Art and Reality
Works by Jean Sibelius, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev
A collection of images of nature: Tapiola by Jean Sibelius
The story would make a good legend. As they were working on their new opera, Richard Strauss and his inspired librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal could not agree on a title. Truly absurd suggestions were tossed back and forth – of which, Mariandel and, even better, Der Grobian in Liebesnot [The Lovesick Boor] were the most absurd – until the composer’s wife finally put her foot down. The work, Pauline Strauss said, could only bear one title: Der Rosenkavalier[The Knight of the Rose].
Aino Sibelius took a similar approach when her husband was composing a symphonic poem for which the conductor Walter Damrosch had given him the inspiration and a commission at the beginning of 1926. While Sibelius was still deliberating about whether to call the work The Wood, his wife without further ado changed it to The Forest. Unlike Pauline, however, Aino did not get her way. When Damrosch presented the premiere of the work in New York on 26 December 1926, it carried the Finnish name Tapiola [Realm of Tapio]: invocation to the forest spirit or god Tapio. This title gave listeners the freedom to decide for themselves whether to interpret it as the anthropomorphic deity or the legend of the forest.
Tapiola is a one-movement symphony in all but name. Sibelius uses this framework for a collection of “images” of nature, but they do not “define” whether they were taken from the real world of the Finnish woods or perhaps borrowed from the mythical land of Kalevala. The first string theme in dark B minor immediately evokes an atmosphere of solitude, boundlessness, even freedom. Sibelius does not linger in this descriptive position, however. The theme goes through several metamorphoses, timbral and semantic as well as semiotic. Now a crescendo roars through the strings, now the woodwinds raise their voices, now the whole is underlaid with a booming pedal point in the brass or the double basses. One hundred bars of forest murmurs, so to speak, followed by a more animated motif in the woodwinds, which, if one listens more closely, is nothing but a variant of the original theme. The difference is the “ground” on which this motif walks: where the earth was softer and more velvety before, dissonant thorns now boldly and stubbornly spread out their spikes; it was not least these tone clusters that prompted Edgard Varèse to number Sibelius among the leading examples of musical modernism.
An anticipated birthday present: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto
In the opinion of many (Western) avant-gardists, Dmitri Shostakovich still does not belong to this illustrious circle. They do him an injustice, however. For one thing, because Shostakovich described the road from dodecaphony to serialism taken by many as a dead end and chose to follow his own winding path. For another, the harsh criticism of Shostakovich does not take into account the circumstances under which the Russian composer had to take this path. One of the many examples is the story surrounding the Violin Concerto No. 1, op. 77. The work was completed in 1948, the year in which serious instrumental music was actually declared taboo by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under the Zhdanov Doctrine. The Violin Concerto was shelved for seven years, until the dedicatee David Oistrakh was able to give the premiere with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky on 20 October 1955.
Shostakovich also composed his Second Violin Concerto, op. 129, for his friend David Oistrakh, this time for the violinist’s 60th birthday. He finished it early, however, so that Oistrakh already played the work in public for the first time in Moscow, a year before his actual birthday. The first movement (Moderato) is in a sonata-like form in which dark lyricism slowly but perceptibly spreads and leads to a group of harmless, fanciful clouds, which merely use the playfulness as a smokescreen for more deep-seated sadness, however. The two theme groups are interwoven in a development section and built up to a peak. This climax is not resolved until a transitional cadenza is played by the solo violin. A horn cantilena leads back to the main theme of the nocturnal section, which again enters into a dialogue with the clouds in the abbreviated recapitulation.
The Adagio is characterized by remarkable melodic richness. Shostakovich immerses it in G minor, a tritone away from the key of the first movement. The mood of this slow movement is melancholy, depressed, almost anxious and timid. Only towards the end does a solemn D flat major light shine on the imaginary scene: accompanied by the strings, the horn again soars in an ethereal song. The idyll is short-lived, however: the solo violin – the alter ego of the composer, as it were – feistily defies the gentle beauty and leads the listener across a somewhat fragile Adagio bridge to the rondo finale, with its semi-classical main theme, loud snickering in the muted horns, powerful tom-tom blows and robust passages referring back to the first movement. After this storm, presumably conjured up by Prospero with Ariel’s help, the solo violin is heard again in a long, brilliant cadenza, and with it the main theme enters the psychological sphere of the music in the home key of C sharp minor. One wished for consolation – but the devastation cannot be denied.
Longer than his own guiding principle: Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Symphony
Anything but Wagner – that was the motto of Russian composers at the beginning of the century of extremes. There was no agreement on how to pursue the path to the future, however. It became a dispute among aesthetes: Igor Stravinsky withdrew completely, Nikolai Myaskovsky discovered long-windedness, and Prokofiev’s ideal was essentialization. According to his guiding principle, a symphony should last “30 minutes at most”. Although he apparently confirmed this commitment easily in his first work of the genre, the “Classical” Symphony from 1917 – the year of the Revolution – he already betrayed his principle with the following symphony. Although it is innovative and structured in only two movements, his Second Symphony in D minor, op. 40, lasts up to ten minutes longer. In other words, Prokofiev packs a vast inventory of melodies into his steel treasure chest of methodology; however, one must – to use the same metaphor – first of all find them amid the tumultuous and tremendously dissonant chaos of this musical ragbag, like the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Strictly speaking, the elements of the opening Allegro ben articolato do not want to reach an understanding at all: on the one hand, uncompromising counterpoint, on the other, earthy, unsophisticated melodies reminiscent of the Scythian Suite. The second movement is completely different. The Andante theme is diatonic, but during the following six variations it is churned up so thoroughly that one can no longer find it, no matter how long one looks for it. Chaos shows through the display of order, a shimmer of faint beauty slips through the chaos. Prokofiev does not restore symphonic unity until the moment at which the worst threatens: the catastrophe, the symphonic flood. The sunrise afterwards is all the more beautiful: a melancholy song of transience is heard in the Andante molto (Doppio movimento) when the theme returns to its starting point.