Benjamin Britten had a precocious start in music, studying piano and viola and composing hundreds of works by the time he was a teenager. Britten’s viola teacher introduced him, at age fourteen, to the composer Frank Bridge, who agreed to give Britten private lessons. The ambitious composer lost some of his youthful swagger working with Bridge—he later wrote, “I, who thought I was already on the verge of immortality, saw my illusions shattered”—but he emerged from the demanding lessons with new rigor and technique to match his natural inventiveness.
Britten entered the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1930. His composition lessons there with John Ireland were unremarkable, far less influential than his discoveries of modern composers ranging from Schoenberg to Stravinsky. Britten’s career gathered steam in 1932 when a prize-winning Phantasy for string quartet led to his first professional performance. A Sinfonietta from the same year became his official Opus 1.
Britten composed the Sinfonietta in three weeks during the summer of 1932, and he conducted its premiere the following January. The scoring for ten solo instruments, a woodwind quintet plus a string quintet, reflects the influence of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, the seminal work for such mixed ensembles. The dissonant harmonies and spiky phrases in the opening movement speak to young Britten’s fascination with continental modernism, a reaction against the Anglicized, pastoral sound espoused by his teacher and others from the older generations. Still, the music does not abandon Britten’s sensitive ear for melody, as heard in the mellifluous woodwind phrases and crystalline violin duet in the central Variations movement. (There are also plentiful examples of the pentatonic scales that turn up so often in the music of Vaughan Williams and other Brits.) A trembling viola line links directly to the Tarantella, a kinetic finale in the manner of the Italian folk dance named, so it is said, for the manic gyrations intended to ward off death after the bite of a tarantula.
Aaron Grad ©2014
Rudolf Barshai created this chamber symphony from Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, a work rich in biographical lore. It quotes from six of Shostakovich’s own works and includes the four-note motto that stood for his initials, as well as incorporating themes from Tchaikovsky and Wagner. The motto is heard clearly at the outset: D-E flat-C-B. In German notation, E flat is “Es” and B is “H,” giving us D-S-C-H. Why was Shostakovich mining his own life for this work, at this time?
The story is that Shostakovich was depressed in 1960, having joined the Communist party in September, and then visited Dresden, in what was then Communist East Germany. Viewing the destruction of the Allies’ firebombing campaign, which turned the city to rubble, he was so moved that he wrote this quartet, officially dedicated “To the Memory of the Victims of Fascism.” He wrote it in three days and the quartet became known in the Soviet Union as his Dresden Quartet. The official Soviet line said the quartet was a memorial to the victims of the Axis powers; Shostakovich’s friends claimed it was his autobiography in music, framing his tragic outlook in angry and doleful sounds. Given the difficulty in determining the truth from the Soviet era, in which coded words were often used to say one thing and mean another, it’s nearly impossible to state definitively what a work of art may have “meant.” Probably the best for us to do today is simply to listen, read the evidence as it becomes available, and make our own judgments.
The five movements of the quartet (and chamber symphony) are arranged slow-fast-medium tempo-slow-slow. The composer’s motto is turned into a dolorous near-chorale with an extended viola solo, and the second movement uses one of Shostakovich’s favorite melodies, a furious “Jewish” melody first used in his Second Piano Trio. The third movement’s waltz brightens the atmosphere briefly before the pounding chords of the fourth movement assert themselves violently. Deep sadness characterizes the final movement, with its rising and falling use of the D-S-C-H motto and general soft dynamic. Whether it was war victims or himself Shostakovich was eulogizing, the piece is broad enough to encompass both, as well as anyone we wish to add.
Marc Geelhoed ©2010