We take for granted how hard it is to make an orchestra, an ensemble. orchestra and chorus, sound good all playing together.
When listening to recorded music, we hear harmonies.
But absent in a large part is the “noise factor.” Vibration. The percussive effect of timpani and (to the full extent) piano. Brass. Voices. Voice quality.
How music’s melodies and harmonies enchant, at this moment and always. But, at the same time, vibration — sound shaking the hall, so to speak — affects the listener with an immediacy only a live performance can convey.
Pieces I know well sound new and fresh when I hear them performed live for the first time.
The trumpet player in his perch at the very rear of the balcony in the Allegro Vivace of the Leonore Overture No 2. There is a pause by the orchestra. So unexpected, the trumpet. So dramatic.
I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall this afternoon of Schubert’s Winterreise (D. 911) performed by Joyce Didonato (mezzo soprano) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano).
Nézet-Séguin, who is Canadian, is not only a pianist. He is the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal.
Regarding Ms. Didonato’s performance, which was outstanding, The New York Times noted in an article published last week that Winterreise is ” a work not usually sung by a female voice, but one that profits from it.”
The song cycle was, as I have already noted, performed brilliantly. It goes without saying that the piano is equal to the voice in this musical setting. Winterreise (Winter’s Journey, 1828) is a setting by Schubert of 24 poems by the poet Wilhelm Müller.
“A power duo of Joyce DiDonato (one the world’s greatest singers) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (a thrilling conductor-pianist) perform one of music’s greatest song cycles: Schubert’s harrowing and compellingly tragic Winterreise. The two dozen songs in this cycle chart a journey through an icy winter landscape, telling tales of alienation and loneliness. Schubert’s gift for what Liszt described as ‘dramatizing lyrical inspirations to the highest degree’ comes to life in this riveting performance.” (Carnegie Hall website)
Indeed, emotion — particularized human emotion — comes through so strongly in Schubert’s lieder. It is the music of a composer and also a poet in his medium (music).
Schubert, I realized and felt, knew and understood humanity. Human longings and sorrows.
About two thirds into the concert, something in the music or lyrics of Winterreise took me elsewhere in time. Perhaps it was the thoughts in the lyrics of the inevitability of death:
Weiser stehen auf den Strassen,
weisen auf die Städte zu,
und ich wand’re sonder Maßen
ohne Ruh’ und suche Ruh’.
Einen Weiser seh’ ich stehen
unverrückt vor meinem Blick;
eine Straße muß ich gehen,
die noch keiner ging zurück.
Signposts stand on the roads,
point towards towns.
Yet I wander on and on,
unresting, in search of rest.
One signpost I see stand there,
steadfast before my gaze.
One road I must travel
by which no-one ever came back.
— “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost)
I was transported in my mind (my thoughts wandering) back to my home and family sixty-five years ago. My father and mother. My siblings. A bittersweet sadness came over me. Comprised of happy, glad memories. The joy my parents took in their children. The appreciation they had and showed for them. Realizing that my parents are no longer living, were deceased long ago. I remember them so keenly. They were so alive then and aren’t now. Realizing that I will cease to exist and become only a memory.
This morning, I was “tormented” trying to identify a musical passage running through my mind. Passages come back to me like this. Rhythm or stress must be an essential aspect of music (yes, I know, it goes without saying), because — this is from a nearly functionally illiterate music lover — I kept recalling how this particular passage is accented or stressed; that is how I best remember it. I am not sure what the particular musical term is. Agitato? Sforzando?
Listen to this movement for chorus from Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589: namely, Domine, Fili unigenite (the only begotten Son of God). It’s a little over two minutes long.
Is it not marvelous? It is passages and works like these that make Vivaldi so special and inimitable. His music uplifts.
This wonderful performance is from the album Vivaldi’s Gloria by the Academy of Ancient Music, conductors Simon Preston and Christopher Hogwood; the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
— Roger W. Smith
P.S. It is music like this that makes me feel like I want to weep with tears of joy.
flawless performance at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 2019
I have criticized her (perhaps unfairly) with reference to Schubert performances.
