Icarus in Orbit
Work composed: 2003
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, celesta, marimba, percussion, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 4 minutes
George Theophilus Walker pursued successful careers in performance, composition, and teaching. After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, he attended the Curtis Institute, becoming the first African-American student to earn an artist’s diploma in piano and composition. At Curtis, Walker studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Gian Carlo Menotti. Walker continued his education at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned a D.M.A. in composition, the first African American to do so. In the 1950s, Walker studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Walker’s lifelong list of accomplishments includes many more firsts: he was the first black instrumentalist to play a recital in New York’s Town Hall, the first black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and the first black instrumentalist to obtain major concert management, with National Concert Artists. In 1996, Walker became the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Lilacs, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In 2000, Walker was elected to the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, the first living composer so honored. Throughout his decades-long career, Walker’s music reflected whatever preoccupied him at the moment of its creation, and he consistently rejected any attempt to pigeonhole or otherwise define his sound.
Icarus in Orbit is a short, vivid musical illustration of the Icarus story from Greek mythology. Icarus and his father Daedalus flee the island of Crete on homemade wings made of bird feathers and beeswax. Daedalus warns his son to maintain a middle course between sun and ocean, but Icarus, full of youthful hubris, defies his father and flies too high. The sun melts the beeswax, causing Icarus to plunge into the sea and drown.
Walker’s tautly constructed music opens with chorus of winds. Strings, brass, and percussion vie for dominance; at the close, a solo descending flute captures Icarus’ fatal descent.
Violin Concerto in A Minor
Work composed: 1951–52
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, Indian drum, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbal, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Violin Concerto reflects two important aspects of the Italian-born American composer’s career: his lifelong affinity for lyricism, and his 30+-year career as a professor of composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Menotti is best known for his operas, which gained popularity in the 1940s and 50s, particularly Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera written for American television. Menotti’s experience composing for voices served him equally well in his Violin Concerto, written for violinist Efrem Zimbalist, who also taught at Curtis. Menotti and Zimbalist collaborated on the concerto while vacationing in Maine during the summer of 1951. “[This] doubtless has to do with the violinist character of the solo part, uncommonly practicable and idiomatic for the stringed instrument,” reviewer Olin Downes observed.
Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the first performance with Zimbalist on December 5, 1952, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. “A new violin concerto introduced a new Efrem Zimbalist to a Carnegie Hall audience last night,” wrote Louis Biancolli for the New York Telegram & Sun, reviewing the concerto’s New York premiere a few days later. “The occasion was one of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visits to New York… Both the concerto and Mr. Zimbalist sounded terrifically young last night. It is a fresh and vigorous piece of music, overflowing with energy and melody ...”
Despite the positive initial reviews, Menotti’s Violin Concerto has taken a long time to enter the standard repertoire. Several Curtis alumni, including Zimbalist’s student Joseph Silverstein, Jennifer Koh, and Oregon Symphony Concertmaster Sarah Kwak, have advocated for and performed the concerto over the decades. Beginning in 2000, the concerto gained wider attention as a number of young violinists began performing and recording it. In a 2003 interview, Koh remarked, “One of the great things about this piece is it’s so lyrical… It has a beautiful kind of simplicity and yet a beautiful kind of sophistication to the sound within the orchestra.”
Menotti’s Violin Concerto reminds Kwak of early Shostakovich or Prokofiev. “It has a certain playfulness, and I think people will enjoy it. The first tune in the opening Allegro moderato is something people will come away humming.” In the Adagio, the solo violin exchanges phrases with different wind soloists in the manner of a desultory conversation; this eventually gives way to a dancing solo cadenza. The closing Allegro vivace builds on the cadenza with a tune that sounds like it came straight out of a vaudeville show, accompanied by an Indian drum. This odd combination creates a lighthearted, whimsical mood that leads to a humorous finish.
Symphony No. 11, Op. 103, “The Year 1905”
Work composed: 1956–57
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 20, 2003; James DePreist, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, celesta, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone, two harps, and strings
Estimated duration: 70 minutes
“Shostakovich didn’t care for talking about music. Music meant composing, playing, listening, and remembering… [H]e was unimpressed by musicians who aired their opinions in public.” – Gerard McBurney
To mark Dmitri Shostakovich’s 50th birthday on September 25, 1956, the journal Sovetskaya muzïka published a biographical retrospective of the composer’s life and work to date. In the article, Shostakovich declared, “I am currently working on my Eleventh Symphony, which, undoubtedly, will be ready by the winter. The theme of this symphony is the Revolution of 1905. I love this period in the history of our Motherland, which found clear expression in workers’ revolutionary songs.”
