Saraste Conducts the Dallas Symphony in Sibelius and Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich and his baby daughter Galina (and what looks like a Dachshund possibly).

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, performs Sibelius’s Pohjolan tytär and Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony at the Meyerson tonight (April 27) and this weekend. For more details on the concert, where you can also find these program notes in a slightly different format, go to the DSO website.

I was pleased with the way the Shostakovich notes turned out, partly because I had originally turned in an equally long batch of notes about Shostakovich’s Fourth, and then the repertoire was changed to the Eighth instead. But no research is ever truly wasted, and I feel like my work on the Fourth informed and improved my notes on the Eighth.

In the meantime, here’s another photo of Shosty in 1937, sporting the trendy coastal granny look. I’m including this one instead of a photo of Jean Sibelius, which is unfair, but Jean will get his propers the next time, promise.

Saraste Conducts Sibelius and Shostakovich

by René Spencer Saller

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957): Pohjolan tytär (Pohjola’s Daughter), Op. 49

Before Sibelius became Finland’s first great composer, he yearned, against considerable odds, to perform professionally. Although he played violin as a child, he didn’t start formal lessons until he was 14. “The violin took me by storm,” he wrote, “and for the next 10 years it was my dearest wish, my greatest ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” At 25, after years of dogged study in Helsinki, Berlin, and Vienna, he auditioned for a place in the Vienna Philharmonic and was rejected.

Sibelius turned to composition instead and became a leading voice in the growing movement for Finnish independence. Like many Finns of his social class, the educated élite, he was ethnically Swedish and culturally Northern European: he grew up speaking Swedish, and studied music in Berlin and Vienna. Whereas most works of Romantic Nationalism incorporate native dances and songs, most of Sibelius’s melodies are invented. He had surely heard traditional Finnish folk tunes, but he seldom quoted them. Instead, he was inspired by nature and the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala,to create his own deeply personal form of folk music. 

His music also reflected a particular historical moment, one marked by popular unrest. After a century of Russian rule, the Finns began to protest against their compulsory conscription into the Russian military and their censorship by the occupying regime. The “February Manifesto” of Tsar Nicholas II, in 1899, gave the Russian government complete control over Finland, stripping all but symbolic power from the Finnish Senate. In November a group of Helsinki artists and activists organized several events in support of censored journalists. The earliest iteration of Sibelius’s iconic FinlandiaFinland Awakes, was the rousing finale for a series of patriotic historical tableaux that he wrote for one such event. More than 18 years would elapse before Finland would officially declare its independence from Russia.  

A Finnish Fantasia

By 1905, when he began Pohjolan tytär (Pohjola’s Daughter), Sibelius was often drunk. Although his alcoholism caused untold problems in his domestic and professional lives, he was astonishingly productive, composing music for hours on end. “He has such a multitude of themes in his head that he has been literally quite dizzy,” his wife, Aino, recounted in a letter from that period. “He stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully, cannot tear himself away from the delightful melodies—he has so many ideas that it is hard to believe it.” 

He called Pohjolan tytär a “symphonic fantasia,” a term he never used again. As with many of his other programmatic works, its source was the Kalevala. He composed the bulk of the “fantasia” between 1905 and 1906, not long after hearing Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in Berlin. Inspired by his German colleague’s opulent orchestration, Sibelius set out to create his own, distinctively Finnish take on the heroic tone poem. He found the project exhilarating. As he explained in a letter to Aino, “This is my genre!! Here I can move without feeling the weight of tradition.”

A Closer Listen

Sibelius might have emancipated himself from the weight of tradition, but he composed his free-form music with an ancient story in mind. He gave a German program to his publisher, translating the relevant lines from the Kalevalawhile preserving, to the best of his abilities, the striking, sing-song meter of the Finnish original. 

The story involves the old sorcerer Väinämöinen, who falls for the imperious daughter of Pohjola. First seen perched on a rainbow, spinning a cloth of silver and gold, the icy maiden issues a series of impossible challenges, and when her poor suitor fails at the last one—carving a sea-worthy, self-propelled boat from the shards of her spindle—she laughs scornfully (listen for those stabbing, Psycho-esque strings!). Bloodied but wiser for his mistakes, the old sorcerer leaves her to travel on alone. 

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975):  Symphony No 8 in C Minor, Op. 65

By the mid-1930s, Socialist Realism was the only state-sanctioned musical style in Soviet Russia. Composers who had safely dabbled in avant-garde or neo-classical idioms a few years earlier learned to fear the wrath of Joseph Stalin and his cultural watchdogs. State-approved compositions typically incorporated folk songs and ended in a major key. Composers were expected to support the class struggle by honoring the proletariat and conveying strong Soviet values, as opposed to the apolitical, bourgeois individualism of the United States and Western Europe. Artists, writers, composers, and patrons who failed to conform to the new mandate were executed, imprisoned in gulags, or simply made to vanish.

One nerve-wracking aspect of the evolving Soviet rulebook was the inconsistent, even incoherent enforcement. A composer might never know whether he was being punished for the content of his work or for pettier, personality-driven reasons. Becoming too popular, for instance, was a surefire way to bring on a beat-down—symbolic if you were lucky, literal if you were not.  

