Tonight’s concert pairs monumental works that mark major historical shifts. The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) is arguably the first of the great romantic piano concertos; and while important symphonies continue to be written, the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is arguably the last in the line of great symphonies in the standard repertoire. Both were written by composers at the height of their powers; both were written in difficult political circumstances. Despite these parallels, however, they are more notable for their contrasts than for their similarities.
The Fifth Concerto was composed in 1809 in a war-torn Vienna that had just been captured by Napoleon—the man whom Beethoven angrily removed as the dedicatee of the Eroica Symphony when he declared himself emperor. (The concerto’s nickname does not originate with Beethoven himself!) This political trauma was combined with physical trauma. Beethoven’s deafness, hardly helped by the bombardment of his city, had proceeded so far that he couldn’t perform the work at the premiere. Nonetheless, according to tonight’s soloist Jon Nakamatsu, it’s “probably the most positive and life-affirming music that he penned”—a sign that Beethoven could “write outside of himself.”
It is also, in Jon’s words, “a soloist’s piano concerto,” a work where the pianist comes “to the forefront” to a degree greater than in any previous piano concerto. “That’s obvious in the beginning, where there’s a cadenza after the first two measures.” Jon points in particular to the contrast to the Fourth, composed four years earlier, which is “really a chamber work.” The mood in the Fifth “couldn’t be more different”—and the work could hardly have had a more profound effect on musical history. Chopin, Liszt, Brahms: in fact, “everyone who wrote a concerto after this” was influenced by it.
For all the thunder and virtuosity, though, the Fifth has its share of intimacy. In fact, says Jon, “my favorite moment is the most quiet moment in the piece”—surprisingly, a moment in which the piano doesn’t even play. “The opening of the second movement is absolutely the most sublime thing, even in instrumentation—muted strings just laying out the theme and the bass in pizzicatos. That is an unbelievable effect, it’s so poignant. My next favorite moment is when I get the theme, 30 or 50 bars later, and underneath the basses are pizzing the harmony, laying out the chordal structure of what I do. That is a pioneering moment in orchestration, showing how the most simple things can be absolutely the most thrilling.”
Shostakovich greatly admired Beethoven. A talented pianist himself, he learned the Beethoven Third Concerto before he hit his teens, and he told his friend Krzysztof Meyer, “In Beethoven we have everything.” So it’s not particularly striking that, in a letter to composer/pianist Elmira Nazirova later made public by her pupil Aida Huseinova, he wrote, “I feel so pleased that you are playing Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto.” Or it be striking were it not for three resonant facts. First, Shostakovich had a life-transforming crush on Elmira. Second, he wrote that letter on August 25, 1953, when he was nearing completion of the Tenth Symphony. Third, and most significant, he wrote that letter only a few days after announcing to Elmira that he had encoded her name into the Tenth’s third movement.
Encoded her name? Shostakovich, like many earlier composers (including Bach), enjoyed using the notes of the scale to spell out names. In particular, he used the motif DSCH (D-Eflat-C-B, using traditional German nomenclature) to refer to himself (using the German spelling of his name, D. Schostakowitsch). The DSCH motif comes up often in the Tenth: it appears clearly on piccolo, flute, and oboe about a minute into the third movement, for instance, and is even more evident when piccolo and flute whisper it three times to mark the movement’s poignant close. Equally central, though, is a motif based on Elmira—EAEDA, or E-La-Mi-Re-A in the composer’s tortuous coding, which combines letter notation and solfege syllables (do, re, mi…). As Shostakovich pointed out to Elmira, it echoes the opening of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde—and it is shouted out by the horns over and over in the third movement.
Despite this web of connections—the similarity of the circumstances of composition, the historical importance of the works, and the Elmira/Beethoven link—it’s hard to imagine two pieces less alike. The Beethoven is positive, life-affirming, forward-thinking, transparent in its orchestration, and direct in expression; as Jon puts it, the concerto boasts “really clear architecture.” The Shostakovich is angst-ridden (until the giddy DSCH-capped ending), conservative in idiom (closer to Mahler than to Schoenberg or even Stravinsky), frequently dense, and ambiguous in both form and meaning.
The Tenth begins with a long and often bleak Moderato, its emotions, in the words of conductor Larry Loh, “brewing underneath, from deep within his subconscious.” In 3/4 meter, unusual for an opening movement, it seems at times like a macabre waltz; and its huge outbursts are not really climaxes because they don’t seem to resolve anything. There are many symphonic first movements—the Tchaikovsky Fourth offers a prime example—that could stand on their own; this one, in contrast, is unstable, ending irresolutely. So when the extraordinary violence of what Larry calls the “compact and intense” second movement erupts, we may feel jolted but not really surprised. There’s little relief in the Elmira-soaked third movement, where, Larry says, “the climax is just as terrifying.” Indeed, things only brighten three or four minutes into the finale, where a mournful introduction suddenly breaks into what Larry calls a “peppy, upbeat theme.” The darkness reappears briefly, and just as we are left wondering where we will end up, we get “the most incredibly light and upbeat ending, like a carnival.”
So what does it all mean?? In the score’s preface, Shostakovich insists that the first movement avoids the tragic; in the notes to the New York premiere, he’s quoted as claiming the work as a tribute to the creativity of the human spirit. Should we hear the Tenth as an optimistic vision? Perhaps. At the same time, we should remember that it was mainly written in the wake of a denunciation by the Soviet cultural apparatus in 1948. Should we hear it as a bitter attack on Stalin? Perhaps. But we know that it was written during his infatuation with Elmira. Should we hear it as a frustrated love-letter or more generally as a confession of his own frailties? It’s hard to know. Still, whatever you take from this symphony, it leaves you transformed. The Tenth is not as popular as the Fifth (although it comes close), not as monumental as the Seventh, not as radical as the Second, Third, and Fourth. It is, however, the most profound of his orchestral works and the one that invites the widest range of responses from both performers and listeners.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org