Sibelius, Britten, and Shostakovich: Program note for the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra concert


Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Romanze in C for string orchestra, Op. 42

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Passacaglia from Peter Grimes

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43

Jean Sibelius wrote the Romanze in C for string orchestra, Op. 42, in 1904, at around the same time as his Violin Concerto. Sibelius’s interest in creating a distinctively Finnish sound can be heard in the declamatory motif that begins the brief work, combined with the harmonic ambiguity (E minor versus C major) characteristic of his mature works. Originally called Andante, the piece is framed around the tritone of the opening idea, and a narrative can be heard in the work’s striving to be freed of this dissonance. The first absence of the tritone is heard in a soaring new major-mode melody in the middle section, and after a dramatic return of the opening, the piece gradually winds down to its peaceful conclusion, the motif now safely ensconced within C major.

The tragic tale of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is told with the help of a distinctive musical motif that permeates the opera. This motif, a jagged octave descent through a dissonant tritone, first becomes explicit at the turning point in act 2, scene 1, when Grimes lashes out at his sole supporter, recognizes his seemingly unsurpassable inclination towards violence, and cries: “So be it, and God have mercy upon me.” Later in the scene, the townspeople take over the motif to the words of “Grimes is at his exercise.” This epithet is an encapsulation of the plot of Peter Grimes: on the one hand, the poisonous gossip of the uncharitable townspeople; and on the other, the repeated failings of Grimes, a reclusive fisherman, to overcome his tendencies towards rage and brutality, despite his best efforts. The line is a direct quote from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough (1810), on which Britten and Peter Pears sketched their scenario in 1941-2, but with a more sympathetic take on the title character. Typical of Britten’s protagonists, Grimes is an individual struggling against the masses, victimized by the society in which he tries unsuccessfully to find his place. The librettist Montagu Slater provided the text, and the opera’s successful première in June 1945, with Pears as the title character, marked the reopening of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London at the end of the Second World War.

In the Passacaglia, the interlude preceding act 2, scene 2, the descending motif is transformed into an ominous ground bass that begins the piece in pizzicato low strings. Stated thirty-nine times, its insistence beneath the wild variations above it projects a feeling of inescapability, as behind the scenes the mob makes its way to Grimes’s hut, and on stage Grimes falls back into his pattern of abusive behavior towards his boy apprentice. In the opera, the Passacaglia prefigures the music heard in scene 2 and leads directly into Grimes’s entrance in a fury. The concert version also includes the music heard at the very end of the act, following the boy’s accidental death off a cliff and Grimes’s subsequent disappearance. The Passacaglia’s opening viola solo now returns in inversion, amidst an eerie background of string harmonics and celesta, before the piece ends with one final recall of the epithet.

“Muddle instead of Music” was the title of the infamous article that appeared in Pravda in January 1936 and permanently altered the course of Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and music. A rousing success ever since its premiere two years earlier, his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was now denounced as “‘leftist’ confusion instead of natural, human music,” shortly after Stalin attended a production in the midst of the Great Terror. Whether this attack was a reaction to the modernism of Shostakovich’s early style, now deemed “formalist,” or simply a political move to show that if such a preeminent artist was not safe from the regime, no one was, Shostakovich was now tasked with rehabilitating his image as a Soviet musician, for fear of his and his family’s lives.

The pressures of Shostakovich’s fall from grace caused the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony shortly before its planned premiere in December 1936. 25 years passed before it received its first performance, in Moscow in December 1961, during the post-Stalin thaw. Shostakovich had begun to write the symphony in September 1935, and was starting work on the final movement when the Pravda article appeared. He nevertheless continued composing what he considered his “creative credo,” finishing the piano score in April 1936 and the orchestration a month later.

The influence of Mahler is easy to trace in the work’s massive scale, in terms of both length and instrumental forces, as well as in its episodic nature, use of unique orchestral timbres for structural definition, and refashioning of musical tropes, recognizable even when clad in an experimental and dissonant harmonic language. These include the military march (first movement), waltz or Ländler (all three movements), funeral march (beginning of the finale), and galop (middle of the finale). Shostakovich also alludes to Stravinsky’s Gloria from Oedipus rex (1927) in the finale’s coda, in which a brass fanfare in C major over an extended ostinato in the timpanis and low strings depicts ironic cheering and applause. This empty gesture does not conclude the symphony; instead, the music sinks into a dark meditation on C minor, overlaid with a hypnotic celesta motif that eventually evaporates into the ether. Shostakovich later quoted the melody of the second movement’s B section, a stepwise descending line in the violins, in his next symphony, the work that temporarily returned him to official favor in 1937.

An upward-reaching theme in the first movement, first heard as a bassoon solo and then subjected to the vagaries of the rest of the movement, follows a journey familiar to us from the Romantic-era ideology of the heroic individual. The troubled history of Shostakovich’s Fourth reminds us that the struggle of the individual took on real-life consequences in the twentieth century. The relationship between art and politics in the twenty-first century, and its impact on music, still remains to be seen.

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