From Party to Pastiche
A Musical Kaleidoscope to Welcome the New Year
Hurly-burly and reflection: Antonín Dvořák’s Carnival Overture
Among the master’s New Year’s resolutions on 2 January was something more serious: the silence between him and his publisher triggered by a series of disputes and affronts had gone on long enough; it was about time to revive the old contact. And so Antonín Dvořák sent “dear Herr Simrock” his best wishes for 1892 and enclosed with his letter a list of freshly completed works awaiting publication. Among them was a concert overture conceived as the central work in a programmatic cycle entitled Nature, Life and Love, or, as Dvořák put it, “three aspects of human existence”. Beginning in harmony with the natural environment and the pastoral atmosphere of a summer night’s idyll and forest solitude, it ends in the vicissitudes of love, alternating between sentimental devotion, stormy passion and raging jealousy. Between them, bearing the title Carnival, there is life.
Life as a carnival, humanity as a society of hedonists? Surely that isn’t what Dvořák was thinking of – even if the work opens with a furious percussion entry and a clownish party mood seems to prevail in every register. No ball lasts forever, though, and in the piece there comes a moment in which the hurly-burly suddenly breaks off and the unbridled jollity winds down. The magnificent carnival pauses for contemplation and reflection.
“Multi-sonorous euphony of strings”: Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète
It wasn’t as though the man from Russia had no use for jolly celebrations or pleasurable experiences, and, indeed, one or another rush of Dionysian excitement transpired in the course of his long life. But in 1927, when he went about creating a ballet on a subject from antiquity, he opted not to follow the god of wine and debauchery but rather his Olympian colleague Apollo, known for noble moderation and order, strictness and discipline. It should be a danced homage to the guardian of the fine arts, to the “leader of the muses”, as the ancient Greeks called him: Apollo musagetes.
Stravinsky had in mind a ballet to be danced in white tutus, without much plot or elaborate stage decor. The focus should be solely on the art of dance, on movement in all its classical perfection and beauty. He composed entirely in accordance with this notion of unsullied clarity – formally strict, with restrained rhythms based on ancient models of versification and approximating the style of past epochs. He scored it for strings only and delighted, as he later stated, in their “multi-sonorous euphony”.
“The little ox bellowed...” – Orchestral songs by Richard Strauss
Lieder were a lifelong companion of Richard Strauss: he composed more than 200 and, looking back over his entire oeuvre, he singled them out as his favourite pieces. He never had much of a problem in finding suitable texts. What interested him was not an author’s prominence but what could be made musically from a poem. For example, in Heinrich Heine’s verses about “The three holy kings from the East”, Strauss was tantalized by the juxtaposition of devotional solemnity and gentle irony, as can be heard in Heine’s last lines: “The little ox bellowed, the baby cried, the three holy kings sang.” Out of this he created a fundamentally serene painting that renders the Bethlehem manger scene with intimacy and dignity, but also a smile, before the full majesty and splendour of the moment are expanded in a long postlude.
Strauss arouses overwhelmed and overwhelming emotions in Zueignung, one of his earliest and most popular songs. He had just turned 20 when he set this poem by the now long-forgotten poet Hermann von Gilm, and four years later he orchestrated it. In 1894, when he married the singer Pauline de Ahna, the composer selected a poem by the German-Scottish writer John Henry Mackay to express his feelings of happiness. Morgen is the title of the song, which Strauss later arranged for orchestra with solo violin.
Also reflecting the successful composer-conductor’s domestic bliss are the songs Strauss created soon after the birth of his son Franz. In 1899, he wrote a movingly tender Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) to a poem by Richard Dehmel as well as the playful Muttertändelei after verses by Gottfried August Bürger, which is like a snapshot of the proud parents in Franz’s nursery.
American History: Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
It really wasn’t the time for comedies or musicals or New Year’s larks. The US was at war and, as a new year approached, no-one knew how much longer the casualties would continue. But for a few hours, at least, New Yorkers could switch off on this 28 December 1944 and enjoy a fun evening out. Broadway’s Adelphi Theatre was presenting Leonard Bernstein’s musical debut, On the Town. The town in the title, of course, could only be the metropolis at the mouth of the Hudson – New York, New York – which offered anything and everything one could wish for, especially three love-starved sailors on shore leave. Bernstein’s music had its finger on the public pulse: snappy, hot and jazzy as it accompanies the three young men through Manhattan, but the show’s songs and dance episodes are also often marked by moving tenderness and deep yearning.
On the Town was a huge hit, running for 462 performances, but in 1976, Bernstein had no success at all with his 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a work of social criticism which – as the title indicates – is set at the White House in Washington. Examining the first 100 years of American history through the eyes of white masters and black servants, it potently excoriates racial discrimination and hypocritical patriotism. Only a single number from the musical and a later concert version entitled A White House Cantata has caught on, however, “Take Care of This House”. Alan Jay Lerner’s lyric exhorts: “Take care of this house... Keep it from harm... It’s the hope of us all.” Written almost half a century ago, these lines sound more relevant than ever today.
Football and fox-trot: Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Golden Age
He supposedly almost never missed a home match of his favourite club Zenit and for years kept a neat record of its standings and scorers. Dmitri Shostakovich was the epitome of a (soccer) football fan, and in 1929, he eagerly accepted the Leningrad Academic Theatre’s offer to compose music for a dance libretto in which the sport played a central role. It tells the story of the Soviet-Russian Kickers, who travel to the capitalist West at the beginning of the Stalinist era to appear in a sporting event at an industrial exhibition called The Golden Age. In keeping with party doctrine, they are subjected for three acts to decadent bourgeois temptations and the intrigues of the class enemy. Not only do they heroically resist them all, but at the end they join their ideological adversaries in a dance of solidarity.
In his music for this slightly absurd competition between systems, Shostakovich gives free rein to his predilection for parody and pastiche. From waltz and can-can to shimmy and fox-trot, including his famous version of Tea for Two, he ignites a veritable firework display of the music currently in fashion and repeatedly pays homage to his own passion for American jazz.