The Youth of Titans

January 24 & 25, 2015

Program Notes by Matthew Naughtin

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 (1925)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich wrote the First Symphony in 1925. The first performance was given by the Leningrad Philharmonic on May 12, 1926, Nikolai Malko conducting.

His proud Mama wrote: “…The greatest success went to Mitya. The audience listened with enthusiasm and the scherzo had to be played twice. At the end, Mitya was called to the stage over and over again. When our handsome young composer appeared, looking almost like a boy, the enthusiasm turned into one long thunderous ovation.” Mitya was Dmitri Shostakovich, and his mother Sofia (Dmitri’s father had died four years before) was crowing over the triumphant premiere of her 19-year-old son’s First Symphony. When he was 13, Dmitri had auditioned for Alexander Glazunov, the director of the Leningrad Conservatory. Recognizing a tremendous talent, Glazunov enrolled the lad as a piano student under Leonid Nikolayev. With Glazunov’s encouragement, Shostakovich also studied composition with Maximilian Steinberg, a conservative academician who gave him a thorough grounding in the basics of music theory and orchestration. Steinberg, who assigned Dmitri the project of writing a symphony as his graduation thesis, was not pleased with the result, calling it “grotesque.” Shostakovich, unfazed, whimsically told a friend he was thinking of calling the work “Symphony-Grotesque.” Vindication came when he showed the completed score to Nikolai Malko, conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Malko was duly impressed and offered to perform it.

The fact that Shostakovich was too impoverished to afford having the orchestra parts copied out almost became an insurmountable obstacle. Steinberg generously agreed to have the Conservatory pay for the copyist and Shostakovich spent the next few months proofreading the parts himself, trying out some of the music with players in the cinema orchestra where he moonlighted to make sure that (contrary to Steinberg and Malko) it was playable. He dedicated the symphony to his friend Misha Kvadri, who was arrested and shot three years later during the Stalinist repression. At the premiere Glazunov, a man of the old regime, praised Shostakovich’s mastery of orchestration but left the hall shaking his head, saying, “I don’t understand anything. Of course the work shows great talent, but I don’t understand it.” More performances soon followed in Moscow, Berlin, Philadelphia and New York. By the time Shostakovich was 23, the symphony had been heard all over the world and he had become, despite his tender years, the unofficial international representative of Soviet music.

Shostakovich’s first major orchestral composition already evinces the mixture of impassioned lyricism and dark, biting humor that typified his music throughout his career. Though an aunt recognized in it many little melodic fragments she had heard young Mitya play on the family piano, the confidence and maturity with which Shostakovich builds these into a coherent large-scale musical structure is as impressive as the vigor and freshness of his ideas. The work begins with a quirky, angular fanfare for muted trumpet that is tossed around disjointedly by the rest of the orchestra. After many starts and stops, the movement proper begins with a jaunty, skittering march-tune in the clarinet whose first five notes provide a musical motto that will return, transformed, in the slow movement and the finale. A lyrical waltz melody is presented by flute and clarinet, the three themes are worked out with Shostakovich’s typical orchestral imagination, and the movement fades away to an enigmatic silence.

The sardonic, quicksilver scherzo was encored at the premiere. The madcap momentum of the movement is interrupted by a solemn, mock-liturgical trio section featuring flutes and an ostinato “E” repeated in the violins, then the tempo is pushed forward again by solo bassoon and piano. The themes of the scherzo and trio are combined in a frenetic outburst, then the movement seems to dissolve, ending (enigmatically again) with four terse notes on the snare drum. The Lento that follows takes us into a completely different, darker world. Beginning with a melancholy, chromatic melody for the oboe that is related to the clarinet theme in the first movement, the music builds this and a second, march-like tune to impassioned climaxes that feature a descending fanfare-motif that grows in importance as the symphony progresses.

A crescendo in the snare drum leads into the dramatic, dark-hued introduction to the final movement. This finale springs into whirling motion with an agitated tune for clarinet that is, again, related to the motto-theme of the first movement. After many changes in mood and tempo, a famous solo for timpani thunders out the fanfare-motif from the slow movement, now inverted so that it rises instead of descending. An impassioned cello solo leads to a grand peroration in which the fanfare-motif and the first movement motto-theme are combined and drive to a brilliant conclusion.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Rachmaninoff wrote the First Symphony in 1895. It was given its first performance under the direction of Aleksander Glazunov in St. Petersburg in March, 1897.

Oh Lord, it was bad. It was worse than bad, it was—well, the review by César Cui said it all: “If there were a conservatory in Hell and the assignment was to compose a symphony on ‘The Seven Plagues of Egypt,’ Mr. Rachmaninoff would have fulfilled the task brilliantly.” The premiere of the twenty-two-year-old composer’s First Symphony was an unmitigated disaster. What he had hoped would be acclaimed as a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony had been sabotaged by an inept performance under the baton of Aleksander Glazunov (who was reportedly drunk at the performance), and the reaction of the Russian musical elite was uniformly brutal. Rachmaninoff later wrote: “There are serious illnesses and deadly blows from fate which entirely change a man’s character. This was the effect of my own symphony on myself. When the indescribable torture of the performance at last came to an end, I was a different man.” Rachmaninoff fled the hall in despair, hid the score of the symphony deep in the darkest recesses of his closet and went into a blue funk that lasted for three years, during which he wrote not a single note. He never mentioned the symphony again as long as he lived. The music did not see the light of day again until the orchestra parts were rediscovered two years after Rachmaninoff’s death and it was given a triumphant second premiere at the Moscow Conservatory in 1945.

The fiasco may have had more than just professional significance for Rachmaninoff. His distraught reaction becomes understandable when the import of the symphony’s dedication to a mysterious “A. L.” is factored in. “A. L.” was Anna Aleksandrovna Lodizhenskaya, a woman of gypsy heritage whose husband had received the dedication of Rachmaninoff’s earlier Capriccio on Gypsy Themes. The composer also affixed to the title page of the score a quotation from Leo Tolstoy’s tragic story of a passionate young woman married to a much older man, Anna Karenina. The possibility of a romantic connection between the young composer and this gypsy Anna makes it an intriguing game to search for clues to a private subtext for the work: the exotic, Oriental cast of some of the melodies, the passages of fiery turbulence and impulsive lovelorn yearning, the strange little “fate” motive that pops up in various places throughout the work. In any case, it’s not a bad piece. In fact, the brilliant, stormy first movement, with its melodic reference to the plainchant Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, clearly points forward to the composer’s later masterworks. The magically orchestrated second movement is a delicate, light-footed dance that alternates between seductively swaying waltz rhythms and quicksilver splashes of mercurial passagework for strings and woodwinds that seem to fly by on whirring wings. The third movement is a yearning love-song in Rachmaninoff’s familiar full-throated Romantic style and he pours out all the ‘Russian’ colors on his composer’s palette for the finale. After a rousing fanfare, the movement surges along with the combination of rousing march rhythms and soaring lyrical outpourings that would become Rachmaninoff’s personal stylistic signature. One curious note: each movement begins with the above-mentioned ominous four-note signature motive that seems to have had some personal symbolic significance for the composer. The motive returns at various times throughout the symphony, but doesn’t connect with the rest of the melodic material. Is it a symbol of ill-fated passion? Who knows? In any case, the symphony ends powerfully with a grand peroration based on the motive.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin