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Shostakovich

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 Alone
o Sofia Perofskaya
o Hamlet

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.

Peter Curbishley

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Shostakovich

Tonight’s presentation will be on the music of the great Russian Composer, Shostakovich.  7:30 as usual.

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Sir Charles Mackerras

The last meeting of the Society was a presentation by Anthony Powell of the conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras illustrated by extracts from some of his recordings.  Mackerras was born in Schenectady in USA to Australian parents but they returned to their home country when he was two to live in Sydney.

He was a precocious talent and wrote a piano concerto when he was 12.  His parents were not convinced a musical life would be a viable profession so sent him to The King’s School with its focus on sport and discipline hoping that he would pursue a different career.  It was not to be and at the age of 16 went to the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music where he studied oboe, piano and composition.

At 19 he was the principal oboist with the ABC Sydney Orchestra.  A few years later he sailed for England and began his career at the Saddlers Wells Theatre.  He studied conducting with Vaclav Talich (pictured) in Prague and returned to resume his career at the English National Opera.

There then followed a distinguished career with a variety of famous orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra; Covent Garden; the Met and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  He was the first non Briton to conduct the BBCSO at the Proms.

Tony selected a wide range of his conducting and started with a piece by Sir Arthur Sullivan followed by a piece by Delius: Paris: the song of a great city first performed in 1899 in Germany and this recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic.

Mackerras had a great attachment to Czech music – indeed he spoke the language fluently – and we heard the Symphonic poem: the Noonday Witch by Dvorak.  This was followed by an extract of the familiar Sinfonietta by Janacek.

The classics were not neglected and two movements from Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 in G major performed with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  Then it was Beethoven’s seventh followed by Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.  All these extracts illustrated the close attention to rhythm and pace which Mackerras had.  This was particularly illustrated by an extract from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a piece of great energy and requiring great skill to keep the orchestra together.  This was an electrifying performance.

To record Handel’s Messiah using no less than 26 oboes were needed – which is what the composer required – meant it had to be done at night finishing in the small hours.  After the final scene of Janacek’s Jenufa we heard the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, again with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchesta.

The range of this conductor’s performances was well illustrated and the pieces carefully chosen to give good examples of his style and ability.  Sir Charles died in 2005.  He had received many honour including a CBE; Medal of Merit from Czech Republic and was made Honorary President of Edinburgh International Festival Society.


Next meeting on May 9th and is a member’s evening

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A personal musical journey

Last nights meeting was a presentation by Anthony Powell in which he played music which he has enjoyed over his life.  As we move into the electronic age, and increasingly people download their music from the internet, it is hard to remember that there are people who’s first experience was with 78s.  For younger readers these are discs that rotated at 78 rpm.  They didn’t last long and any piece of any length involved several disks and several trips to the turntable to turn them over.

The first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont overture which was a transcription from a 78 and was recorded by Toscanini.  Typical of this conductor it was a very forthright performance and sounded good despite the fact it was mono and of some vintage.

Tony’s first LP (can we all not forget our first LP and the trip back from the shop to play it for the first time?) was Beethoven (again) 5th Symphony conducted by Bernard Haitink.  This was a live recording at Birmingham and the audience burst into applause at the end of this thrilling piece.

Next was Mahler and the end of his Symphony No. 3 followed by Rimsky Korsakov and this was a version recorded from a Decca 7″ record which were popular around 40 or so years ago.  Many of us took advantage of these budget priced discs.

Next we heard the finale of the thrilling Shostakovich Violin concerto.  Alongside the music Anthony had brought in a collection of signed autographs of composers and conductors.  Some he had acquired by writing to Russia at a time when this was an unusual thing to do.

A lifelong liking for the Late Quartets of Beethoven was illustrated by an extract from No 16 in F major.  There are pieces that stay with you throughout your life and you never tire of them.

This was followed by the Sanctus from Berlioz’s Grande Messe Des Morts performed in St Paul’s cathedral and conducted by the late Sir Colin Davies a Berlioz specialist.  A feature of the evening was the large preponderance of live recordings which, although sometimes less than perfect, do have a certain electricity to them which a studio recording can lack.

