stood alone at the pinnacle of the musical life of their respective countries. Both wrote accessible tonal music for most of their careers but had fruitful late-life ventures with dodecaphonic techniques (and for Britten, aleatoric ones as well). They could both be very dour and serious or light-hearted and entertaining (usually with a dose of irony). They both drew powerful stylistic inspiration from their own language and literature. And both led marginalized existences within their own cultures, Britten owing to pacifism and homosexuality, Shostakovich owing to a precarious position vis-à-vis official Soviet cultural demands, resulting in a kind of double gamesmanship in which his music appeared to satisfy official requirements superficially while remaining ambiguous regarding its added possible ‘meaning’ as protest. Britten risked much when he included the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen in his “War Requiem” since at the time of its premier, 1961, such a position was rarely taken in public. This was all to change with the Vietnam War, but that lay years ahead. Shostakovich seems to have protected himself by portraying historical events that would be politically approved, such as “The Year 1905” for the Eleventh Symphony which purports to depict the massacre of peaceful protestors by the military at the Tsar’s Winter Palace of that year.1 There is a clear possibility, however, that he was also inspired by more contemporary parallel events such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in which Soviet Russia played the role of the oppressor (cf. note 3). Appreciation of this layer of meaning also lay years ahead, especially in his mother country. In view of these parallels, the musical contrasts on display in the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s program were all the more striking. The Shostakovich symphony, which lasts close to an hour, was the featured work; it received a smashing (literally) performance by the 2013 version of the TMC Orchestra under the energetic leadership of Stefan Asbury and it gave the brass and percussion sections lots of opportunity to display their fire-power. But for me, the artistic core of the program was Britten’s extraordinary song-cycle “Les Illuminations” for voice and strings composed in 1939 when the composer was twenty-six. The French poetic text is by the proto-hippie French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. The work, scored for string orchestra and voice, lasts just over twenty minutes. Although composed for Britten’s companion, the tenor Peter Pears, this performance featured soprano soloist Laura Strickling, whose vibrant, powerful delivery soared easily over the accompaniment when necessary, or blended with it beautifully; I can’t imagine that any tenor could improve on the result. The strings of the TMCO were up to every challenge and performed vividly and luminously.

Arthur Rimbaud.
Arthur Rimbaud.

