Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1976)
Chamber Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 110a (1960) [arr. Barshai]
Shostakovich described his fifteen symphonies as tombstones, but he could have said the same of his fifteen string quartets. Each of these - though some of them more chillingly than others - examines mortality from a different angle, darkly, bleakly, humorously, sardonically, angrily, fearfully, with profound resignation, and by way of what may sound like morbid recollections of some of the composer’s own previous works.
Most of these elements appear or reappear in his Eighth Quartet, to be played this evening in the transcription for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, one of Shostakovich’s former pupils, prepared with the composer’s approval under the title of Chamber Symphony No 1 in C minor.
Written in 1960 during a visit to war-torn Dresden, the quartet was triggered - or so it seemed - by the composer’s memories of his own shattered St Petersburg. Dedicated, he said, to the Memory of Victims of Fascism, the work’s vivid portrayals of brutality and sorrow have understandably established it as the most famous of all his quartets, but repetition, not least in Barshai’s searing arrangement, has neither weakened its effect nor dimmed its message. Yet the message is not quite what it first seemed. Far from depicting the destruction of Dresden, as used to be thought, the work - like so many others of its kind by Shostakovich - is really a veiled indictment of Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia.
Unlike Bartok’s quartets, Shostakovich’s were not intentionally vanguard works, though they explored territory previously uncharted in terms of pungent musical description and emotionally political comment. The composer’s own nervy presence at the centre of the Eighth Quartet is noted by his use of the DSCH motif - the initials of his own name in German transliteration, starkly represented by the notes D, E flat, C, B. This four-note signature, of a sort previously employed by Bach and Schumann, is first heard right at the start of the first movement as the melancholy basis of a slow fugal elegy.
Into this atmosphere of restrained mourning bursts the only really fast music in these five interlinked movements, a ferociously incisive portrait of mechanised inhumanity, incorporating various musical self-quotations alongside the DSCH motif. Then, as a sort of intermezzo, comes a satirical, spectral waltz, leading to the double slow movement that brings the work to a close.
These final nine-or-so minutes of almost static music, starting with a harsh, frequently repeated rat-tat-tat rhythm, form the work’s sombre climax. One of the quotations takes the form of a Russian convict song entitled Exhausted by the Hardship of Prison, along with a moving reference, high in the cellos, to the Siberian fourth act of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In the end, the music recedes into eloquent silence.
© Conrad Wilson
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings
The many people who know Samuel Barber solely as the creator of this Adagio, might take him for a serene and transcendental man: a consoler, a spiritual comforter. In truth he had spiky, incisive, experimental, worldly, monk-ish, jazzy, flashy and retiring sides too. It was this piece that both sparked the biggest controversy of his career and put him on the map.
The Adagio was originally the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, but recognising its power, he lifted it out of that piece and arranged it for full string orchestra. In this new form it became the first piece of American music that the influential maestro, Arturo Toscanini deigned to conduct. Toscanini had a status in ‘30s America that is hard to grasp nowadays. He was a genuine star who broadcast constantly; his recordings sold out, tickets for his performances were rare as gold dust. His first engagement with the music of his host nation was a landmark event and attracted nationwide attention. The performance was broadcast to millions. Expectation soared, and to most, the concert was a triumph: the Adagio went on to become among the most recorded of all music. But a vocal minority (who cared enough to keep up a lively correspondence in the New York Times) was far from delighted: those who had hoped for something more Ivesian perhaps; experimental, modernist, revolutionary and – by definition – ‘difficult’.
“Mr Barber’s music was ‘authentic’, dull, ‘serious’ music – utterly anachronistic as the utterance of a young man of 28, AD 1938.”
(Ashley Pettis to the New York Times)
Pettis overlooked the Adagio’s quiet revolution: in this piece, Barber refused as clearly as Ives ever did to toe the line. He chose to express himself in a very personal way that happened to be lyrical, accessible and rooted in the distant past. That took immense courage in 1938. He spoke from the heart, and the resulting music is no pastiche. If anything its roots lie with the choral works of Palestrina and Victoria, but it also has an unquestionable 20th century authenticity about it (interesting that Pettis should use that word in criticism), something utterly genuine and real. Quite simply it touches a nerve. Later in the 20th century – in the 1980s and 1990s – a whole wave of composers including John Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks would turn away from their own strident ‘new’ 20th century idioms to rediscover similar lyrical, spiritual languages; Barber pre-dated them by 50 years; in 1938 he was an avant-garde-anti-avant-gardist.
© Svend Brown
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings offers a transcendent close to an hour of music for the strings and brass of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The music is dramatic and powerful. Shostakovich’s searingly heartfelt Chamber Symphony erupts in fiery bursts of musical violence. It finds consolation in Pärt’s warm, reflective Fratres.
There will be free live music before this concert and between this and the 9.30pm concert, performed by Live Music Now musicians. There will also be a pay bar available for refreshments. Please note that there will be no interval.