Six German Dances
Among musicians Anton Webern has a reputation. It’s said, tongue in cheek, that he’s the 12-tone composer who can make a movement of music last ten seconds. There’s some truth in that: his music really is remarkable for its compactness; maximum meaning and effect is compressed into tiny, jewel-like compositions. Here’s just one example, the final movement from Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op.24:
But if anyone can give Webern a run for his money in the brevity stakes it would be Franz Schubert. Although he wrote a great symphony that’s been admired for its “heavenly length,” Schubert was also a master of the miniature, writing perfectly formed songs that are sometimes as short as a minute or two, and little sets of dances for piano that contain the DNA of the Viennese waltz. These were real dances, for the social gatherings of his friends. At the same time they have a nuanced sophistication far beyond the requirements of their function, which is why they can be enjoyed just as much sitting down.
The six German Dances D820 were composed for a young piano student of Schubert’s, Countess Caroline Esterházy. They are delicate pieces – music for private performance. The manuscript remained within the family, unpublished, and was not rediscovered until 1930. At this point Webern was invited by his publisher, Universal Edition, to make an arrangement for small orchestra.
It might seem out of character for a pioneer of atonal techniques to be arranging music from the tonal tradition, but by 1930 he’d already arranged Schubert songs and sonatas, music by Liszt and even a Strauss waltz.
“I confess I had to give [the German Dances] much thought,’ he wrote to Schoenberg, ‘until I believed I had found the right way…In the process, the problem of classical instrumentation confronted me in its entirety. I took pains to remain on the solid ground of classical ideas of instrumentation, yet to place them into the service of our idea, i.e. as a means towards the greatest possible clarification of thought and context.”
And so Webern adopted a Schubertian orchestra: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, with strings. He also captured Schubert’s manner of using the instruments, highlighting the charm and delicacy of each dance while bringing out the musical lines with disarming clarity.
After the arrangement was finished, Webern wrote to his fellow student Berg: ‘It looks like a classical score, but still more like one by me: everything is unified and yet dispersed into a really great variety…Now one sees most distinctly how these six dances (seemingly written so hurriedly) were produced in one cast. Lovely, tender, beautiful ideas!’
Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto
Shostakovich wrote his first cello concerto for the great virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, but his idea for it went back nearly ten years. “The original impulse,” he said, “sprang from hearing the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra by Prokofiev.” This piece fascinated him and made him want to try writing a piece for cello and orchestra himself.
The cello concerto is a tricky form for composers – the relatively low voice of the cello can easily be swamped by an orchestra. Shostakovich’s solution is evident: this cello concerto can be performed by a small orchestra such as CityMusic Cleveland, with pairs of woodwinds, one horn, timpani, celesta and strings. The relatively small ensemble gives the accompaniment intimacy and clarity. Even more important is the way Shostakovich omits all the brass instruments except for the horn. Of all the wind instruments, the horn has the closest affinity to the cello and at times he weaves the two instruments together in a melancholy duet.
If there’s one thing to hold in your ears it’s the very first four notes the soloist plays, the principal motif of the concerto. Just a “simple little theme”, said Shostakovich! But in just four notes it creates a nervous, intense atmosphere, and as it appears again and again it gives the concerto an obsessive quality too. The lower voices in the orchestra bring a dark, ominous mood; the high woodwinds a spiky brilliance. If this concerto were a movie it would be a fast-paced psychological thriller, full of unsettling contradictions.
The second movement (to be played “moderately”) is more Romantic and singing in character, less neurotic. Its highpoint – literally – sends the soloist to the top of the cello’s range with ethereal harmonics, a special effect that’s echoed by the bell-like sound of the celesta. This movement moves immediately into a cadenza for the soloist alone – so long that it’s given status as a movement in its own right. Shostakovich evokes the improvisational character of a traditional cadenza, giving the cello music that ruminates on the various themes while building up to a transition into the finale.
The finale (“fast but not too much”) is relatively short but it’s relentless, even ferocious. It contains a well-hidden parody of Stalin’s favorite song, “Suliko,” and the mood overall is sardonic. The winds are brilliant, the soloist dazzles, the obsessive four-note motif is hammered and shrieked, and the timpanist adds to the frenzy with fierce interjections before thumping out seven notes to bring the music to an emphatic conclusion.
MOZART THE ROMANTIC
Mozart didn’t know that the three great symphonies he composed in 1788 would be his last. And we don’t know for sure whether they were performed in his lifetime. But there’s good reason to think that they were, or at least that Mozart had performances in mind, because he was a practical man, composing either on commission or for a concert that he was planning. In the case of Symphony No.40, the fact that he later revised the orchestral parts (adding a pair of clarinets) suggests that this was the Mozart symphony that was played in concerts on April 16 and 17, 1791 – performances that included his clarinetist friends, Johann and Anton Stadler. (In our concerts in February we perform the original version.)
After Mozart’s death, these symphonies quickly became some of his best-loved works. In particular, Symphony No.40 had a stormy passion that captured the Romantic imagination of the 19th century.
Central to the stormy character of the symphony is its key: G minor. This was unusual – Mozart wrote only two minor-key symphonies (the other is No.25, the “little G minor”, which runs under the opening titles of the movie Amadeus). Then there are the dramatic implications of G minor: when Mozart uses this key in his operas it’s for moments of deep despair. But you’d be wrong to think that the dark intensity of the music somehow mirrored Mozart’s personal situation – Symphony No.40 belongs to an 18th-century tradition in which musical art was intended to give the agreeable pleasure of intense feeling and turbulent passions.
That pleasure emerges right from the beginning of the first movement (“very fast”), as throbbing violas set up an urgent and tempestuous theme in the violins. And soon – after an abrupt pause – a new pleasure arrives with music that’s calmer and more serene. This becomes a source of drama too, as the two contrasting themes create conflict of their own.
Mozart takes the second movement (to be played at an “easy walking pace”) into a major key, which in theory should make for a cheerier mood, but still there is an aching tenderness to the music and the pervasive sense of impassioned feeling at odds with classical elegance.
The third movement is a minuet, normally the most elegant of dances, but in this symphony it’s given a vigor that borders on gruffness. There’s a shift to a gentler character in the central Trio and the winds have a chance to shine, then it’s back to the sturdy minuet and into the finale – fast and furious. This begins with the characteristic upward-reaching gesture that was known as the “Mannheim Rocket.”
In the 18th century, minor-key symphonies usually revealed their true colors by turning at the very end to an optimistic major-key conclusion – something that Mozart’s symphony does not do. Instead, the last movement stays resolutely in G minor to the bitter end, and the traditional exhilaration of a finale is tempered by dark and tragic emotion.
Yvonne Frindle © 2010
Composer portraits by Charles Krenner
Today Schubert is known for his hundreds of exquisite songs, his expansive orchestral works and visionary chamber music. In his lifetime, though, he was known mainly as a songwriter, and his friends especially liked to have him along at parties because he could improvise dance music at the piano.
Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and, together with Alban Berg, these three composers formed the nucleus of what’s called the “Second Viennese School” (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are the “First”). His style embraced atonality and the 12-tone technique and his music is notable for its compact forms.
Shostakovich is a controversial and enigmatic composer. He lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalinist purges and World War II; he was alternately harassed and lauded by the political regime; his music sometimes banned, sometimes celebrated. The idea that his music can be ‘read’ as political protest disguised as compliance is often subject to hot debate, but no one disputes that Shostakovich was one of the great symphonic composers of the 20th century.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart grew up as a servant-musician in Salzburg, but when he moved to Vienna he became one of the earliest musicians to pursue an independent freelance career. He enjoyed success as a composer and piano virtuoso, but it was a precarious existence, often marred by poverty and illness. Even so, some of his most troubled years gave rise to masterpieces such as his final three symphonies, composed in 1788.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....