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Concert I, 2023-2024 Season

Soulful Expressions


"Aspiration" (from Symphony No.1, Afro-American Symphony)

William Grant Still

William Grant Still was the most immediately successful African American classical composer in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote five symphonies, eight operas, several ballets, and many symphonic poems and suites, plus chamber music and choral works. He studied with modernist composer Edward Varèse, had a Guggenheim fellowship in 1934, won commissions from major American orchestras, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. He also had great success as a commercial arranger for such musicians as Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman, and for film music.

His largely conservative and highly approachable concert music was less favored in the high-modernist period of the 1950s and 60s, but has been increasingly widely played since then. He was not the loudest of civil-rights activists, but all of his symphonies and much of his other music explicitly draw on and refer to African-American musical traditions and experiences. His symphonies all have titles; the First Symphony, from which this movement is drawn, is the "Afro-American Symphony," and the four movements are, in order, "Longing," "Sorrow," "Humor," and "Aspiration." Each movement also has an epigraph from the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. The one in this movement is:

"Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,
Thy name is writ on Glory's scroll
In characters of fire.
High 'mid the clouds of Fame's bright sky,
Thy banner's blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher."

The music, alternating as it does between darker and more joyful moods, shows the power of hope even as it acknowledges the depths from which it might arise.


Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37

Ludwig van Beethoven

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, aged nearly 22, he became known as a pianist, and particularly as an improviser, before his reputation as a composer was secured. He often performed at the houses of the local aristocracy, but his first appearance for the larger public was as a pianist at a charity concert in 1795, where he played either the first or the second concerto. This third concerto was written—also for his own performance—around 1803, after Beethoven had realized his deafness and fallen into a period of despair, but also as he had become firmly established in Vienna as a creative force.

The concerto’s key—C minor—is often thought of as particularly characteristic of Beethoven and often as especially suitable for stormy music (e.g., the Fifth Symphony, the “Pathétique” Sonata). In the eighteenth century, when all keys were thought to have particular characters, C minor was described as “plaintive” and “melancholy.” This concerto is neither particularly stormy nor melancholic. Moreover, in contrast to the massive and ground-breaking Eroica Symphony, which was written around the same time, this piece is relatively conservative.

Like almost all concertos preceding it (unlike Beethoven’s fourth and fifth piano concertos) it begins with a long orchestral introduction that offers essentially all the main material for the first movement, from the opening stern march to lyrical melodies. One interesting feature of this movement is how much the piano plays the same material in unison in both hands, making it sound more like an orchestral instrument than the normal chord-playing piano.

The remaining two movements begin with the piano, in a kind of balance against the first movement. The slow movement features one of those heavenly, almost “out of time” Beethoven tunes, wreathed around with ornamentation; in the last movement the minor key adds intensity and urgency to virtuosity. The cadenzas (the places where the piano plays alone in the middle of movements) were all written by Beethoven himself but give a sense of how his improvisations might have shown off both his piano playing (last movement) and his skills at chopping up and reorganizing musical material (first movement).


Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

Dmitri Shostakovich

Written and first performed in 1937, this was a landmark work for Shostakovich. A year earlier, he had fallen from grace with Stalin, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having been condemned by the regime in the newspaper Pravda as "muddle instead of music." The Soviet Composers' Union, which had the power to grant or deny composers commissions and posts in educational institutions—in a word, to make or break composers' careers, marched other composers to the lectern in their meetings to denounce Shostakovich for "formalism"—that is, for music insufficiently dedicated to mass appeal and a heroic manner. In response, Shostakovich entitled this symphony "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism" and it was received absolutely rapturously at its premiere. The audience wept during the third movement, applauded for half an hour at the end, and other composers wrote encomiums like the following: "A work of such philosophical depth and emotional force could only be created here in the Soviet Union."

The work is indeed heroic in proportions (it's 45 minutes long) and manner; it moves from the austerity of the opening movement to the major-mode triumphalism of the last, thus following a similar pattern to that of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In his official writings about it, Shostakovich likened it to the development of a personality (himself, thinly disguised), moving from uncertainty to a place in the sun. He wrote that it embodied "all that he had thought and felt" since the devastating criticism in Pravda, a sentence that was clearly meant to be read on the surface as an acknowledgment of the rightness of the Stalinist criticism. But even during Soviet times, music critics and others read a different and more resistant "program" into the work—one in which, as Richard Taruskin writes, they wept, then "stood up and cheered, grateful for the pain." The music, in other words, allowed them access to a range of feelings and attitudes that they could not express in daily life.

How can we hear this socially-embedded work today? Is the last movement truly triumphal or so over the top that it's a parody of triumphalism? Is any listening necessarily bound to politics? The easy answer is that great art transcends its circumstances to speak to all people in all ages, and it is certainly possible to listen to this work as an abstract story of struggle and triumph. One can also hear a masterly collage of musical references: listen for the stern Bach-like counterpoint in the first movement, a grotesque waltz in the second, the resonant chords of Orthodox sacred music in the third, and the final movements of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth symphonies in the last—so much for "only in the Soviet Union"! Or one can relate the whole thing to Beethoven, noting how the simplest materials pervade and unify the work, the main examples being the two three-note rhythms short-short-long ("Kit-chen SINK") and long-short-short ("LI-bra-ry")

The fascination of this symphony is that all these messages and meanings are equally true. The last movement is a triumph (and a relief) after the pain of the third movement; we do recognize "universal" psychological archetypes in the music even as these attach to the demands of a particular appalling political agenda. The grotesque waltz (a Shostakovich specialty) is funny and terrifying at the same time. So a respectful way to listen to this work might be in a spirit of self-examination, if not self-criticism—what are my reactions, and why?


© Mary Hunter 2023