Hugh WolffNew England Conservatory's Music: Truth to Power programming offers some unprecedented opportunities to hear musical works in interesting juxtapositions. On February 11 and February 12, audiences will be able to hear two "heroic-scale" Beethoven symphonies on back-to-back nights: Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," and Symphony No. 9, with its "Ode to Joy." And as NEC's Calderwood Director of Orchestras Hugh Wolff points out in these notes, the February 12 program pairs Beethoven's final, and mighty, Ninth with Shostakovich's early, brief, and mostly neglected Symphony No. 2. The journey with Shostakovich will continue in Symphony Hall on April 23, with a performance of Symphony No. 11.

Two Great Symphonists

Tonight we contrast the work of two of the greatest symphonists, each employing the human voice in a symphony for the first time, each depicting a journey from dark to light, each making an overtly political statement. For Beethoven it was the culmination of his art and a deeply felt plea for the brotherhood of humanity (Alle Menschen werden Brüder—“all mankind become brothers”) in a Europe traumatized by the Napoleonic Wars and lost opportunities for universal liberty. For the young Shostakovich it was a glorification of a revolution ten years earlier that seemed, for the moment, to augur new possibilities for humanity and a progressive kind of society. Both had in mind the perfectibility of mankind in the face of great hardship. The goal may have been the same; their methods and resulting works could hardly be more different.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 2

Dmitri Shostakovich was a twenty-year-old prodigy when in March 1927 he received an official order to write a symphony for the tenth anniversary of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. Always quick, Shostakovich finished the work in just a few months.

In a single movement of less than twenty minutes, with a chorus and a factory horn, Symphony No. 2, “To October” defies the traditional symphonic model. The factory horn was suggested by the authorities—they wanted to glorify the workers’ revolution. The chorus sings a poem similarly written for the occasion by Alexander Bezymensky (1898–1973).

The young composer seems to have wanted to show off his avant-garde credentials. The music begins extremely quietly with each string section playing a different rhythm: basses one note to a beat, cellos two, violas three, violins four, five, and six. The result is chromatic soup—musical chaos depicting the plight of the workers in their disorganized, pre-revolutionary state.

A fast, rhythmic section follows as a trio of instruments (solo violin, clarinet, and bassoon) play in complex counterpoint, and the entire orchestra gradually joins in. In contrast to the chaotic opening, this music represents the power of the workers as they join together to function like a fantastic, powerful machine. In fact, Bezymensky’s poem and the aesthetic of the time glorified the machine as a great boon to the overworked proletariat. The mood turns somber and quiet until a factory horn (pitched specifically in F-sharp) awakens the workers from their oppressed state. The chorus begins to sing, recalling the dire conditions before the revolution. Gradually they gain confidence as they describe the struggle (the oft-repeated word Borba!) of the revolution and the victory achieved under Vladimir Lenin. Culminating in a hymn to October (Oktyabr!), the month of the revolution, the symphony’s dark chromatic opening gives way to triumphant B major.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his first eight symphonies between 1800 and 1812. Another twelve years would elapse before he completed his Ninth Symphony. Though he composed few major works in this period, the distance Beethoven travelled stylistically and artistically was phenomenal. He was redefining the possible in music, stretching the art form to the breaking point. His deafness had overtaken him, so the effort required to express himself fully must have increased exponentially. If we believe the story that at the premiere of the Ninth he was still following the pages of his score after the performance ended and the audience responded with tumultuous applause, then he was surely completely deaf. If he could not hear the last few moments of this symphony while sitting on stage, he could not hear anything at all! Imagine, then, writing this symphony with such a disability.

The scale of the work far outstrips that of its symphonic predecessors. Only the “Eroica” has a longer first movement. The scherzo is almost double the length of any other, and the expansive double variations of the third movement create the longest slow movement.

Though great in scope, these three movements fit in the tradition of previous symphonies. But with the great Finale Beethoven leaves all convention behind. Beginning with what the Germans call the Schreckens-fanfare (a “terrifying call”), the peaceful mood of the preceding slow movement is shattered. Then, in music that must have been all but incomprehensible in 1824, the cellos and basses (“in the character of a recitative, but in tempo”) summarily reject the music of the preceding three movements. This act of violent self-editing throws the symphony into chaos. After all, not a word has been sung yet; there is no explanation for what is happening.

Only in retrospect will it become clear. The recitative over, the cellos and basses begin the simplest of melodies, in quiet unison. The music that will express universal joy and brotherhood starts as if a vague dream. This most famous of all Beethoven melodies is then treated to variations of greater complexity and expressiveness until the full orchestra bursts forth, only for the Schreckens-fanfare rudely to interrupt once more. The baritone soloist now rises to sing Beethoven’s own text: ”O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere!” (O friends, not these sounds! Instead, let’s play something more pleasing and joyful!).

“These sounds” are the music from the first three movements. The self-rejection now has a reason, and with Friedrich Schiller’s poem as his guide, Beethoven takes us on a great journey of hope for mankind. The moments of deepest expression and intensity are reserved for the text “Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such’ ihn überm Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muß er wohnen.” (Do you sense the creator, world? Seek him above in the starry sky, above the stars he must live!)

It is both an ecstatic description of the divine and a plea that it be true. Beethoven, burned by Napoleon, frustrated in his dream for personal liberty in a republic, always having to prove himself and his worth to an often uncomprehending public, yearned so deeply for real progress for humanity. We still yearn for it today and may yearn for centuries to come, but we will always have this music as a supreme example of the beauty one human can create.

2014-02-10


LIFE IS A LOT LIKE JAZZ. IT'S BEST WHEN YOU IMPROVISE. GEORGE GERSHWIN