The rest of the programme included;

  • Robert Simpson’s Symphony No. 4

    Thomas Ades

  • Beethoven’s Misa Solemnis
  • 3rd movement from Thomas Adès’s Violin Concerto (2005)
  • two songs by Richard Strauss
  • and the evening finished – appropriately enough – with final part of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony No. conducted by Klaus Tenndstedt recorded in 1989

A most enjoyable evening and truly a Dance to the Time of Music.

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Bernstein: musical polymath

bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein had many talents and at the last meeting of the Society three of them were on vivid display in a presentation by Alan Forshaw.  First was his ability as a pianist was shown in a recording, made in 1946, of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra from which we heard the first movement.  It is no surprise Bernstein liked this piece with its strong jazz influences and powerful rhythms.  We also heard him play one of his own compositions, Seven Anniversaries recorded in 1947.

His second great skill was as a conductor for which he was in great demand.  He was the principal conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years.  Examples we heard included the second movement from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the NYPO with Bernstein conducting from the keyboard and also the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

He was an accomplished composer in a wide range of genres.  Few may of heard of his Clarinet Sonata for example, his first composition.  More familiar perhaps is his Symphony No. 1 from which we heard the second movement with its strong rhythms and echoes of Stravinsky.  We also heard part of his Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra both recordings with the NYPO.

He was a composer of operas and first was Trouble in Tahiti – an opera in seven scenes – from which we heard scene 2.  Candide did not achieve critical acclaim unfortunately and had to wait two decades before it found a place in the repertoire again.  West Side Story is undoubtedly his most successful work, loved the world over and was made into a film.  Two extracts were played: Tonight performed by Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa, and Somewhere, in a performance conducted by Bernstein himself.

Alan explained that Bernstein was the son of a Ukrainian immigrant and it is perhaps worth reflecting on the enormous contribution east European and Russian immigrants made to the life of the United States.  Not just musicians, but scientists, writers, mathematicians and in many other areas of cultural life.  As the UK is struggling with the ‘threat’ of immigrants fleeing Syria and other war torn areas, it is worth remembering on the benefits that they can bring, as Bernstein did to the USA and musical life generally.

This was an accomplished presentation which gave an insight into the range of talents Bernstein had and the musical legacy he has left behind. A musical polymath indeed.

 

 

 

 

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#Programme for 2015/16 now being finalised

Members and supporters might like early sight of the new provisonal programme for 2015/16.  We have continued the recent innovation of having a live performance even though we are called the ‘recorded’ music society.  We have some speakers who are familiar as well as some new faces so there should be plenty to interest music lovers.  You will find the pdf version clearer for technical reasons.

2015 16 programme (pdf)

Date Speaker and title
2015
September 21 Ed Tinline.  Music from Sibelius 150th Anniversary Festival, Lahti, Finland
October 5 Barry Conaway.  ‘1911 – new music of a sunset year’ including Delius, Elgar, Mahler and Sibelius
October 19 Peter Curbishley  ‘… but I don’t like modern music’.  Music by Schoenberg, Shostakovich and other ‘moderns’
November 2 Christopher Guild.  ‘The music of Roland Center (1913 – 1973) and the influence of Britten, Shostakovich, Ravel and Vaughan Williams on his work’ (provisional title)
November 16 Alastair Aberdare.  ‘A Berlioz Miscellany’.  Lord Aberdare is a member of the Berlioz Society
November 30 Members’ Evening
2016  
February 1 TBA
February 29 A Baroque Evening.  David Morgan, Sue Wyatt, Sally Reid and David Davies will bring their baroque instruments to give a live performance, including music by Corelli, Gottfried Finger and Handel
March 14 Anthony Powell.  ‘A personal musical journey – 60 years of discovery, including works by Beethoven, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Butterworth
April 4 Robin Lim.  Title to be confirmed
April 18 TBA
May 9 Members’ evening
May 23 Jon Hampton.  ‘The art of the arranger’.  To include works by Boccherini, arranged by Berio, Bach by Elgar and Schubert by Britten

Please note that some elements may change so it is always worth coming to this site to get the up to date position.  We are always looking for new presenters and if you would like to volunteer that would be appreciated.  If you are nervous about being on your feet then someone else can do the presentation for you if you prefer.  We look forward to seeing you in the autumn.

