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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 31, Paris

As Mozart matured from a child prodigy to an ambitious young man, he found his musical duties in Salzburg increasingly stifling. He left in the fall of 1777 on an extended job-hunting expedition, visiting Mannheim, Germany en route to Paris. Mannheim’s orchestra was considered the best in the world, famous for its intense crescendo effects, but Paris had its own crack orchestra, which performed on the Concert Spirituel series, a Paris fixture since 1725. The orchestra even had its own signature flourish, the premier coup d’archet: a unison bow-stroke at the start of a work that showed off the ensemble’s precision.

Mozart secured a commission to compose a symphony for the Concert Spirituel in 1778, one of his few successes from an otherwise dismal journey. The resulting symphony employed an unusually large orchestra, including clarinets for the first time in Mozart’s symphonic output. (Haydn, for his part, did not add clarinets to his symphonies until the last works for London, from 1794–95). While the scoring was progressive, the form of the Paris Symphony was a bit of a throwback, using the older three-movement symphonic format and skipping the minuet. The director of the concert series was for the most part pleased with the symphony, but he quibbled that the slow movement was too long, and Mozart obliged with a shorter replacement. (Most performances today use the original version.)

Mozart, eager to please his local audience and potential Parisian employers, incorporated the stereotypical coup d’archet at the start of his symphony. This was perhaps a bit cynical, considering that Mozart wrote to his father, “These oxen here make such a to-do about it! What the devil! I can see no difference—they merely begin together—much as they do elsewhere.” The opening flourish begins with a rapidly ascending octave scale, a motive that circulates throughout the movement. In the development section, that scale-figure makes the shocking “mistake” of going a half-step too far, a devilish surprise.

The Andante slow movement plays like a scene from a comedy of manners, with calm and courtly themes that pause politely to let each other speak. The Allegro finale is not so genteel; it draws the listeners in with a scurrying piano start and then blasts a forte response. The contrapuntal treatment of the second theme foreshadows the famous fugal conclusion to Mozart’s last symphony, No. 41 (Jupiter), composed a decade later.

Aaron Grad ©2012

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 14

Hans Graf, conductor
Dina Kuznetsova, soprano
Nikolay Didenko, bass

When Shostakovich was hospitalized in January of 1969, his thoughts, understandably, turned to death. It had been more than a decade since a form of polio had begun to rob him of the use of his right hand, and a heart attack three years earlier had ended his concert career. He had broken both legs in separate falls, could barely walk, and was in terrible pain. In his hospital bed, he worked feverishly on vocal settings of poems that grappled with death, taking a cue from Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, which Shostakovich had orchestrated in 1962. The new work took shape, in a matter of weeks, as a series of eleven linked movements, scored for two vocalists, a small string orchestra and percussion. Shostakovich declared it his Symphony No. 14.

The chosen texts, from different centuries and in various source languages, shared the aspect of confronting death directly and painfully, with no pretense of redemption. The four poets also all died prematurely, three of them in manmade circumstances. The cycle begins with the words of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), who was executed without a trial during the Spanish Civil War.

In the first song, De profundis, the “hundred lovers sleep forever.” Violins establish the aura of death with fragmentary quotations of the Dies irae plainchant, and the music lays itself out like a skeleton, with no flesh to soften the stark, independent lines that surround the solo bass. The soprano takes the next Lorca setting, Malagueña, the title referencing a flamenco style. Some of the music evokes a strumming texture, as in the passage in which “Black horses and sinister people pass through the deep pathways of the guitar,” and castanets reinforce the dark, twisted take on a Spanish dance.

The next six songs use texts by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who died in the 1918 flu pandemic, weakened by wounds received during World War I. Lorelei is the most overtly dramatic passage in the symphony, in which the two voices recreate the German tale—first penned in this form by Clemens Brentano in 1801—of a woman who, after being spurned by her lover, is accused of being a witch and of driving men to their deaths. A bishop can barely muster the resolve to condemn the temptress to a convent, and the knights assigned to convey her there fall victim to her charms as well, allowing her to climb a giant rock over the Rhine River, from which she jumps to her death, thinking she sees her lover. A manic fugue based on a twelve-tone row and a fleeting quotation from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas contribute to the wild, unhinged aspect of this music.

The Suicide places a solo cello in counterpoint to the soprano, who sings from beyond death of “three large lilies on my grave.” The soprano continues with On Watch, which foretells the death of a young soldier, who is both her brother and her lover; she sings, shamelessly, “I want to make myself beautiful in both incest and death, these two magnificent deeds.” Madam, Look! continues in a dark and twisted mood, with the soprano laughing at “the beautiful loves scythed down by death,” spurred on by bone-dry commentary from the xylophone.

The bass restores the solemn mood in At the Santé Jail, based on the week that Apollinaire was (wrongly) jailed on suspicion of having robbed the Louvre. An extended passage of plucking and col legno tapping of the bows captures the maddening stasis of a jail cell. There are hints of the deathly Dies irae motive again, and even an oblique reference to Shostakovich’s own musical signature, D-S-C-H (spelled according to European note names).

Apollinaire’s The Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople shares its title with a nineteenth-century Russian painting, based on a legendary episode from 1676. When the leader of the Ottoman Empire demanded that the Cossacks submit to his forces, they responded with a letter filled with the most imaginative vulgarities they could come up with—a missive delivered here by the bass, in the company of frenzied strings.

O, Delvig, Delvig! is the one song based on words of a Russian poet, albeit one with a German name: Wilhelm Küchelbecker (1797-1846), who was exiled to Siberia, and went blind and died there, after participating in the failed Decembrist Uprising of 1825. The poem pays tribute to another persecuted poet, Anton Delvig. The musical language is distinctly more consonant than anywhere else in the symphony, and the consideration of a poet’s immortality offers a glimmer of hope among the otherwise bleak sentiments.

The final two sections bring in the voice of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the Prague-born poet who died of leukemia at age 51. As at the beginning of the symphony, the violins circle around a motive reminiscent of the Dies irae, and the soprano returns to sing of The Poet’s Death. The short Conclusion has the voices singing together for the first time, in Rilke’s pronouncement that “Death is great. We belong to her with laughing mouths.” The symphony strives for no grand resolution at its end; it simply offers a dissonant death rattle, accelerating into an unknown void.

Aaron Grad ©2014

About This Program

Internationally celebrated maestro Hans Graf leads the SPCO in a rare performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14, a powerful work written as an impassioned protest against death. Set on Russian translations of texts by Federico Garcia Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke, this epic work examines human mortality with devastating emotion. This performance features the voices of SPCO debut artists Nikolay Didenko and Dina Kuznetsova. Complementing Shostakovich’s staggering work is Mozart’s sublime Paris Symphony.

Please note: The performance of the Mozart and Shostakovich program on Thursday, January 30 at Temple Israel is currently SOLD OUT. Please follow the "Tickets" links above to purchase tickets to one of the other performances.