Classics 6: Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067

Much of Bach’s orchestral music has been lost, but what remains represents gems of creativity. The six Brandenburg Concerti, each one composed for a different set of instruments and combination of soloists, forged an entirely new direction for the Italian concerto grosso. Like the Brandenburg Concerti, each of the four orchestral Suites features a different combination of instruments. Although they form a standard group in modern recordings, they were not originally conceived or composed at the same time. Because these works are technically sets of dances, they have carried the misnomer “Suite” in modern programs and recordings.

In his autographs Bach called these works “Ouvertüres,” a clear indication of their debt to the French style. All open with a slow, stately introduction followed by a fugal allegro. They owe their origin indirectly to the French ouverture, developed by Jean Baptiste Lully as an instrumental prelude to the extravagant operas and ballets performed at the French court of Louis XIV. Bach, as well as many other European composers of the period, combined the stately French ouverture with a set of dances while using soloists or solo ensembles as in the concerto. Considered the latest of the four orchestral suites, the B minor Suite appears to date from around 1738. It features a solo traverse flute (replacing the recorder), which was becoming extremely popular in the 1730s – Georg Philip Telemann composed a slew of suites for the instrument. Throughout the work, the flute plays as soloist and doubles the first violin as in a typical Baroque concerto.

In 1723, after a series of respectable, but not important, court positions, Bach was appointed as the Cantor figuralis of the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, a position he was to hold until his death. In addition to his responsibility for the entire musical program at St. Thomas where he produced weekly cantatas for the liturgical year, rehearsed the musicians, trained the boy choristers and taught Latin, Bach was also expected to put together the weekly concert of secular vocal and instrumental music for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a German university extra-curricular institution for which students and local musicians got together to perform at public gatherings. At least he got credit for this extra work since during his tenure in the post the institution was called the “Bachisches Collegium.”

Bach’s Collegium held its concerts in Zimmermann’s Coffee House, a high-class bourgeois establishment spacious enough to accommodate a sizeable ensemble. Apparently Zimmermann did not charge for these concerts, assuming that enough money was coming in from refreshments. While Bach had probably already composed Suite No. 1 while he was at his previous job as Princely Kapellmeister at the court of Cöthen (1717-23), most of the surviving performance material dates from after 1725, the Leipzig period. The four suites were certainly performed at the Collegium gatherings.

Suite No. 2 is scored for flute, strings and basso continuo is special in that of the four suites it is most like a concerto with the flute playing an important solo role. It contains six different dances in addition to the Ouvertüre:
1. Ouvertüre: This opening movement with its dotted rhythm is French in style; the stately introduction was developed in France so that Louis XIV could make a suitable entry at court balls. Example 1 This is followed by a fugal Allegro Example 2 during which the flute is introduced as a solo instrument. Example 3

2. Rondeau: The refrain at the beginning occurs between each episode of new music. Example 4

3. Sarabande: This is the most stately of the dances after the Ouvertüre. Example 5

4. Bourrée I & II: Note that the first bourée Example 6 is for the orchestra while the second is features the flute soloist. Example 7

5. Polonaise with Double: Like the previous dance, the polonaise begins with a simple melody for the orchestra; Example 8 the double is the French term for variation. Here the flute plays the variation while the continuo plays the melody underneath. Example 9

6. Menuet: The traditional minuet; nobody ever agreed on the spelling. Example 10

7. Badinerie: Most suites ended with a gigue, a dance in rapid triple time. Instead, Bach substitutes a virtuoso movement for the flute. Example 11
Dmitry Shostakovich 1906-1975
Dmitry Shostakovich
Dmitry Shostakovich
Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a

Orchestration of String Quartet No. 8 by Rudolf Barshay

Living under Soviet artistic regimentation and in constant fear for his life, Dmitry Shostakovich frequently used his chamber music to express his most intimate and personal feelings. He was the only Russian composer of note to express in his music his hatred of the brutal regime. To avoid official criticism – and, at worst, the Gulag – he evolved a hidden symbolic language in order to get these works past the censors.

Shostakovich had been a true son of the Russian revolution and, as a teenager, a true believer. But as he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare, he only survived the purges of the 1930s because Stalin liked his film music.

World War II brought a breather and an upsurge of patriotism, with the horrors of the '30s being temporarily suspended. But hopes for a more liberal society were dashed in 1946 with a resurgence of purges, suppression and disappearances of artists in all media, orchestrated by the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov.

Stalin’s death in 1953 brought about some relaxation and liberalization of personal artistic expression, but by 1960 it was clear that these were mere illusions as well. It is within this atmosphere of despair that Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No. 8 during three days in the summer of 1960 at a resort near Dresden, East Germany.

Shostakovich was supposed to be working on the score of a film, Five Days, Five Nights, about the destruction caused by World War II. The composer was severely depressed, his tears flowing “as abundantly as urine after six beers.” He wrote the Quartet as his musical testament accompanied by a detailed letter explaining the autobiographical meaning of the work. He purchased a bottle of sleeping pills when he returned to the Soviet Union, where his children went on suicide watch. Trying to be politically correct, he dedicated the Quartet to the victims of fascism – of which he considered himself one.

Using the musical motto derived from the acronym of his name, DSCH (D, E flat, C and B which in German notation is D, S, C, H), he created a work that incorporates quotes from many of his most important works, including the Second Piano Trio, the First, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, and the First Cello Concerto. It ends with a popular dirge “Tormented by bitter bondage,” that held an important significance for the composer. The many quotes serve as a musical autobiography.

The Quartet’s five movements are played without interruption, beginning and ending with Largo movements based on the DSCH motto, which is the dominant theme throughout the entire quartet. The mournful first movement opens with this phrase on the cello, Example 1 followed fugally by the other instruments. Example 2 A more melodic, but equally mournful second theme appears halfway through the movement. Example 3

The Allegro second movement is an angry scherzo, beginning as a scolding motive in the violins. Example 4 Soon the DSCH motive breaks in with a new, hysterical cry. Example 5 For the trio, Shostakovich quotes the Jewish dance theme from the third movement of the Piano Trio No. 2, as a grim testimony to the Holocaust, whose perpetrators were as much Russian as German. Example 6 The movement ends with the Jewish theme, abruptly and symbolically cut off in the middle.

Throughout much of his life, Shostakovich saw himself in the role of a court jester, one who gets away with poking fun at his brutal master. In the third movement, Allegretto, a grotesque waltz based on the DSCH motto, a screeching second violin plays the jester. Example 7 A second “theme” is yet another “jolly” take on the motive. Example 8 The principal theme from the Cello Concerto appears as the opening of the middle section Example 9 and at the end and extends into the fourth movement. Example 10

Shostakovich did not ascribe any meaning to the three percussive notes that open the Largo, but they recall his fear that Stalin’s agents would come in the night for him. He had even and left a packed suitcase by the door so that his arrest/abduction would not disturb the rest of the family. Example 11 The “knocks on the door” recur throughout the movement, with the popular dirge appearing intermittently. Example 12

The fifth movement is a contrapuntal fantasy on the DSCH theme, Example 13 reminiscent of the fugue that opens Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 131 in C-sharp minor. The gentle mood persists to the end where Shostakovich’s debt to Beethoven is revealed poignantly in the final harmonization of the DSCH motive. Example 14

The Quartet was premiered in Leningrad in October 1960. It was performed at the composer’s funeral ceremony on August 14, 1975.

Violist and conductor Rudolf Barshay (1924-2010) was a founding member of both the Borodin and Tchaikovsky String Quartets and founder, in 1955, of the Moscow Chamber orchestra. A close friend of Shostakovich, he arranged a number of his string quartets for chamber orchestra, the arrangement of the Quartet No. 8 being the best known. His orchestration while lush, fully retains the bitterness and pessimism of the original.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

The four most clichéd notes in classical music were once the most revolutionary. For the first time a rhythm, rather than a melody, became the main subject of a symphonic movement – and not merely as a first theme to be stated and picked up again for a while in the development and recapitulation sections. Beethoven wove the rhythm into the entire fabric of the first movement, and subsequently into the rest of the Symphony. The motive first appears as a repeated demand, subsequently expanded into a genuine melody in the first theme. It recurs as a throbbing accompaniment in bass and timpani in the second theme, all the way to the final cadence of the exposition.

Such an original symphonic structure did not come easily, especially to a composer who lacked the ever-ready melodic genius of a Mozart, Bach or Haydn, who all produced copiously on demand. A collection of the composer’s sketchbooks bears witness to the lengthy and often painful gestation of some of his greatest music. The Fifth Symphony took four years to complete, between 1804 and 1808. But Beethoven also had to eat, and during those four years he also produced the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three String Quartets Op. 59, the Mass in C and the Violin Concerto.

Although Beethoven had already been at work on what was to become the Fifth Symphony, he composed the Fourth in fairly short order in 1806 on commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The Count eventually paid the 500 florins agreed upon for the work and in 1807 commissioned another symphony with a down payment of 200 florins. Beethoven notified Oppersdorff in March 1808 that the Fifth Symphony was ready and that he should send the remaining 300 florins. But the Count sent only another installment of 150 florins, and by November Beethoven, in one of his less than ethical moves, apparently felt justified in selling the score to the publisher Gottfried Härtel. Upon finally paying in full, Oppersdorff received a copy.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered at one of those monster public concerts common in the nineteenth century; on the program were premieres of the Sixth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto, the aria "Ah! Perfido, the Choral Fantasia and several movements of the Mass in C. One can only imagine the bewilderment of the audience on their first encounter in a single evening with the "Pastoral" and the Fifth.

Because the Fifth Symphony is so familiar it is difficult to think of it as innovative, but it was not only the integration of the four-note rhythmic motif into the first movement that was new. It is the fact that this little rhythm becomes the motto that unifies the entire symphony. Example 1 In the first movement, the principal theme hammers away at the rhythm in almost every measure. Then, the second theme, which should provide a significant contrast, starts off with the motto in the solo horn, only afterwards becoming somewhat more gentle and legato – although that, too begins to ramp up the emotional tension as it continues. Example 2

The second movement, marked Andante con moto, involves its own kind of innovation. It is made up of two short juxtaposed, contrasting themes, the first in dotted rhythm, Example 3 the second a slow almost military theme in the brass. Beethoven produces from the two themes a double set of variations. And it should be noted that the second theme contains within it in augmentation the germinal four-note rhythm of the first movement. Example 4

After what has been called a "ghostly" opening of the scherzo, Beethoven takes up the motto again prominently in the horns, and it is this segment of the third movement that he chooses to repeat in the finale. Example 5

Symphony No. 5 has frequently been referred to as a struggle from darkness to light, but it is a commonplace that has palpable grounding in truth. Not only does the symphony begin in C minor and end in C major, but there is also the magnificent transition between the third and fourth movements, a kind of breaking through of sunlight clouds with violins stammering over throbbing timpani towards a cadence. Example 6 The eruption through to the triumphant finale paved the way for the symphonic writing of the future, including Beethoven's own Ninth, Example 7 Mendelssohn’s Third (The “Scottish”) and Brahms’s First.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017