The Little Hunchbacked Horse Suite
About the Composer
Rodion Shchedrin is one of the last living composers in a Russian lineage stretching back to Dmitri Shostakovich. As Shostakovich's successor in the Union of Composers of the Russian Federation, he faced the same Soviet censorship and repression as his older colleague. Following the fall of the USSR, he managed to achieve wider renown, but with the exception of scattered events-most recently, an 80th birthday performance by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera-his music has been performed mainly in Europe.
Shchedrin has an extensive symphonic, ballet, instrumental, and operatic catalog. He is known for combining his own brand of modernism with Russian folklore and literature, but his experiments with vernacular music extend beyond national boundaries: The smoldering Piano Concerto No. 2 unites serialism and jazz; À la Albéniz plays saucily with Spanish modes and rhythms.
Commentators tend to lump his work with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but he has an original style that has undergone continual metamorphosis. In the words of pianist Marina Lomazov, "the voice of Shchedrin is a combination of his heritage and musical experiences and his own vision: clever, precise, folksy, often humorous, full of prickly dissonance, but suffused with warmth, passion, and tenderness."
Shchedrin's First Hit
The work that propelled Shchedrin to stardom was the ballet The Little Hunchbacked Horse, which was an immediate favorite with the Soviet public when premiered by the Bolshoi Theatre in 1960. It also has special personal significance for the composer: This ballet brought Shchedrin together with his future wife, renowned ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who created the role of the Tsar-Girl and appeared in the1961 Soviet film version of the ballet.
The Little Hunchbacked Horse exists as a ballet, a concert suite, and a piano suite (Shchedrin has a double career as a composer and concert pianist). It's a coming-of-age story that depicts the adventures of a young boy, Ivan the Fool, who is led on a fantastical journey by a hunchbacked horse and a magic feather. Along the way, he encounters a silver mountain, a mystical ring in the sea, several firebirds, and a beautiful Tsar-Girl. Shchedrin was not the only composer to set this story: At least six versions have appeared since 1864.
Fantasy and Wit
This is a lively, accessible work, uniting a Russian sense of fantasy with bizarre humor and mischievous irony. (The scenario includes such descriptions as "In the royal chambers, the Wet Nurses are feeding the Tsar.") Shchedrin's harmonic idiom includes dissonance and whole-tone scales, plus a Mussorgksian sense of the grotesque. But unlike his modernist works, this piece is tonal and tuneful.
Beginning with a sensuous introduction, the excerpts presented here have a wide range of sensibilities and effects. The Gypsy Dance is a virtuoso workout for the orchestra, an extravaganza of color with a touch of the sinister. The delicately scored Duettino of Ivan and Tsar-Girl has a childlike innocence, with a repeating motif for winds that sounds a bit like Copland, though the harp and celesta colors are unmistakably Russian. The finale features a simple round for woodwinds full of fairytale ambiance followed by an ecstatic quadrille.
© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54
Going Off Message
With its novel structure and refusal to deliver a coherent "message," Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, premiered in 1939, is often tagged as a problem symphony, its jarring contrasts and discontinuities overshadowed by the broad programmatic gestures of the "heroic" Fifth and Seventh. Some see in the sinister first movement a depiction of Stalin's death camps or of gathering World War II clouds. The jauntiness in the rest of the piece, however, quickly contradicts such a notion. Indeed, the austere first 20 minutes bump up against the circus-like ambiance of the rest in ways that force us to redefine what a symphony is.
Whatever their origins (Shostakovich was mostly silent about this symphony), the ideas in the piece are compelling, whether the mysterious ruminations in the opening or the splashy parades and circuses later on. The orchestration has the blazing brass, haunting woodwind solos, and colorful percussion and timpani that have always made Shostakovich's symphonies popular.
A Novel Structure
It's the way all this is arranged that has puzzled the critics for so long. There are three movements rather than the usual four. The opening Largo, with its stark motifs and eerie tremolos, is longer than the other movements combined and inhabits its own ghostlike world. Nothing like it exists in Shostakovich's output: It is sometimes compared to the grave slow movements that open the Eighth and Tenth symphonies, but these are full of dramatic contrasts. This movement has a Poe-like unity of atmosphere, its spooky eloquence never compromised or interrupted. In Robert Layton's memorable phrase, it is "like a vast dark planet which revolves on its axis so slowly that it appears at times to be almost static."