The composer fashioned the work from nine prose poems drawn from the forty-two that Rimbaud wrote under the title “Illuminations” ca. 1874 (they were only published in 1886). Musically the work is a single, integral form rather than a series of separate songs. The text offers a visionary, ecstatic set of images (illuminations) created while the poet lived in England; it fuses the energies of the urban landscape with mythological and primal energies. It is framed by the motto “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade, de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone have the key to this … savage parade”). The imagery would not be out of place in descriptions of events of almost a century later: “Eyes drugged like a summer night, red and black, tricolor, steel dotted with gold starts; features deformed, livid, blemished, burnt; wanton huskiness!”2 Britten’s musical response is to create a whirling, dizzying sound-scape through very resourceful and colorful use of the string orchestra. The lengthy text whizzes by at lightning speed, challenging the articulational skills of the soloist but creating a hallucinatory dream-scape. Each section offers a characteristic texture to embody the mood shifts. The orchestra layout had the two violin sections on opposite sides of the stage, which proved essential for both the Britten and Shostakovich. The opening fanfare is bi-tonal, with first and second violins overlapping bugle calls in E and B-flat, contradictory keys that recur throughout, maintaining the tension of the fluid tonal framework. A hallucinatory vision of the “Towns” (“Villes”) was then evoked by a solo violin accompanied by quiet harmonic glissandi. Britten brilliantly captures the accelerating accumulation of images with fleet rhythms, agile melodic materials, and light textures. In the poetic references to ancient mythology (“Antique”) the solo violin weaves an arabesque over lightly strummed chords as the pristine image of the god undergoes an historical transformation. “Royalty” begins in good ironic humor and ends with a witty put-down; Britten often chooses to underscore the light-hearted (or light-footed) possibilities of the text, and his style often, especially here, seems an extension of Stravinsky’s “white-note” music, particularly that composer’s ballet “Apollon Musagète.” The emotional center of gravity occurs toward the end, in the settings of “Being Beauteous” and “Parade,” the former developing a quasi-religious mood with radiant use of divided strings, albeit with increasingly dark under-currents of quiet ostinato, the latter building a riotous march reminiscent of Charles Ives’s great song “General Booth Enters Heaven.” The envoi of “Departure” floats lyrically to a hauntingly quiet conclusion. As with the composer’s “Serenade for tenor, horn and strings” but in a completely different way, “Les Illuminations” proved revelatory in its original approach to the song-cycle genre. It displays the composer enjoying his effortless creativity, inspired by a prodigality of images. The extreme darkness of the contemporaneous “Sinfonia da Requiem” (not to speak of so much of his later music) is nowhere to be found here. These are genuinely light-filled illuminations and tributes to the transformative magic of poetry and music. The performance, led by the talented conducting fellow Alexandre Bloch seemed to do it full justice. Also on the program was a section from Britten’s only ballet; it was a light-hearted program-starter, skilfully composed and performed, but completely eclipsed by all that followed. Where Britten is light, condensed, and ecstatic, Shostakovich is deep, dark, and extended to vast lengths. Earlier this year I heard the Bard Conservatory Orchestra (another highly skilled orchestra of very talented pre-professionals) perform the composer’s Tenth Symphony composed four years prior to this one. Although four minutes shorter than the Eleventh, the Tenth seems to contain at least twice as much music and to go by much more quickly. The Eleventh takes up great swaths of time with relatively sparse or simple musical actions, most of which inhabit the extremes of either quiet, brooding stasis (punctuated with fragments of melody) or violent outbursts portraying the depredations of the troops firing upon the demonstrators in the 1905 Winter Palace massacre, moments which occur almost without variation over and over, prolonging an experience of agony which is meant to be and is a painful experience.3 Another time-filling strategy is the use of ostinati (repetitions of melodic phrases either literal or varied), a technique best-known from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (“The Leningrad”, 1941), which has provoked much critical controversy both as to its artistic value and its political meaning. While its appearance here never quite descends to the level of pure tediousness (less patient listeners might disagree) it lacks the coloristic and dynamic development of its better-known predecessor. It gains its force through sheer staying power. Similarly, the outbursts of violence in the second movement (“The Ninth of January”) have their avatars in the Eighth Symphony; in both symphonies Shostakovich has the distinction of achieving very high decibel levels; on Monday night, the music offered challenges to the acoustic capacity of Ozawa Hall which definitely seemed to be stressed by it. The third movement begins with a classic funeral march for low brasses, so classic as to seem to have been lifted from Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, or a New Orleans funeral procession. (It was a pleasure to hear the beautiful timbres of the low brass and winds of this orchestra.) This is followed by a lengthy winding melody (a Shostakovich specialty) for the second violins—a rare opportunity for that section to display its tonal sheen and expressive flexibility. The fourth movement (“Tocsin” or “Alarm Bell”) proceeds without pause or warning; in fact, the onset is so sudden as to cause a few audience members to jump in their seats, or at least so I imagined. The lapidary construction of the music, emphasizing such unmediated contrasts, is characteristic of this symphony; it relies on visceral shock value to mark its structural sign-posts and turning-points. The last movement is once again emotionally monolithic, with a long string passage initiated by a loud theme on double-basses performed with almost all down-bows (in other words, with maximum emphasis); this is eventually taken up by the higher strings, and while the passage goes on at length, it does not attain the absolute frenzy of an analogous moment in the first movement of the composer’s Fourth Symphony (1936) in which a perpetual motion theme on strings (all in 16th-notes at dizzying speed) is developed into a fugue that lasts over a minute-and-a-half (an eternity at that speed and intensity). The passage is once again very effective in illustrating the steadfast determination of the people of take their destiny into their own hands, and the revolutionary songs quoted in movement are “Rage, Tyrants” and “Whirlwind of Danger.” The empty stillness of the opening movement is recalled and the symphony ends with the climactic noises of struggle, giving the youthful percussionists in the orchestra a satisfying exercise of whatever primal aggressive tendencies led them to choose their instruments in the first place. Despite its longeurs, the symphony gave unequivocal testimony to the energy, commitment, talent, and work-ethic of this remarkable orchestra which has only been playing together for a few weeks. The Shostakovich offers the kind of special experience you may want to have once or twice. The Britten song-cycle ought to repay many listenings in which the sparkling festival of musical and poetic images can be repeatedly savored. Its performance was a wonderful way to celebrate the composer’s centenary.

For its political correctness, the work was awarded the Lenin Prize of 1958. 2 “Des yeux hébétés la façon de la nuit d’été, rouges et noirs, tricolorés, d’acier piqué d’étoiles d’or; des facies déformés, plombés, blemish, incendiés; des enrouements folâtres!” 3 Gerald McBurney has written, in program notes for the Chicago Symphony, “But when we hear and listen—“Listen!”—to its not so hidden words (and almost every bar suggests words), then we quickly see that what the composer is talking about has many more layers of meaning than we first suspected. This is a symphony not about one event, but many events, and about how any one of us approaches those events in the darkness of our conscience.” Yet another subtext suggested by Yevgeny Chukovsky, Shostakovich’s son-in-law, is that the work is a requiem for the composer’s generation which endured two world wars, a revolution, and Stalin’s purges. According to this narrative, the original title was “1906,” the year of the composer’s birth, rather than “1905.”

About Laurence Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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