After getting slapped with a damning review of his successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in 1936 (anonymous but likely penned by Stalin himself) and an equally harsh critique of another, far less edgy composition the same year, Shostakovich was understandably terrified. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony before its premiere but after rehearsals had begun. His wife, the physicist Nina Varzar, gave birth to their firstborn daughter, Galina Dmitrievna, on May 30, 1936, which meant he had a fresh new life to worry about. Over the next several months, he kept his head down, busying himself with uncontroversial projects. He would not share the Fourth with the public until December 30, 1961.

Shostakovich was able to restore his good standing, at least for the time being, thanks to the sensational success of his Fifth Symphony in 1937. He even agreed to describe the D Minor Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” By this point, he knew exactly how to tiptoe around the government censors, although he sometimes felt compelled, whether out of bravery or sheer cussedness, to poke at them instead. This would not be the last time that he would offend the authorities, nor the last time that he would accept unjust criticism.

Six years later, despite being sick with a gastrointestinal infection, Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 8 in C Minor in a remarkably short time—officially, only two months, from July 1 to September 4, 1943, although he had probably worked out most of the music in his head before committing the notes to staff paper, as was his habit. Thanks to the monumental success of his Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), he enjoyed the luxury of composing without distraction on a state-sponsored sabbatical at the “Creative Home,” an isolated retreat maintained by the Union of Soviet Composers that was located about 150 miles northeast of Moscow—insulated from the noise and chaos of wartime. The work’s dedicatee, his fellow countryman and frequent colleague Evgeny Mravinsky, led the USSR Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere on November 4 that same year. 

Although audiences seemed generally receptive to the Eighth, the authorities were not. They called it depressing, confusing, and counter-revolutionary. By the end of World War II, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony had been effectively erased from the repertoire. Its follow-up, the studiously apolitical, neoclassical Ninth, was banned for the remainder of Stalin’s life and not recorded until 1956.

Erasure and Vindication

In 1948, five years after its premiere, the Eighth Symphony still managed to make trouble for Shostakovich. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet Minister of Culture and Shostakovich’s most powerful nemesis, yanked it from obscurity just so he could denounce it at length. Another member of the panel, Vladimir Zakharov, a Soviet functionary and a minor composer, described it as “not a musical work at all” and “repulsive and ultra-individualistic,” similar in sound to “a piercing dentist’s drill, a musical gas chamber, the sort the Gestapo used.” Shostakovich was also condemned for the “pessimism, unhealthy individualism, extreme subjectivism, and willful complexity” of his symphony. (Even Sergei Prokofiev, whose own works were routinely savaged by Stalin’s toadies, had trashed Shostakovich’s Eighth at a Composers’ Plenum four years earlier.) Zhdanov ordered that all copies of the score be recycled and all recordings destroyed. 

According to his friends and his contested (and possibly semi-fabricated) memoir Testimony, Shostakovich considered the symphony a kind of Requiem for himself. As late as 1956, he complained that “the Eighth Symphony has remained unperformed for many years. In this work there was an attempt to express the emotional experiences of the People, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war. Composed in the summer of 1943, the Eighth Symphony is an echo of that difficult time, and in my opinion quite in the order of things.” 

Two years later, the Central Committee conceded that the Eighth Symphony had, along with certain works by Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and several other composers, been “indiscriminately denounced.” It returned to the active repertoire, where it remains. 

The Composer Speaks

“I wrote it very quickly…. When the Seventh Symphony was finished, I intended to compose an opera and a ballet and started work on an oratorio about the defenders of Moscow. Then I put aside the oratorio and began work on the Eighth Symphony. It reflects my… elevated creative mood, influenced by the joyful news of the Red Army’s victories….

“The Eighth Symphony contains tragic and dramatic inner conflicts. But on the whole it is optimistic and life-asserting. The first movement is a long adagio, with a dramatically tense climax. The second movement is a march, with scherzo elements, and the third is a dynamic march. The fourth movement, in spite of its march form, is sad in mood. The fifth and final movement is bright and gay, like a pastoral, with dance elements and folk motifs. 

“The philosophical conception of my new work can be summed up in these words: life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious rots away, and beauty triumphs.”—Dmitri Shostakovich, September 1943

A Closer Listen

Cast in five movements, the Eighth Symphony lasts a little more than an hour. It moves from the home key of C minor to C major, following the traditional Beethovenian darkness-to-light model, but the tragic tone suffuses even the “bright and gay” finale—lingering C-minor shadows that show up like a weeping widow at a christening. The closing bars are ambiguous at best; instead of the radiant major-key apotheosis that we expect, we get the faint glimpse of a C major triad, a flickering hint of a dream deferred. 

The opening movement is the longest of the five, about as long as the next three movements combined. It starts with a brooding, Mahlerian Adagio, initially crooned by cellos and double basses, and gradually builds to a fretful Allegro non troppo. Shostakovich quotes or adapts melodic material from his own Fifth and Seventh symphonies, assembling new themes from which he constructs a ferocious fugue. Piercing winds and astringent harmonies join limpid strings and gossamer textures, producing flashes of bombast and beauty. At one point close to the end, a solo English horn delivers a dark and ruminative rhapsody, which the strings take up briefly, then abandon. A sudden blast of brass before an anxious silence descends.

