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The Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra

Monday, November 12, 2007 at 8 PM

By Steven Ledbetter

Notes on the Program

BÉLA BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra

Born March 25, 1881, in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania); died September 26, 1945, in New York.

Composed between August 15 and October 8, 1943, the Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned in the spring of 1943 by Serge Koussevitzky through the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first performances of the Concerto for Orchestra on December 1 and 2, 1944. The following month, on January 10, 1945, Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the work its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall.

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (with a 4th trumpet marked ad lib.), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, triangle, 2 harps, and strings.

Early in the 1940s, with a world war raging in Europe, Bartók immigrated to the US, where he had a position doing research on recordings of Eastern European folk songs housed at Columbia University. But he was concerned that his position there was only temporary. Worse, he had begun to have a series of irregular high fevers that the doctors were unable to diagnose, but which turned out to be the first indication of leukemia. By early 1943, the state of his health and the fact that Americans showed little interest in his music brought him to a low point. He insisted that he never wanted to compose again. The medical men were unable to do much, yet powerful medicine that spring came not from a doctor, but rather from a conductor—Serge Koussevitzky.

Violinist Joseph Szigeti had told Koussevitzky of Bartók’s situation, warning him that the proud composer would not accept anything remotely smacking of charity. Koussevitzky therefore offered work: $1000 to write a new orchestral piece with a guarantee of a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The commission was a tonic for the ailing composer; at once he was filled with ideas for a new composition, which he composed in just eight weeks—August 15 to October 8, 1943—while resting under medical supervision at a sanatorium at Lake Saranac in upstate New York.

Bartók described the premiere in Boston as excellent; Koussevitzky hailed the Concerto for Orchestra as the “best orchestra piece of the last 25 years,” and demonstrated his confidence in the score by putting it in the Boston Symphony Orchestra program again only three weeks after the premiere performances. In the program book for the premiere, Bartók wrote that his work traced “a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” He chose the title Concerto for Orchestra because his work was designed to spotlight by turn each of the sections and most of the principal players.

The Concerto opens with a soft and slightly mysterious introduction laying forth the essential motivic ideas that eventually explode in an Allegro vivace. The second movement is entitled “Game of Pairs,” a simple but original chain-like sequence of folk-like melodies presented by pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets. The third movement, Elegia, is one of those expressive “night music” movements that Bartók delighted in. The Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted Intermezzo) alternates two very different themes: a rather choppy one first heard in the oboe, then a flowing, lush, romantic one that is Bartók’s gift to the viola section. Later there is a sudden interruption in the form of a vulgar, simple-minded tune that descends the scale in stepwise motion: it is Bartók’s parody of a theme from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, which so incensed him when he heard the American premiere conducted by Toscanini on a radio broadcast that he created this nose-thumbing burlesque. The last movement begins with characteristic dance rhythms in an equally characteristic Bartókian perpetuo moto that rushes on and on, throwing off various motives that gradually solidify into themes, the most important of which appears in the trumpet and turns into a massive fugue, complicated and richly wrought, but building up naturally to a splendidly sonorous climax.

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DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

Born September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg; died August 9, 1975, in Moscow.

Composed in 1953, the Tenth Symphony was first performed on December 17, 1953, in Leningrad (the name given to St. Petersburg during the Soviet period), under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky. It received its US premiere at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1954, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, and strings.

Shostakovich made his impressive debut as a symphonic composer at the age of 19 with a work of real talent—and more—that established him overnight as a new Russian composer of significance. But during these years he suffered vicissitudes far beyond the normal ones that composers have to deal with in presenting new works—the problems of unsympathetic and uncomprehending audiences or perhaps insufficiently prepared performances. These additional difficulties were political. Like all Soviet artists, Shostakovich was expected to produce works that served to educate or enlighten the proletariat, to engender enthusiasm for the revolution or the state, to serve, in short, a didactic or propagandistic function over and above the purely musical one.

