Tonight, Monday 23rd April, is a member’s evening. Starts at 7:30 as usual and details of how to find us are on the front page.
Tag Archives: music
Notice of the June meeting on 4th
The June meeting will be a little different from normal and will be in the form of a concert of three works;
- Bellini – “ Norma” Sinfonia/Overture – Vittorio Gui conducting the Orchestra EIAR, Turin, 1937 -Historic recording
- Elgar Cello Concerto, Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting The New Symphony Orchestra, London, 1928 – Historic recording
- Beethoven Symphony No 7 Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, New York, 1969 – Historic recording.
Normal place and normal time with easy parking. If you don’t know where we are go to the ‘Find us’ tab on the home page where there is a map and a postcode. Only £3 for non-members
Shostakovich: his life and music
It was strange standing here in Salisbury giving a talk on Shostakovich – a man who was persecuted by the then Soviet regime – when a few hundred yards away from where the talk was given the terrible events took place allegedly perpetrated by the modern Russian state.
It is difficult to understand this man without the context of the times he lived through. His life parallels the recent history of Russia. He was born in 1906 a year after the failed 1905 revolution into a period of considerable unrest. Prior to the final revolution there were several unsuccessful ones. Much of his life was lived in constant fear.
Most people are aware of the symphony he wrote and the subtitle ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ which was actually written by a journalist and was never accepted by Shostakovich himself. It seems also to imply that there was a single event and once he had written this subsequent symphony, everything was subsequently normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a constant thorn in the side of the party apparatchiks. He was too famous to liquidate as there would be an international outcry. Nevertheless, the party could make life extremely difficult for him and made it difficult also for people to be friends with him. Few composers have been so central to the history of his time. He experienced war, revolution, anti-Semitism, dictatorship and terror.
His family came from Siberia and Poland. His father worked in Weights and Measures and there is a link to Mendeleyev the discoverer of the periodic table. He started learning the piano in 1915 and entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1919. Teaching at the Conservatoire was unimaginative and there were no compositional classes. Glazunov was a key supporter at this time. Life was a constant struggle and they were frequently in debt. His father died when he was young.
He lived through the Revolution which started in St Petersburg which subsequently became Leningrad. Central to the story is the status of Leningrad which became the second city after Moscow and a window on the west. This was both a problem and an opportunity for artists. Leningrad was looked upon as ‘elitist’.
His First Symphony a graduate piece which showed considerable flair and promise. Strongly influenced by the work of Hindemith and was a kind of anti-symphony. The symphony was dedicated to a friend Misha Kvardri. Two years later, he was arrested and shot. This is a reminder of the terrible times Shostakovich lived in: friends, acquaintances, supporters, even family members, disappear in the night and ended up in the gulag or are executed. This got worse after the rise of Stalin in 1924 when anti-bourgeois policies, class warfare and actions against the kulaks were launched with terrible consequences for millions of Russians.
To make money he played in cinemas which he did from 1923 until 1926. He also composed for the cinema. Extracts from films and the following extracts were played:
• Five film extracts. – The Counterplan
o Sofia Perofskaya
Altogether wrote for 15 films. He wrote music in the jazz idiom although the idiom was hard to see except for the use of the saxophone.
• Extract from Jazz Suite #2 composed in 1936
He started playing the piano in performance in 1923.
In 1925 the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians RAPM founded in Moscow. The central message was that ‘music should have a social message and be accessible to the wider masses.’ They harassed intellectuals and wreaked havoc in higher institutions. Shostakovich was sacked from a college post. Many intellectuals and teachers were deprived of their livelihoods and denounced.
He composed the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (shortened in the west to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) from a libretto by Nikolai Leskov. It was performed in January 1936 and the audience included Stalin, Molotov and Mikoyan. They leave after 2nd act and this heralds a dramatic reversal of his fortunes. The opera is a success around the world however. An article in the next day’s Pravda called it ‘muddle instead of music’. His composition ‘insulted the audience with noise, cacophony, hammering, and screaming.’
Shostakovich said the article ‘changed my entire existence for ever. It was unsigned and so represented the opinion of the party – or actually Stalin’s opinion and that was considerably more serious.’
Friends and colleagues distance themselves from him. The Leningrad Composers Union voted in favour of the Pravda article. At the meeting where this is decided only one person spoke in favour of Shostakovich. He was subsequently persecuted, his music was no longer performed and he was deprived of his livelihood.
In 1936 he composes his 4th Symphony which was withdrawn at the last minute. He receives a visit from Otto Klemperer and Shostakovich plays the symphony to him on the piano and Klemperer was very impressed. He suggests reducing the number of flutes but Shostakovich refuses. ‘What is written by the pen cannot be scratched out with an axe’ he said. That might sound better in the original Russian. Shostakovich almost never agrees to alter a score nor corrections nor alterations in the harmony or in the orchestration. But his metronome markings are often completely wrong. After one conductor said the speeds marked for a piece were impossible to play and Shostakovich agrees to change them and explains that he has an ‘old and unreliable metronome but he just did not want to throw it out.’
1936 sees the start of the great purges, millions disappear or are shot. Shostakovich was advised by Tukhachevsky to ‘admit his errors’. He is himself shot a year later. Shostakovich’s position becomes very precarious and many friends, colleagues and relatives disappear.
Meeting the NKVD
On a Saturday in 1937 summoned to meet the NKVD. After general conversation, and questions about his social life, he was asked about plot to assassinate Stalin. Shostakovich said there were no discussions about assassinating comrade Stalin. He was pressed on this and each time he denied that any such conversations took place. He was asked to return on the following Monday by which time he was to have remembered discussion about the plot. After a difficult weekend, Shostakovich returns to the NKVD headquarters and gives his name to the guards on the door. They refuse him entry saying they have no record of his name on their list. After some discussion and finding out who his interrogator was, it turns out that the interrogator himself has been arrested and Shostakovich was free to go.
He composes 5th Symphony which a journalist describes as ‘a Soviet artists reply to just criticism.’ WWII and Leningrad surrounded by the Nazis. It is the start of terrible privations.
His poor eyesight means he cannot serve in the armed forces but acts as a fire warden. Shostakovich was flown out of the city in October.
He writes Symphony #8 but this is not well received because it is not ‘optimistic’ enough. By the time it was ready for performance, the tide of war against Germany had changed and the official reception was ‘icy’.
In general, the communist party had two main problems with him. Firstly his courage which made him difficult to control and secondly, his unpredictability. This was set against his international prestige which made him useful to the regime. Shostakovich felt constantly under threat and always travelled with toothbrush and toothpaste in the expectation of arrest.
Post-war and the nature of the purges changed. Intelligentsia was targeted and there were attacks on what was termed ‘formalism’. Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev suffered during this period and he was forced to write music for propaganda films.
The Zhdanov Decree, Zhdanovschina (sometimes called ‘Zhdanov’s purge’) started in 1948-9. Many suffered and lost their livelihoods. Public humiliations of artists was frequent. All composers were summonsed to a conference where he encouraged mediocrities to turn against the more successful composers such as Shostakovich, Shebalin and Khachaturian. They had to sit and listen to slanders against them. The only people who wanted to listen to his music were ‘foreign bandits and imperialists’ it was claimed.
The audience heard the famous story in Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn about clapping and no one able to stop clapping after a Stalin speech. Also told was the phone call Shostakovich receives from Stalin as told by Julian Barnes. Composes 1st Violin Concerto possibly in 1951. Not performed until 1955. Criticised by the party for its ‘gloomy, introverted psychological outlook.’
• Extract from Violin Concerto
The evening ended with the second movement of the tenth Symphony.
Tonight’s presentation will be on the music of the great Russian Composer, Shostakovich. 7:30 as usual.
This was the title of the last presentation to the Society by Jon Hampton and it featured music based on these Greek elements. Before all, there was chaos and we started with an excerpt from Haydn’s Creation which for its time, was harmonically daring. Next were some songs by Finzi and then an unlikely titled piece by Martinu – Thunderbolt P47 a near relative of which is shown here at the Chalke Valley History Festival. This was followed by Bantock’s Sea Reivers. Bantock is not often heard now but he was influential in the founding of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and both Elgar and Sibelius dedicated pieces to him.
Poulenc’s Un Soir de neige followed and then the lively Ritual fire Dance by Manuel de Falla – a piece where the ending never quite seems to come. More Haydn – this time a movement entitled Earthquake from the Last seven Words of our Saviour on the Cross.
Possibly the loudest work in the classical repertoire is the Icelandic composer Leif’s Heklar. This is a musical depiction of the eruption of a volcano by this name which Leif witnessed. Leif studied in Germany and was responsible for organizing the first orchestral concerts in his home country.
The Russian composer Lyadov is not often heard nowadays. He taught at St Petersburg and one of his pupils was Prokofiev. We heard his The Enchanted Lake.
Bruckner’s Abendzauber followed which was composed in 1878 and not performed in his lifetime. It was a popular piece in Austria after the First World War but is seldom heard now. We then heard Messiaen’s Fetes and a piece by Klami just called BF3. Weber’s Ocean thy Mighty Monster was followed by Frank Bridge’s Seafoam. The evening concluded with Britten’s Storm from Peter Grimes.
This was an entertaining evening with the chance to hear some unfamiliar pieces around the central theme. The audience were grateful for the time Jon Hampton put into selecting the works and compiling the programme.
Next meeting on Monday 19 March and will feature the Russian composer Shostakovich. There will be a few slides of Leningrad taken when the composer was still living there.
The next meeting of Salisbury Recorded Music Society will be held tonight, Monday 5th March 2018 at 7.30pm in the usual venue when Jon Hampton will present: “Earth, Air, Fire and Water – An exploration of how the elements have inspired composers from Haydn to Mahler and beyond.”
Hope to see you there. Free parking and £3 to non-members
Chair of the VW Society gives presentation
Simon Coombs, the Chair of the Vaughan Williams Society, gave an extremely interesting and informative talk on the music of Vaughan Williams to a packed room at the last Society meeting on Monday. Regarded as one of Britain’s great composers, he produced a wide range of music, including songs, symphonies, choral works, chamber music and works with a religious theme. He was what one might call a ‘late developer’ not finding his voice until his ’30s (reminiscent of Bruckner).
