“One of the greatest symphonies ever” is paired with Shostakovich
By Peter Alexander April 9, 2019, at 10:45 p.m.
Beethoven is consistently one of the top two classical composers by numbers of performances around the world—alongside Mozart—but not in Longmont.
“Particularly the earlier symphonies of Beethoven have been underperformed here,” Elliot Moore, the director of the Longmont Symphony, says. To change that, Moore has planned a complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies, more or less in order, over several years.
The First Symphony was played last year, and the Second Symphony, one of the least performed of Beethoven’s symphonies, will be performed this weekend (Saturday and Sunday in the Longmont Museum’s Stewart Auditorium; see details below). The program also includes Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony.
“There was very little early Beethoven, very little Mozart, Haydn, being performed here for many years,” Moore says. And as a result, “there’s a freshness to the music here in Longmont that I’m not sure would be the case in New York.”
The documented history of the LSO supports Moore’s description. In the years since 1987 until last year, records that were easily found, there were no performances of symphonies Nos. 1, 2, or 4. There were two of No. 3, but only one each of 5 and 8. The later symphonies fared relatively better, with two each of Nos. 6 and 7, and three of No. 9.
Beyond the freshness and novelty of early Beethoven symphonies for Longmont audiences, Moore sees another reason to perform them. “Learning how the progression of the symphony has taken place helps inform our performances of music that was written later,” he says.
“In order to figure out how to play later symphonies, whether Berlioz, or Mendelssohn, or the orchestral works of Bartók, we need to know where the symphony came from. It’s important to understand how the early Beethoven symphonies helped bring the symphony into its current form.”
If this sounds like an educational project, Moore doesn’t deny that. And it is aimed at two constituencies. “There are two different groups that are evolving in terms of our listening ability and playing ability,” Moore says. “One is the audience, the other is the orchestra.”
The two major works on the current program—Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony—were written at low points in each composer’s life. Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony in 1802, at the time he first learned that he was going permanently deaf—when he wrote his famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” expressing his anguish. “I endured this wretched existence,” he wrote; “only art it was that withheld me” from ending his own life.
The chamber symphony is a string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, written in 1960, during a similar emotional crisis in the composer’s life, caused by a diagnosis of ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) and a period of extreme political pressure from Soviet authorities. Shostakovich did not write a testament, but friends and family reported that he too thought about suicide.
The musical responses of the two composers to their crises was utterly different. Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet is an anguished work, reflecting the composer’s despair, but Beethoven’s Second Symphony is one of his happiest and most serene works. If you are looking for a musical expression of the composer’s anguish, you just will not find it in the Second Symphony.
“The Second is really one of my favorites of [Beethoven’s] symphonies,” Moore says. “There’s a lightness, there’s a freshness to the music that I have adored for years. It’s one of the greatest symphonies ever composed. I love it.”
Officially, Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet was written for a film about art treasures stolen from Dresden by the Nazis during World War II, and it carries the dedication “to the victims of fascism and the war.” But the composer really wrote the quartet for himself, as reported by confidants and confirmed in a letter he wrote later. “It’s hardly likely that anybody will ever write a work dedicated to my memory,” he wrote. “So I have decided to write one myself.”
“This is all about his experience, his life, and he’s pouring himself into the music,” Moore says. “That makes it his most personal work. How he made it so personal was by including the anagram of his name (D. Sch—D, Eb, C, B in German musical notation). He painted himself into this work, in each of the movements.”
Shostakovich wrote the String Quartet in Dresden. The city had been destroyed by the allies’ firebombing in February 1945. Even in 1960 Shostakovich was “shaken by the scenes of devastation,” a friend wrote, and managed to write the quartet in just three days.
Most commentators believe that the despair expressed in the quartet is as appropriate for the ruins of Dresden as for the ruins of Shostakovich’s emotions in 1960. The arrangement of the quartet for string orchestra that the LSO will perform was made by violist Rudolf Barhsai and approved by the composer.
Shostakovich fits well with Beethoven, Moore believes. “What I love about Beethoven and Shostakovich paired together is that in their own ways, they are both revolutionary composers,” he says. “The piece we’re opening with, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, is about Count Egmont and how he stood up to an oppressor.
In this and other works, Moore says, “Beethoven paved the path for other composers to respond politically to what was going on. That’s often what Shostakovich was doing. They use different language, they used different approaches, but there’s something Shostakovich got from Beethoven.”
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Longmont Symphony, Elliot Moore, conductor
Beethoven: Overture to Egmont
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major
7 p.m. Saturday, April 13
4 p.m. Sunday, April 14 (SOLD OUT)
Stewart Auditorium at the Longmont Museum
Tickets (April 13 only)