Hugh Wolff, New England Conservatory's Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, has written these notes for his March 11 concert with the NEC Philharmonia. The program concludes with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, continuing a cycle that first introduced Wolff to the NEC community in 2007, when NEC President Tony Woodcock called a performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 "definitive."
Haydn Symphony No. 82 (“The Bear”)
Although he worked in relative isolation for Prince Esterházy, by the mid 1780s Haydn’s fame had spread across Europe. He was particularly popular in Paris. In 1785, Count D’Ogny, a wealthy French patron, commissioned Haydn to write six symphonies for a concert series run by Freemasons called "Le Concert de la Loge Olympique." Haydn, who himself had become a Freemason in early 1785, received his biggest fee ever for these symphonies. The orchestra was large (over forty violins and ten basses), virtuoso, and flamboyant. The concertmaster and conductor was Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-Georges, a black musician from Guadaloupe; the musicians wore light blue frock coats and swords. The symphony we play tonight, written in 1786, was probably the last of the six. It earned its nickname, “The Bear,” from the unusual bass line that begins the Finale: a repeated half-note C with a grace note B. This tramping ostinato reappears, fortissimo and more bear-like, at the end of the symphony, but was first heard (fortissimo) near the end of the second movement’s charming variations.
Walton Viola Concerto
William Walton wrote one concerto each for violin, viola, and cello. The Viola Concerto, premiered October 3, 1929, when the composer was just twenty-seven years old, was the first. Walton conducted; the soloist was Paul Hindemith. Walton had offered the premiere to the British violist Lionel Tertis, who, much to his later regret and Walton’s chagrin, declined. The work is unabashedly modeled on Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, with which it shares an expansive and lyric first movement, an energetic scherzo, and a finale which begins with a jaunty bassoon melody and ends with a reprise of the opening movement’s main tune. Walton revised the work in 1962, mainly lightening the orchestration. We perform that version this evening.
Shostakovich Symphony No. 6, Op. 54
“I was completely in the thrall of fear. I was no longer the master of my life, my past was crossed out, my work, my abilities, turned out to be worthless… I wanted to disappear, it was the only possible way out. I thought of the possibility [of suicide] with relish.
“In that critical period my familiarity with Zoshchenko’s ideas helped me greatly… He said that suicide was an infantile act, the mutiny of the lower level of the psyche against the higher level. These and similar considerations kept me from making extreme decisions. I came out of the crisis stronger than I went in, more confident in my own strength. The hostile forces didn’t seem so omnipotent anymore and the shameful treachery of friends didn’t cause me as much pain as before…
“These thoughts were present in my mind when I was writing the first part of the Sixth Symphony (1939).”
—from Testimony, the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to Solomon Volkov
The crisis Shostakovich refers to followed the damning 1936 review of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and his subsequent dramatic fall from grace. In the late 1930s in Stalin’s Soviet Union, such a fall could mean arrest, imprisonment, and worse. Starting with his Fifth Symphony (1937), which he was more or less compelled to subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” Shostakovich groped to find a clear, safe, but artistically meaningful way forward. Mikhail Zoshchenko (1895–1958) was a writer and satirist, whose bitter, comic short stories and plays about the indignities of everyday life in the Soviet era were hugely popular. Shostakovich was a friend and admirer.
Loneliness, alienation, and the struggles of a fearful artist are the scaffolding upon which the long, achingly beautiful first movement of the Sixth Symphony is built. Although several of Shostakovich’s symphonies begin in a slow tempo, only the Sixth maintains this tempo throughout the first movement. By rejecting the traditional model of an energetic first movement in favor of brooding introspection, Shostakovich obviates the need for a slow movement altogether. In a way, the usual first and slow movements are telescoped together in this movement, which is considerably longer then the final two movements combined. The central section features an astonishing lonely flute solo accompanied by the barest pianissimo trills in the strings, followed by a brief glimpse of sunlight—a gentle horn solo over Mahlerian harmonies—that leads to the reprise of the opening melody. The scherzo that follows is much more complex than its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony. Here Shostakovich uses more continuous development, less exact repetition. The result is a kaleidoscopic little movement at turns high-spirited fun and sinister aggression, with virtuoso turns for the E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, and piccolo. And the Finale is high octane, circus music—broadly comic, yet at times so frenetic that it veers near the hysterical. After all, one way artists in Soviet times could express themselves freely was through satire. Zoshchenko’s medium was satire; Shostakovich likewise found satire fertile ground for self-expression. At the premiere, the audience demanded the Finale be encored.