It may seem that the three pieces that we have chosen for our first concert this year – Saturday 25 May – a little melancholy. All three compositions were written either during the Second World War or written in a significant time of the composer’s life. These were grave days but underneath their political and emotional torment there lies a sense of hope. Their music is influenced by the folk music they learned to cherish, out of solidarity for their homelands and for their closet friends. Here’s what our performing artists have to say about these works.
Dimitri Shostakovich – Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op.67 (1944)
It is within the E Minor Trio that the horrors of the Second World War combine with the devastation of personal tragedy. It is a work dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, whose sudden death in February 1944 occurred as Shostakovich was composing this trio. Sollertinsky, a Russian-Jewish intellectual, theatre, ballet and music critic, and who became concert lecturer for the Leningrad Philharmonic concerts, was a mentor to Shostakovich. Sollertinsky introduced to his friend the music of the Austrian-Jewish composer Mahler. Shostakovich recounted of Sollertinsky that his mentor was, “always trying to expand my world-view”. Later he wrote to Sollertinsky’s widow, confiding that “I cannot express in words all the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich”.
Sergei Prokofiev – Flute Sonata, Op. 94 (1943)
Composed in the midst of the darkest days of the Second World War, it has been said that the work provided Prokofiev with some relief, due to its playful elegance. However this is a work of extremes, and the darkness that must have prevailed in Prokofiev’s life at this time is also surely evident here. Sweet cantabile melodies and light, playful moments often soon turn to darkness, grunt, and melancholy, brought about by sinister harmonies and aggressive, militant rhythmic motifs. Neoclassical in style, this sonata beautifully displays Prokofiev’s gift for writing classical formal structures with clear, transparent sonorities, whilst also employing edgy twentieth century harmonic techniques. Indeed, perhaps this work is more conservative in style than some of Prokofiev’s earlier works. Given the fierce regime of the time, it is possible that this style of writing was Prokofiev’s attempt to conform in order to remain safe and viable as a composer in his homeland. It is interesting to note that the rhythm we hear repeated during the first and fourth movement – three semiquaver triplets followed by single quavers – when translated into Morse code spells out the word “victory”. This remarkable fact shows us that Prokofiev was looking forward to the day when the war would be over, for peace when he would be free from the harsh regime that he – and many others – felt suppressed by. This is his powerful message to us; that is, even in his darkest days he could still look ahead with positivity and hope, and so too, can we.
Bohuslav Martinů – Nonet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, french horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, H. 374 (1959)
The Nonet for wind and strings was composed during the last year of Martinů’s life, being premiered by the Czech Nonet at the Salzburg Festival just one month before he died. Despite this, the Nonet is generally a joyous and delightful work filled with folk songs and dances as well as driving, complex rhythms. The first movement draws on Moravian dance tunes, crystallizing these ideas into a poised and refined movement through neoclassical stylistic structures inspired by Martinu’s study of the music of Haydn. The second movement is more introspective and melancholy, featuring a plaintive cello tune and some unsettling rhythmical accompaniment. Finally, the third movement is again primarily driven by dance tunes, with regularly changing rhythmical patterns creating an energy and joy that shows no shadow of the death that Martinů would have known was not far away.
But please don’t stay away for fear that this concert will be dreary. May I leave you with words from Martinů himself – words which fully describe – why composers must write what they must write and why we must continue to perform this music today.
“The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life. The pressures of mechanisation and uniformity to which it is subject call for protest and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music.” — Bohuslav Martinu
The notes on the above three compositions have been written respectively by Claire Howard Race, Melissa Coleman and Clare Kahn.
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