I saw her a couple of times performing at Carnegie Hall within the past year. A Schubert performance last year left me feeling lukewarm about her, despite the fact that the audience — she has a following — loves her.
But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or “give up” on her too easily, I thought. It may be that I have been lacking in discernment and, consequently, appreciation for her playing.
She certainly confounded my expectations, and my prior less-than-enthusiastic opinions, on Saturday evening.
I realize that the three last Schubert piano sonatas are all great, just about equally. I have had a sentimental preference for the next to last sonata, D. 959. But I fully felt and experienced the greatness of the sonata D. 960 tonight. Mitsuko Uchida made me feel that.
And, I realized, as an auditor, why she is regarded, probably, as the foremost Schubert interpreter of our time.
So, from her hands, I heard Schubert and felt what makes his music unique and special. And so lyrical in a deeply affecting way. Note I said lyrical, by which I don’t mean to neglect what I would call complexity yoked to powerful, direct expression — a quality preeminent, unmistakably so, in Beethoven. It’s not quite the same thing, but — as to what makes Schubert great – in the program notes from last night’s concert, reference is made to Schubert’s “seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance.” (italics added)
Schubert sounds like no one else. His sound — if I were a musicologist, I could probably elucidate the distinguishing features; chords, for example (the program notes refer to “quicksilver changes of keys and moods”) — is sui generis. He is almost immediately recognizable. Perhaps this is a truism that applies to practically all great artists: the Handel of Messiah and Samson; the Haydn of the masses and The Seven Last Words of Christ; the Mozart of the Ave verum corpus and Masonic Funeral Music … the Melville of Moby-Dick; the Tolstoy of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection; the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
But– I’ll say it– I prefer Schubert to Chopin (with respect to the former’s compositions for piano).
I would say that he is incredibly self-contained — his music is sufficient unto itself. By which I mean that his music holds, fulfills, and enraptures the listener without anything in it that was intended necessarily to impress or astonish. The music seems to bubble up like a spring. There is nothing imitative or referential. No other composer could write such music. There is was only one Schubert. Self-evident? Yes, admittedly. But I got to thinking about this at the concert, and my mind wandered without my losing focus on the music. (This has happened to me at other concerts, as I have noted in previous blogs.)
How could I express these feelings or opinions of mine about Schubert? In my mind, I strained to think of a way to put or couch it. I thought of my mother. Yes, my mother.
My mother was a remarkable person. People almost always seemed to notice her special personal qualities, and to speak about them. There was something “self-contained” about her too. The good things were just there, inherent, unchanging; sort of wafted out of her; were effused into the atmosphere, so to speak, to those around her. The good things, the remarkable things — her particular way of seeing things and relating to people and her milieu — seemed to have always been part of her.
She wasn’t trying to impress others (though she was self-conscious, naturally, about the impression she made and eager to be thought well of). She was, to the extent she was admired for her good qualities, just that way. One felt that one would never meet such a person ever again, which is not to say that she was a perfect person or deserved veneration. It’s just that what was good about her was constant; distinctive in her; treasured and consistently welcome for the sense of emotional satisfaction that came from being privileged to be related to or know her. By which I don’t mean that she was like a therapist, healer, or do-gooder (though she was kind and thoughtful), she was someone whom people wanted to know and associate with because of who she was.
Like Schubert? Meaning one wants to listen to him. Not because one should (because someone told you you must, because of his musical standing or stature as a composer). Not because he is the best composer in this or that medium, or was important as a composer in the transition from classicism to romanticism. But because he’s Schubert . And, with my mother, people wanted to know and talk with Elinor.
On February 14, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, in a performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (one of the world’s premiere orchestras).
Brahms’s first and fourth symphonies are equally good. The first is a personal favorite of mine. Both symphonies rank right up there with Mozart’s greatest, Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert’s ninth, and one or two others. Unquestionably.
