Archive for the ‘Songs’ Category

Opus 46: Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin (1937)

February 28, 2011

Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, op. 46 (1937)
Orchestration for bass and chamber orchestra by the composer, undated, except “Stanzas”, orchestrated by Gerard McBurney
CD:  Dimitri Kharitonov (bass), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (United 88001, reissued on Signum Classics)

Once again storm clouds have gathered quietly over me.Envious fate again threatens me with misfortune.Will I retain my contempt for destiny? Will I bring to bear against itThe resolve and endurance of my proud youth?

— Alexander Pushkin, from “Premonition” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)

I hadn’t previously listened to Shostakovich’s four Pushkin romances, and I’ve mainly seen them referenced as a sort of decoder ring for the composer’s Symphony No. 5, which he wrote a few months later, since the first song, “Rebirth”, contains thematic material that Shostakovich uses in the symphony’s finale.  That particular analytic move suggests something of the absurdity of hunting for explicit, anti-Stalinist programs in Shostakovich’s instrumental works — so much thought has been spent on verifying whether the fifth symphony is a dissident statement that the tendency when presented with a work with explicit textual content (in this case, a text very much about the artist’s relationship to his critics and, given Pushkin’s conflicts with Czarist censors, the state) is to gloss over the program of the song itself in favor of an alleged hidden program in the more famous, more abstract work.  I do think the content and context of the romances can inform the symphony, although the symphony stands easily on its own, but they are more contextually interesting as a germinal example of what became Shostakovich’s mature style, as he tried to remake his musical personality in a form that wouldn’t be suppressed by the USSR’s increasingly authoritarian cultural minders.

That musical style is considerably more spare and pared down than anything he’d sustained in his earlier music.  The starkly orchestrated version recorded by the CBSO reinforces this with a dour, string-and-harp sound, only subtly rounded out by a clarinet, an unusual voice for Shostakovich’s chamber style.  (The orchestration of the first three songs is undated; if he completed it much later in life that could tie the work’s sparsity to that of his later chamber and voice works.  The fourth was orchestrated seamlessly by Gerard McBurney.)  The songs’ comparatively bare texture and deliberate pace mark a concentrated shift away from Shostakovich’s kinetic early style.  The vocal lines are lyrical, if not tuneful (they bear no resemblance to his abandoned operetta efforts); they most closely resemble the sound of the songs on Japanese poems, opus 21, although the soundscape of the Pushkin romances is far less cloudy.

The first song, “Rebirth”, which threatens to be consumed by its relationship to the fifth symphony, sets a poem complaining about, and hoping against, censorship.  Its whisper-soft opening sets the somber tone of the whole work:

A barbarian artist uses his indolent brush
To blacken out a genius’s picture
And his own illicit drawing
He traces senselessly over it.

(Once again I’m using Laurence R. Richter’s prose translations of the poems in Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts.)

The song’s first four notes, setting most of the syllables for “a barbarian artist”, do in fact become the brash, fanfare-like motif that opens the fifth symphony’s last movement, but here it immediately bends back on itself, a meditative and worried effect.  The poem goes on to predict (or hope for) vindication in the future, as the artist-barbarian’s black paint flakes away from the work beneath it, and by analogy from the author’s psyche as well:

Thus disappear the delusions
From my tormented soul,
And there arise within it visions
Of my innocent primal days.

Shostakovich’s strings and harp, in accompanying these verses rise into a tentatively peaceful, oscillating figure (the following excerpt includes the lines “Thus disappear the delusions / From my tormented soul):

This sound echoes strongly in the fifth symphony too, just before its final coda.  But the repetition of a four-note, rising-and-falling fragment occurs in later songs within this work, too, and the effect — sometimes warily quiet, sometimes agitated and obsessive — becomes a frequent one throughout much of Shostakovich’s later work.
The second song, “Jealousy”, bears the strongest resemblance to the Japanese songs; it’s a musical illustration of a short romantic scenario between two unhappy lovers whose through-running anxiety, as in the earlier set of songs, feels external to the poem’s own text.  In “Premonition” (see this post’s opening quotation) the composer takes Pushkin’s words about impending trouble and claims, in artfully unconvincing music, to “await the storm with indifference”; I don’t know what misfortunes Pushkin had in mind when he wrote his poem but in Shostakovich’s agitated setting the biographical connection to his turbulent political situation at the beginning of 1937 is unavoidable.

The last romance, “Stanzas”, sets the longest poem of the four and, running five minutes long, somewhat dominates the other songs as well.  In it the poet describes a few episodes in which he considers his upcoming death, before finding some equanimity:

Let, then, around my tomb’s entrance
Young life play on.
And let indifferent nature
Shine on in eternal beauty.

Shostakovich’s setting, especially in a long, instrumental dying-out at the end, suggests that equanimity is something more wished for than achieved.  Once again he frequently repeats a downward- and upward-stepping figure, here to a starkly churning effect that again sounds different from any music he had written to this point:

You have to look all the way back to the Krylov fables, opus 4 to find an earlier song in any way about an artist’s dealing with unjust criticism, and that work’s “The Ass and the Nightengale”, with the bright self-confidence of the precocious teenager who wrote it, contrasts strongly with the Pushkin romances.  These songs instead form a prototype for many of Shostakovich’s later song cycles, with its themes of artists’ difficulties, sentimental views of young love, and inescapable death.  I don’t think these songs were muched performed at the time they were written, or too frequently after, but they also demonstrate a way that Shostakovich comes to express his angst and criticism through the protective filter of a past poet’s words.  The text, after all, is the poet’s, not the composer’s — and, with the centennial of Pushkin’s death in 1937 being officially celebrated by the Soviet government, the idea of setting the poet’s works could hardly draw much complaint.  Too, the poet is speaking about the past, not the present, which gives the composer some leeway to illustrate universal troubles under the guise that such dark days are gone.

I believe that Shostakovich, in this work, is questioning himself in parallel to the speaker in “Premonition”:  “The resolve and endurance of [his] proud youth” is in the process of being compromised, at least in terms of musical style, but Shostakovich continues to write expressive music that is personally meaningful to him, which was by no means a necessary path to take.  The Pushkin romances make a fine, brooding piece of music in their own right, and in the context of his career they are worthier as a first example of his way forward — composing music of quality and meaning within the stylistic parameters forced on him by the state — than as a mere addendum to the triumphant symphony that follows it.

Opus 21: Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets (1928-1932)

September 24, 2010

Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets, op. 21, for tenor and orchestra  (1928-1932)
CD: “Shostakovich: The Orchestral Songs, Volume 2” (Deutsche Grammophon 447 085-2)
Ilya Levinsky, tenor; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi

On Wednesday evening, my girlfriend Kyle and I went moonviewing at the Portland Japanese Garden, an event they host annually based on a traditional Japanese festival.  From folding chairs lined up to face east, we had a dramatic view of the partially clouded full moon rising over the city skyline below us and the indistinct hills beyond it.  Also on offer were food and sake samples, koto and flute music, bilingual haiku readings (each read twice, I suppose, to make them last longer), quietly mesmerizing demonstrations of the Japanese tea ceremony.  And, most importantly, a rare chance to walk around the Garden’s grounds after dusk.  It may have been appropriate, I thought, to skip ahead one work to Shostakovich’s Japanese songs that day, to add another element of reflected Japanese culture; but why break the satisfying monotonic increase of the opus numbers?  Besides, the Japanese Garden’s O-Tsukimi, despite its trappings of middlebrow entertainment, fostered a mood of quiet contemplation of the passing seasons; Shostakovich’s songs are youthful treatments of the universal artistic concern of sex and death, with emphasis on the former.

These six songs, like the pieces for string octet, are familiar to me from years of occasional CD listening — Järvi’s fine volume of orchestral songs, unfortunately discontinued, is a favorite of mine — although they’ve always resided somewhat outside of my understanding of Shostakovich’s stylistic development.  Heard now, they represent another modernist-leaning path in the composer’s early career, full of prowling lines and eerie, penumbral dissonances.  The set, though assembled piecemeal over four years, sustains a mostly continuous atmosphere of nocturnal restlessness.  The first song, “Love”, sets the tone with illustrative touches of harp, mallet percussion, rumbling gongs, distant-sounding brass; in the present recording, tenor Ilya Levinsky sings with an artful strain in his voice, playing up the music’s passionate anxiety.  (Shostakovich’s music seems to suggest that the planned rendezvous of the poem may not be so confidently expected.)  The dissonances become more raw in the unsubtly dramatic second song, “Before Suicide”, with some expressionistic tone-painting for “The wild geese [that] cry out in fright / over the lake, cry out once more”:

(I quote from Joan Pemberton Smith’s translations in the album notes, as Laurence R. Richter’s Complete Song Texts turns out to have translated a slightly different version of the poems than what is sung here.  The Russian translations of the original texts, from various and sometimes anonymous Japanese poets, are credited at least in part to one A. Brandt.)

The tension never leaves the work even in its lighter moments; at the end of “An Immodest Glance”, a saucy little scene of the wind momentarily blowing a woman’s skirt up from her legs, there is an uncertain or abstract quality to the music that removes it from the poet’s professions of joy:

The music becomes less gauzy for the actually consummated romance of “The First and Last Time”, and “Love without Hope” reaches a lovely, fleeting reverie at the thought of an encounter, albeit a hypothetical one couched within a negation:  “It is not I who will caress you, / not I who, exhausted by your caresses, / will fall asleep beside you.”

Looking slightly ahead, the moment has an analog in Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, composed in parallel with the last of these songs.  In Katerina’s aria of sexual longing late in Act I, a similarly constructed text and musical concept gets a more extensive, more ardent treatment.  (“No one will stroke my white breast, / No one will tire me out with his passionate embraces”, etc.)

The sixth song, “Death”, returns to the dark mood of the opening, with its repetitions of “I am dying” and its final pensive fadeout.  It’s good music, particularly in its instrumental colors, and though there isn’t great variation among each setting it works as a continuous, inwardly agitated fifteen-minute rumination on the fraught intensity of love.  (Shostakovich dedicated the songs to his new wife Nina Varzar, as he did with the sexually frustrated/explosive/disastrous Lady Macbeth, making it all but impossible to avoid an autobiographical reading.)  Shostakovich’s popularity seems to grow year by year — I’ve been riding that wave myself, really, since the mid-90s — so I can’t claim that any aspect of his output is underrated, but nonetheless I feel that his orchestral songs deserve more attention.

Opus 4: Two Fables after Krylov (1922)

August 31, 2010

Two Fables after Krylov, op. 4 (1922)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works” (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)
Galina Borisova, soprano; Chamber Choir of the Moscow Conservatory; USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra; Gennady Rozhdestvensky

The singer finished.  The Donkey, staring blankly at the ground, head lowered,
Said, “Not bad! I have to admit,
I wasn’t bored while I listened to you.  It’s just a pity
That you’re not acquainted with our Rooster.
You could really polish up your skills
If you studied with him a little.”
Having heard this critique, the poor Nightingale
Took wing and flew off far, far away.
May God spare us too such judges.

— Ivan Krylov, “The Donkey and the Nightingale” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)

Here is Shostakovich’s first cut at satire, and another full step towards his mature musical personality.  I find it difficult to think of these two settings outside the context of his later career, particularly the second one, “The Donkey and the Nightingale”, the end of whose text is excerpted above:  Shostakovich returned to satire in his songs throughout his life, as well as to theme of artists’ relationships with their detractors.  Also, the humorous parable takes on a grim cast in light of the increasingly menacing cultural repression to come in the following decades.  As a particuarly heavy historical irony, the work’s dedicatee — Mikhail Kvadri, a Moscow Conservatory composition student and friend of Shostakovich’s — would be arrested and allegedly executed in 1929.