The next two movements, an Allegretto and an Allegro non troppo, respectively, are functional scherzos. Here Shostakovich teaches a masterclass on the march form. The first march, in D-flat major, is surreal and grotesque, a queasy spectacle. A motoric fury propels the second, a magnificent Machine Age contraption of chords that grind as relentlessly as pistons, punctuated by shrieking clarinet, clattering percussion, and guttural low strings.

The Largo, in G-sharp minor, packs a lethal punch despite its brevity. Like the two preceding movements, it’s a march—but this time a funeral march. As with the ancient dance form on which it is modeled, the passacaglia, the Largo presents a series of variations that unfold over a recurring harmonic progression, or bass line. Shostakovich’s slow movement uses this hypnotic underpinning to showcase the subtleties of the shifting melody, the different voices and moods produced by the various instrumental timbres, both individually and in combination, such as the rather startling effect of a flutter-tongued flute. 

Toward the end, the key wends its way to C major. Yakov Milkis, a violinist in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, recalled telling Shostakovich how much he admired the transition to the finale. “My dear friend,” the composer responded, “if you only knew how much blood that C major cost me.”

The finale, another Allegretto, opens with a solo bassoon in the first of several pastoral, chamber-like interludes. According to some sources, Shostakovich originally titled the last movement “Through cosmic space the earth flies toward its doom,” which contradicts his official remarks about the triumph of beauty, although it accurately describes the atmosphere of apocalyptic dread. The key is C major, the “happy ending” for C minor, but it sure doesn’t feel like C major. The mood is weirdly bleak, unsettled—nothing like the euphoric release we experience during the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, for instance. The Eighth Symphony ends quietly and enigmatically, with a throaty utterance from the flute, at the deepest point of its register, over pizzicato and sustaining strings. Sometimes the only possible form of heroism is survival. 
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

The Dallas Symphony performs a Katherine Balch world premiere, plus works by Borodin and Stravinsky

Katherine Balch, composer, by Lanz Photography

It was my great privilege to write the program notes for the world premiere of Katherine Balch’s whisper concerto for Cello and Orchestra. If you’re in Dallas or going to be in Dallas this coming weekend, you should by all means attempt to secure tickets to this event and go. Associate DSO Conductor (and former SLSO Associate Conductor) Gemma New leads the Dallas Symphony in what promises to be an exciting (and perhaps even riotous) springtime ritual.

You can read my notes on the excellent Dallas Symphony Orchestra website, but I included some bonus material that got snipped for space, and I have learned my lesson with links (which don’t seem to be as permanent as I had naively imagined when I started this website). This also gives me the chance to include some cherished photos. I also decided to reframe the concert title and shift the emphasis from The Rite of Spring (no offense to Stravinsky, who I’m confident cares not a whit whether he gets top billing) to the world premiere of the whisper concerto. I understand that the orchestra, like all 21st-century ensembles, has to consider what sells tickets, but as a blogger who is entirely self-financed, I do not.

Speaking of which, and before I forget, here are Balch and soloist Zlatomir Fung in conversation about whisper concerto.

I also want to recommend Balch’s website, which is among the best I have ever seen. You can actually peruse the score for the whisper concerto and marvel over the precise performance instructions and notes on instrumentation. I know people throw around the word “genius” way too often, but if Balch isn’t a genius, I’m not sure if the designation even matters.

New Conducts Borodin, Balch, and Stravinsky

by Rene Spencer Saller

Alexander Porfiriyevich Borodin (1833–1887): Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

Like Tchaikovsky, who was seven years younger, Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg and died unexpectedly at age 53. The two composers knew each other somewhat but traveled in different circles. Borodin, a prominent professor of chemistry, moonlighted as a member of the Moguchaya Kuchka, or “Mighty Handful”: five influential composers who dominated Saint Petersburg’s musical culture from the mid-1860s until the early 1880s. Besides Borodin, “the Five,” as they were often called, consisted of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, and Mily Balakirev. Only Balakirev had the luxury of composing full-time; the others had day jobs. Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, published major treatises on acids and aldehydes. 

“I do not seek recognition as a composer for I am somehow ashamed of admitting to my compositional activities,” the research chemist wrote in a letter. “For me this is a relaxation, a pastime, an indulgence that distracts me from my principal work.”

After Borodin’s death from a sudden brain aneurysm, a monument was erected in Saint Petersburg. The statue honored his scientific achievements—his music was admired by connoisseurs but still mostly unknown to the general public. His most ambitious work, Prince Igor, remained unfinished at his death. Even though Borodin didn’t live to complete the opera, he was alive in 1879, when Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a performance of its climactic Act II closing number, Polovtsian Dances.

Borodin’s friends Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov relied on their memories and the late composer’s towering piles of papers to complete Prince Igor, a monumental effort at which Borodin had been plugging away, on and off, for the past 18 years. The world premiere of the full opera took place on November 4, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.

A Closer Listen

Especially for an amateur composer, Borodin had remarkably strong melodic instincts, a knack for vivid orchestration, and a disciplined work ethic. Like all his best work, the score for Prince Igor enlivens a staunch nationalism with exotic, even mildly subversive touches. Based on a scenario by Vladimir Stasov, Borodin’s self-penned libretto involves a medieval Russian prince who is defeated by a tribe of Tatar invaders, the Polovtsians, and held captive—although treated as an honored guest—until he makes a daring escape.

Prince Igor, Borodin dryly observed, is “essentially a national opera, interesting only to us Russians, who love to steep our patriotism in the sources of our history, and to see the origins of our nationality again on the stage.” A dedicated researcher, he studied the culture of the region, particularly its songs and dances, derived from a diverse mixture of influences and folk traditions. His musical portrait of the Polovtsians, epitomized by The Polovtsian Dances, incorporates not only authentic Caucasian tunes but also Moorish melodies by way of North Africa and the Middle East. 

In its original context, as a ballet sequence, The Polovtsian Dances closes Act II of Prince Igor. For this hook-happy show-stopper, Khan Konchak presents a menu of sensuous splendors available to the prince once he consents to stop fighting the Polovtsians. As a parade of sultry concubines and catamites sashay and shimmy for the barbarian chief, along with his court and captives, Borodin tempts the ear with a seductive array of dances: ambiguously ethnic (or “Orientalist,” as postcolonial critics might argue); rich in orchestral color and harmonic interest; rhythmically complex but still conducive to graceful human movement. 

In addition to serving as an exhilarating concert opener, as it does here, The Polovtsian Dances inspired some of the music in the 1953 musical Kismet, which turned the tantalizing woodwind-sung main theme into “Stranger in Paradise,” a monster Broadway hit that enjoyed even greater success when the musical was repackaged as a star-studded MGM movie. Crooned by pop idols, hummed in countless showers, whistled on the way to work, Borodin’s music is much more famous than the man who created it. Anonymous ubiquity: the hallmark of a true classic.

Katherine Balch (b. 1991): whisper concerto: for Solo Cello and Orchestra 

The winner of the 2020–21 Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, Balch was nominated for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 Career Advancement Award by violinist Hilary Hahn. Balch, who earned advanced degrees in music from Yale and Columbia, is currently a visiting assistant professor of composition at the Yale School of Music. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the London Sinfonietta, and Ensemble Intercontemporain, among many other prominent orchestras and ensembles. 

Dubbed “some kind of musical Thomas Edison” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Balch constructs distinctive sound worlds unique to each new composition. The prolific young composer engineers an eclectic but efficient sonic code, precisely calibrated to the needs of a particular project, incorporating everything from toy instruments to tuned crystal water goblets, earthenware pots, and pianos prepared according to painstakingly detailed instructions involving color-coded graphs and elaborate symbols. 

In the score for Balch’s new Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-commission whisper concerto, every element of the sound is mapped to the minutest detail, right down to images of all the specific objects that she used to modify the strings of the prepared piano. She provides specific instructions for most of the other instruments, too, whether it’s col legno battuto bowing for the strings, which requires the musician to strike the strings with the wooden part of the bow normally held by the fingers, or a passage where the cello’s bow is swapped out for a bamboo chopstick. Elsewhere she calls for nontraditional variations on traditional techniques such as pizzicato or flutter tonguing. In some glorious version of an afterlife, John Cage and Henry Cowell are surely smiling.

Composed in 2022, whisper concerto is true to Balch’s style in that it sounds at once perfectly idiomatic and utterly strange. Beautiful—sometimes even conventionally tonal—melodies commune lovingly with shameless noise. Virtuosity gives way to entropy only to catch its breath and come back weirder and wilder, transformed by the volatile power of orchestral collaboration. Shards and fragments of free jazz mysteriously reassemble themselves, against all odds, into a peculiar chorale.

“The end of my concerto deals with elements of Ligeti’s noise-based cadenza, but in a different, more tonal context,” Balch explained in a recent interview with Rita Fernandes of The Strad magazine. 

One challenge that she confronted while composing her cello concerto was maintaining some kind of fruitful equilibrium between the solo instrument and the orchestra. ‘The cello’s low register can be difficult to balance, and I really wanted to honor the integrity of the instrument’s tessitura,” she told Fernandes. “It’s never a battle between cello and orchestra. I want them to fit together in a way that provokes intimacy between them.”

The Composer Speaks

“whisper concerto is named after the bristling, agitato ‘whisper cadenza’ of György Ligeti’s cello concerto. Like Artifacts, my concerto for violin and orchestra, this piece is not meant as a showcase for cello alone, but for the orchestra as a whole, which reacts to and augments the soloist. 

“whisper concerto is a working out of several musical contradictions I find expressively intriguing: how can an andante be agitato? presto, dolcissimo? How can a cadenza play (and be playful) with the evolving demands and expectations of performer virtuosity? How can a simple chorale become the shadow of a desperate, fluttering, noisy scorrevole? In folding together these musical opposites, I hope to have captured some of the kinetic virtuosity of Zlatomir’s playing, for whom this concerto is dedicated, along with his kindness, playfulness, gentleness of spirit, and warmth.” —Katherine Balch


Some Terms Defined

Andante: Moderately slow tempo, as in a walking pace
Agitato: In an agitated manner

Cadenza: An improvised or composed ornamental passage designed for virtuosic display and typically performed in a rhythmically loose style
Chorale: Hymn or psalm form harmonized according to a set of conventional procedures
Dolcissimo: Very sweet or soft
Presto: Quick

Scorrevole: Gliding or flowing from note to note 

Tessitura: Italian for “texture,” the term refers to the range of notes or general pitch level at which the voice (of the singer or instrument) most comfortably resides, without strain or undue challenge.


Igor Stravinsky in his later years, with cat. He rarely smiled in photos, probably because he didn’t normally get to cradle a cat in his arms.

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Without the efforts of some crucial creative partners, Stravinsky’s iconic ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) would not exist in its current form—or perhaps at all. 

Among the Russian composer’s most essential collaborators were three of his fellow countrymen: the painter and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich, who helped develop the two-part scenario and to whom the score is dedicated; the choreographer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned it for Les Ballets Russes; and Vaslav Nijinsky, the insurgent young choreographer whose savage kinetic language may have actually provoked the riot for which Stravinsky’s music is credited. 

Stravinsky was in his late 20s and still relatively unknown when he began working with Diaghilev. The proud young composer almost passed on the opportunity after Diaghilev was late to their first meeting. Just as Stravinsky was about to slip out the street exit, Diaghilev hurried to stop him. “I’ve often wondered if I’d opened that door,” Stravinsky told his biographer, “whether I would have written The Rite of Spring.

A Pagan Sacrifice

Sometime in 1910, while polishing the score of his first Diaghilev commission, The Firebird, Stravinsky was distracted by “a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise.” According to his own account, he imagined “a solemn pagan rite [wherein] sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” 

Instead of pursuing this idea immediately, he finished The Firebird and began his next ballet, the folk-inflected, pathos-drenched Petrushka. It wasn’t until July 1911 that he resumed work on what eventually became The Rite of Spring (with the subtitle “Pictures from Pagan Russia”). He and Roerich hashed out the story and discussed potential dance movements. That September, back at his family’s estate in Ustilug, Stravinsky was eager to plunge into the score. “I’ve already started composing,” he wrote. “I’ve sketched the prelude, and I’ve gone on and also sketched the ‘Divination with Twigs’; I’m terribly excited! The music is coming out fresh.”

He continued to work on it the following winter, in Switzerland, finishing the first act in late February. In a letter to a friend he exclaimed, “it’s as if 20 years, not two, have passed since the composition of Firebird!” That March he traveled to Monte Carlo and played the first part of the score for Diaghilev and Nijinsky as a piano reduction. They’re “wild about it,” he boasted to his mother. 

Pierre Monteux, who would later conduct the infamous premiere, wasn’t so favorably impressed. “I was convinced he was raving mad,” the Frenchman confessed. “The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down…. My only comment at the end was that such music would surely cause a scandal.” 

Riot Act

After completing the orchestration in spring 1913, Stravinsky traveled to Paris to oversee the rehearsals. The dancers and musicians found the piece so daunting that an unprecedented number of practice sessions were scheduled. The exotic tonalities and erratic rhythms notwithstanding, the dress rehearsal went well. 

The actual premiere was a different story. The opening bassoon solo—written entirely above middle C—upset a very vocal contingent of the audience. Almost immediately, the patrons were shouting, blowing whistles, and shoving one another. Because the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra over the fracas, they fell out of sync. Diaghilev screamed from the wings and Stravinsky panicked, but Monteux soldiered on. He was, in Stravinsky’s approving assessment, as “impervious and nerveless as a crocodile.” “It is still almost incredible to me,” the composer later remarked, “that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end.”

Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

Bruckner’s Fourth, plus a MacMillan U.S. premiere

Anton Bruckner, one of those guys who was born very old in certain ways while remaining eternally youthful in others. A man of many facets, you might say!

I realized that I never posted the notes I wrote for a concert that happened last November, in 2022. This was one of those cases when I wrote the notes so far in advance of the concert that I sort of forgot about it until after the fact. At any rate, it was a splendid performance by all accounts, and here are the notes I wrote for the concerts at the Meyerson.

But before I do that, I wanted to post a link to a fantastic performance of the Bruckner so that you could listen to it first. In my experience, Bruckner is underappreciated, at least in this country, and despite the occasional longueurs, his music offers many Wagnerian thrills, minus all of that Gesamtkunstwerk showbiz and twincest. (Don’t get me wrong: Like Brahms, I am the best of the Wagnerians, and also a lover of camp, as in early John Waters, but I have deduced that many other listeners prefer the werk minus the Gesamtkunst, if that even makes sense in German, in which case they might find that they actually prefer Bruckner to the composer he worshiped so obsequiously.)

Here’s Gunter Wänd leading the NDR Elbphilharmonie, since the Luisi performance for which I wrote these program notes is, alas, not currently YouTubeable:

Luisi Conducts MacMillan and Bruckner

by René Spencer Saller

James MacMillan (b. 1959): Violin Concerto No. 2

The Scottish composer and conductor Sir James Loy MacMillan first attracted international attention in 1990, after the rapturous response at the BBC Proms to his large symphonic work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Subsequent successes range from his extraordinary (and unusually popular) percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel to his Fourth Symphony, which was first performed on August 3, 2015, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conducted by his fellow countryman Donald Runnicles. MacMillan’s recording with Britten Sinfonia of his Oboe Concerto, for the Harmonia Mundi label, won the 2016 BBC Music Magazine Award. In 2019 The Guardian deemed his Stabat Mater the 23rd greatest work of art music since 2000. MacMillan completed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 2021, and the world premiere—performed by the work’s dedicatee, the Scottish virtuoso Nicola Benedetti—took place on September 28, 2022, at Perth Concert Hall, Perth, Australia. This is its U.S. premiere. 

The Composer Speaks

“My Second Violin Concerto is written in one through-composed movement and is scored for a medium-sized orchestra. It opens with three chords, and the notes which the soloist plays in these (pizzicato) outline a simple theme which is the core ingredient for much of the music. This three-note theme incorporates a couple of wide intervals which provide much of the expressive shape to a lot of the subsequent melodic development throughout the concerto.

“When the soloist eventually plays with the bow, the character of the material sets the mood for much of the free-flowing, yearning quality of the music throughout. The prevailing slow pulse is punctuated by some faster transitional ideas, and after a metric modulation the second main idea is established on brass and timpani, marked alla marcia. The wide-intervallic leaps in the solo violin part continue to dominate in a passage marked soaring, even as the music becomes more rhythmic and dancelike.

“An obsessive repetitiveness enters the soloist’s material just before the first main climax of the work, where the wind blare out the wide-intervalled theme. The central section of the work is reflective, restrained and melancholic, where the soloist’s part is marked dolcedesolato and eventually misterioso, hovering over an unsettled, low shimmering in the cellos and basses.

“The martial music returns and paves the way for an energetic section based on a series of duets which the violin soloist has with a procession of different instruments in the orchestra—double bass, cello, bassoon, horn, viola, clarinet, trumpet, oboe, flute, and violin. After this we hear the three notes/chords again developed in the wind over a pulsating timpani beat, which sets up the final climax marked braying, intense and feroce.

“The final recapitulation of the original material provides a soft cushion and backdrop to the soloist’s closing melodic material, marked cantabile, before the work ends quietly and serenely.

“My Second Violin Concerto is dedicated to Nicola Benedetti and in memoriam Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish composer who died in 2020.” —Sir James MacMillan, 2022

Anton Bruckner (1824–1896): Symphony No 4

Trained by his schoolmaster father and the Augustinian monks of St. Florian, the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner worked as a cathedral organist for 13 years, earning a strong regional reputation for his virtuosic playing and brilliant improvisations. A late bloomer, he didn’t enter his maturity as a composer until midlife. Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was his first major composition to earn acclaim almost from its debut. 

The Hissing and Laughing Multitude

The enthusiastic response to his revised Fourth came as a huge relief to its 57-year-old creator at the 1881 premiere. Four years earlier, his Third Symphony, which was inscribed with an unctuous dedication to Richard Wagner, went nightmarishly awry at its Vienna premiere. Bruckner, an anxious and inexperienced conductor, was leading—or attempting to lead—openly hostile musicians who seemed determined to humiliate him. Before he even lifted his baton, he was losing audience members; each successive movement sent more patrons scuttling out of the concert hall. 

As his publisher Theodor Rättig later recalled, “the applause of a handful of some 10 or 20 generally very young people was countered by the hissing and laughing multitude…. When the audience had fled the hall and the players had left the platform, the little group of pupils and admirers stood around the grieving composer, attempting to console him, but all he could say was, ‘Oh, leave me alone; people want nothing to do with me.'”

Bruckner revised the “Wagner” Symphony at least six times, an exacting and time-consuming process to which he subjected all nine of his symphonies save the last, whose finale he left unfinished when he died, a little over a month after he turned 72. 

As Bruckner’s first real success (and his last popular triumph until the groundbreaking Seventh Symphony), the Fourth brought much-needed validation—perhaps even vindication. He would work it over numerous times, sketching out a fanciful “Romantic” program only to disavow most of the extramusical content just a few years later. Despite many attempts (some of them likely unsanctioned “corrections” by ambitious disciples and associates), Bruckner never improved on the 1878–1880 version of the Fourth Symphony, which is performed for this concert.

Paradox and Perfection

For most of his life, Bruckner was badly underestimated. His worldly Viennese contemporaries ridiculed him as a pious dolt, a rural church organist with no redeeming cleverness. But despite his unfashionable accent and gauche manners, Bruckner was no country bumpkin. His music, which reflects his dual roles as church organist and composer of symphonies, revels in paradox: it’s massive and nuanced, dense and subtle, ancient and modern. Intricate polyphony is draped in sumptuous Wagnerian orchestration. An expansive tone poem morphs into an elaborate fugue. Before our very ears, musical forms adapt and evolve in a state of transcendent flux. 

There’s nothing simple about Bruckner’s Fourth, including its date of completion. For Bruckner, a self-doubting perfectionist, no composition was ever truly finished. All told, there are approximately three dozen different versions of Bruckner’s nine symphonies. Maybe these multiple versions exist not because the composer was indecisive but rather because he saw his music as mutable, subject to change over time. Musicologists argue about the authenticity of various editions of Bruckner’s nine symphonies and speak of “the Bruckner Problem” —shorthand for the vexed debates about authorial intention and the relative virtues and drawbacks of the various revisions. Some editions include “corrections” that Bruckner never saw, much less sanctioned; other editions reflect changes that he made because he was insecure and possibly too receptive to suggestions from others.

Bruckner composed the first version of his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major between January and November 1874, but that original iteration was never performed or published during his lifetime. He continued to tinker with his Fourth Symphony, along with most of the others, for another 14 years. Bruckner researchers have identified at least seven authentic versions and revisions of the Fourth Symphony. For this concert the 1878–1880 version (ed. Nowak), which is the version of the Fourth most commonly performed and recorded today, was selected. Bruckner scored the Fourth for one pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Starting with the 1878 revision, a single bass tuba is included in the instrumentation.

Romantic Revisions

The nickname Romantic was used by Bruckner, who also created, and eventually abandoned, a program for the symphony. Bruckner marked the autograph of the Scherzo and Finale of the 1878 version of the symphony with brief descriptions such as Jagdthema (hunting theme), Tanzweise während der Mahlzeit auf der Jagd (dance tune during the lunch break while hunting), and Volksfest (people’s festival).

Also for this revision, Bruckner replaced the original scherzo with a new movement that’s commonly known as the “Hunt” Scherzo (JagdScherzo). The new movement, Bruckner explained in a letter, “represents the hunt, whereas the Trio (Tanzweise während…) is a dance melody which is played to the hunters during their meal.” In 1880 Bruckner replaced the Volksfest finale with a new one based on an earlier melodic idea.

After one especially productive rehearsal of the Fourth, Bruckner gave the conductor, Hans Richter, a coin and urged him to buy himself a beer to celebrate. (Richter was charmed by the gesture and kept the money as a keepsake.) On February 20, 1881, Richter presided over the first performance, in Vienna. It was the first premiere of a Bruckner symphony not to be conducted by Bruckner himself, and it was also his first unqualified success. After years of enduring hisses and insults, the composer finally heard real applause and basked in the unfamiliar warmth. To his delight and astonishment, he was summoned for a bow after each movement. 

The Composer Speaks

In a letter to the conductor Hermann Levi dated December 8, 1884, Bruckner supplied a vivid, if abbreviated, program: “In the first movement, after a full night’s sleep, the day is announced by the horn, 2nd movement song, 3rd movement hunting trio, musical entertainment of the hunters in the wood.” 

Six years later, in another letter, he expanded on the program somewhat: “In the first movement of the ‘Romantic’ Fourth Symphony the intention is to depict the horn that proclaims the day from the town hall! Then life goes on; in the Gesangsperiode [the second motif] the theme is the song of the great tit [a bird] Zizipe. 2nd movement: song, prayer, serenade. 3rd: hunt, and in the Trio how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest.”

Yet when asked years later to elaborate on the meaning of the finale, Bruckner confessed, “I’ve quite forgotten what image I had in mind.” 

Bruckner and Wagner

At the age of 41, when he attended the Munich premiere of Tristan und Isolde, Bruckner became a committed Wagnerian. In 1873 he made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth, uninvited and barely tolerated, so that he could show his idol the score to his Third Symphony, dedicated “in deepest veneration to the honorable Herr Richard Wagner, the unattainable, world-famous, and exalted Master of Poetry and Music, by Anton Bruckner.” Upon meeting his hero, Bruckner allegedly fell to the ground, yelping, “Master, I worship you!” Despite or because of his strenuous enthusiasm, he made a dismal impression on his hosts. In her diary, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, speaks disparagingly of the visitor as “the poor Viennese organist.” 

In summer 1876, Bruckner made his second trip to Bayreuth, where he attended the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. He was so profoundly affected by the experience that he immediately began major revisions of several earlier works, including his Fourth Symphony. 

A Closer Listen

Bruckner’s 1878–80 revision of the Fourth has the following tempo markings and key signatures: 

Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (With motion, not too fast), in the home key of E-flat major

Andante, quasi allegretto, in C minor

Scherzo. Bewegt (with motion)—Trio: Nicht zu schnell (Not too fast), in B-flat major

Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (With motion, but not too fast), in E-flat major

Copyright 2022 by René Spencer Saller

A marital collaboration

This is what happens when they let long-married, refrigerator-sharing people have magnetic poetry sets. We move the words around a lot, between the two of us, usually when we are waiting for our geriatric feline hospice patient Hodiamont to finish eating one of the six to eight meals that he must eat daily to maintain his wraithlike corporeal substance. (He eats a special food for cats who have thyroid disease but who are allergic to the standard medication, which Hodiamont is.)

Anyway, I liked this one, so I thought I’d take a snapshot of it with the iPad to preserve it. The authorship breakdown is five lines by Mr. Christian Saller, four lines by Mrs. Christian Saller, but I will leave it to you to guess who wrote what.

And yes, the little word magnets, which are more than a decade old now, could use a good scrubbing. They don’t look nearly that dirty when they’re not blown up, but still that is no excuse for the filth. I will leave it here as a chastening exercise (as well as a reminder to bust out the Dr. Bronners, stat).

Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder

One hundred and ten years ago yesterday, when another culture war was under way, a concert took place at Musikverein Wien, in which Arnold Schoenberg (I prefer the Americanized spelling that he adopted late in life) conducted music by himself (his Chamber Symphony Op. 9), Alexander Zemlinsky, and Anton Webern. It’s known as the Skandalkonzert because violent skirmishes erupted among audience members during Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, and the concert could not be continued. Mahler’s sublime song cycle Kindertotenlieder was canceled on the spot. (Likely just as well, since grief-stricken art songs about dead children are known to kill a vibe, especially after the adrenalin rush of a literal brawl.)

Even though I missed the concert centenary by a decade and a day, I thought I’d share some notes I wrote about Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, for a 2016 St. Louis Symphony program that also featured works by Holst and Vaughan Williams. The Berg songs are the most underperformed of that lot, so I have extracted those notes from the original program.

Wordless Weirdness

This program presents three intensely unorthodox works. One has remained extremely popular since its premiere, which might mitigate its essential weirdness. The other two pieces—widely admired today, if underperformed—were maligned and misunderstood when new. The partial premiere of the Altenberg Lieder could scarcely be heard over the heckling, which soon devolved into a riot. The response to Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi was less hostile but still fell short of enthusiastic. Even Holst, that extraterrestrial tone painter, failed to appreciate his old friend’s cantata-concerto hybrid. “I couldn’t get hold of it,” he confessed sadly, after the 1925 premiere. Whereas both of the English composers’ suites contain only wordless vocal music, Berg’s songs supply actual lyrics, in German. But the combined effect of Altenberg’s oddball koans and Berg’s strangely shifting sonorities only serves to destabilize. Abstract and irreducible, the music inhabits a zone of infinite expression. It tells a story that language can’t betray.

Remarkable Resilience

Alban Berg was a remarkable man for many reasons, but his resilience undergirds all of his other strengths. It allowed him to continue composing against formidable odds. Sensitive and severely asthmatic, he took piano lessons from his aunt, but his early training was spotty at best. For most of his career, he endured toxic levels of vitriol and scorn. Music critics in Vienna, where he lived all his life, were notoriously vicious, and his so-called supporters weren’t always much nicer. 

Take his master and mentor Arnold Schoenberg. Their relationship began in 1904, when Schoenberg, then 30, accepted the 19-year-old novice as a student. For the next six years, Berg was his most loyal disciple. Five Songs to Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (usually shortened to Altenberg Lieder, or Altenberg Songs) was Berg’s first major venture as an independent composer. Whether Schoenberg deliberately sabotaged his former apprentice remains unclear, but the March 1913 premiere, at the Vienna Musikverein, was an unqualified debacle. As the concert’s organizer, Schoenberg deserves much of the blame.

The planning was slapdash, the rehearsals subpar. On a set list that also included works by Webern, Mahler, and himself, Schoenberg programmed only the second and third Altenberg songs, flouting the work’s cyclical coherence. Even worse, the soprano who had been hired to sing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder flatly refused to perform the two Berg numbers, so a tenor was pressed into service at the last minute. Berg based the Altenberg Lieder on the mildly bawdy, epigrammatic blank verse of Peter Altenberg, but it’s unlikely that anyone heard more than a word or two in the general din. The first song was barely under way before the jeers escalated to physical violence. After some damn fool whipped out his pistol, the cops showed up. They broke up the so-called Skandalkonzert and sent everyone home.

Adding insult to injury, Schoenberg delivered a harsh critique a few weeks later. The compact, cryptic style of composition wasn’t working, he announced; Berg should go big or go home. Deferring to his master’s judgment, he abandoned his lieder. Until his sudden, squalid death at age 50, from an infected insect bite, Berg focused mainly on two  eternally radical operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, which kept his posse of haters fuming for decades. (Some of the meanest and most wrongheaded gibes in Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective involve Berg.) A complete version of the Altenberg Lieder wasn’t performed until 17 years after the composer’s death, when Jascha Horenstein conducted it in Paris. 

The cyclicity of the five lieder plays out on numerous levels. The opening “Seele, wie bist du schöner…” is prefaced by a sumptuous orchestral interlude teeming with odd sonorities. Theory nerds may notice that Berg employs elements of 12-tone composition a full decade before Schoenberg codified serialist technique. The concluding song in the cycle, “Hier ist Friede” (“Here Is Peace”), is similarly framed. Luscious and sinister, it plants a woozy kiss on the short stack of postcards and releases them to oblivion.

Copyright 2016 by René Spencer Saller