A word that came to my mind last evening in connection with Brahms’s music is powerful. (Or should I say vigorous?) Incredibly so. In this respect, I would say very similar to, rivaled by, Beethoven.
such clarity of structure, development, and phrasing;
sonority, orchestration, harmony, the interplay among instruments: a brilliant fusion of same;
works that sound totally original;
in no way derivative or imitative.
When you hear Brahms, it’s unmistakably Brahms. Brahmsian. He has his own sound.
In the fourth, there is not one boring stretch or passage, no instance of a putative listener thinking the first and fourth movements were great, but the Andante was nothing special.
Don’t stop there, dear reader. His violin concerto. His German Requiem. His quartets. What impresses me most about Brahms is complete mastery combined with such sincerity and depth of feeling so clearly expressed.
Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony is a sprawling score that heaves, blasts, marches and meanders for nearly 80 minutes. Written in 1941, while Hitler’s forces were devastating Leningrad in a siege that would last 900 days and take at least a million lives, the work practically screams, “This is a big statement!”
And scream it did on Thursday at Geffen Hall, where Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of the “Leningrad” that was intense and powerful — sometimes overly so.
Shostakovich began composing this symphony, his seventh, before the German invasion. Debates continue over whether he intended it as a grim portrait of a historic city under siege, or as a more general cry against tyranny. Are there coded, anti-Stalinist messages in the piece? And are those long stretches of militaristic-sounding marches bitterly ironic?
I am aware of divergence of critics on these points.
Mr. van Zweden seemed to take the piece at face value — in the best sense. He laid out this shifting score clearly, letting it speak for itself. He pushed the orchestra to blaring extremes at times, but the excessiveness of the music may call for that. (Critics who question the symphony’s merits, including Virgil Thomson, have found it obvious and steeped in banality.)
I wonder about this. Thomson is not NECESSARILY wrong, but I know the seventh well and find much to admire in it.
From the Philharmonic strings, Mr. van Zweden drew a dark, deep tone in the opening theme: a stern yet elusive melodic line, played in unison, that is soon goaded by bursts of drums and trumpets. The transition from there into a quizzically lyrical passage was deftly handled.
The most curious section of the nearly half-hour first movement comes when you expect a development section to begin. Instead, a snare drum plays an obsessive march rhythm. Over it, individual instruments, then groups, play what sounds like a jaunty march tune — over and over. Each statement becomes bigger, louder and more elaborately orchestrated. This roughly 10-minute section has aptly been described as Shostakovich’s “Boléro.” Mr. van Zweden and the orchestra played it straight, building inexorably to an assaultive fortissimo climax.
I don’t like Ravel’s “Boléro.” I know this passage in Shostakovich’s seventh well. I am not crazy about it. … Shostakovich often surprises.
The Philharmonic’s high level of the performance continued throughout the symphony: the second movement’s cross between a scherzo and lyrical reminiscence; the restless slow movement; and the often frenzied finale, which drives toward of seemingly triumphant (or bitter?) coda of victory.
Composer and critic Virgil Thomson is known for having been highly critical of Shostakovich and composers similar to him, such as Sibelius. His caustic remarks on Shostakovich’s seventh are frequently quoted. The review quoted has, I would suspect, been rarely read in its entirely and it is not available online. I am posting the entire review here.
Whether one is able to listen without mind-wandering to the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich probably depends on the rapidity of one’s music perceptions. It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted. In this respect it differs from nearly all the other symphonies in the world in which abnormal length is part and parcel of the composer’s concept. Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Ninth and Eighth, Bruckner’s Seventh and the great Brahms “machines” are long because they could not have been made any shorter without eliminating something the author wanted in. Their mater is complex and cannot be expounded briefly.