A word about the words:  A book I’ve found vital in closely listening to Shostakovich’s vocal music, all the more so in the present case because the BMG/Melodiya reissue I’m working from doesn’t contain librettos, is Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts, by Laurence R. Richter.  He provides the Russian text for each song and renders it in three progressive levels for English speakers who don’t know Russian: phonetic transcription, word-by-word gloss, and idiomatic prose translation.  The book is intended for singers, but as a listener I’ve found it useful for tracking in detail how Shostakovich sets individual words; getting a sense of the Russian translations of non-Russian texts, rather than the English originals or direct English translations of the source; and, when albums don’t provide the texts, being able to read the words at all.  (Richter doesn’t include the texts for Shostakovich’s vocal symphonies, choral works, or songs from his film scores, but it’s still a handy source.)  As of this writing, I believe the book is out of print (Leyerle Publications’ website is ambiguous about its availability); I found a copy in stock several months ago at the Juilliard Bookstore but their site is currently in redesign limbo.  My local library has a copy, which is how I found out about it, and borrowing a copy from your library of choice remains another option if you want to really geek out over Shostakovich’s songs.

Musically, the two songs stay lighthearted (in line with the whimsical texts) and mostly lyrical, as in Shostakovich’s still earlier works.  His style feels more limber here, for instance in his more characterful use of solo instrumental textures, because he’s maturing or because dramatizing the words draws some more varied gestures out of him.  The wry humor, too, adds depth.  In the first song, “The Dragonfly and the Ant” — Krylov’s species-switching take on the Aesopian grasshopper-and-ant fable — Shostakovich effectively sets the conversation between the two insects, with the vocal line higher and more tuneful for the dragonfly’s words (on this album, soprano Galina Borisova sounds a bit shrill to me in those passages, possibly by design) and lower and more monotonous for the ant’s.  At the end, when the ant rejects the dragonfly — she dismissively tells the hungry supplicant, who spent all summer singing, to go dance — Shostakovich punctuates the story with a wry, jokey dance figure, whose creaky strings and final thump on the timpani, mild though they are, seem to point the way towards the more pointed instrumental effects he would use in his early satirical works, such as his opera The Nose.

Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the second fable features a boys’ or children’s choir rather than a solo vocalist, which caught me off guard.  Shostakovich announces the donkey with a wide-intervalled “braying” theme and a mild instrumental clatter — another of the song’s ironies in retrospect is that his music for the philistine is less abrasive than his own style would become within a few years.  The donkey asks the nightingale to sing, and most of the song is taken up with the bird’s rapturous performance, rendered as a lush melody accompanied by chirruping woodwinds and harp.  The birdsong concludes with sweet, wordless humming, before the ass’ theme breaks in again:

The donkey delivers his backhanded criticism, the nightingale flies off, Krylov delivers the punchline (the words in the following excerpt), and Shostakovich drops the curtain with an orchestral flourish:

Shostakovich’s musical setting seems knowing enough to suggest that he already had some experience of cloddish would-be tastemakers, but the song’s bright conclusion sounds poignant to me, considering the bitterness of the composer’s adult treatments of similar subjects in response to much more dangerous criticism.  No Soviet artist of his generation would be spared such judges.

No opus number: Orchestration of “I waited in the grotto” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1921)

August 27, 2010

Orchestration of “I waited in the grotto” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (No opus number, 1921)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 1982 (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Shostakovich’s arrangement of this Rimsky-Korsakov song, very much a student exercise, serves as another indicator of the tradition in which his musical training took place.  In the text, a poem by A.N. Maykov, a lover describes waiting for, and ultimately being stood up for, a nighttime tryst; the young composer (still about fifteen years old) scales up Rimsky-Korsakov’s accompaniment into a shimmering, though not especially nocturnal, orchestral backing, in line with the senior composer’s coloristic style.  In the recording at hand soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva’s lucid voice fits nicely with the instrumental effects.

I don’t know Rimsky-Korsakov’s original setting and the Melodiya disc doesn’t contain a libretto.  Maykov’s words in the original Russian are online at REC Music’s Lied and Art Song Texts Page, without an English translation.  I don’t speak any Russian but plugging the whole affair into Google Translate, as of this writing, seemingly provides enough of a sense of the trajectory of the poem to get by on:  The speaker waits at night in the grotto, describes the landscape and the moonlight, and finally reveals that the other never arrived.  The machine translation is awkward and rather inscrutable (“thinning night mistress mullet”), but I’m impressed by the state of the art and I think it’s a good fallback when listening to foreign-language vocal music without a translated text.