Anyone unfamiliar with Shostakovich’s music, or the politically precarious realities of life in the Soviet Union, might reasonably take this statement at face value. However, everything Shostakovich wrote contains a variety of different meanings. Shostakovich’s actual intentions regarding any given work were almost always a matter of intense speculation among friends and colleagues, as the composer carefully avoided any overt explanations. For Shostakovich, who had to tread the Communist Party’s aesthetic tightrope with extreme care or face brutal punishment – including the very real possibility of imprisonment or death – any descriptions of his work had to be vague and patriotic enough to mollify Soviet cultural authorities. At the same time, to preserve his artistic integrity, Shostakovich often hinted at other interpretations hidden just below the surface, for anyone, in Shostakovich’s own words, “who had ears to listen.”
Shostakovich was so good at hiding his true intent that his own colleagues disagreed as to his motivations. We can hear the Eleventh Symphony simply as a straightforward homage to the heroes and martyrs of the 1905 Revolution, as Shostakovich suggested. However, we can also experience the music as a commentary on the Soviets’ brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, which was taking place as Shostakovich composed the Eleventh Symphony.
Cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who knew Shostakovich well, took a more universal approach when he said the Eleventh is “a symphony written in blood, a truly tragic work. It is unremittingly tragic, and not so much about 1905 or 1956, perhaps, as about the persistently tragic pattern in human events. All revolutions, after all, are tragic events.”
Shostakovich gave each of the Eleventh’s four movements a title. The Palace Square opens before dawn on January 9, 1905, in central Saint Petersburg. Gerard McBurney, a noted Shostakovich scholar, writes, “We hear the frozen stillness of the river Neva in the darkness, the distant sounds of military bugles calling ‘Reveille’ in the barracks, and the equally distant chanting of the Russian Orthodox prayer for the dead, the Kontakion.” A crowd of thousands – men, women, and children – gathered to petition Tsar Nicholas II for a list of societal reforms. The Cossack soldiers in the square, on orders from Nicholas, ordered the crowd to disperse; hemmed in by the square, the tightly packed crowd could not comply before the soldiers opened fire. Hundreds died.
All the songs Shostakovich quotes in the Eleventh would be instantly recognized by a Russian audience. “Listen!”, a tune popular among political prisoners, describes an inmate hearing a “dead man walking” – the footsteps of a fellow prisoner on the way to his own execution. Two flutes intone the melody in a melancholy duet. Later, cellos and basses play “The Arrested Man,” a dialogue between a prisoner and a sympathetic guard.
In January the Ninth, Shostakovich quotes from his own 1951 choral setting of the eponymous poem by Arkady Kotz: “Bare your heads!/Bare your heads!/On this bitter day the shadow of a long night trembled over the earth/Hey you, father Tsar!/Look around you/We have nothing to live on/your servants give us no help.” The orchestra cries out the phrase “Bare your heads!” again and again, rising to an unbearable intensity. Towards the end of the movement, “Listen!” returns, along with the prayer for the dead.
Eternal Memory, the Russian name for the Kontakion, or prayer for the dead, begins with a dirge, “You fell as a victim.” “You fell as a victim in the fateful struggle/Of selfless love for the people. You gave everything that you could for them/For their lives, their honor, and their freedom … Your merciless sentence/Had already been decided for you by the executioner-judges …” Shostakovich follows this with a marching song comprised of two popular melodies: “Bravely, comrades, step forward! … We are the children of working families/Brotherly union and freedom/This is the slogan that takes us into battle.”
The Tocsin (The Alarm) opens with the brasses issuing a blazing call to action: “Rage, you tyrants, and mock at us/Threaten us with prison and with chains/We are stronger than you in spirit, though you trampled on our bodies/Shame! Shame! Shame on you, you tyrants!” Shostakovich saves the “Warsaw Song,” the most famous revolutionary tune, for last: “Malevolent whirlwinds blow around us/Dark forces press down on us with hate/We have engaged in the fateful struggle with our enemies, The fate that awaits us is still unknown/But with pride and courage we will raise/The battle standard of the workers’ cause/The standard of the great struggle of all peoples/For a better world, for holy freedom!/To the bloody battle, Holy and true/March, march onwards/You working people!” The words describe an organized uprising, but the unfettered ferocity of the music is contained only by Shostakovich’s unmatched mastery of his massive orchestral forces. The Eleventh ends with the repeated exhortation, “Bow your heads! Bow your heads!” the opening lines of Kotz’ poem, shouted at top volume by the full orchestra.
© 2020 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, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com