ARENSKY Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky
performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
SHOSTAKOVICH Chamber Symphony for Strings in C minor
performed by Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
HAYDN Symphony No. 44 in E minor, “Trauer”
performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Listening Guide #10
Jonathan Borden, host
On this week’s program is a piece that blew me away when I was in high school. Originally a string quartet, the chamber symphony by Shostakovich on this program is a violent and painful piece of music. What appealed to me while I was in high school wasn’t necessarily the imagery of struggling Shostakovich attempting to subvert his oppressors, but the raw energy of the music. Back then, I would have called it “like, so metal dude”. I was an eloquent youth.
That “metal” quality still appeals to me now, without a doubt. However, there’s a deeper appreciation I have for it now than I did back then, and a lot of that has to do with understanding better the circumstance under which Shostakovich survived. I could have said “lived” instead of “survived”, but I think survival is really what Shostakovich was doing for most of his life.
I could go on and on about his circumstance and how terrible it was, but sometimes I feel like being told how bad someone had it in times before you were alive doesn’t always do the experience justice. It’s insufficient to simply be told that Shostakovich had it bad for various reasons. The music paints a better picture, one that more faithfully recreates the emotions, feelings, and fears that he himself felt during his life. It’s like what I wrote about last fall: music communicates things beyond the realm of literal speech, and this chamber symphony is an excellent example of this.
There are several devices through which music communicates, and I’ve written about some of them already here: things like melody, harmony, counterpoint, etc. I’ll introduce a new one this week: motif (pronounced mo-TEEF, used interchangeably with the word motive/motives). What’s a motif? You can think of it like a musical symbol, a musical theme that represents something else. We’re all very used to this kind of musical device because it’s used in film music constantly. The compositions of John Williams are well known to be motivic (using motifs) – think of Star Wars and the themes associated with Darth Vader, Jedis, the Force, etc. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, think of a melody that plays each time a certain character plays on screen.
What’s so powerful about motives is that they become synonymous with the ideas they represent. In a film for instance, a musical motif could hint at a character during an unrelated scene, giving the viewer of the film the idea that that character is somehow involved in what they’re seeing, without anything in the script indicating it. It’s a powerful device!
Motifs can be used in a ton of different ways. This chamber symphony is a perfect example. The overriding motif of this music are the notes D, E-flat, C, and B. Why these notes? They represent Shostakovich’s initials using the German note naming system. This is what it sounds like:
Ok, so he puts his initials in the music. What’s so important about that? What does it mean? Good question, me! Shostakovich is communicating something with the listener by putting his name in the music. Again, what he’s communicating is not something that can be replicated with words literally but emotionally. Each listener will interpret these messages differently – I’ll explore a few of them here to give you an idea of what I mean. Unfortunately I can’t replicate a string ensemble with my limited tools, so I’ve recreated some excerpts using a piano instead.
The piece begins with the motif played by each instrument coming in separately. Not long after the start, there’s this moment, where the violins play that same motif while the cello deviates slightly, and the viola changes note unexpectedly, leaving us on a new path forward:
The second movement is where the metal kicks in. The motif is transformed and only in the cello, screaming out beneath a whirlwind of fast, chromatic notes in the violin:
Did you catch it? One more example: in the third movement, the character completely changes. The same motif now has an odd lilt to it, like it’s dance music for something sinister.
This motif exists throughout the entire piece in a variety of different forms. In addition to this motif that resembles his name, there are other quotes from other pieces that he’s written over his lifetime. Think about what that means for the piece as a whole. It’s sort of autobiographical, right? If you haven’t heard some of these other pieces that he quotes (his fifth symphony and one of his cello concerti, among other pieces) you won’t be able to pick up on them. It’s almost as though he’s writing it to his core audience, the people who know his music best, trying to tell them something. I’ll leave that for you to decide what it is.
- What do you think Shostakovich was trying to communicate through his music? List some of the emotions that you picked up on throughout the piece. Were these emotions conflicting? What could that mean?
- Share a musical motif from a popular film that you particularly enjoy. Explain why it fits the film and the character/idea/object that it represents.