Shostakovich: Festive Overture (1954)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 brought an end to a period of severe artistic repression. Five years earlier a decree from the Central Committee accused many prominent Soviet composers, including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, of vaguely defined “anti-Soviet” tendencies. All these composers had their works banned and were forced to live hand-to-mouth, with the threat of imprisonment or worse hanging over their heads.

This decree was lifted too late for Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin, but Shostakovich was able to take several works out of the drawer, including his Tenth Symphony, and arrange for their performance. At about this time, he received a commission for a new work to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. Festive Overture was the result. In contrast to much of Shostakovich’s music, the Overture is a work of unbridled merriment. The fact that Stalin was no longer breathing down his neck was surely a factor.

The Overture begins with a grandiose, quasi-ceremonial fanfare. The main body of the work is a lively sonata-form, apparently modeled on Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla. Near the end, the grandiose gesture returns (with optional additional brass). The infectious high sprits of the Overture have made it a popular concert work that is frequently performed all over the world.

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Fleeing political instability in Russia and war in Europe, Rachmaninoff and his family arrived in New York in November 1918. Having left most of the family belongings and money behind, financial stability was Rachmaninoff’s most pressing need. Fortunately, he was well-known as one of the world’s greatest pianists, and the memory of his triumphant American tour in 1909-10 was still fresh. It didn’t take long for a busy performing career to be re-established.

His American years were sadly marked by a decrease in his composing. Rachmaninoff required quiet and isolation in order to work, and both were in short supply. From 1918 until his death 25 years later, he only completed six significant compositions and a handful of smaller works, mostly arrangements.

In 1932, Rachmaninoff purchased a villa near Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. He named it Villa Senar, after the first two letters of his and his wife’s names (Sergei and Natalia), and the first letter of their last name. It became their summer retreat, and with a haven to escape the pressures of his career, he began to think of composing again.

In 1934, during their third summer in Villa Senar, Rachmaninoff worked in secret on a new work for piano and orchestra. Late in August, as they were preparing to return to America, he wrote to a friend, “Two weeks ago I finished a new piece. It is called ‘Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in the Form of Variations on a Theme of Paganini’ (the same theme on which Liszt and Brahms based their variations). It is very long, about 20 or 25 minutes — the length of a piano concerto! The composition is very difficult, and I should start practicing it, but with every year I become more lazy about this kind of fingerwork.”

Presumably, he made himself practice it. He premiered the new work (retitled simply Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) on November 1934, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Though critical opinion was initially dismissive (as usual), it was immediately successful with the public, and is now considered one of Rachmaninoff’s greatest works.

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was an Italian violinist whose virtuosity is still legendary, as is the rumor that he received his ability thanks to a pact with the Devil. The “theme of Paganini” used by Rachmaninoff is taken from the 24th Caprice for solo violin, itself a set of variations composed by Paganini in 1817. Numerous composers down to the present day (Wikipedia’s article on the 24th Caprice includes a list of over fifty composers who have written their own variations on it) have been intrigued by the tune.

A striking feature of Rachmaninoff’s work is the inclusion of a phrase from the Dies Irae plainchant, which is worked into several of the variations. The Dies Irae is taken from the traditional Requiem Mass, where it evokes the terrors of the Day of Judgement. In concert music of the 19th century, it had become a way of alluding to evil supernatural forces in general. Rachmaninoff inserted it by way of suggesting the violinist’s supposed demonic bargain, as he explained to the choreographer Michael Fokine a few years later when the two were discussing a possible ballet treatment. “Why not resurrect the legend of Paganini,” Rachmaninoff wrote, “who, for perfection in his art and the love of a woman, sold his soul to an evil spirit? All the variations which include the Dies Irae represent the evil spirit…Paganini himself first appears in the theme and again, now conquered, in Variation 23.” Fokine’s ballet Paganini, first performed with Rachmaninoff’s music in 1939, largely followed the composer’s ideas.

Although the work is not a concerto in the traditional sense, the grouping of the variations into three easily discernable sections does make at least a nod to three-movement concerto form. After a brief introduction and a variation in which the theme is heard in skeletal form, the theme proper is heard in the violins (with punctuations by the piano). The next several variations deal with the theme in various transformations, while the tempo gradually quickens. In Variation 7, as the tempo slows, the piano presents the Dies Irae theme while Paganini’s theme slithers through the bass instruments of the orchestra. The next three variations pick up the tempo again, at times suggesting a sinister march; finally all the energy dissipates, and there is a brief pause before the next section begins.

