Juanjo Mena conducts The Leningrad


Program Notes

FRI NOV 25, 8 pm • SAT NOV 26, 8 pm

JUANJO MENA conductor • JAVIER PERIANES  pianist

MOZART (1756–1791)

Concerto No. 21 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 467

• [Allegro maestoso]
• Andante
• Allegro vivace assai


SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60, Leningrad

• Allegretto. Moderato. Adagio. Allegretto
• Moderato, poco allegretto
• Adagio. Moderato risoluto. Largo—
• Allegro non troppo. Moderato

Concerto No. 21 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 467

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg | Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna

Work composed: completed on March 9, 1785

Premiere: March 10, 1785

Instrumentation: solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

CSO notable performances: 10 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1927 (Emery Auditorium), Fritz Reiner conducting; Walter Gieseking, pianist | Most recent: March 2009, Paavo Järvi conducting; Louis Lortie, pianist | Walter Gieseking was also pianist for this work on two additional subscription weekends, in 1932 and 1937, both under Eugene Goossens.

Duration: approx. 29 minutes

Mozart was at the height of his popularity in 1785. His father, who had always taken an active interest in Wolfgang’s career, was eager to visit Vienna to share in his son’s successes. Leopold set out from Salzburg on January 28. He arrived on February 11 to find his fortunate son living in luxurious quarters. That same night Leopold attended a concert at which Wolfgang premiered “a new and very fine concerto.” This work, K. 466 in D Minor, had been completed the day of the concert and, as usual, there was no time for rehearsal. Nonetheless “the concert was incomparable and the orchestra played splendidly,” Leopold wrote home.

Leopold had cause to be even more impressed the next day. Haydn came by to visit Mozart, and Leopold and Wolfgang joined the brothers Tinti in playing some of the string quartets Mozart had recently finished and intended to dedicate to Haydn. Haydn said to Leopold, “I tell you before God as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer that I know, in person or by name. He has taste and, added to that, the greatest knowledge of composition.”

Leopold was to be dazzled yet again on the next day. Wolfgang played a concert in the presence of the Emperor, who waved his hat and shouted, “Bravo, Mozart!” And so it went. Leopold remained in Vienna another five weeks, exhilarated again and again by his son’s successes.

On March 10 Mozart gave a concert for his own benefit. On it he played another new piano concerto, K. 467. This work, written only a month after K. 466, is totally different from it. Expansive rather than taut, full of military pomp rather than romantic passion, this concerto was an enormous success. Leopold expressed some doubts about its difficulty and about certain dissonances, probably in the slow movement, but the piece was well received.

The composer felt confident enough of his popularity to lessen his concerns for public taste in his concertos—the brooding nature of K. 466, the dissonances in K. 467, the minor mode in K. 466 and K. 491, and the minor mode slow movements of K. 482 and K. 488 are examples of his growing independence from “social” music during his successful Vienna years.

Mozart’s father left Vienna on March 20, happy yet exhausted. He was never again to see his son, as Leopold died two years later.

KEYNOTE. Martial rhythms and emphasis on trumpets and drums set the tone for the first movement. It contains no fewer than eight independent melodies—many with a highly rhythmic character and most rather short. The working out of this mosaic of varied materials requires a lengthy movement. There are some bold harmonic excursions that cloud the sunny world of C major—further examples of Mozart’s growing disdain for popular appeal.

The slow movement contrasts with the martial first. It contains the lyricism that the opening movement pointedly avoids. Furthermore, the andante has its own special sound, created in part by the scoring—muted strings, frequent pizzicato, subdivided viola section—and in part by the pungent harmonies. These dissonances actually caused Leopold to suspect a copyist’s error!

The finale reconciles the divergent moods of the other two movements. Based on a theme used earlier in the Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, this rondo has great sophistication and understated wit. Its elegant surface disguises considerable subtlety.

Jonathan D. Kramer

Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60, Leningrad

Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow

Work composed: 1941

Premiere: March 5, 1942, in Kuibyshev, by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Samuil Samosud

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. alto flute, piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (incl. E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drums, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, strings

CSO notable performances: Six previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1943, Eugene Goossens conducting (less than five months after its U.S. concert premiere with the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky) | Most recent: November 2006, Paavo Järvi conducting.

Duration: approx. 69 minutes

Shostakovich began work on his Symphony No. 7 in the middle of July 1941, as Hitler’s troops were advancing on Leningrad. He worked at a feverish speed and finished the 30-minute first movement in about a month. (He had had plans for a new symphony even before the German attack, but we will never know how the music would have turned out had history not intervened.) The second and third movements were written after the blockade had begun (September 1941), while Shostakovich was serving on the fire-fighting brigade at the Leningrad Conservatory. He frequently had to interrupt his work to escort his family to the bomb shelter during air raids. Many people in Leningrad knew that Shostakovich was working on a new symphony even as food was becoming scarce in the city, and were gratified to know that art was still alive in spite of everything. (A 1965 book about this difficult period bears the title But the Muses Were Not Silent.)