Shostakovich

Shostakovich

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Music of the saxophone

Two hundred years ago this month, Adolphe Sax was born in Dinant, Belgium.  The son of a music maker, he went on to invent an instrument which is the only one to bear the name of its inventor: the #saxophone.  Last Monday, the Recorded Music Society, to mark the anniversary of his birth, listened to a programme of orchestral music using this instrument.  It is a standard feature of jazz ensembles but it is only occasionally heard in orchestras and the repertoire for it is not large.
The presenter of the evenings programme was Ed Tinline – joint chair of the Society – who provided a fascinating history of the inventor himself and played examples of music from soon after its invention to the present day.   One of the first composers to use it was the now unknown Jean-Baptiste Singelée who composed Premier Quatour from which we heard the andante played using four instruments actually made by Sax himself
 
Strangely, it was the Russian composers who were keenest to compose work for the instrument and Ed played excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and also compositions by Glazunov: Concerto for alto saxophone and string orchestra, Jazz Suite No 1 by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic DancesGeorges Bizet was a fan and the intermezzo from L’Arlésienne features the instrument.  Despite attempts by composers such as Walton, Britten and Vaughan Williams to include it into their music, it remains an ‘affiliate’ rather than a permanent feature of orchestras.
It has gained an odd reputation for itself and some feel there is an element of sleaze to it possibly because of its jazz connections.  This was sufficient for the ecclesiastical authorities in Worcester Cathedral to ask for a section of a Vaughan Williams composition not to be played because it contained some music for the instrument!

The next meeting is a members evening and is on December 1st.

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Film music

Shostakovich

Shostakovich

After a short agm, the meeting was presented by Alan Forshaw with a programme of #filmmusic.  He discussed various film compositions of Shostakovich, Hans Zimmer and Korngold who composed primarily ‘serious’ music but who, for different reasons (political, financial, etc.) produced film scores throughout their careers.  This was the first time the society has listened to an evening devoted to this genre.

Film music is a little unregarded as a part of the music scene, indeed, a quick look in Groves for Shostakovich for example, reveals only a single passing reference to his compositions for the cinema and none in the list of works.  Yet for modern composers, writing for the cinema or composing advertising jingles provides them with valuable income before fame beckons (if it ever does).

Shostakovich wrote in the time of ‘Soviet Realism’ and falling foul of the censors could have dire consequences for any artist.  The films are long forgotten and include Alone (1930); The Great Citizen (1938); and Piragov (1947).  Alan also played extracts from wonderfully named film The Counterplan (1932) which included extracts called ‘The Workers Gather’ and ‘Song of the Counterplan’.  It would be hard to imagine queuing round the block for a film of that title today.  One could hear echoes of his later works in some of these pieces and it was interesting to hear them with the benefit of great symphonies such as the Leningrad in one’s mind.

By way of contrast, Alan played extracts from the award winning film composer Hans Zimmer.  He has written for over a 150 films including the Gladiator; The Thin Red Line; and Rain Man and has won many awards.  Extracts included The Last Samurai (2003) and The Da Vinci Code (2006).  Zimmer worked briefly with a pop group known as the Buggles, famous for their No 1 hit Video Killed the Radio Star.

Finally, Korngold who was born in Brno in 1897.  He was recognised early as a prodigy and had early successes with a ballet and two operas.  He then moved to Hollywood and composed much film music and we heard extracts from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Wolf (1941).   

It is interesting to note the difference between an opera and a film music composer.  Name an opera and most people interested in music will know the composer.  Name a film and few would know who wrote the music.  The other problem is the music may die with the film if it wasn’t a box office success.  But the music we heard tonight was worthy of a wider audience in its own right.

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