Yet the rest of the symphony is full of movement. Following the Largo is a sparkling Allegro with folk dances and swirling wind solos; this careens into another fast movement, a Presto with a racy main tune that keeps tumbling and falling back on itself until an exultant fanfare blazes in to conclude the work. Nothing returns to tie these three movements together and provide culmination and closure, as Shostakovich was to do in his next two symphonies.
Shostakovich revered Shakespeare, and in many ways the Sixth is the symphonic equivalent of tragi-comedy, a form combining traditional elements from recognizable genres in bizarre and inventive ways, often out of order, producing happy endings from grim shadows. If nothing else, Shostakovich knew the finale would be a crowd-pleaser, remarking that "even the most fastidious critics" would enjoy it.
A Slow Comeback
The opening night audience in Leningrad fulfilled the composer's prediction, demanding that the finale be played again. Otherwise, the reception was cool, despite performances of the symphony outside the Soviet Union by star maestros like Stokowski, Reiner, Ormandy, Bernstein, and Boult.
Recently, the piece has been making something of a comeback, appearing in numerous recordings and live performances. Perhaps the casual juxtaposition of the sublime and the vernacular seems normal in our "postmodern" reality; or perhaps we are now recognizing that something as original and personal as the Sixth—a work that resists labels and messages-has a refreshing appeal.
© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
The Composer as Hero
Never one for modesty, Richard Strauss meant the subject of Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life)-one of his most grandiose tone poems-to be himself. "I don't see why I shouldn't compose a symphony about myself," he told Romain Rolland (after issuing initial disclaimers), "I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander." Some irony is undoubtedly intended here, but according to Rolland, there is an element of unpleasant straightforwardness as well.
The aggressive self-assurance in Strauss's tone poems is an essential part of their attraction. Indeed, it defines their identity. Ein Heldenleben is the logical outgrowth of Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, and Tod und Verklärung—all, in one way or another, depictions of supermen. Strauss had run out of heroes, so why not choose himself, especially since he could now present his own struggles and works as the hero's accomplishments? After all, this was 1899, the post-Bismarck era just before the turn of the century; self-effacement was not exactly the order of the day.
An Orchestral Extravaganza
The huge orchestra required—which includes five trumpets, eight horns, and 64 strings—is a key part of the work's ambition. Strauss dedicated it to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but conducted the Frankfurt premiere himself. Ein Heldenleben quickly became a popular orchestral showpiece, both on stage and in the studio; Mengelberg recorded it at Carnegie Hall in 1928 with the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Fritz Reiner issued a landmark stereo recoding in 1954.
A Closer Listen
The piece is divided into six sections. "The Hero" announces the exultant main theme with a sweep of the lower strings. The following motifs for winds are gratingly dissonant, serving as an ugly depiction of music critics, or "The Hero's Adversaries"—specifically the carpers, vituperators, whiners, and hairsplitters. When early critics denounced the piece ("a monstrous act of egotism"), Strauss gloated that at least they got the point.
Following is "The Hero's Companion," an elaborate series of violin cadenzas that alternate with a passionate love theme. This workout for the concertmaster is a portrait of Strauss' wife, Pauline de Ahna, a soprano who sang in Tristan und Isolde under his direction and in Guntram, his first opera.
Distant trumpets herald "The Hero at Battle," a stunning piece of Straussian orchestral trailblazing that develops all the previous themes in searing counterpoint. With its special effects and visceral depiction of warfare, this section is a forerunner of numerous cinematic battle scenes, beginning (as Richard Freed has pointed out) with Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.
A sudden brass fanfare seems to throw us into another Strauss tone poem: Don Juan. Indeed, it is a quotation from that work, followed by a majestic string of other self-allusions—some 30 in all—from Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, Also sprach Zarathustra, and others, all seamlessly interwoven with a recapitulation of themes from Ein Heldenleben. This complex collage is entitled "The Hero's Works of Peace," the composer's own compositions. Strauss was only 34 when he wrote Ein Heldenleben, but this serene retrospection sounds like the summation of a much older artist.
The visionary coda, "The Hero's Retreat from this World and Consummation," culminates in a ravishing duet between solo horn and violin. At the end, in a breathtaking crescendo-diminuendo added by Strauss after the first performance, the strings suddenly disappear as the rest of the orchestra carries the hero and the listener into the beyond.
© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation