The Courage of Friendship: The Composer as Jew in the Soviet Union

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which will be performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

The historical thread running through this concert program is the presence and persecution of the Jews of Poland and Soviet Russia in the mid-twentieth century. The nearly total annihilation of the Jews that began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland and proceeded with increased intensity after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 had an unexpected and grim epilogue. In 1948 Stalin launched his post-war campaign against the surviving Jewish population in the Soviet Union. Each of the three composers on this program struggled to come to terms with this extended period of unparalleled brutality in the history of anti-Semitism.

Veniamin Fleishman, at age 23, began to study with Dmitri Shostakovich. Fleishman was both Jewish and a Soviet patriot. He volunteered to join in the defense of Leningrad in 1941 and was killed early on in the siege of the city. The protracted and savage Nazi attempt to eradicate Leningrad deeply affected Shostakovich. He was evacuated to safety in the East but wrote what quickly became internationally his most famous symphony, the Seventh. Its popularity inspired Bartók to quote it sardonically in the 1945 Concerto for Orchestra. Shostakovich’s Seventh was written in response to the siege, the suffering of its inhabitants and the heroism of the city’s defenders.

While in exile during the war, Shostakovich also went to great lengths to get hold of Fleishman’s incomplete manuscript of a one-act opera based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Violin.” He completed and orchestrated the work in 1944. It was a labor of love and admiration. But the persistence if not increase in anti-Semitism after the war made any performance of the work impossible despite Shostakovich’s advocacy. Only four years after the 1956 start of de-Stalinization and the “thaw” in communist Russia, a concert performance was arranged in 1960. The first staged performance occurred in 1968 at the Leningrad Conservatory, the place where Fleishman had been a student and Shostakovich his teacher.

Shostakovich’s relationship to the Soviet regime, both under Stalin and after, until his death, has remained a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. To what extent was he an “official” voice of the regime? Is there a subtext of dissent beneath the frequently affirmative aesthetic surface of his works? Amidst the controversy, one salient fact remains beyond dispute. Shostakovich was free of anti-Semitism. And that was apparent in his devotion to Fleishman’s memory, and in his steadfast friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg, the Warsaw-born Jewish composer who fled east into the Soviet Union after the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Shostakovich met Weinberg during the war. He persuaded Weinberg to move to Moscow and remain in the Soviet Union. Weinberg became Shostakovich’s closest musical colleague and a dear friend for the rest of his life. When Weinberg was arrested in 1953 during the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, Shostakovich showed extraordinary courage. He intervened with Lavrenti Beria, the head of the KGB, to seek Weinberg’s release, but to no avail. He pledged to place Weinberg’s daughter under his personal protection, thereby putting himself at risk. Only Stalin’s death in March 1953 secured Weinberg’s release and restoration to professional life. From then on, throughout the subsequent two decades, Shostakovich encouraged and promoted Weinberg’s work as a composer.

It would be hard to imagine a biography that reveals the complexities and contradictions associated with being Jewish and an artist in interwar Poland and in Soviet Russia before, during, and after the Nazi defeat in 1945 more vividly and subtly than that of Weinberg. Weinberg’s parents were professionals in the Yiddish theatre: his father was a musician and his mother an actress. They fled to Warsaw from Kishinev (in the province of Bessarabia) in response to the massacre of Jews in 1903 and 1905. The Kishinev pogrom became notorious throughout the world. It was marked both by its startling violence and the thinly veiled, tacit consent of the Czarist regime. It spurred mass emigration on the part of Jews and was easily exploited on behalf of the Zionist cause. The pogrom helped justify the idea that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only solution to the precarious position of Jews in Europe; it also lent credence to those Zionists who argued that Jews in the meantime should form paramilitary organizations to defend themselves.

But Weinberg’s parents were not Zionists. They mirrored the views of the majority of Russian Jews. They did not dream of a Jewish state in Palestine and their daily language was not a rapidly evolving Hebrew. They were Yiddish speakers and ardent defenders of Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people. They were determined to remain in Eastern Europe and were sympathetic to socialist organizations that saw a different path from that of Zionism to overcome anti-Semitism in Europe. The solution lay not in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but in a socialist revolution at home after which neither religion nor national identity would remain a cause of discrimination and oppression.

The sympathies of Weinberg’s parents also represented the view of most Jews in interwar Poland in the years in which the young Weinberg grew up. In the Polish Census of 1931—completed when Weinberg was 14 years old—out of nearly 32 million Poles, roughly 10 per cent were Jews. Out of these 3.1 million Jews, 2.5 million identified their primary language as Yiddish; only 250,000 claimed Hebrew as their main language. The large Jewish community in Warsaw, where Weinberg came of age, represented 30 percent of the city’s population. Weinberg’s parents chose to settle in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) because it was the single largest Jewish urban center in Europe, and second in size only to New York. On the eve of World War II, in 1939, the year Weinberg graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory (where he displayed brilliance as both pianist and composer), there were 350,000 Jews in Warsaw. The Warsaw Jewish community was exceptionally diverse, and contained everything from fully assimilated and well-to-do, Polish-speaking, Jewish inhabitants to a large Yiddish-speaking, poor, working-class population, a vocal group of Zionists and devout orthodox adherents to religion.