Its Length Is Arbitrary
The Shostakovich piece on the other hand is merely a stretching out of material that is in no way deep or difficult to understand. The stretching itself is not even a matter of real though possibly unnecessary development. It is for the most part straight banal repetition. The piece seems to be the length it is not because the substance would brook no briefer expression but because for some reason not inherent in the material the composer wishes it that way. Of what the reason could possibly be I have only the vaguest notion. That the reason was clear to its author I have not the slightest doubt, however, because the piece all through bears the marks of complete assurance. It is no pent up outpouring out of personal feelings and still less an encyclopedic display of musical skill. It is interminably straightforward and withal is limited in spiritual scope as a film like “The Great Zigfield” or “Gone With the Wind.” It could have said what it says in fifteen minutes or it could have gone on for two hours more. The proportions of the work seem to this auditor, in short, wholly arbitrary.
Its Content Is Tame
They do not seem, nevertheless, accidental. Nothing seems accidental in this piece. The themes are clearly thought out and their doings are simplified with a master’s hand. The harmonies, the contrapuntal web, the orchestration show no evidence of floundering or of experiment. If the music has no mystery and consequently no real freedom of thought, neither does it obtain any obscurity or any evidence of personal frustration. It is as objective as an editorial, as self-assured as the news report of a public ceremony.
Heretofore this author’s music, whether theatrical or symphonic, has been animated by an instinct for easy theatrical values. He has put into his works with never-failing effect crowd scenes, barcarolles, burlesques and patriotic finales, holding these all together with a kind of neutral continuity-writing in two-part counterpoint. The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages. One could always feel in them the rambunctious but gifted boy whose heart was really in the right place. In spite of the static and not very significant character of the innocent two-part counterpoint between, his “production numbers,” if one may call them that in symphonic music, have always been bright, full of gusto and genuinely characteristic of their composer. They have put us in contact with a real person.
The Seventh Symphony has the same formal structure as the rest of its author’s work. It is series of production numbers interspersed with neutral matter written chiefly in that same two-part counterpoint. There is a mechanized military march and the usual patriotic ending, neither of them quite as interesting or imaginative as they might be. And the rest of the episodes are tamer. The pastorale and the Protestant chorale are competent routine stuff, no more, and the continuity-counterpoint, though less static than usual, just sort of runs on as if some cinematic narrative were in progress that needed neutral accompaniment. The opening passage, which is said to represent the good Soviet citizen, is bold and buoyant. But nowhere is there any real comedy, which is what Shostakovich does best.
It is no reproach to an author to say that one of his works is the kind of work it is. And this work is certainly of more sober mien than most of its author’s others. It is very long and very serious, and both these qualities are certainly deliberate observances. The facile competence and the assurance of the whole thing, moreover, eliminate the possibility that any auditor find the struggle between the artiest and the material a major subject of interest. It is easy to listen to the piece, equally easy to skip any part of it without missing the sense of the whole. It is excellent journalism, and some of it can be remembered. But it will probably not make much difference to anybody’s inner musical life whether he hears it or doesn’t.
Its Author Is Growing Up and Not Very Prettily
Shostakovich is an abundant musician, a “natural” composer. He is also an experienced and perfectly assured one. Heretofore he has maintained a boyish taste for low comedy (redeemed by sincere patriotic sentiment) that gave gusto to his writing and made listening to it sometimes fun. The present work shows a wish to put boyish things behind him and a complete ability to do so without losing confidence in himself. That it is less amusing than his previous works is not to its discredit. That it is, in spite of its serious air and pretentious proportions, thin of substance, unoriginal and shallow indicates that the mature production of this gifted master is likely to be on the stuffy side. That he has deliberately diluted his matter, adapted it, both by excessive simplification and by excessive repetition to the comprehension of a child of eight indicates that he is willing to write down to a real or fictious psychology of mass-consumption in a way that may eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer.
— Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942, pg. E7
In an earlier review of a performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, Thomson stated:
The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony is easy to listen to but hard to keep the mind on. It is easy to follow because the tunes are simple, the counterpoint thin and the orchestration very broad and plain. It is experienced work by a man of thoroughly musical mentality; and it is apparently designed for easy listening, perhaps even with a thought to making it possible for the radio listener to miss some of the repetitions without losing anything essential. It is hard to keep one’s attention on it at a concert hall because it repeats itself so much. One gets to thinking about something else while waiting for the next section.
