Progam Notes for April 11, 2008

Skip to: Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 | Shubert: Death and the Maiden

Serenade for Strings

by Stephen Feigenbaum (b. 1989)

Stephen Feigenbaum’s Serenade for Strings is a single-movement work, written in the style and tradition of late Romanticism. Written as a sort of homage to Mahler it uses a harmonic language typical of that time. Its opening theme, a rising gesture and a falling away, speaks of yearning and longing. The second theme, with its descending octave motive, speaks more of acceptance and conciliation. The two themes alternate, passing through different sections of the orchestra, supported by lush harmonies, each with a slightly different shading. The peaks and valleys unfold, eventually building to a searing climax. To me, this work beautifully evokes a by-gone era and as it drifts away at the end, says good-bye to a lost world.   — David Feltner

From the composer
The Serenade for Strings, while not a true serenade in the sense of a light multi-movement work, borrows from the Romantic repertoire of slow string movements. When I composed it, I devoted more time to it than I’ve spent on most of the music I have written since then. This was probably because I felt constrained by my decision to restrict the work’s language to that of the late Romantic period. Wanting to be true to the sounds of Mahler and other composers of his age, I found myself constantly having to develop the piece inwardly, rather than trying to advance the musical language in any way. As a contemporary composer, I don’t think that writing music as though it were 1890 is necessarily the best solution to developing modern yet accessible work. But the exercise of writing this piece has taught me a lot about what it is that contemporary audiences find so appealing about late Romantic music, and this experience has influenced the way I write music as I find my own voice.   — Stephen Feigenbaum

Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 (1933)

by Dmitri Shostakovich (St. Petersburg, 1906 - Moscow, 1975)

Like several great 20th-century composers — Béla Bartók, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Sergei Prokofiev among them — Shostakovich was also a concert pianist, and (there are recordings to prove it) an extremely good one, too, as long as his health permitted him to perform.  He wrote prolifically for his own instrument, producing two concertos, two sonatas, two large collections of solo pieces (the 24 Preludes, Op. 34, and the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87), two piano trios, a piano quintet, and numerous smaller works. 

The first concerto — Concerto for Piano with the Accompaniment of String Orchestra and Trumpet — shows a youthful Shostakovich, full of wit and energy but also displaying a rich lyrical vein. The early 1930s were happy times for the composer who was the darling of the Leningrad musical scene. His music was everywhere: in the concert hall, at the theatre and in films.  He had just completed his most ambitious work to date, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the disastrous Pravda editorial of January 1936, which was going to change Shostakovich’s life forever, could in no way be anticipated in 1933.

The young Shostakovich was naturally drawn to irony, satire, parody and the grotesque.  The composer was profoundly influenced by such writers as Nikolai Gogol, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Mikhail Zoshchenko, all of whom — in different ways — used the above-named forms of humor in the service of their social critique.  Shostakovich followed this tradition in his first opera, The Nose (1928), based on a Gogol story, and in his incidental music to Mayakovsky’s Bedbug (1929).  In his non-theatrical works, too, the humor carries special meaning.  As we shall see, Shostakovich mixes the most diverse styles in his Piano Concerto — and this multiplicity of voices was an important means of artistic expression. 

The Piano Concerto is, indeed, all about clashing musical styles, and about blurring the boundaries between joke and serious matter — with the evident goal of delighting, but also confusing, the listener.  The opening, after a mini-flourish on the piano and a mini-fanfare on the trumpet, is lyrical and expressive but the melodic line keeps veering off in unexpected directions.  The second theme, in a faster tempo, is more openly parodistic, and it is not long before we enter what Shostakovich specialist Ian MacDonald described as “a circus-world of comic turns and raspberries ringmastered by the trumpet.”  Yet the movement ends introspectively, with a quiet recall of the opening theme dying away in a peaceful duo of the piano and the trumpet.

The second movement is a sentimental and melancholy waltz, with “allusions to the world of cinema,” in the words of another noted Shostakovich authority, Elizabeth Wilson, who calls the movement “quasi-sentimental.”  Its main melody, introduced by the muted string orchestra and continued by the piano in the best Romantic tradition.  After a stormy but brief più mosso interlude, the waltz theme returns, now played by the trumpet.  However, it is left to the piano to bring the movement to its ethereally soft conclusion.

The third movement, just under two minutes, is little more than a prelude to the finale.  The unaccompanied piano music with which it opens could in fact come from one of Shostakovich’s piano preludes, with the strings adding an expressive melodic strain of their own.  But Shostakovich doesn’t allow much more time for sentimentality, and launches into the wickedly funny “Allegro con brio” instead. 

Here the musical references multiply: one recognizes a quote from Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio, Op.129 (“Rage over a Lost Penny”), as well as allusions to Haydn, Mahler, a Jewish street song from Odessa, and more.  Shostakovich ties all these disparate elements together with inimitable elegance.  The “circus-world” evoked in the first movement returns with a vengeance as Shostakovich, according to Elizabeth Wilson, “manifests the daring and high spirits of youth” for the last time. — Peter Laki 

The Chamber Orchestra of Boston performs this work on Friday, April 1, 2008 with pianist Max Levinson.


String Quartet in D minor (“Death and the Maiden”), D. 810 (1824)

by Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828).
Arranged for string orchestra by David Feltner (b. 1959)

Several musicians have arranged this magnificent work for string orchestra (most notably, Gustav Mahler) but none had done so for an ensemble exactly the size of the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. The arrangement follows Schubert’s original quite closely; the main difference involved deciding when the double bass should play along with the cellos and when it shouldn’t.  Hearing Death and the Maiden with a string orchestra adds special emphasis on the dramatic quality of this, one of Schubert’s darkest and most tragic works. 
Schubert wrote his D-minor Quartet at the time he suffered his first major bout of illness, as a result of the syphilis he had contracted the year before.  It was in March 1824, the very month of the D-minor Quartet, that Schubert wrote his often-quoted letter to his friend, the painter Leopold Kupelwieser: 

Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who is sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?

The slow movement of D-minor quartet was based on the song Death and the Maiden, written in 1816-17 on a text by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815), a German poet and essayist.  In two strongly contrasted stanzas, we first hear the anguished plea of a young girl, followed by the eerie yet consoling voice of Death, assuring the girl that death is not punishment but gentle sleep.  Yet this macabre song put its stamp on the entire quartet, all four of whose movements are in minor keys — a  most unusual decision.  At first, Schubert wanted to incorporate the “death theme” in all four movements of the quartet, but during the composition process he made some changes those connections less obvious.  Still, each movement has its own relentlessly repeated rhythmic pattern; moreover, each of those patterns is extremely terse and “implacable” like death itself.

The first Allegro is built upon the contrast of a dramatic opening theme and a contrasting lyrical melody.  We hear many intriguing modulations and virtuosic fireworks as one of Schubert’s most eventful sonata movements unfolds before our ears. 

The theme of the second movement (variations on the song) contains some material that is not in the song but was included here to expand the introduction to the song into a complete, self-contained melodic statement.  The first two of the five variations feature the first violin and the cello, respectively, in soloistic roles.  In the third, the fundamental rhythmic pattern of the movement is presented at four times its original speed, changing the solemn song of death into a wild gallop. The fourth variation is similar to the first in that the first violin once more weaves virtuosic figurations around the melody, as played by the other instruments; yet the tonality is major, which makes all the emotional difference. The final variation begins pianissimo, works its way up to a furious fortissimo climax with rhythmic complexity reaching its highest level, only to fade back into pianissimo as the tonality unexpectedly changes back to major. The combination of the major mode with extremely soft volume creates a mysterious and transcendent effect at the end of the movement.

The third-movement scherzo has a descending bass line long associated with Baroque laments; yet the strong rhythmic accents and the frequent chromaticism (use of half-steps not normally part of the scale) give it a distinctly “modern” sound.  The similarity of the main melodic idea to Mime’s motif in Wagner’s Ring cycle has frequently been commented on, yet a close variant of it also appears in one of Schubert’s short German dances for piano.  The trio, or middle section, switches to the major mode.  Instead of repeating each of its halves literally, as tradition would demand, Schubert changes the instrumentation completely the second time around, and introduces elaborate flourishes for the first violin. 

The finale is a breath-taking Presto based on the rhythm of the tarantella dance (which Schubert used in other finales as well, for instance in his Piano Sonata in C minor, dating from the last year of his life).  As in the first movement, the rhythmic idea alternates with more melodic material as well as with a great deal of virtuoso writing.  The “sweep” and a dynamic energy of the movement never let up for a second.  These qualities are only magnified in an orchestral rendering, and the last sonority of the work, where all four instruments play four-note chords, is in a way “orchestral” even in the original string quartet medium. — Peter Laki