The sheer size of the Warsaw community made it possible for it to support a thriving Yiddish theatre world, Yiddish newspapers and journals, and publishing houses. Weinberg began to work as a musician in the Yiddish theatre at age 10. But this vital Jewish community met its tragic end at the hands of the Nazis. Weinberg’s parents and sister perished. But Weinberg, as a vigorous 20-year-old, understood that staying behind was not a promising option. Furthermore, like many non-Zionist, Yiddish-oriented Jews, he admired socialism and the Soviet Union.

Indeed for many Jews the Soviet Union during the 1920s and even the 1930s seemed a potential paradise, a place—whatever its faults—that was built on an ideology that promised a better future, a world of equality, free of superstitious religion prejudice. The Soviet Union after 1921 offered a contrast to a Catholic and conservative, authoritarian, independent Poland, where anti-Semitism flourished. Fleeing Poland was not merely a concession born out of necessity. Weinberg survived the war in Soviet Russia, and no matter how poor the treatment he received in the post-war years was, or how extreme the danger from anti-Semitism he lived under, he remained loyal to the ideals of the regime and the promise of socialism.

Early on, the new Soviet regime defined Jews as a nation equivalent to the many other legally recognized national and ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Yiddish was deemed the language of the Jewish nation. The state supported Yiddish publishing houses, theatres, and Yiddish culture and even sponsored a revision in Yiddish orthography. Yiddish culture flourished under Soviet rule until the mid-1930s, and once again during the war and briefly thereafter. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which the Soviets legally recognized, however, offered Stalin the chance to pursue a dream he had harbored for years: to pick up where Hitler had left off. One of his first acts was to have Weinberg’s father-in-law, the great Yiddish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, a prominent and popular figure, assassinated. Weinberg would later be arrested as a subversive “bourgeois Jewish nationalist” who supposedly supported the creation of a Jewish state within the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, after his release Weinberg remained optimistic, prolific, and courageous. A large part of his compositional output dealt directly with Jewish themes, particularly its folk heritage, its Yiddish culture, and, of course, the suffering Jews endured. His last symphony, his No. 26, was a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. And he wrote an opera based on a Sholom Aleichem story. Yet Weinberg’s range was astonishing. He wrote for the movies, the radio, the circus, the theater, and the concert stage. He set texts by the Polish poet Julian Tuwim (also a Jew), Nikolai Gogol, G.B Shaw, and Mikhail Lermontov. The ASO has performed several of his works, including the trumpet and cello concertos, and the 1963 Sixth Symphony that calls for a children’s chorus singing Yiddish songs. In the current Weinberg revival, long overdue and welcome, the 1968 opera The Passenger, which deals with the Holocaust, has become Weinberg’s most visible work. Weinberg’s 1985 opera The Idiot, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, deserves the same recognition.

Weinberg’s reputation has ironically also suffered a bit by too close a connection to Shostakovich. He is quickly set aside as an imitator who was too enthralled by his patron’s aesthetic. But the influence went both ways. No doubt Weinberg was in awe of Shostakovich and deeply grateful for the role he played in his career. But in the immense catalogue Weinberg produced are works that mark Weinberg’s individual style. These range from the film music for The Cranes are Flying from 1957; the 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, a work made possible by Weinberg’s childhood memories of the music from the region from which his parents came; and the Fifth Symphony of 1962, inspired by the 1961 revival of Shostakovich’s once suppressed modernist and ambitious Fourth Symphony, composed in the mid-1930s.

The music on this concert is therefore a tribute to friendship: Shostakovich’s capacity for loyalty and his absence of prejudice, and the rich legacy of Weinberg’s music, which stands as a validation of that friendship. The concert also puts into sharp relief the constraints and possibilities surrounding the making of art for all composers in a regime where music was controlled through the monopoly of the state. Through the prism of two pieces by Weinberg—one tied to the Soviet preference for folk-based affirmative music writing, and the other a novel exploration of symphonic form, a “formalist” work that risked condemnation as heterodox and contrary to state ideology—one encounters conflicting strands in the life and work of a composer under Soviet rule. The final irony in the life of this remarkable composer, whose life was dominated by both his Jewish heritage and his belief in the potential of the Soviet Union, was that before his death, crippled by Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted from Judaism to the Russian Orthodox faith. Fleishman’s death and Weinberg’s conversion poignantly underscore the tension, terror, tragedy, and triumph that relentlessly accompanied survival as a Jew in Poland and Russia during the mid-twentieth century.

Mieczysław Weinberg, Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which will be performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 8, 1919, in Warsaw, Poland
Died February 26, 1996, in Moscow, Russia
Composed in 1949
Premiered on November 30, 1949, in Moscow by the All-Union Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gauk
Performance Time: Approximately 12 minutes

During the last decade or so, a true Mieczysław Weinberg renaissance has begun in the concert halls of the world. Weinberg, who fled the Nazis from Poland to the Soviet Union and spent most of his life in Moscow, composed seven operas, 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and more than 100 other works, large and small, in just about every possible genre of classical music. He was a close friend and frequent duo-piano partner of Shostakovich, who thought the world of him. During his lifetime, Weinberg’s music was performed by the greatest musicians in the Soviet Union and he received numerous awards, but, except for a single visit to his native Poland, he never travelled abroad and his work was, for many years, a well-kept secret outside the country.

Weinberg was born in Warsaw to parents who were originally from Bessarabia, the present-day Republic of Moldova. His father was a violin player and composer working for Jewish theater troupes in Bessarabia before migrating to Poland, where he and his wife raised their two children. With the exception of Mieczysław, who escaped in time, his parents and his sister were murdered by the Nazis after the invasion of Poland.

The Soviet Communist Party always urged composers to use melodies from the country’s various ethnic traditions. It was natural for Weinberg to turn to Moldavia, his parents’ birthplace, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the year after Weinberg’s flight from Poland. (The region had been part of the Russian Empire before the revolution, although most of it belonged to the Kingdom of Romania during the interwar years).

Obeying political directives was more vital than ever in 1949, one year after an infamous Party resolution had not only harshly denounced but physically threatened the country’s most famous composers. Weinberg, only 29 at the time, was too young to be singled out for censure, but he was implicitly included in the ranks of the condemned “formalists.” And in his case, the general calamity had been compounded by an even more disastrous event involving his immediate family: in January 1948 his father-in-law, the famous Yiddish actor Solomon Michoels, was murdered in Minsk on direct orders from Stalin. It was under such historical circumstances that the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was written.

The Rhapsody strings together a number of folk songs from Moldavia, a country that is culturally and linguistically very close to Romania. Most of the melodies Weinberg used belong to the majority population, but the fiery final section is an unmistakable Jewish klezmer dance tune. According to a 1903 statistic, the inhabitants of Moldavia’s capital, Chișinău (Kishinev), were almost 50% Jewish. That year, a devastating pogrom took place in the town, with 49 dead and 1,500 homes damaged. It is hard to imagine that Weinberg should not have thought of that tragedy, at least secretly, when he composed this brilliantly orchestrated work that contributed significantly to his growing reputation in Moscow.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

Mieczysław Weinberg, Symphony No. 5 in F minor

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which will be performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 8, 1919, in Warsaw, Poland
Died February 26, 1996, in Moscow, Russia
Composed in 1962
Premiered on October 18, 1962, in Moscow by the Moscow Symphony, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin
Performance Time: Approximately 42 minutes

Weinberg’s Fifth Symphony may be seen as the composer’s response to Shostakovich’s Fourth, which was first performed publicly in 1961, 25 years after it was written. Weinberg had been familiar with the work long before the official premiere, as he and Shostakovich had played it through on two pianos, for an invited audience, as early as 1946. The Fourth is one of Shostakovich’s boldest creations, using modernistic means to convey a rather bleak artistic vision. That is where Weinberg took his cue (the allusion is particularly clear at the end of the symphony), although he also incorporated lessons learned from Shostakovich’s more classically oriented Fifth Symphony.

Shostakovich and Weinberg were among a mere handful of composers in the 1960s who still believed that the symphony, with its capacity to express and reconcile sharp musical and emotional contrasts, was still a viable genre with plenty of unrealized potential. Weinberg wrote no fewer than 22 symphonies over the years (leaving the last one unfinished at the time of his death). The Mahlerian concept of the symphony as an all-embracing mirror of human experience proved particularly relevant in the Soviet Union where there was so much human suffering to process. And Weinberg, as David Fanning pointed out in his biography of the composer, took up the torch from Shostakovich at a time when the latter’s symphonic production began to slow down after his monumental No. 13 (“Babi Yar”). These were also the years when a young generation of Soviet composers, with Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Edison Denisov appeared on the scene with their radically new ideas; Weinberg suddenly found himself as part of the “old guard,” yet he was undeterred and wrote the music he believed in, reaching the apex of his creativity during the 1960s.

Weinberg’s Fifth is written in F minor, a key with traditional associations of gloom. It is clearly not a “triumphant” work in the sense of Orthodox Communist doctrine; it is a product of the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev. (It is interesting that its first performance, in October 1962, was within weeks of the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Weinberg had learned from Shostakovich the art of working with extremely short motifs such as the trumpet motif at the beginning of the first movement, which basically consists of a single interval, the perfect fourth. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg was able to present such pithy material with great dramatic force and build a complex sonata movement in which a distant, idealized world clashes head-on with brutal reality. The second movement is an extended lament in a very slow Adagio tempo, featuring a number of orchestral soloists (oboe, flute, cello), in which grief becomes a very personal matter. The third-movement scherzo brings some relief with its cheeky melody first presented by the piccolo to an accompaniment of soft timpani strokes (suggesting some latter-day pipe and tabor), but even here, the playfulness cannot be maintained indefinitely as the tone of the music becomes more strident and what seemed a joke at first increasingly takes on the character of an unsettling mystery. The finale steadfastly clings to a relatively slow Andantino tempo; there is no question of a joyful, triumphant conclusion. Weinberg allows only small deviations from what essentially seems a neutral emotional state. The gently undulating rhythm of the music changes only briefly to more martial accents before settling into the mysterious noises of the conclusion. According to the recollections of his friends, Weinberg was a very reserved person who always kept his innermost thoughts to himself; something of this secrecy (or shall we call it shyness?) comes through in the strangely understated final movement Weinberg wrote for what was his most ambitious symphony to date.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

Veniamin Fleishman, Rothschild’s Violin

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which will be performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 20, 1913, in Bezhetsk, Russia
Died September 14, 1941, in Krasnoye Selo, near Leningrad
Composed by Fleishman in 1939–41, completed by Shostakovich in 1944
Premiered on June 20, 1960, in Moscow
Performance Time: Approximately 40 minutes

Shostakovich called Veniamin Fleishman his favorite student at the Leningrad Conservatory. At his teacher’s suggestion, Fleishman was working on a one-act opera based on Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Violin” (he himself had written the libretto) when, following the Nazi invasion of Russia, he enlisted in the Red Army. A few weeks later, he was killed.

Shostakovich took it upon himself to complete his student’s unfinished project. Evacuated from Leningrad to Kuibyshev, he went to considerable trouble to obtain Fleishman’s manuscript and finished the composition and orchestration in 1944. However, because of its Jewish subject matter, the opera could not be performed for many more years. The music was played in concert in Moscow in 1960, but the staged premiere had to wait until 1968, when it was produced by the Experimental Studio of Chamber Opera under the artistic direction of Solomon Volkov. Volkov later recalled that after a single night, a Party official, apparently unfamiliar with Chekhov, forbade further performances because he thought that the violin in the title belonged to a member of the Rothschild banking family who were considered evil Zionist conspirators and supporters of the state of Israel.

In reality, the fiddle in question is owned by a dirt-poor Jewish musician in a small provincial town in Russia, who inherits it at the end of the story from an equally penniless Christian coffin-maker named Yakov Ivanov (who, as it happens, plays in the town’s Jewish orchestra). Chekhov’s story shows how dire poverty almost kills all human feeling in Yakov, who only undergoes a spiritual transformation when at death’s door. Yakov’s life philosophy may be summed up in the most memorable line in the short story and the opera: “Life is all loss, only death is gain.” Having quarreled endlessly with Rothschild the flute player, Yakov ends up bequeathing his fiddle, his only prized possession, to the young Jew, who will play on it melodies so plaintive and sad that everyone who hears him weeps, and he himself at last raises his eyes and murmurs: “Okh-okh!” This new song has so delighted the town that the merchants and government officials vie with each other in getting Rothschild to come to their houses, and sometimes make him play it ten times in succession.

Fleishman showed an excellent theatrical sense in dramatizing Chekhov’s narrative. He cut all secondary characters and retained only the four essential ones: Yakov; Rothschild; Shahkes, the leader of the Jewish band; and Yakov’s wife, Marfa. Right at the beginning of the opera, he created a lively ensemble with the band rehearsing, Yakov chastising Rothschild for playing a merry tune sadly, Rothschild screaming back, and bandleader Shahkes vainly trying to keep peace. As Yakov storms out, we follow him back to the porch of his house, where he sings his first monologue about all the losses in his life.

Marfa appears and, without any introduction, says to her husband: “Yakov, I’m dying.” As soon as she has made this tragic announcement, the Jewish band next door strikes up a merry klezmer tune. Then the band leaves and Rothschild, staying behind by himself, plays a sad tune on his flute.

Throughout the opera, Fleishman superimposes simultaneous events on one another, as when Marfa reminisces about the child she and Yakov lost 50 years ago, while Yakov, who doesn’t even seem to remember, is thinking of losses of a very different kind (monetary ones). Meanwhile, the klezmer band resumes its practice. Dissatisfied with his musicians, Shahkes sends Rothschild to Yakov’s house to request (or, rather, to demand) that the coffin-maker come right away to help out the group. But when Rothschild appears, interrupting Yakov’s meditations about how he mistreated his wife for 50 years, he receives an extremely unfriendly welcome and leaves in a hurry. The ensuing, animated orchestral interlude shows him pursued by nasty street urchins shouting “Jew! Jew!” as they pursue him with their dogs.

Yakov’s transformation takes place in his third and final solo scene. Revisiting the willow-tree by the river where he sat with Marfa when they were young, he suddenly remembers everything and, in the culminating scene of the opera, discovers where his life went wrong. When Rothschild reappears, begging him to come play in the orchestra that can’t do without him, Yakov gifts him his fiddle, and Rothschild immediately begins to play his sad tune on it. The powerful orchestral postlude drives home the transcendent significance of Yakov’s act.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

Matthew Worth, baritone

Matthew Worth
Photo by Kristin Hoebermann

Appearing in the concert Intolerance, which will be performed on March 1, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Matthew Worth’s performances in the 2017–18 season include the title role in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s JFK with Opéra de Montréal, Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles with the New York Festival of Song at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Laura Kaminsky and Mark Campbell’s As One with Cincinnati Opera, recitals at the University of Cincinnati and Austin Peay State University, as well as continuing his doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music where he will perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Next season he will return to Boston Lyric Opera in a title role. Highlights of recent seasons include the title role in the world premiere of JFK with Fort Worth Opera, the world premiere of The Manchurian Candidate with Minnesota Opera, his European debut with Wexford Festival Opera in Silent Night, and Moby Dick at Washington National Opera. He has performed principal roles at Santa Fe Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Castleton Festival, Tanglewood Music Festival, Boston Lyric Opera, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Spring 2018

Music, Autocracy, and Exile

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

What makes music so compelling as a means of human expression? Why were composers and audiences in the 20th century still drawn to the symphony and the concerto, musical forms that require neither words nor images and that occupy an extended duration of time? Why did composers seek to prove wrong Richard Wagner’s prediction that the traditions of instrumental music—music thinking pursued autonomously on its own terms—were incompatible with the presumed progress of history? The answers to these recurrent and familiar questions inevitably touch on how music is capable of escaping the limits of language, particularly with regard to the expression of human emotions and the evocation of human experience.

The circumstances of a composer’s life readily offer clues to understanding the unique character and appeal of vehicles of musical communication independent of linguistic and pictorial narration. The factors that influence the choices that composers make are not always psychological and personal, strictly speaking; interior struggles that lend themselves readily to confessional narratives in music of the sort are audible in several of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, or descriptive “realistic” musical evocations in symphonic form (consider Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, for example). Tonight’s concert highlights the significance of the political conditions under which composers lived. Politics framed the role, cultural significance, and limits faced by composers. And politics inevitably triggered a spectrum of psychological responses.

Two of the composers on this program worked within the post-World War II Soviet-dominated space. The communist regimes in post-World War II Europe privileged the practice and pursuit of classical music. During this time frame, composers behind the Iron Curtain were important personages, and prestigious and celebrated figures in a manner unfamiliar to their counterparts in the “free world.” Grażyna Bacewicz was perhaps Poland’s finest post-war compositional talent after Witold Lutosławski, but she is far less known. Indeed, her music has been largely overlooked in the West. Whatever reputation she developed remains tied to the fact that she started out as a performer. By all accounts she was a fantastic violinist. Her career as a performer, however, was cut short by injuries sustained in an automobile accident. I was introduced to her music by my teacher Roman Totenberg, the great Polish Jewish violinist and pedagogue. He, like Bacewicz, studied with Carl Flesch, and was also his assistant. He knew that my parents were Polish speaking Jews who, like him, immigrated to the United States, albeit a decade and a half later, after World War II. This shared biographical connection to Poland led him to surmise that her music for the violin, including the concertos, would appeal to me.

That Bacewicz’s music is not celebrated is an egregious oversight. Her output was extensive: seven concertos for violin as well as several for other instruments, four symphonies (part of a varied orchestral output), dramatic works, incidental music, choral music, and chamber music, including quartets. The list is rich and varied. Like so many composers of her generation, she studied with Nadia Boulanger. She was the recipient of awards in both Europe and the United States. She is credited as the woman who opened the way in Poland for other female composers, and during her lifetime commanded the respect of her colleagues and the public. Why she remains overlooked is inexplicable.

Bacewicz was in no obvious way a dissident. But she made ample use of the relative freedom of and sympathy towards aesthetic modernism in Communist Poland. Musical inspiration, as in her case, was able to flourish in a condition of un-freedom precisely because of the fact that music was a communicative medium whose precise meaning could not be decoded and translated into language or images. Therefore instrumental concert music, as opposed to prose and painting, suffered less at the hands of Communist ideologues and censors.

The second composer on today’s program to come of age under Soviet rule was Alfred Schnittke. More than Bacewicz, he rebelled openly against the strictures of ideological control over art maintained by the state. He was an innovator whose career, particularly in the late 1970s and 1980s, was stifled by the authorities. He finally emigrated out of the Soviet Union, already debilitated by a stroke, in 1990, eight years before his death. He happened to be in New York in the 1990s when the ASO performed his Faust Cantata. One of most memorable phone conversations I have had was when he called to discuss a possible change to the ending of the work and suggest a few dramatic flourishes in the choreography of the music, particularly the entrance of the lead role from the back of the hall.

The political context of Bohuslav Martinů was defined by his fate as an exile. Martinů, through the craftsmanship and variety of his output, earned the status as the heir to the remarkable 19th century legacy of Czech music. Martinů was the finest Czech composer after Janáček. In scale and scope, Martinů was the 20th century’s equivalent of Dvořák. And he was also an ardent patriot.

But he was destined to live outside of his homeland. He experienced the principled necessity of exile, much like his contemporaries, the conductor Rafael Kubelík and the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, a close friend. First came the German annexation and invasion in the late 1930s. Then came the era of communist control of Czechoslovakia after World War II. Exile in the United States was not a particularly happy experience for Martinů. His music from the war years, and the 1950s during the Cold War, reveals the composer’s predicament. Martinů experienced bouts of depression; the struggle with political displacement deepened them. But it was in exile that Martinů, who died in 1959 in Switzerland, turned his attention to the orchestra as a medium, particularly the symphonic form. He struggled against the comparatively marginal status he had in America, both as a composer and a foreigner, despite considerable efforts to help him. In response he produced a series of large-scale works that have, over time, earned him his rightful place as one of the finest symphonists of the 20th century. The orchestra, and therefore instrumental music as a major public experience, one with more of a cultural and political impact, became the vehicle through which the isolation of exile, nostalgia, and a sense of homelessness could be contended with.

The works on today’s program by these three composers illuminate the extent to which instrumental music in the grand tradition flourished as a medium of communication with the public in a manner adequate to the circumstances of tyranny, autocracy, and displacement that prevailed during the mid-20th century.

Grażyna Bacewicz, Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born February 5, 1909 in Łódź, Poland
Died January 17, 1969 in Warsaw, Poland
Composed in 1958
Premiered in 1959 at the Warsaw Autumn Festival
Performance Time: Approximately 19 minutes

Upon hearing the words Music for Strings…and Percussion in the title of a composition, one immediately thinks of Bartók’s masterpiece from the year 1936, where the missing word in the title is completed by ‘celeste.’ Bartók’s music found a particularly strong resonance in postwar Poland where, in 1958, Witold Lutosławski composed his Funeral Music in memory of Bartók. The very same year, Grażyna Bacewicz, a celebrated composer and violinist, presented her own Music for Strings, which calls for no fewer than five trumpets in addition to the strings and percussion, although Bartók’s celeste was also retained as part of the percussion section.

Stylistically, Bacewicz owes little or nothing to Bartók, although her music, too, is full of rhythmic vitality and builds upon the contrasts between “wild” ostinatos and lyrical, melodic moments. Traces of neo-classicism may be found in the use of concerto grosso-like juxtapositions of solo instruments and larger groups, but Bacewicz avoids associations with earlier music and follows an essentially modernistic path.

The three-movement composition, which Bacewicz herself included among her best works, opens with a complex texture of agitated sixteenth-note figures in the strings, against which the five trumpets enter with their striking and pungent harmonies. Soon, the ensemble breaks up into groups of soloists (violins, cello, celeste), introducing a second idea consisting of constant syncopations. A scherzo-like third idea, with fast-moving staccato (separated) notes, gives rise to a new development followed by the recapitulation of the previous two themes, in reverse order. A brief, fanfare-like coda ends the movement.

The slow central movement begins with an eerie ostinato figure with violins playing sul tasto (on the fingerboard), against which a solo viola and a solo double bass sing a mysterious duet that gradually draws in the entire string section. A solo cello suddenly cuts through the multi-layered string texture, and then the muted trumpets add their voices to the mix. A moment of emotional upsurge, with the trumpets removing their mutes, suddenly morphs into its opposite: a section with mysterious trills and isolated celeste attacks, a kind of “night music” to end this unique Adagio.

The concluding “Vivace,” where the xylophone is heard for the first time, bursts with energy and brings back some motivic elements from the first movement (sixteenth-note runs, light-footed staccato figures), investing them with new sense of excitement. A second, more melodious but still rhythmically driven section begins with some of the violins and violas playing col legno (with the wood of the bow). This vibrant and wholly unpredictable music includes some ferocious drum solos, a brief solo for string quartet with two cellos, and a dash to the surprise ending.

Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion has been successfully choreographed several times over the years, in London, Paris, and The Hague. In 1960, it won a prize in Paris at the UNESCO International Tribune of Composers. It was dedicated to conductor Jan Krenz, who led the first performance at the 1959 Warsaw Autumn Festival.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Bohuslav Martinů, Symphony No. 6, Fantaisies symphoniques

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born December 8, 1890, in Polička, Czechoslovakia
Died August 28, 1959, in Liestal, Switzerland
Composed in 1951–53
Premiered on January 7, 1955 in Boston, Massachusetts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Performance Time: Approximately 28 minutes

Bohuslav Martinů said about his Fantaisies symphoniques, also known as his Sixth Symphony: ‟[It is] a work without form. And yet something holds it together, I don’t know what, but it has a single line, and I have expressed something in it.” While the composer never explained that ‟something,” it is clear that there was a very personal impulse behind the symphony, and that the creative process was a bit of a mystery even to the creator.

Certainly, this work has numerous features that are unique in the vast output of the Czech master. The very opening, with its mysterious murmurs in woodwinds and solo strings, transpierced by an insistent trumpet call, has a thoroughly modern sound that is lightyears removed from the neo-classicism Martinů had long been cultivating. But this amorphous opening contrasts with passages of extremely clear-cut major-mode sonorities, achieving a fascinating blend where seemingly incompatible styles are joined together as in a fantasy world. This may have been one reason why Martinů chose to call his work ‟Symphonic Fantasias”—another being the fact that no traditional forms, such as sonata form, are observed. (The composer’s first idea for a title had been Nouvelle symphonie fantastique, with a nod to Berlioz.)

A single principal motif that runs through the entire piece—a simple musical idea of four notes (F—G-flat—E—F). These two half-steps, separated by a half-step, are first introduced by an unaccompanied solo cello right after the initial ‟murmurs.” (The motif actually derives from the opening of Dvořák’s Requiem.) The fiery Allegro that follows includes a gentle, pentatonic episode also possibly influenced by Dvořák—in this case, the ‟American” Dvořák. After all, the symphony, like the other five that Martinů wrote, date from the composer’s twelve-year sojourn in the United States (1941–53). The movement culminates in a highly unusual passage scored for solo violin and percussion which leads to the return of the ‟American” theme and then of the murmuring introduction.

Commentators have described the second movement as a ‟scherzo” of sorts, no doubt because of its high energy and the unpredictable thematic changes. In the rapid tremolos of the opening, dissonant clashes pile up to form a dense and dissonant texture, which dissolves when a new melody, played by the violas, softens the mood. After a long string of orchestral ostinatos (all of which include the half-step), a new formal unit begins in which long woodwind melodies are set against some nervous figurations in the strings. The insistence on short motivic units of two or three notes, repeated almost without variation, recalls Leoš Janáček, the most important Czech composer from the generation before Martinů: the author of the famous Sinfonietta was also fond of working with such tiny melodic units. After a return of the viola theme and a massive orchestral buildup, Martinů’s movement ends in a rather abrupt and subdued fashion.

Most of the third and last movement is a meditation on the Dvořák-Requiem motto, with the tense atmosphere temporarily brightened by a lyrical clarinet melody, but the brief idyll is disrupted by a new dramatic buildup, into which Martinů inserted a quote from his opera Juliette, perhaps his favorite among all his works. Another melody with ‟American” syncopations leads to the climax, after which a final recall of the motto and a soft chorale bring the symphony—and with it, Martinů’s American period—to its conclusion. The work was actually finished in Paris, where the composer had lived before the war and where he now returned. Except for another seven-month period spent in New York in 1955–56, he remained in Europe—France, Italy, and Switzerland—until his death in 1959.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Grażyna Bacewicz, Violin Concerto No. 7

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born February 5, 1909 in Łódź, Poland
Died January 17, 1969 in Warsaw, Poland
Composed in 1965
Premiered on January 13, 1966 at the Grande Salle de Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, with Augustín León Ara and the Belgian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Sternfeld
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

Bacewicz was trained as a virtuoso violinist, which explains the large number of works for violin, and strings in general, in her catalog. In particular, there are not many composers in the twentieth century who wrote as many as seven violin concertos; and Bacewicz herself played the premieres of the first four. (A serious car accident in 1954 put an end to her active performing career.)

In the 1960s, the so-called “Polish school” was one of the most exciting phenomena on the international new-music scene. The contemporary music festival Warsaw Autumn, founded in 1956, quickly established itself as one of the foremost events of its kind in the world, unique in bringing the latest in Western avant-garde music behind the Iron Curtain. New Polish music, works like Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and Witold Lutosławski’s Venetian Games (1961), conquered the world, using the most innovative musical techniques without ever renouncing expressivity.