As usual with Shostakovich, the quiet passages are less effective that the noisy ones. [italics added] Even these, with doubled brass and seven men at the battery, are not especially rousing. Like everything else in the work they are a little too simple to be interesting. The symphony seems to need film accompaniment, something to occupy the mind while it goes on and to explain the undue stretching out of all its sections. I do not find the work objectionable in spirit, and it is certainly sincere and competent music-making. I merely find it thin in substance.
— Virgil Thomson, “Imperfect Workmanship,” New York Herald Tribune, October 15, 1942, pg. 18
I don’t, in the final analysis, agree with Thomson. I like Thomson’s music. And he writes very well. He was justifiably regarded as a very good critic. I don’t mind incisive criticism like this even when I disagree with it. It makes me think.
With a Shostakovich symphony, you never know what to expect. There are deep thought and great ingenuity in all his works. Somewhat like Beethoven, his symphonies (with the possible exception of the second and third symphonies) tend to hold their own, none “copying” another. Each one is a remarkable work.
Yet, the greatest works of art can be uneven. “Perfect” construction is not necessarily desirable or a virtue. Samuel Johnson said as much in a comment about Milton’s Paradise Lost:
In every work one part must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages; a poem must have transitions. It is no more to be required that wit should always be blazing, than that the sun should always stand at noon. In a great work there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night.
— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” Lives of the Poets
Take Beethoven’s Ninth, for example. An inferior work? Yet, at times the construction seems sort of messy. How does the “Ode to Joy” fit into the work? Is it strident? Too much? An emotional outpouring that amounts to overblown sentiment?
Shostakovich has been accused of writing such music and of being inferior to supposedly more cerebral composers such as Stravinsky. Was Beethoven’s music at times too romantic? Is Shostakovich’s music as times too patriotic? Such questions seem nonsensical to me.
Shostakovich, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above most twentieth century composers, including those who were trying to show primarily how clever or innovative they were. Shostakovich is a brilliant “musical thinker,” and, on top of that, one continually encounters passages of deep feeling and startling beauty.
Thomson’s assertion that “the quiet passages [in Shostakovich’s works] are less effective that the noisy ones” is flat out wrong. Here are some examples from the symphonies that demonstrate just the opposite:
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (“Leningrad”)
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (“The Year 1905”)
Adagio (Eternal Memory)
Only one of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets had been published when Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was premiered. Had Thomson been familiar with the quartets and other later works of Shostakovich — such as the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, premiered in 1952 — he might have had a deeper and fuller appreciation of the composer’s’ oeuvre.
* The third movement of Shostakovich’s eleventh, “Eternal Memory,” starts with a halting motion on pizzicato strings, over which a noble melody (‘You Fell As Victims’, most famous of all the revolutionary songs and whose deployment was by no means limited to Soviet composers) is heard on violas then extended to upper strings. A sombre new theme, heard initially on woodwind and brass before being transformed on violins, begins the ascent to the apex, at the summit of which the climactic motif from the previous movement is sounded out balefully on full orchestra, underpinned by pounding timpani that continue as the intensity subsides. The viola melody, now a distant recessional, is heard again before pizzicato strings arrive at a questioning pause. [Program notes, recording of the eleventh symphony by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.]
The sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin mentions this revolutionary song and Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony in his autobiography, A Long Journey.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
transcription of Virgil Thomson’s New York Herald Tribune reviews by Roger W. Smith
On Saturday evening, December 1, 2018, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall given by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sergey Smbatyan, a very young conductor.
What great seats I had! Box 15 in the first tier. A seat near the front of the first tier which overlooked the stage. I prefer not to sit in the so called Parquet section (the lowest, orchestra level). The acoustics, I have been told by other concertgoers, are better higher up, and one has a view of the whole orchestra.