By 1932, the original enthusiasm for modern art had ended; the Soviet government reigned in its artists, demanding that composers produce works that were no longer simply “music” but rather “Soviet music”; this period of hard-line regimentation lasted until the death of Stalin in 1953 (and it did not really come to an end even after that). No composer—at least none who survived Stalin’s purges—was more affected by it than Shostakovich. Stalin was not musical, but he recognized the value of artistic propaganda and sought glorification in works of art.

After years of criticism (and fear that he might be one of the next to lose his life to Stalin’s unpredictable moods, Shostakovich gave up writing symphonies after his Ninth, in 1945. Until the death of Stalin in 1953, he limited himself to smaller works, for the most part—string quartets and piano pieces that were harder to “interpret” politically.

In July 1953, four months after Stalin’s death, Shostakovich began the composition of his Tenth Symphony, finishing the work in September. Its first performance took place within three months. The symphony is now widely regarded as Shostakovich’s finest work in the genre, with a successful union of expressive qualities and technical means. It also represents the long tradition of the four-movement symphony for orchestra alone, to which Shostakovich did not return until his Fifteenth (and last) Symphony of 1971, the intervening works all having vocal elements as well. The appearance of the Tenth Symphony aroused a heated debate among Soviet musicians. Its manifestly personal expression raised once again the issue of the artist’s role: could he express himself subjectively as an individual rather than objectively as one element of a collective group? Shostakovich’s Tenth ran dangerously close to the border of the unacceptable.

Before a debate in the Composer’s Union, Shostakovich spoke of the symphony with a modesty that seems overdone, probably with the aim of disarming attacks by “confessing” certain faults in the piece (some sections too short, some too long), to which he added, “It would be very valuable to have the comrades’ opinions on this.” But he did not reveal anything about the immediate impetus for writing what many felt to be a highly personal work. When asked whether the symphony had a program, he responded evasively with a smile, “No, let them listen and guess for themselves.” Even in the relative liberation of late 1953 he could certainly not feel safe in revealing what many now feel to be the case: that the Tenth Symphony is his reaction to the Stalinist period.

The first three movements are unified by a motive consisting of the first three steps of the minor scale. Shostakovich chose to write a moderately slow first movement, conceived in a lyric and contrapuntal vein, beginning with a twisting slow theme in cellos and basses that occasionally resembles a basso ostinato. After an opening paragraph for strings alone, the solo clarinet introduces a lyrical melody that gradually expands outward and then contracts again to the note on which it began. These materials are used to build up the first orchestral tutti, which then dissolves into individual sections: strings, followed by brass, followed by solo clarinet expanding on its first statement before leading to a new motive, introduced by the solo flute in a low register—a hovering, rocking figure in eighth notes that keeps moving away from the first pitch and then returning to it. The rest of the movement is developed from these three motives with great imagination and economy of means.

The second movement has been variously interpreted, even at the time by Soviet musicians, but its perpetual motion, built on a single motive, is exhilarating and threatening at the same time, with an evident parodistic intent. It is now widely believed that the movement is Shostakovich’s portrait of Stalin, wily and brutal.

The third movement, which begins as a pensive waltz of a somber character, is an early example of Shostakovich’s practice of composing his personal motto DSCH into his music, something that happens also in the Violin Concerto and the Eighth String Quartet, among others. (DSCH stands for the German transliteration of the composer’s initials, Dmitri SCHostakovich, which is then translated into musical pitches according to German terminology: D, S (=Es, or E-flat), C, H (=B natural); the resulting four-note motive fits naturally into the key of C minor or its near relations.

The finale consists of a long, slow introduction followed by a vigorous Allegro, less hysterical than the forced rejoicing of the comparable movement in the Fifth Symphony, but fundamentally outgoing nonetheless, despite frequent reminders of the DSCH motto. That reference to the third movement, along with the slow introduction, helps prevent the sheer youthful energy of the Allegro from allowing us to forget the very different character of the first three movements. Here, as throughout the work, Shostakovich has kept his own counsel, telling us things by way of melody, harmony, and rhythm that he could not say in words.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Steven Ledbetter, musicologist and program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998, writes and lectures widely on many aspects of classical music.

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation