Blasts from the Past

Blasts from the Past: Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2

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On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:

The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.

Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Pierre Boulez – Piano Sonata No. 1

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“Vous êtes de la merde!”

i’m going to begin 2016 by looking back 70 years to the earliest acknowledged work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers, Pierre Boulez. For much of his life, but particularly as a young composer, Boulez’s perceived demeanour was, to put it mildly, bellicose, and his approach to composition was rapid—an interesting fact in light of his later concern (some might say obsession) with revising his scores. These two aspects, his demeanour and his approach, came to a violent head in 1946, in the Paris apartment of Boulez’s teacher and mentor René Leibowitz, when Boulez turned up with the completed score of his first Piano Sonata, a work that Leibowitz had presumed would be worked on slowly under his supervision. Leibowitz’s disgruntled reaction involved taking the score—at the time bearing his name as dedicatee—and beginning to write on it in red pen; Boulez’s explosive response, prior to storming out, consisted of the five words above. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Aldo Clementi – Madrigale

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My next blast from the past is a rather lovely work by the Italian composer Aldo Clementi, who died in 2011. Clementi’s interest in both bell-type sounds (music boxes, carillons, etc.) and the notion of self-generating music can be heard to good effect in Madrigale, composed 35 years ago, in 1979. The title would appear to reference the Italian madrigale; originating in the early 14th century, these were usually written for two voices, setting idyllic texts—typically pastoral scenes or expressions of love—and characterised by their use of decoration, particularly melismas. Clementi’s work echoes some of these aspects, composed for two pianists (piano four hands) and tape; the piano is prepared with different materials used in each octave (beyond this Clementi doesn’t make specific demands), while the tape contains a pre-recorded part played by glockenspiel and vibraphone. This combination of metallised and plasticised percussive timbres creates a rich, bejewelled soundworld akin to a large music box, which Clementi reinforces by the heavily mechanical nature of the work’s material as well as its method of execution. In essence, the tape part acts as a click track of sorts, marshalling the pianists through a strict, linear rallentando that continues throughout Madrigale‘s 9-minute duration. At first, the tempo is rapid, pianists and tape creating a dense, swirling cloud-like texture formed from cycling patterns and phrases, but after barely more than a minute the music begins its inexorable, entropic drag, falling away dynamically as its tempo approaches ever closer to zero. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: György Ligeti – Poème symphonique

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A couple of days ago marked the eighth anniversary of the death of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. To mark the event, and also begin a new occasional series on 5:4, i’d like to take a brief look back at one of the more enigmatic works of Ligeti’s career. Poème symphonique was composed in 1962, and is as much a piece of performance art as a musical composition. The performance specification is relatively straightforward: 100 mechanical metronomes are required, operated by 10 players, each metronome fully wound and set to its own tempo; all 100 are then released and allowed to tick freely until their mechanisms wind down. and that’s it, except your problems begin immediately, procuring and assembling 100 metronomes at one time and place being the most obvious. Not entirely surprisingly, the first performance triggered a fair amount of controversy, being as it was part of an official reception at the closing event of the 1963 Gaudeamus Courses and Concerts of New Music, in Hilversum, the Netherlands, an event involving local dignitaries and which was to be televised the following day. During the performance, protests broke out, and the broadcast never took place. Read more

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