The program included a very recent work: Travel Notebook Suite for Piano and Orchestra (2017) composed by Alexey Shor, a young Ukrainian composer. It was an engaging piece that “worked” and that kept one’s interest sustained with variety of content from movement to movement. (Shows the advantage of being willing to listen to new music.) The pianist, Ingolf Wunder, a young Austrian, was outstanding. He drew applause that led to his performing a Chopin piece as an encore.
The second half of the concert was comprised of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. I have posted about the Shostakovich fifth before.
To hear it or any favorite work live is a revelation. With my great seating, I was able to “see” the entrances of the different players and sections of the orchestra — the two flutes (especially important in this work); the trumpets, trombones, and bassoons; the timpani and cymbals; and, yes, the two harps – occurring. One sees as well as hears them (as one might not on a rerecording, not being quite sure what instrument one is hearing).
Shostakovich, it is well known and has been frequently noted, was a master of tone color. This is fully recognizable in a live performance.
And, the way the instruments play off one another is brilliant. I had a similar feeling while watching a performance of a Mozart symphony recently. (I forget if it was Mozart’s 40th or the Jupiter Symphony.)
Shostakovich is a master of the ironic, the sardonic, and the unexpected. Not adverse to clashing sounds and dissonance (along with beautiful, elegiac melodies). Sort of reminds one of Stravinsky. But the framework, the overall construction of the piece, is worthy of a Haydn or a Beethoven.
The instruments seem to be having a conversation (notably in the first movement, Moderato), and the piece has an undeniable, irresistible sense of logic and forward movement that never flags. As is invariably true of the greatest symphonies.
The first movement of Shostakovich’s fifth. Note the interplay and “handoffs” between the instruments. The thematic variations. Note how carefully, and with such artistry, Shostakovich builds an aura and a sense of suspense.
Shortly after his return to Russia from the first international tour Tchaikovsky set to work on his Fifth Symphony, in E minor. It was written in about two months, during the summer of 1888. For some time the composer had been brooding over the possibility that his inspiration had dried up and that it was time for him to quit. He worked hard on his symphony to prove to himself that his own fears were groundless. The first performance of the work left him more despondent than ever. When he conducted it in St. Petersburg later that year, and in Prague, it fell flat. ‘It is a failure,’ he wrote to his confidante. ‘There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated idea of colour, some insincerity or fabrication which the public instinctively recognizes.’ He went on to say that his Fourth Symphony was a far better work.
It is interesting to note after many years how much of the composer’s estimate of the Fifth Symphony fell wide of the mark and how much was damningly true. The work certainly was not a failure. It became one of the most popular symphonies ever written, one of the established showpieces of every orchestra’s repertoire, and a bulwark of Tchaikovsky’s hold on the affections of the music public. It has been played until every shred of novelty is worn away, the seams show, and the dramatic surprises are gone. Every critic knows how right the composer was when he spoke of over-exaggeration, insincerity, fabrication—even the ‘something repellent’. Nevertheless the Fifth Symphony is beloved wherever orchestras foregather the world over.
The work is another laboratory specimen of the composer’s mature style–which means a mixture of his virtues and faults in unexplainable juxtaposition. It has lyric richness almost to excess; it has brilliance, variety of mood, tremendous passion. It has also the composer’s characteristic melancholia, his mood of desperate sadness. There is an orchestration of clarity, colour, and resounding power; and finally, like pieces of glass set in a diadem, there are some classic examples of bad taste.
