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Program Notes: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

September 21, 2023

Program Notes: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

Featured Artists

Jaime Martín, conductor
Nemanja Radulović, violin

Program Dates

Friday, October 13, 2023 at 7:30PM
Saturday, October 14, 2023 at 7:30PM
Sunday, October 15 at 1:00PM


CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS Samson et Dalila: Bacchanale

KHACHATURIAN Violin Concerto

  1. Allegro con fermezza
  2. Andante sostenuto
  3. Allegro vivace

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

  1. Moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Largo
  4. Allegro non troppo

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila

Camille Saint-Saëns was born on October 9, 1835 in Paris, and died on December 16, 1921 in Algiers. His opera Samson et Dalila was composed between 1867 and 1874, and premiered on December 2, 1877 in Weimar, conducted by Eduard Lassen. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings. Duration is about 8 minutes.

The story of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila is set in Gaza, Palestine about 1,150 B.C.E. The mighty Samson, leader of the Hebrews during their bondage to the Philistines, kills Abimelech, Satrap of Gaza, in a scuffle. The Philistine High Priest urges vengeance upon the Hebrews, but the Philistines are themselves dispersed by the Hebrews. Dalila emerges from the Philistine temple bearing garlands for the victorious Hebrews, and approaches Samson. Bewitched by her beauty, Samson prays to heaven to be able to resist her temptations. He cannot, and is lured to Dalila’s house, where she uses her wiles to discover that his hair is the source of his strength. She shears his locks, leaving him powerless, and he is seized by the Philistine soldiers with whom she has been plotting his capture. The next scene shows Samson, his eyes plucked out, chained to the wheel in a Philistine mill. The opera’s final tableau is set in the Temple of Dagon, where the Philistines are celebrating their suppression of the rebellious Hebrews. Samson, mocked by the Philistines and particularly Dalila, is led in by a child. Realizing that he is chained to the main pillars supporting the temple roof, he prays for a brief return of his former strength. His prayer is answered, and he topples the pillars, burying himself and his enemies. The Bacchanale accompanies the ballet depicting the revels in the temple of Dagon at the beginning of Act III. With its hints of exotic Hebrew chants and the sensual rhythms and harmonies of Middle Eastern music, it is both seductive and frenzied, one of the most brilliant and exciting instrumental scenes in all French opera.

Composer Aram Khachaturian

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), Violin Concerto

Aram Khachaturian was born on June 6, 1903 in Tiflis, Armenia, and died on May 1, 1978 in Moscow. His Violin Concerto was written in 1940, and premiered by David Oistrakh in Moscow on November 16, 1940 at a festival of Soviet music. French virtuoso Jean-Pierre Rampal later transcribed the solo part for flute with the composer’s permission. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings. Duration is about 35 minutes.

Aram Khachaturian was one of the leading composers of the Soviet Union and the most celebrated musician of his native state of Armenia. When he arrived in Moscow in 1921 from his home town of Tbilisi, he had virtually no formal training in music but his talent was soon recognized, and he was admitted to the academy of Mikhail Gnessin, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. Khachaturian’s first published works date from 1926; three years later he entered the Moscow Conservatory. His international reputation was established with the success of the Piano Concerto in 1936, composed at the same time that he became active in the newly founded Union of Soviet Composers, of which he was elected Deputy Chairman of the Moscow branch in 1937 and Deputy President of the National Organizing Committee two years later. In 1939, he returned to live for six months in Armenia, where he immersed himself in the folk music of his boyhood home in preparation for composing the ballet Happiness. Boris Schwarz noted that the composer’s synthesis of vernacular and cultivated musical styles in that work “represents the fulfillment of a basic Soviet arts policy: the interpenetration of regional folklorism and the great Russian tradition.” Khachaturian remained a proud and supportive Armenian throughout his life, serving in 1958 as the state’s delegate to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. “My whole life, everything that I have created, belongs to the Armenian people,” he once said. The Violin Concerto of 1940 is imbued with the music of Khachaturian’s Armenian homeland.

One of the achievements of the Union of Soviet Composers was the founding in 1939 of an enclave on the Moscow River near the town of Staraya Ruza set aside for creative work and rest. Khachaturian spent the summer of 1940 there, in one of the cottages in the dense pine forest, composing a violin concerto for David Oistrakh. Khachaturian had largely prepared the formal plan for the piece in his head in advance, and recalled, “I worked without effort. Sometimes my thoughts and imagination outraced the hand that was covering the staff with notes. The themes came to me in such abundance that I had a hard time putting them in some order…. I wanted to create a virtuoso piece employing the symphonic principle of development and yet understandable to the general public.” He succeeded, and the Concerto was a great success when it was premiered on November 16, 1940 in Moscow by Oistrakh. The new Concerto solidified Khachaturian’s popularity at home and abroad, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize for it in 1941.