At the end of September, Shostakovich and his family were evacuated from the besieged city. They were flown to Moscow and, two weeks later, traveled to the city of Kuibyshev on the Volga River by train—a 600-mile journey that, amid the wartime chaos, took an entire week. He completed the fourth and final movement of the Seventh Symphony—which he dedicated to the city of Leningrad—in Kuibyshev on December 27, 1941. His original titles for the four movements are: “War”—”Memories”—”Our Country’s Wide Spaces”—”Victory.” These titles, however, were not retained in the printed score.

Shostakovich remained in Kuibyshev for a year and a half; in the spring of 1943 he moved to Moscow. After the war, he never lived in Leningrad again.

The “Leningrad” Symphony was given its first public performance on March 5, 1942, in Kuibyshev, by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Samuil Samosud, an event broadcast nationally in the Soviet Union.

It was almost inevitable that the “Leningrad” Symphony should be thoroughly politicized both in the Soviet Union and abroad: the Soviets made political capital of what they decided was a paean to the heroism of the people of Leningrad during the “Great Patriotic War.” At the same time, the symphony became a major sensation in the West. The adventure-filled story of how the manuscript reached the United States was itself made into a movie: the score was microfilmed near Moscow, flown to Tehran, driven from there to Cairo, and finally flown to New York via Casablanca. A whole crew of photographers worked for ten days to create paper prints of the 252-page score, from which conductors could work and parts could be made. Some of the most prominent music directors in the U.S., including Serge Koussevitzky, Artur Rodzinski and Leopold Stokowski, vied for the jus primae noctis (“the right to the first night”), to quote Nicolas Slonimsky’s irreverent expression from an article in the Musical Quarterly (October 1942). The race was finally won by Arturo Toscanini, who led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a nationwide radio broadcast on July 19, 1942.  (The United States concert premiere was on August 14, 1942, at Tanglewood, with the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.)   

Shostakovich was variously described in the press as the new Beethoven and the new Berlioz. Toscanini’s NBC broadcast was referred to in Newsweek as “the premiere of the year”; Time magazine carried a drawing of the composer wearing a fire-helmet on its July 20, 1942 cover with the caption: “Fireman Shostakovich—Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory.” It was clear that war propaganda helped to promote the symphony in ways quite unheard of in the annals of music.

Yet the most significant early performance of the work was probably the one given in besieged Leningrad. Overcoming difficulties beyond description, conductor Karl Eliasberg managed to assemble an orchestra of starving, exhausted musicians and played the work on August 9, 1942. This concert was itself a propaganda ploy by Stalin, intended to show that the city of Leningrad could never be defeated. But to those in the audience, this hardly mattered at the time. Every seat in the hall was filled, and many members of the audience wept openly. As Solomon Volkov writes in St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (The Free Press, 1995): “Leningraders wept for their fate and that of their city, slowly dying in the grip of the most ruthless blockade of the twentieth century.”

According to Volkov, Shostakovich was mindful of the fact that the destruction of Leningrad did not start with the Nazi blockade. Ever since the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Communist Party boss in Leningrad (on Stalin’s secret orders, it seems), the former capital had been a special target. Untold thousands of residents were sent to the Gulag, from where the majority never returned. There was hardly anyone in the city who had not lost a relative, a friend, or a neighbor. People in Leningrad thus had much to weep about. This is why Volkov says in Testimony, the Shostakovich memoir whose authenticity has been disputed but that contains a great deal of material that has the ring of truth: “[The Seventh is] not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.”

A composer who was very close to me once said: “I never ask myself what music to write, only what music wants to be written by me.” What music “wanted to be written” by Shostakovich under these dramatic circumstances? First of all, it was absolutely crucial for the composer to express himself in ways that could be immediately understood by the masses whose destinies were so inextricably linked to his own. The composer went out of his way to write simply, with melodies built on scales and a great deal of symmetrical, foursquare rhythms. He also needed to portray tragedy and turmoil but also offer comfort and hold out the hope for healing and a better future. Accessibility and optimism were, of course, qualities aggressively promoted by the Soviet authorities, and several times during his career Shostakovich ran afoul of the Party apparatchiks who felt that he had failed to satisfy those requirements. But this time, the composer could sincerely and honestly identify with the demand for optimism, for how could one hope to survive the horrors of the war without it? And this is true whether we believe the symphony is about the Nazi attack or about evil in a more universal sense.

KEYNOTE.That attack is portrayed through the simplest and most accessible of all the themes in the symphony. It is after a confident C-major opening and a dream-like, idyllic section in G major that the march begins, pianissimo at first, and repeated in identical fashion no fewer than eleven times, in a gradual crescendo that inevitably invited comparisons with Ravel’s Boléro. Shostakovich commented: “Idle critics will no doubt reproach me for imitating Ravel’s Boléro. Well, let them, for this is how I hear the war.”*

The identical repeats were not the only extraordinary feature of this section. Another was the intentional triviality of the theme repeated, frightening in its primitive brutality. After reaching a monumental climax, the war theme gradually dissolves and the idyllic initial materials return. (The lyrical bassoon solo has been interpreted as a dirge for those who died in the war.) Ultimately, all that remains of the war theme is a distant and quite harmless echo at the movement’s close.

At first, Shostakovich intended to have this movement stand by itself as a symphonic poem. When he changed his plans and wrote three more movements to complete the classical symphony scheme, he faced the obvious problems of how to reconcile the dictates of that scheme with the programmatic depiction of war. According to his own words, the two middle movements were meant to “ease the tension” and the finale to portray “victory.” Yet the case is more complex: the middle movements are far from tension-free and the finale reaches victory in a rather circuitous way. Taken as a group, movements 2 to 4 take a step back after the first movement’s mighty “peace-war-peace” sequence, and offer lyrical meditations with occasional dramatic interruptions. The former are often expressed by long instrumental solos, mainly for members of the woodwind family; the latter are characterized by faster tempos, ostinato rhythms and jarring dissonances, as in the middle sections of both the second and the third movements.

The second movement seems literally to “take a step back” even in its tonality: B minor, a half-step down from the first movement’s C. It starts out as a gentle allegretto, with long melodic lines unfolding over a characteristic rhythmic accompaniment. Yet the shrill sound of the piccolo clarinet is the harbinger of new conflicts: the middle section, in the words of commentator Robert Dearling, is “full of the most appallingly harrowing devices.” A modified recapitulation follows. The main theme, played by the solo oboe at the beginning of the movement, is now given to the bass clarinet. The extreme low register lends an eerie quality to this eminently lyrical melody.

The third movement is, in Shostakovich’s words, the “dramatic center of the whole work.” It may have been “Our Country’s Wide Spaces” according to the official program, yet it was (and is) widely perceived as a lament for the victims of the war. After a few introductory wind chords, the violins in unison, with almost no accompaniment, make a solemn proclamation. If the tone of the second movement was set by a great oboe solo, this time it is the flute that plays the role of principal soloist. Its slowly unfolding melody eventually leads to a middle section in which the specters break loose again: a passionate string melody evolves into a highly agitated dramatic statement that eventually subsides to prepare the return of the quiet and solemn music we heard earlier.

The finale, as another commentator, Hugh Ottaway, observes, “is by no means the barn-storming type of movement that a vision of victory might seem to suggest.” Shostakovich’s optimism is not the cheap socialist realist variety promoted by the authorities. An enigmatic opening and an extended stormy passage, contradicting the idea of victory with its ostensibly tragic C-minor tonality, are followed by a lengthy section in a relatively slow tempo (“Moderato”), another possible song of mourning for the victims. The triumphant conclusion arrives only at the very end, with the recapitulation of the first movement’s opening C-major theme. Now at last the triumph is complete, with no holds barred, as the majestic fanfares take over the entire orchestra in a penetrating triple fortissimo.

* Russian literary historian Abraam Gozenpud has pointed out an interesting parallel with one of Shostakovich’s favorite writers:

Shostakovich, like Dostoevsky, shows how evil is born, and how what appears to be harmless in origin can turn into something dangerous and destructive. In The Possessed, Lyamshin improvises on the piano and combines “The Marseillaise” with the sentimental song “Ach, mein lieber Augustin.” Gradually this harmless little song changes its character and acquires a threatening note; it starts to rage and rampage monstrously and terrifyingly.

In the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony the harmless marching song gradually acquires the force of a hurricane which blows everything from its path. There is of course a radical difference between Lyamshin’s improvisation, which was derived from France’s defeat in the 1870 war with Prussia, and the Seventh Symphony created during the Second World War, which depicts not only the theme of the enemy’s attack, but a faith in Soviet victory. But it seemed to me that the idea behind the conception of the central episode in the Symphony’s first movement shares a certain similarity with Lyamshin’s improvisation.

(Published in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Princeton, 1994, p. 459.)

It should be noted that Shostakovich’s penultimate composition, Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin (1974), was a setting of poems from The Possessed (also known in English as The Demons), a book that was obviously close to his heart.

—Peter Laki