Bacewicz, who had come from an essentially neo-classical compositional background, explored avant-garde tendencies together with her younger contemporaries, and in her last violin concerto, she filled out the traditional three-movement concerto form with an utterly new sound world emphasizing violinistic effects such as slow glissandos passing through many approximately notated intermediate pitches, and often placing the bow sul tasto (on the fingerboard) or sul ponticello (near the bridge). In the orchestra, the harps, the celeste, and the percussion play particularly important roles, and even the string section is sometimes treated “like percussion,” as the composer instructed. Yet the solo part is not without its lyrical, melodic moments, especially in the central slow movement, an atmospheric “Largo,” where the soaring lines of the violin blend with the mysterious “night noises” of the orchestra. The outer movements likewise include a multiplicity of musical characters, as indicated by the unusual tempo instruction of the first movement (“Tempo mutabile”), or by the alternation, in the Allegro finale, of playful figurations and more relaxed, introspective episodes.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Alfred Schnittke, Symphony No. 5

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which will be performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born November 24, 1934 in Engels, Russia (Soviet Union)
Died August 3, 1998, in Hamburg, Germany
Composed in 1988
Premiered on November 10, 1988 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly
Performance Time: Approximately 37 minutes

Almost twenty years after his death, it is becoming increasingly clear that Alfred Schnittke was one of the few composers for whom the traditional genres of symphony (with more than 200 years of uninterrupted history) and the concerto grosso (a Baroque genre revived around the 1920s) had always retained their relevance. What is more, Schnittke was able to breathe new life into these old forms, in constant dialogue with the musical past but approaching that past like no one had ever done before.

Between 1972 and 1994, Schnittke composed nine symphonies and six concerti grossi, for a total of fourteen works since the present composition was counted twice: it is both a concerto grosso (No. 4) and a symphony (No. 5). In fact, the four-movement work begins as a concerto grosso and morphs into a symphony, merging the two genres into a single, monumental orchestral statement that seems to reverse the classical “darkness-to-light” dramaturgy of many classical symphonies from Beethoven to Mahler: this time, the path of the music leads from (relative) light straight down into (absolute) darkness.

As many commentators have noticed, Mahler was always a central reference point for Schnittke. The composer’s friend and biographer Alexander Ivashkin saw Mahler as the source of Schnittke’s “sense of irreconcilable conflict,” and he quoted the following illuminating sentence from a review by Richard Taruskin: “With a bluntness and an immodesty practically unseen since the days of Mahler, Mr. Schnittke tackles life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil and (especially in the concertos) I-against-the-world.”

The work begins with a rather simple and straightforward trumpet tune, but it is immediately distorted by the dissonant second voice supplied by the second trumpet. This tune functions as a Baroque ritornello of sorts; it is also heard as played by the concertino or small group, in this case, a violin, an oboe, and a harpsichord. In the course of the movement, the three solo instruments don’t always play as a unified group pitted against the orchestra: they also have individual solo passages and sometimes join in the orchestral tuttis as well.

The Mahler connection becomes explicit in the second movement, which in fact is based on the second movement Mahler planned for his Piano Quartet in A minor but never finished. This quartet, Mahler’s first surviving composition, was written in 1876 when the composer was sixteen and was just beginning his studies at the Vienna Conservatory. Since its first publication in 1973, the completed first movement has established itself in the chamber music repertoire, but the second movement, from which only a short fragment exists, has been known only from the appendix of the first edition. The editor, German composer Peter Ruzicka, saw the makings of a Scherzo here, but the surviving music hardly seems to bear out that description; it would be closer to the mark to call it an “intermezzo” in the Brahmsian sense. In any case, it was upon this fragment that Schnittke built his movement (which is not at all scherzo-like), presenting Mahler’s melody in a wide variety of instrumental guises, adding some rather dissonant counterpoint. At the very end, we hear the music as Mahler wrote it, in the original piano quartet scoring—and in this context, it almost sounds like a work by Schnittke written in a 19th-century style! (Schnittke himself called attention to the very unusual modulation from G minor to A major found in Mahler’s fragment.)

The third movement, the longest of the four, is also “Mahlerian,” although it contains no actual quotations. But it uses echoes of funeral marches and chorales like many of Mahler’s symphonies, and some passionate agitato figures in the violins also recall the Austrian master. Only in the Schnittke, the dramatic contrasts are even greater, the “conflicts” even more “irreconcilable,” thanks to an intensely chromatic harmonic language and a highly unusual orchestration emphasizing the lowest instruments in the orchestra, the tuba and the contrabassoon. The main theme of the movement, surprisingly, is identical to the jolly little tune with which the first movement opened—only in extreme slow motion and in the lowest register. Out of this material, Schnittke constructed a movement full of high drama, followed without a pause by the fourth movement, an extended, slow epilogue, in which we hear the first movement’s little ditty made to sound positively tragic. An implacable series of drumstrokes, first heard early in the movement, return at the height of the gigantic final fortissimo, after which the music gradually fades into silence.

Schnittke composed this majestic work for the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which gave the first performance under Riccardo Chailly on November 10, 1988. Three years after suffering the first of four major strokes, the composer was just entering a remarkably productive late period, which lasted until shortly before his death a decade later.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.