The symphony makes a good beginning, as Tchaikovsky so often does in his first movements. This one may be a patchwork of themes instead of a logical piece of sonata construction, but has melodic interest, well sustained. The motto theme with which the work begins is radically different from the Fatum of the Fourth Symphony, being not a brassy fanfare but a soft, gloomily intoned melody for the clarinet. It runs through the entire symphony in various guises, becoming in the last movement the main declamation point of the entire work. Its use is so strongly stressed as to suggest some concrete idea behind the composer’s inspiration. Tchaikovsky never admitted the existence of such a programme, as he did in the case of the Fourth Symphony, but many commentators have supplied their own. It seems doubtful if one really existed. This phase of Tchaikovsky’s music is apt to be confusing. He was obviously impressed with the tone-poem, programme-symphony idea, which permeated the music of the romantic era. It ruled so much of his thinking that even his most abstract works often sound as if they had a programmatic basis. His melodies, helped by his dramatic type of construction, often seem to be telling some story; it is one of their strongest characteristics. But most of the time the composer was simply imitating the tone-poem style, not actually carrying it out.
The second movement of the Fifth Symphony presents another celebrated Tchaikovsky melody. It is given at first to the solo horn and is later entwined with an obbligato by the oboe. The movement is remindful of a Chopin nocturne, extended and intensified with all the swelling passions and colours of the great orchestra. It misses being one of the supreme nocturnes, for its chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.
The third movement is marked Waltz, and for this the composer has been doubly damned. The purists have said that a waltz has no place whatever in a symphony, and anyway this is not a real waltz at all. They may be right on both counts, but not many listeners would sacrifice this particular movement. It is unpretentious, melodious, and charming; and it serves to relieve the emotional tension of the surrounding movements.
It is hard to forgive Tchaikovsky for the last movement of the Fifth Symphony [italics added]. His purpose was to end his symphony with a resounding, triumphal finale; his method in part was to take the gloomy motto theme, turn it from minor to major, and proclaim it to the skies. It so happens that this is one of the hardest tests to which a composer may subject a theme–to have it sung fortissimo by the brass. Better themes than Tchaikovsky’s have failed under this ordeal. Here the result is lamentable. The tune takes on neither dignity nor beauty only the banal trumpery of an operatic march by Meyerbeer [italics added].
“[The second movement’s] chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.”
It is hard to forgive Richard Anthony Leonard for such atrocious criticism.
The taste of the public, it has often been said, has always been, and will always be, abysmally low. But, a literary critic should be careful when savaging such universally beloved and esteemed works as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Misérables, or Great Expectations; or a pompous music critic the works of one of the greatest composers.
On November 8 2018, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the West-East Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op. 64. The symphony is comprised of four movements: Andante–Allegro con anima, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, Valse: Allegro moderato, Finale: Andante maestroso–Allegro vivace.
I believe Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was the first symphony I got to know in its entirety. It was the first symphony I ever purchased, on an LP when I was a teenager.
The above quote is from a popular book by the British music historian and critic Richard Anthony Leonard that is now out of print. It was used in a course, Introduction to Music, which I took at Brandeis University in my sophomore year.
I was dismayed and almost felt wronged when I read Leonard’s comments on the Fifth, in my college survey text (Leonard’s book). I thought for a moment: Could I be wrong about Tchaikovsky? Could it be that I was snowed, fooled by Tchaikovsky’s “schlocky” music? No, I thought, I don’t, can’t agree.
On October 27 at Carnegie Hall, I saw a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, opus 70. It was a work hitherto unknown to me.
The program notes contained the following comment:
Dvořák’s Seventh is generally ranked as the greatest of the composer’s nine symphonies. This assessment is voiced in spite of the work not being as ingratiating as the Eighth Symphony or as dramatic as the ever-popular Ninth, “From the New World.” Sir Donald Francis Tovey set the Seventh alongside the C-Major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms as “among the greatest and purest examples of this art form since Beethoven.”
I am not prepared to say this about Dvořák’s Seventh. But, the comment got me to thinking: what are the greatest symphonies of all time?
Well, Tovey identifies most of them: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms.
What about Mozart?
My personal ranking:
All nine Beethoven symphonies. You can’t really choose among them.
Mozart’s last three symphonies and his Symphony No. 36 (“Linz”). The “Linz’ and Mozart’s’ Symphony No. 40 are personal favorites of mine.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C-Major. Incidentally, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is haunting, but it odes not, in my opinion, rank with the others listed above by me and is not the equal of Schubert’s Ninth.