Simon took us through his history starting with his childhood in Down Ampney and his later life in Dorking (Surrey) and Chelsea. He showed promise at school, composing a short piece called ‘The Robin’ aged 6. Later he went on to study under Parry and Max Bruch. He spent time in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel who said of him ‘he was the only one of my students who doesn’t try to write my music’.
He was keenly interested in folk music and started to collect these in 1903. He was not the first composer to be
influenced by the folk song tradition (one thinks of Bartok) and much of his early work was founded on this tradition. He was friendly with George Butterworth who shared his passion for English folk songs and who offered advice to VW in his early days including suggesting that he write a symphony. It is a surprising fact but there are no performed symphonies by a British composer before VW and Elgar. The suggestion by Butterworth is therefore something of a revolutionary suggestion. Butterworth died tragically young in the Great War. VW was keen to contribute to the war and served as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer. Like many who served in the trenches, the War made a lasting impression including the loss of friends.
He was keen to popularise his music and started the Leith Hill Music Festival (near Dorking) in 1905 and which still thrives. He had a huge output which included 9 symphonies.
Simon played a mixture of his works, some familiar, others less often heard. These included the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; an extract from the Sea Symphony (1909); a song from 5 Mystical Songs; parts of the London Symphony (1913) and the Pastoral Symphony (1921) and from number 4 (1934).
Perhaps the work most recognisably as his is the Lark Ascending strongly influenced by his love of folk songs (1914). Other pieces included an extract from the English Folk Song Suite (1923), Serenade to Music (1938) and from one of his operas Hugh the Drover. He was approached by Muir Mathieson to compose the music for the film Thirty Ninth Parallel which he composed in a matter of weeks.
This was a brilliant start to the second half of the season.
The second half of the season starts tonight, Monday 5 February and we are delighted to welcome Simon Coombs from the Vaughan Williams Society who is going to discuss and play music by this great English composer. Starts at 7:30 as usual and is only £3 to non-members. Parking is easy and free and details of how to find us are on the ‘Find us’ tab at the top of the site.
We look forward to welcoming existing members back also any new visitors.
Happy New Year to our supporters and members. The second half of the programme kicks off in a month on 5 February and we hope to see you then.
The Case for the Unfinished was the title of last nights presentation from Tony Powell. One might be forgiven for thinking this was about Schubert’s unfinished symphony but in fact it was about other composer’s unfinished works of which of course there are plenty. Attempts to add another movement to Schubert’s work have not been successful and indeed it is possible that what is left is indeed finished.
Tony instead started with a Night on a Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky. The final movement was changed by Rimsky Korsakov and this was played first. Then we heard the original version which was entirely different and a complete contrast. The point here was that finishing another composer’s work may be acceptable if it is in the spirit of the original.
Another famous unfinished work is the Requiem by Mozart and this was being feverishly composed as he was dying. It was famously finished by his pupil and sometime collaborator Süssmayr. There are many arguments about who wrote what bit of the work but nevertheless, there is sufficient of Mozart in the piece to make it a great work of art. The difference here is that the work was intended to be finished and Mozart was dictating ideas until his actual death. With Schubert on the other hand, we do not know of his intentions.
Bruckner’s ninth is usually played in its incomplete form but again, a lot of material was left – indeed a substantial number of sketches and completed elements – to enable an attempt to be made to create a final movement. We heard Sir Simon Rattle conducting a performance and he was quoted as saying that there was ‘more Bruckner in the final movement than there was of Mozart in the Requiem.’ It certainly sounded authentic although there were references to the 5th now and again.
It was a surprise to some present that Puccini did not finish Turandot but the opera was left 15 minutes or so short at his death. It was finished by Franco Alfano yet it is recognisably in the master’s hand.
After a long fallow period following the Great War, Elgar started work on his 3rd Symphony which he did not finish by the time of his death in 1934. From the surviving material the BBC asked Anthony Payne to finish it and he worked on the project for many years. The first performance was in 1998 conducted by Andrew Davies. The usual attribution is to both Elgar and Payne. We heard part of the 1st movement and most of the 2nd.
Finally, Mahler and the unfinished 10th. Mahler left a lot of notes and a ‘short score’ that is, not a fully orchestrated version. Mahler had discovered that his wife had been unfaithful and this added to the turmoil in his life. Initially his widow resisted attempts to finish and fully orchestrate the score but later relented. There were several attempts and many statements by musicians saying it shouldn’t be done. Deryck Cooke worked on the score and this was first performed in 1964. Alma Mahler had changed her mind once she had seen the finished work and heard a performance. We listened to one movement which was extremely ‘Mahler like’ in its sound and development.
This was a most interesting evening and shed light on the difficulties and problems of trying to finish another composer’s work. Composition is a highly individual activity and however many notes and sketches are left, what would have ultimately been produced can never be recreated. But if the attempts are honest to the original composer’s style and intentions, a worthwhile result can be achieved.
The group next meets on 5 February 2018.