Columbus Symphony: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich

Ohio Theatre, home to the Columbus Symphony.(Photo: wallyg)
Ohio Theatre, home to the Columbus Symphony.(Photo: wallyg)

The Columbus Symphony performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Symphony 11 (“The Year 1905″) with guest conductor Larry Rachleff and pianist Kirill Gerstein at the Ohio Theatre February 4/5, 2011.

History and Inspiration behind Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Symphony 11 (“The Year 1905″)

On January 9, 1905 a procession set out for the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The crowd, led by Father Gregor Gapon grew in numbers until several thousand people, many of them women and children, assembled at the palace gates to present a petition for reform to the Tsar. 

By all accounts this was a peaceful demonstration, with the crowd carrying religious icons and singing hymns. The Tsar was thirty miles away at Tsarskoye Selo. Nevertheless, the Cossack guards fired and in the end hundreds were killed, many trampled to death.

The Russian Revolution of 1917-1918, which destroyed the Tsar and his family, traces itself back to this event that cold Sunday morning in 1905.

What to make of Dimitri Shostakovitch? Thirty-five years after his death we don’t know if he embraced the Soviet bureaucracy or went along to get along.

This may not matter to people who have been dead for years, but its a favorite sport among listeners to assign autobiographical elements to the composer’s great, bulging symphonies and and dramatic string quartets. His status as the mid twentieth century’s greatest symphonist is unchallenged.

Yet, the why of his music is unsettled. There are those who maintain that producing a symphonic work subtitled 1905 in 1958 was a dig at the Soviet military that killed 20,000 during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Others maintain this to be a work of deep patriotism, with the 1905 confrontation graduating to Soviet flag waving.

Anatomy of Shostakovitch’s Symphony

Symphony 11 (“The Year 1905″) is not for the casual listener.  The first movement alone, Palace Square is low and menacing. The tympani predict the impending catastrophe.

The second movement takes us to the chaos on Bloody Sunday. There is a fiery climax prepared for by the martial songs Shostakovitch uses throughout the work, which is unusual for him.

The third movement, Eternal Memory, is a lament; and the fourth movement is first a lament and then a tocsin, a fiery conclusion that portends the ineluctable revolution that would destroy the Tsar thirteen years later.

Shostakovich intended this work for the 50th anniversary of the 1905 massacre, but was delayed completing his 11th Symphony until 1957. The premiere took place in Moscow on October 30th of that year with the USSR Symphony conducted by Natan Rakhin. 

This work has been called “a film score without a film” so potent is its storytelling. Yet, it remains a bit unloved among Shostakovitch’s works, suspected of being wither propaganda or pandering.

What I hear is another superb vehicle for a fine orchestra, and music that both moves and troubles listeners.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

People who saw Rachmaninoff in concert might not think of him as “cheery.” Years after his death, however, friends maintain that his stony public facade was an act, that at home he was warm hearted and approachable.

After leaving Russia in 1918, Rachmaninoff abandoned composition for the concert stage – supporting his family through endless piano concerts and recitals throughout North America. He wrote only six works between 1918 and his death in 1943.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The concertante work for piano and orchestra dates from 1934.

Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra with Rachmaninoff himself as piano soloist

The theme comes from his twenty-fourth caprice for solo violin. Ironic then, that the publicly austere Rachmaninoff chose to base one of his most popular works on this flamboyant 19th century violinist and composer.

The work begins with the first variation and then the theme of Paganini is stated:

There are twenty-four variations to this Rhapsody, mirroring Paganini’s twenty-four caprices for solo violin. Probably deliberately and maybe in spite of himself, Rachmaninoff wrote a genuine crowd pleaser back in 1934, complete with the repeated ‘Dies irae’ chant of the Latin mass for the dead. The work has been choreographed by Michel Fokine and Frederick Ashton.

My own favorite use of this work was in a commercial for beef, with Robert Mitchum intoning, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.,” over Rachmaninoff’s athletic and entertaining music.