“Mad and benumbing for the most part”
Strauss, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, Linked by Their Powerful Effect on the Audience
Richard Strauss: The Tone Poem Macbeth op. 23
In the good old days, when people still argued passionately about new music, when concertgoers still had reason enough to become euphoric and courage enough to protest at the top of their voices, in those wonderful days a young man from Munich caused quite a stir. He was rather loud, and the response to his works was no less resounding. Until then Richard Strauss had preferred to stand on the sidelines in the conflict between the supporters of Wagner and Brahms, and after Wagner’s death in 1883 the noise of battle gradually subsided. Strauss composed absolute music, without a programme: two symphonies, a violin and a horn concerto, a burlesque for piano and orchestra. That actually branded him as a member of the Brahms faction. In 1886 the young composer suddenly changed fronts and published his symphonic fantasy Aus Italien, a solid piece of work that did not cause an uproar.
Three years later, however, with Don Juan, he set off real fireworks that made him famous overnight and shook the music world. A genre that had long been considered dead was ingeniously rejuvenated: the programmatic tone poem. Strauss would not have had to finally join the phalanx of a rearguard that was no longer aesthetically relevant as a result – in fact, the opposite happened. He took on the leadership of the avant-garde and was regarded as the most modern composer of his day. This change in direction did not start with Don Juan, however, but with Macbeth, for Shakespeare’s material had interested him longer than the depiction of the notorious seducer. Strauss had already tried out a preliminary version of his Macbeth in Mannheim and Meiningen in 1887. He soon decided to revise the work drastically, however, and presented it publicly in Weimar in 1890. The piece was reworked again for printing. The revisions were made on the advice of his great mentor Hans von Bülow, the legendary chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Strauss avoided giving a synopsis of the content of his music. But anyone who attributes the wildly flashing opening bars in dark D minor to the usurper Macbeth and the shifty F sharp minor theme in the flutes and clarinets to his murderous wife is on the right track. Strauss removed all doubt by writing a Shakespeare quotation in the music: “Lady Macbeth: Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear ...” The ominous, cruelly flickering atmosphere is maintained throughout the piece, although several Wagnerisms are conspicuous. Bülow praised the work after the Berlin premiere in 1892 as “mad and benumbing for the most part, but a work of genius at the highest level”.
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, op. 40
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto demonstrates that not only novice composers suffer from revisionitis, the compulsion to make continual changes. It was composed mostly in 1926 but is based on several sketches from the pre-war period. After a private performance in August 1926 the composer himself complained about the exceptional length of the work, the confusing mass of thematic material and the omnipresence of the orchestra, which is never silent. The reviews and the negative reaction of the audience after the premiere in Philadelphia in 1927, as well as his own misgivings, prompted Rachmaninov to make extensive changes. Despite the corrections, which dragged on until 1941, the problematic work remained unsuccessful. It was still overshadowed by the Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody.
How unfair! What in Rachmaninov’s entire oeuvre could be more deeply filled with youthful enthusiasm and yearning than the first theme, ascending twice in eight-part piano chords, rising like a hymn above the orchestral parts, which quaver with anxious triplets! What could be more exciting than waiting for its return, which does not occur until the end of the first movement, this time assigned to the violins! The C major Largo is one of Rachmaninov’s loveliest, most original inspirations. Only the last movement still exhibits the often-criticized fragmented structure in places. Rachmaninov’s fast-paced life in American exile was blamed for that. Since the end of 1918 he had undertaken lengthy tours, sometimes giving 25 concerts within six weeks, which gradually brought his work as a composer to a standstill. This restlessness may be heard clearly in the Fourth Piano Concerto. What becomes more apparent, however, is the nostalgia that was already characteristic of Rachmaninov, the yearning for a Russia that had long since ceased to exist.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47
While Rachmaninov dreamed of his lost homeland in California, Dmitri Shostakovich dreamed about music in Crimea. At least that is how he usually explained the composition of the Largo from his Fifth Symphony: the theme came to him in a dream. When he returned to Leningrad from Crimea in early June 1937, three movements of the new symphony were already completed. Ten days later the phase of nightmares, persecution and mortal fear began. From then on Shostakovich waited to be taken away and killed at any moment. He did not join the opposition; his resistance was composing. Work on the Fifth Symphony was interrupted only briefly, and it was already completed by mid-July.
The Leningrad premiere in November 1937 involved considerable risks; since the scandals over the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich was high on Stalin’s blacklist. The new work would decide his fate. It was not the dictator who made the decision, however, but the public. In both Leningrad and Moscow the audience gave the composer incredible ovations, and several enthusiastic reviews were published. Shostakovich was temporarily rehabilitated.
Passionate emotion, poignantly beautiful melodies and a harmonic language familiar to the listener make the Fifth Symphony radically different from its avant-garde predecessor. Although unconventional forms are chosen here, although the first movement has three themes and is polyphonically and contrapuntally very demanding, that never presents problems in understanding. The juxtaposition of lament and parodistic alienation is puzzling, however. The three-part, seemingly humorous Allegretto is also accessible at first hearing, despite its complexity, but an overbearing Ländler tone and strangely offbeat harmonies provide an ambiguity that should not be taken lightly. In the third movement the lament escalates to an accusation. Sorrow and resignation are expressed with an intensity and a romantic aura that were not encountered in Shostakovich before. The closing Allegro non troppo immediately shouts down such delicacy ruthlessly. Shostakovich not only carried bombast to the point of self-exposure here but also incorporated a hidden message into the score, namely a self-quotation from his Pushkin Romances, op. 46. The poem “Rebirth” is about a philistine who paints over the painting of a genius, but gradually the cheap colours fade and the original work emerges again in all its beauty. The following lines from the song are quoted in the symphony: “Thus the delusions fall away / from my tormented soul, / and there spring up within it / visions of my former innocent days.”