In this middle section, slow tempos predominate. Variation 11 is essentially an accompanied cadenza, leading into a slow minuet in which Paganini’s theme steps delicately as the piano plays a graceful adaptation of the Dies Irae theme. The pace once again speeds up, culminating in an extended brilliant passage for the piano alone. The tempo then slows, then slows again and again, before relaxing into Variation 18, arguably the most famous section of the piece. The piano unfolds one of those beautiful, lyrical, Romantic themes that are so typical of Rachmaninoff. At first hearing, it seems like a completely new idea, but it is nothing more than Paganini’s theme played much slower and inverted (played upside down), with little else changed.

The last section begins with a spiky treatment of the theme, obliterating the languid mood of the preceding section. Each of the next several variations ratchets up the pace and the tension level. After another cadenza, Variation 23 reintroduces the theme in something close to its original form. Yet another brief cadenza, and the final variation gets underway. As it draws to a close, the Dies Irae theme is heard one last time, and the music seems to push toward a typical grandiose conclusion, but ends unexpectedly in two whisper-soft chords.

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (1901)

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

In 1907, a conducting engagement brought Gustav Mahler to Helsinki, where he met his fellow composer Jean Sibelius. As Sibelius later reported, the two met several times, and “thoroughly discussed all the great questions of music.” Eventually the subject of the symphony came up. Sibelius later recalled the conversation: “I said that I admired its severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between the motifs … Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!’”

Embracing an aesthetic outlook is one thing, putting it in practice another. While Sibelius’s symphonies are outstanding examples of formal logic and “severity of style,” does that necessarily mean that they are nothing more than pure form? Sibelius himself contradicted that notion when he described his symphonies as “confessions of faith from the different periods of my life,” and admitted that, “it pleases me greatly to be known as a poet of nature, for nature has truly been the book of books for me.”

Then, too, the political situation in Finland at the time almost guaranteed that his countrymen would read deeper meaning in his symphonies, whether Sibelius put them there intentionally or not. The Finland that Sibelius grew up in was ruled by czarist Russia, and for centuries before that had been under the political domination of Sweden. During all this time, the Finnish people longed for political independence, but it took a series of Russian decrees curtailing Finnish freedoms for a true independence movement to form.

Coinciding with the political movement came a cultural one. Interest in traditional Finnish art and customs began to take center stage in Finnish life. The ancient Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, was widely discussed, and the Finnish language itself experienced a renaissance (most business in Finland had been conducted in Swedish). Sibelius was caught up in a younger generation of artists engaged in rediscovering their Finnish heritage.

The Second Symphony was written in 1901, shortly after his patriotic tone poem Finlandia, and shares much of that work’s musical language. Sibelius never articulated a definitive program for it, but it seems to be accepted that the first movement depicts the quiet pastoral life of the Finns; the second movement brings the ominous foreshadowing of foreign rule and oppression; the scherzo depicts the awakening of national resolve, and the Finale the coming of hope and deliverance.

It is interesting to note that the second movement began with a very different inspiration – a series of sketches for a proposed but never written tone poem on Don Juan. The sketches include a short program note that could easily be applied to the beginning of the second movement: “Sitting in the twilight in my castle. A stranger comes in. I ask him more than once who he is. Finally he strikes up a song. Then Don Juan sees who he is: Death.” A warm pianissimo string melody follows marked “Christus,” with no further explanation.

This begs the question: Did Sibelius intend the second movement as a musical depiction of a struggle between life (Christus) and death? Or is it simply that when he came to compose the second movement, he found this unused material, shorn of its original context, musically useful?

The first movement, marked Allegretto, begins with soft, pulsating chords in the strings, over which oboes and clarinets present a simple tune with the feeling of a folk dance. A pastoral feeling, tinged occasionally with melancholy, pervades the movement; passion and drama is avoided.

Drama makes itself heard in the second movement, Tempo andante ma rubato. It begins with low pizzicato strings (the footsteps of Death?), leading to a mournful lament for two bassoons. The tempo increases to Allegro as a feeling of struggle is heard, followed by the “Christus” theme in the strings. The remainder of the movement is dominated by lengthy buildups of tension, followed by abrupt cutoffs, finally ending with heavy triads.

The third movement, Vivacissimo, is in the nature of a Scherzo, though not actually labeled as one. The main part of the movement introduces several lively themes, while in the trio section the oboe introduces a more nostalgic theme, beginning with nine repetitions of the same note. The movement concludes with a long sequence on a three-note motive, which leads without a break into the Finale.

The last movement begins with a bold theme in the strings supported by heroic fanfares in the brass. Later, a second theme, heard over an endless ostinato in the lower instruments, introduces an uneasy note, but the symphony ends in a mood of optimism and triumph.

Finns have embraced the Second Symphony as an expression of patriotic sentiment, a “Liberation Symphony” as some have called it. Sibelius denied that this was his intent. Still, given the dramatic arc of the symphony, and the way that it mirrors his own countrymen’s aspirations, it appears that Sibelius’s embrace was wider than he realized.