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Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony

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ÂNGELA  DA  PONTE: La mer soulevée (The Rising Sea)

COMPOSER: Born April 13, 1984, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal
WORK COMPOSED: 2011, commissioned by the Casa de Música Foundation for the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto
WORLD PREMIERE: Michael Sanderling led the premiere on July 8, 2011, at the Sala Suggia, Casa da Música
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bell tree, bongo drums, crotales, glockenspiel, gong, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam tam, tom tom, triangle, tubular bells, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings

Ângela da Ponte’s music explores the intersections among recorded, electronic, and acoustic music. She recently earned a Ph.D. in composition  from the University of Birmingham (UK); while in Birmingham, she had the opportunity to perform and explore her electroacoustic works with BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Studio Theatre). In January 2015, da Ponte premiered  Ad aeternum, an electroacoustic work for eight-channel tape, exploring the traditional songs and ritual chants of her birthplace, the Azores.

Da Ponte is making a name for herself in her native Portugal and internationally; in 2011, she was the young composer in residence at Casa da Música, Porto, and in 2014–15, she collaborated with the Orchestre National d’Île de France. Last year, da Ponte’s music was heard at the Festival Visiones Sonoras 2016 in Mexico; CIME in Kraków, Poland; and at Auditório Nacional de Música, Madrid.

“La mer soulevée is based on a poem – Idílio – by Antero de Quental, in which the poet depicts in detail the most iconic features of São Miguel Island, Azores,” writes da Ponte. “This was very appealing to me because it evokes memories of personal experiences over the years I lived there and the relationship one can have with the sea. In the end, it is an homage to the Atlantic Ocean surrounding the wonderful Azorean archipelago.”

Idílio (Idyll) – Antero de Quental

When we two walk together, hand in hand,
And pluck the lilies growing by the mill.
And clamber, never stopping, up the hill
Where last night’s dewdrops, yet untarnished, stand;

Or, from the treeless summit, view the strand
And watch the evening clouds that slowly fill
The far horizon, forming at their will
Fantastic ruins of a sunken land:

How suddenly, at times, you cease to speak,
Your fingers quiver, colour leaves your cheek.
And in your eyes a fire unwonted darts!

Ocean and wind together seem to pray;
The poetry of nature makes its way, 
Subtle and loving, deep within our hearts.

Translated by S. Griswald Morley, 1922


Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor,  Op. 33

COMPOSER: Born October 9, 1835, Paris; died December 16, 1921, Algiers
WORK COMPOSED:  1872. Dedicated to and written for Belgian cellist, gambist, luthier, and music educator Auguste Tolbecque
WORLD PREMIERE: Édouard Deldevez conducted the Paris Conservatoire orchestra on January 19, 1873, in Paris, with Tolbecque as soloist
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: November 26, 1991; James DePreist, conductor; Lynn Harrell, cello
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Camille Saint-Saëns’ career spanned seven decades, and during that time, he was both vilified by conservatives for his endorsement of Richard Wagner’s music in the late 1850s, and dismissed by Claude Debussy as “the musician of tradition” in 1903.

Although Debussy’s words were meant as disparagement, many of Saint-Saëns’ contemporaries, including the notoriously opinionated Hector Berlioz, held him in high esteem. Saint-Saëns favored established (and, to his French detractors, foreign) genres: symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and chamber music. During his childhood and teen years, Saint-Saëns immersed himself in the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Throughout his lifetime, Saint- Saëns’ most popular and successful works adhered to these Germanic influences.

The A Minor Cello Concerto both reflects and departs from tradition: Saint-Saëns compresses the standard three-movement concerto form into one continuous movement with three contrasting sections. The solo part simultaneously showcases the cellist’s skill and incorporates the solo line into the orchestra in a deft musical collaboration.

The premiere of Opus 33, in the winter of 1873, helped establish Saint-Saëns as a rising young composer, but the conductor, Édouard Deldevez, did not think much of it. He told Saint-Saëns that if acclaimed cellist Auguste Tolbecque were not giving the premiere, Deldevez would not have included it in the concert at all. Deldevez’ opinion notwithstanding, the concerto entered the repertoire immediately, and has been a favorite of cellists and audiences ever since; Pablo Casals featured it in his London debut in 1905. Biographer Brian Rees writes, “The Revue et Gazette Musicale declared that, if he continued in this vein, [Saint-Saëns] would recover much of the prestige he had lost with ‘his all too obvious divergence from classicism and the tendencies in a number of recent works.’”

Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 

COMPOSER: Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia; died August 9, 1975, Moscow, USSR
WORK COMPOSED: Shostakovich began writing his Fifth Symphony on April 18, 1937, and finished it on July 20 of that year
WORLD PREMIERE: Yevgeny Mravinsky led the Leningrad Philharmonic on November 21, 1937, in Leningrad, as part of a concert commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY  PERFORMANCE: April 2, 2012; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets,  3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tambourine, tam tam, triangle, xylophone, celeste, piano, harp, and strings

Everyone in the concert hall in Leningrad on that chilly night in November 1937 knew that Dmitri Shostakovich’s artistic reputation, and very possibly his life, were on the line. They were there to hear the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Before the night was over, they also witnessed the dramatic rehabilitation of Shostakovich as the Soviet Union’s preeminent composer.

Earlier in the decade, Shostakovich had been fêted as the darling of Soviet cultural critics, but in 1936 the Soviet newspaper Pravda published a vicious denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Shostakovich’s response to the Pravda review was to immediately withdraw his Fourth Symphony, which he was then rehearsing (he did not perform it in public until 1961, eight years after Joseph Stalin’s death). This was not an overreaction; Shostakovich had many friends and associates who “disappeared” or were executed for reasons far less public. Any response Shostakovich made to his critics had to be meticulously planned, lest he suffer the same fate. With his Fifth Symphony, which a reviewer famously called “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism,” Shostakovich mollified government critics and simultaneously reasserted his artistic integrity.

Although the Fifth Symphony is an “absolute” piece of music (i.e., there is no extra-musical story or narrative attached to it), Shostakovich did include a brief description of “a lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory” in the program notes. The Moderato sets the tone for that “spiritual battle,” beginning with the strings’ menacing theme. Its dotted rhythms suggest a bitter march toward an implacable foe. Later, the violins introduce a lyrical second theme, in contrast to the angular rhythmic quality of the first.

The playful Allegretto juxtaposes frisky winds with stentorian brasses. In the trio section, a solo violin teases and flirts, before being interrupted by the full orchestra, which transforms the violin’s merry tune into a pompous,  galumphing parody of itself. A whiff of something grotesque permeates this music.

The Largo is the emotional core of the Fifth Symphony, and its power lies in its poignant melodies. Shostakovich gives the brass section a rest and showcases other instruments: first strings, then a solo flute, and finally the full orchestra, sans brasses. Wistful cries from the oboe, a sobbing upwelling of notes from the clarinet, and a brief comment from the flute follow before the whole orchestra comes together, amidst quivering string tremolos, in heart-wrenching sadness.

The Allegro non troppo opens with a firestorm, announced by pounding timpani and a blazing brass fanfare. Shostakovich returns to this theme again and again, and unleashes his seemingly endless power of invention with defiant abandon. In a quiet interlude  that directly precedes the coda, Shostakovich quotes a song in the violins (later in the harp) that he set to words of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin: “And the waverings pass away/From my tormented soul/As a new and brighter day/Brings visions of pure gold.” Despite this quotation and the blast of brassy triumph that ends the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich, perhaps enigmatically, called the conclusion an “irreparable tragedy.”

At the end of the premiere, a member of the audience remembered:  “The whole audience leapt to their feet and erupted into wild applause – a demonstration of their outrage at all the hounding poor Mitya had been through. Everyone kept saying the same thing: ‘That was his answer, and it was a good one.’ [Shostakovich] came out white as a sheet, biting his lips. I think he was close to tears.”

The Fifth Symphony also succeeded as a musical work, despite negative responses from some critics who saw it as a musical capitulation to the restrictions placed on artists’ works, or a shameful compromise by a world-class composer with the dictatorial political system in which he worked. Pravda, unsurprisingly, termed it “a farrago of chaotic nonsensical  sounds.” Despite the mixed critical reaction, audiences both within and outside the Soviet Union hailed the Fifth Symphony as a masterpiece,  and it has become Shostakovich’s most popular and most performed symphony.

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com


Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1

Johannes  Moser – Cello
Fabrice Bolton – Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hanssler 93222

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

Vasily Petrenko – Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra
Naxos 8572167 

Leonard Bernstein  – New York Philharmonic
Sony Classical 61841
Yakov Kreizberg – Russian National Orchestra
Pentatone  5186096