Pieces by Benjamin Britten, Beethoven and Shostakovich
By Peter Alexander
The Boulder Philharmonic calls their next concert “Music of Resistance,” but it might more accurately be called “Music of Conscience.”
The concert, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 14) in Macky Auditorium, features three pieces, each of which expresses a message of conscience from the composer—two of them explicit, one more murky and controversial. Music director Michael Butterman will conduct.
Tenor Matthew Plenk
The first piece will be Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Heroes for tenor, chorus and orchestra, composed in 1939 for a “Festival of Music for the People” held in London. A setting of poetry by W.H. Auden and Randall Swingler, it is a response to the Spanish Civil War. The overtly political text roundly condemns the “numberless Englishmen” who have forgotten those who “fight for peace, for liberty, for you.” Matthew Plenk, a faculty member at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, will be the tenor soloist.
The second is Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano, Vocal Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra, composed in 1808 for a massive concert that included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements from the Mass in C major. The Fantasy was hurriedly composed as a concert-ending piece that would bring all of the performers together.
The text, suggested by Beethoven and written mostly by the poet Christoph Kuffner, expresses the composer’s idealistic conviction that music can bestow “outer peace and inner bliss,” and the blessings of the gods upon mankind. CU music professor David Korevaar will be the soloist.
The final and more controversial piece is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed in 1937. The score was written after the composer was sharply criticized and threatened under orders from Stalin. Shostakovich stated that the subsequent symphony was “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism,” and it ends with a march that expresses either the triumph of the Soviet state, or its brutality, depending on the interpretation.
“There are different views of this,” Butterman says. “Certainly one of the more prevalent is the notion that Shostakovich was more or less pinned against the wall and told, ‘it would be a shame if anything happened to your career.’ So the question is, did he just say, ‘You want something that’s life-affirming? I can do that.’ Or was it a veiled protest?
“There is a way that rings in the Shostakovich that could be interpreted as compelled, or rejoicing that is done for show. Of course I don’t know, but I tend to think it’s that.”
The other two works are unfamiliar, but both can be seen as early, small-scale versions of larger and more familiar works written later in the composer’s career. Britten’s Ballad of Heroes shares many traits with the composer’s War Requiem, written in 1962, including the textual contrast between the quiet British homefront and the horror of war, brass fanfares, and Britten’s characteristic style of vocal writing for the soloist.
Similarly, Beethoven’s Fantasy sounds very much like the Ninth Symphony written 16 years later. The regular phrasing and simple outline of the theme, the combination of chorus, soloists and orchestra, and the use of variations leading to a triumphant close inevitably remind listeners of the symphony’s famous finale.
In spite of being unfamiliar, both works are “worth hearing and also interesting because of their better known analogs,” Butterman says. “You get some insight into the world views and the frames of mind of these two (composers), through the text and the quality of the music carrying the text.”
The Britten was suggested to Butterman by an orchestra member. He didn’t know the score, but once he listened, he said, “I thought it was really effective.
“It’s fascinating because Britten was a pacifist, and yet this piece is celebrating those who went off in the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish civil, against fascism. He’s saying, If you believe in something, you’ve got to stand up for it.”
Plenk had not heard the piece before, either. As in much of Britten’s music, he says, “there’s a somewhat instrumental character to the way he writes for tenor.”
As for the political content of the text, “any time you’re performing, you’re trying to express what the composer intended, whether it’s political or not,” he says. “I’d urge people to let the text lead them (in how they listen to the music). I would say that with any music, but this was written for a specific purpose, to memorialize the fallen soldiers from the International Brigade of the Spanish Civil War.”
Korevaar relishes the opportunity to play Beethoven’s Fantasy. “One of the reasons we play it is because it has this wonderful sense of uplift,” he says. “It starts in C minor, a key that Beethoven uses for drama and tragedy. And C major (where it ends) is a key of joy and light. And so there is an aspect of a ritual experience” when you hear it.
One thing Korevaar particularly enjoys is the way “the piano is given a sort of Promethean role,” he says. “When I play this piece I have the feeling of having magical powers.
“The piano begins alone, and then we add the instruments one at a time. It’s like you’re giving life to all these figures, and then once the orchestra and the piano have had their say, what more can you do? Then you conjure up human voices, first solos and then a chorus!
“It’s really marvelous.”
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Music of Resistance
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
Matthew Plenk, tenor, and David Korevaar, piano
CU Boulder and Western Illinois University choirs
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Macky Auditorium