Brahms’s first and fourth symphonies. These are his two greatest, I feel. The First is a personal favorite of mine, but the Fourth is equally great.
Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.
Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. I am convinced that it ranks with the others, and is the only modern symphony about which I am prepared to say this.
In all of the above works, what I find is brilliance of conception, structure, and musical architecture and unwavering emotional power. So that each work feels like an organic whole and never flags.
Well, almost never. The third movement — Valse: Allegro moderato — of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is comprised of a beautiful waltz worthy of Tchaikovsky, and yet I find my interest and sense of inevitability in the music flagging a bit at that point.
I have a good friend whom I share with my wife. He was a former teaching colleague of hers.
He reads all my posts — I am very happy to have him as a regular reader. He tends to admire my writings, which is very welcome, although if he disagrees with something (such as an opinion of mine about an author), he will tell me or my wife. He is a thoughtful person and reads with care and attention. But his criticisms are not harsh.
He has mentioned several times to both of us having enjoyed my writings and thoughts on classical music. He is an accomplished and serious pianist and a lover of music, about which he is knowledgeable.
I said I was glad that he enjoyed my posts about music. “You know,” I said, “with my limited technical knowledge of music, I am surprised to find I can write about it. But it seems I can.”
He said something in response to the effect that my writings on music read like those of a music critic.
Thinking more about this, I wrote my friend a follow up email, the text of which follows.
Yesterday we were talking about early influences, namely music and art.
I seem to be able to “think musically.”
Even though I can’t read music or play an instrument.
How is it that I know (or think I do) that Bartók outranks Stravinsky? How and why is it that when I was listening once to folksongs by Bartók, I was reminded of Porgy and Bess? And, then (this was in the past), I happened to read something about Gershwin somewhere and found out that he had used pentatonic scales in Porgy and Bess and realized that Bartók did the same with folksongs that used ancient modalities.
As I said, I seem to have always been able to think musically. My father graduated from Harvard when I was around four or five with a degree in music. I don’t recall it well, but he had 78 RPM records of classical music that he would play when doing assignments. I recall that I loved the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 — if one can do that at a very early age, one is inherently musical. I enjoyed listening to my mother play classical music on the piano around bedtime. I liked some other works I recall such as Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Plus kids’ songs such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away (Come Back Again Some Other Day).” I still remember the words and the basic tune. We had a scratchy old record of it which I wanted to hear over and over again.
I seem to have a photographic memory for music. I always recall what the pieces were and remember them exactly, going way back and extending through my lifetime. If I hear a different rendition at some later date, I can tell it’s not the same. (This includes popular music and rock.) How is it that I remember both the music and the actual pieces, including what they were?
For example, on the first day of school I attended in the seventh grade in my new hometown, Canton, our teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, led us from the piano in singing. The songs were “Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House We Go. The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh”; and, “Oh, Those Golden Slippers.” I can hear the songs still. I can hear Mrs. Sullivan playing — can seem to almost remember how that old piano sounded — remember what the songs were and the melodies.
Music is linear, like mathematics. I think linearly. I always did very well in math. Music and subjects like algebra are left brained.
I never had to develop an interest in music, like, say, someone who says, or thinks, they should take up tennis or golf for some reason, and begins by taking lessons.
It was similar to my love of books and reading in that it was never an interest that was part of academics or coursework. The best interests develop naturally this way.
So that when I was in high school, I began to seriously develop a taste for and knowledge of classical music. It came naturally.
But when it comes to playing and performing, I could never, should I have tried, come close to my siblings’ proficiency.
A footnote: My former therapist, Dr. Colp’s, intellectual development seemed similar, in some respects. He grew up in a very intellectually stimulating atmosphere of books and ideas. He told me that the life of the mind was like breathing for him.
I was very fortunate to have grown up in a home were music was a part of everyday life and where aesthetic enrichment and appreciation came with the territory. Music has always been an important part of my life.