The Violin Concerto’s opening movement is disposed in the traditional sonata form, with two contrasting themes and a full development section. After a brief introductory outburst by the orchestra, the soloist presents an animated motif that soon evolves into a bounding, close-interval folk dance. This theme, punctuated once by the strong orchestral chords from the introduction, continues for some time before it gives way to a lyrical complementary strain of nostalgic emotional character. As the movement unfolds, the soloist is required to display one dazzling technical feat after another, culminating in a huge cadenza that serves as the bridge to the recapitulation. Both of the earlier themes are returned in elaborated settings to round out the movement. The second movement is in a broad three-part design prefaced by a bassoon solo that Grigory Shneerson, in his study of Khachaturian, said imitated the improvisations of the Armenian ashugs, or bards. A melancholy tune occupies the movement’s outer sections, while the central portion is more animated and rhapsodic in nature. The finale is an infectious rondo, filled with festive brilliance, blazing orchestral color and sparkling virtuosity.

Russian Composer Dmitri Shostakovich at piano

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Symphony No. 5, Op. 47

Dmitri Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, and died on August 9, 1975 in Moscow. He composed his Fifth Symphony during the winter and early spring of 1937, while he was teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory. Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic in the work’s premiere, on November 21, 1937 as part of a festival celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, E-flat and two B-flat clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, piano and strings. Duration is about 44 minutes.

“COMPOSER REGAINS HIS PLACE IN SOVIET,” read a headline of The New York Times on November 22, 1937. “Dmitri Shostakovich, who fell from grace two years ago, on the way to rehabilitation. His new symphony hailed. Audience cheers as Leningrad Philharmonic presents work.”

The background of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was well known. His career began before he was twenty with the cheeky First Symphony; he was immediately acclaimed the brightest star in the Soviet musical firmament. In the years that followed, he produced music with amazing celerity, and even managed to catch Stalin’s attention, especially with his film scores. (Stalin was convinced that film was one of the most powerful weapons in his propaganda arsenal.) The mid-1930s, however, the years during which Stalin tightened his iron grasp on Russia, saw a repression of the artistic freedom of Shostakovich’s early years, and some of his newer works were assailed with the damning criticism of “formalism.” The storm broke in an article in Pravda on January 28, 1936 entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” The “muddle” was the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, a lurid tale of adultery and murder in the provinces that is one of Shostakovich’s most powerful creations. The denunciation, though it urged Shostakovich to reform his compositional ways, also encouraged him to continue his work, but in a manner consistent with Soviet goals. As “A Soviet composer’s reply to just criticism” — a phrase attributed to Shostakovich by the press, though it does not appear in the score — the Fifth Symphony was created, and presented to an enthusiastic public. Shostakovich had apparently returned to the Soviet fold, and in such manner that in 1940 he was awarded the Stalin Prize, the highest achievement then possible for a Russian composer.

Since the appearance in 1979 of the purported memoirs of Shostakovich (Testimony), however, the above tale needs some reconsideration. The prevailing interpretation of the Fifth Symphony had been that generally it represented triumph through struggle, à la Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, and specifically the composer’s renunciation of his backslidden ideological ways. But in Testimony, Shostakovich, bitter, ill, disillusioned, said, “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the [finale of the] Fifth Symphony. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that. People who came to the premiere in the best of moods wept.”

Shostakovich’s thoughts about the Fifth Symphony bear directly on the listener’s perception of the work. The key to the work’s meaning, its finale, can no longer be seen as a transcendence or negation of the tragic forces invoked in the earlier movements, especially the third, but rather as an affirmation of them. The boisterous trumpets and drums are not those of a festival or a peasant dance, but of a forced death march — Stalin’s “exterminations” outnumbered those of Hitler. The Fifth Symphony arose not from Shostakovich’s glorification of his nation. It arose from his pity.

The sonata form of the Symphony’s first movement begins with a stabbing theme in close imitation. A group of complementary ideas is presented before the tempo freshens for the second theme, an expansive melody of large intervals. The sinister sound of unison horns in their lowest register marks the start of the development. The intensity of this section builds quickly to a powerful, almost demonic march. The recapitulation rockets forth from a series of fierce brass chords leading to a huge, sustained climax after which the music’s energy subsides to allow the second theme to be heard in a gentle setting for flute and horn. Quiet intensity pervades until the movement ends with ethereal scales in the celesta. The scherzo has much of the sardonic humor that Shostakovich displayed in such movements throughout his life. The Symphony’s greatest pathos is reserved for the Largo. This movement is best heard not in a specific formal context but as an extended soliloquy embracing the most deeply felt emotions. For much of its length, the expression is subdued, but twice the music gathers enough strength to hurl forth a mighty, despairing cry. The finale is in three large sections, determined as much by moods as by themes. The outer sections are boisterous and extroverted, the central one, dark-hued and premonitory. Whether the mood of rough vigor of this framing music or the tragedy of the central section stays longer in the mind is a matter listeners must determine for themselves. The delicate formal balance that Shostakovich achieved here could be tipped in either direction depending on the experience the individual brings to it. Only great masterworks can simultaneously be both so personal and so universal.

©2023 Dr. Richard E. Rodda