The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

shostakovich and britten

Dmitri Shostakovich (left) and Benjamin Britten in 1966

Last Friday evening Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic treated Liverpudlians to a preview of a concert that was to be repeated two nights later as part of The Rest is Noise festival, the series of concerts and events bringing to life Alex Ross’s survey of 20th-century music that has been running at London’s Southbank Centre throughout 2013.

The concert featured three pieces, all from the  early 1970s – Luciano Berio’s Four Versions of the Retreat from Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid, Benjamin Britten’s Suite from his opera Death in Venice, and Dimitri Shostakovich’s last Symphony, the Fifteenth.  Britten’s opera was first performed in June 1973, and the programme notes helpfully highlighted some musical landmarks of 1973 (including the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on 1 March) and provided a box headed, ‘1972 in context’. In that year, the context included such milestones as: British unemployment exceeding 1 million for the first time since the 1930s, the introduction of Access credit cards, and the UK joining the EEC.

The implication of this information was that the pieces we were hearing somehow reflected their time.  It’s possible, I suppose, though not in the sense of commenting directly on current political or social concerns in the way that Pink Floyd’s album set out to do.  A more likely way in which these works by Britten and Shostakovitch suggest their time might be found in the observation by Alex Ross that:

Both men seem almost to have been born with a feeling of being cornered.  Even in works of their teenage years, they appear to be experiencing spasms of existential dread.  They were grown men with the souls of gifted, frightened children.

The two composers had been firm friends since the mid-1960s, each living a marginalized existence within his own culture and wrestling with an acute personal dilemma.  For Britten, pacifist and homosexual who lived openly with Peter Pears his personal and professional partner, this was not his sexuality per se , but his longing for the company of underage males. For Shostakovitch, it was his precarious position in relation to Soviet cultural demands and a lifetime of denunciations by and personal accommodations with the Soviet communism that tormented him.  Ross remarks:

Britten’s psychological landscape, with its undulating contours of fear and guilt, its fault lines and crevasses, its wan redeeming light, made Shostakovitch feel at home.

1972 was the year in which Britten was composing the opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice; it was the year, too, in which Shostakovitch – then 66 years old and in constant pain from various illnesses that included heart trouble, lung cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease – finally made the journey to the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears had lived and worked from 1957.  In his book, Ross tells how Britten allowed his friend and fellow-composer to see the score of what was to be his final opera, Death in Venice, something that Britten usually kept utterly private.

Britten and Pears

Benjamin Britten (left) with tenor Peter Pears in 1946.

So, what of the music and the performances?  Each one of these three pieces was entirely new to me, but it was clear that the evening was another triumph for Vasily Petrenko as the Phil’s Chief Conductor, and there were excellent performances by the RLPO musicians, especially from those in command of the extensive battery of percussion and timpani ranged across the stage.  For each of these pieces require a lot of percussion (I realised that in programming a concert, making economical use of the soloists you have marshalled is as much a factor as thematic or musical considerations).  There were castanets and kettle drums the fore in the opening piece by Luciano Berio, written in 1975 but modelled on an 18th century work by Boccherini that depicts the Madrid city watch at midnight curfew hour, the music growing louder as the watch draws closer, then dying away as the parade passes (reminding me of ‘Saeta’, the processional piece from the Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain.

Percussion in the form of bells, vibraphone, glockenspiels, xylophones, gong and timpani – pervaded the score of the Britten piece, reflecting the powerful impact which hearing Balinese gamelan music had had on Britten a decade earlier.  The Suite from Death in Venice is accepted as being one of the most impassioned and poignant pieces of Britten’s career:

Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera (1971-73), is in many respects his most personal, even confessional. Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, it tells of Aschenbach, an internationally-celebrated writer of austere lifestyle, who has dedicated himself to the Apollonian pursuit of beauty but seems to have lost inspiration and the capacity for feeling. He takes a holiday in Venice, where he becomes fascinated and obsessed by a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio (a non-singing role, portrayed by a dancer), whom he observes from afar. Although he learns that a fatal epidemic is rife in the city he stays on, giving himself up to his long-suppressed Dionysiac impulses and dies of the disease, finally admitting to himself that he loves the boy. Aschenbach recognizes and confronts his hitherto latent homosexuality in terms of anguish and eventual decay, and the opera – deeply effective and moving – appears as Britten’s own most direct statement concerning his own sexuality. As Britten was having heart surgery by the time of the first performances in June 1973, he was unable to attend, and responsibility for final realization of the score devolved onto the conductor, Steuart Bedford.
– Philharmonic programme notes

The opera was Britten’s most public statement of his long-term relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who originally performed the demanding lead role.  Like the character of Aschenbach, Britten died in middle age – in December 1976 – from heart failure brought on by tertiary syphilis, according to Benjamin Britten: A life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea, who records that as Britten exhausted himself on research for Death In Venice in 1971, he said to his assistant: “First of all I’ve got to finish this one, then there’s a big work, then an opera, and then I’ll be ill.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Britten’s great friend Shostakovich also died in middle age, writing his final symphony in 1971 at the age of 65 following a heart attack. The work is generally interpreted as the composer’s reflection on his life and music, which had been repeatedly – sometimes oppressively – overshadowed by Soviet politics. There are quotations from his earlier symphonies and other works by Rossini, Mahler and Wagner, and great opportunities for soloists to shine  – from the trumpet quoting the William Tell overture in the first movement to a beautiful cello passage in the second movement (that reminded me how much I love Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto) and clarinet and violin solos in the third.

Shostakovich’s last symphony was composed in July 1971 at a composers’ rest home in Repino, 20 miles north-west of Leningrad, and first performed in Moscow on 8 January 1972. Shostakovich died of lung cancer on 9 August 1975.

We had heard music by two composers, each one ‘born with a feeling of being cornered’ and living a marginalized existence within his own culture.  If there are any parallels with Pink Floyd’s phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon, they lie in the album’s central theme that flowed from the band’s loss of founder member and lyricist Syd Barrett as his mental state deteriorated.  An extended meditation on conflict, greed, insanity and death, the album contains the song which might be considered the theme for the decades to come:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and your O.K.
Money it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviare, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team
Money get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off my stack.
Money it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the hi-fidelity first class travelling set
And I think I need a Lear jet
Money it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re
giving none away

And, finally, the album asks, who is sane, and who is really mad?

The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.

Rostropovich conducts Shostakovich Symphony No.15

Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music

The Rite of Spring at Liverpool Phil: an electrifying ‘riot of delight’

The Rite of Spring at Liverpool Phil: an electrifying ‘riot of delight’

Igor Stravinsky with 'Dancers' by Matisse [collage NPR Today]
Igor Stravinsky with ‘Dancers’ by Matisse [collage: NPR Today]
On Friday evening we heard an electrifying centennial performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Philharmonic Hall with Vasily Petrenko conducting.  At the close, the reception for Petrenko and the Philharmonic Orchestra was rapturous. There was no riot.

The programme had been billed as identical to the one in which the Rite had its infamous first performance in Paris on 29 May 1913.  The orchestra began with de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat (although de Falla didn’t complete his ballet until 1919 – it was actually Les Sylphides they heard that night in Paris).  De Falla’s sultry, stamping Spanish rhythms was
followed by the shimmering woodwinds and harps of Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances in a performance that rivalled the Rite for sheer power and excitement. The entire Philharmonic Choir had been marshalled for this 10-minute appearance, and with Petrenko directing the mass ranks of the choir and an augmented orchestra, the massed musicians generated a thrilling and immense sound.  At one point I was certain that the choir were singing the melody of ‘Stranger In Paradise’.  I now know they were: the melodies in the 1953 musical Kismet, from which that song derives, were all lifted from Polovtsian Dances.

This Wednesday will mark the 100th anniversary of the Rite‘s scandalous première.  It’s possible that no musical work has had such a powerful influence or evoked as much controversy as The Rite of Spring. The work’s première on 29 May 1913, at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, outraged at least a section of the audience and provoked a modest riot. It wasn’t just the music: the ballet, with its bizarre story of pagan sacrifice, wild dances and outrageous costumes were as much of a provocation as Stravinsky’s musical radicalism.

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky
Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

One of the first reviews of the Paris première was by Jacques Rivière, a critic for the Nouvelle Revue Française. Apart from the fact that it was overwhelmingly positive, Rivière’s review is notable for the way it highlights the production as being a brilliant collaboration: ‘Who is the author of Le Sacre du Printemps?’  Rivière asked. ‘Who created it?  Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Roerich?’

Serge Diaghilev was the director of the Ballets Russes. He and Stravinsky were close working partners for twenty years, until Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Many of Stravinsky’s most outstanding works were composed for Diaghilev productions, including The Firebird and Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Pulcinella (1920) and Les Noces (1923). Their first collaboration was on the ballet Les Sylphides, the musically innocuous opening piece on that May night in Paris.

Dancers of the Ballet-Russes
Dancers of the Ballet Russes

Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography, far removed from the elegance expected in a ballet in 1913, and physically unnatural to perform: ‘With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us’, one dancer recalled. When the curtain rose and the music began, without a melody but with loud, pulsating, dissonant chords and jarring, irregular accents, dancers emerged dressed as pagans from ancient Russia, performing with heavy steps, their bodies wrenched and pulled to the earth. One ballet historian quoted by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise states that ‘the dancers trembled, shook, shivered, stamped; jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khorovods’.

Vaslav Nijinsky
Vaslav Nijinsky

The costumes and scenery for The Rite of Spring were designed by artist and Slavonic folklore expert Nicholas Roerich. Diaghilev had commissioned Roerich to design several of the company’s ballets, and for The Rite, Roerich created costumes that were influenced by traditional Slavic folk dress and developed a scenic design that was sparse with primitive props and a backdrop of pagan landscapes – hills and trees painted in strange bright colours, intended to evoke intense feelings and the mystery of nature.

Design of stage backdrop for 'Le Sacre du Printemps' by Nikolai Roerich
Design of stage backdrop for The Rite of Spring by Nikolai Roerich

Last but not least, there was Stravinsky’s music, angular, dissonant and – in 1913, at least – totally unpredictable – and inscrutable.  Accounts of the first performance note that many of those in the audience were baffled as to what instruments they were hearing.  The introductory melody, adapted from a Lithuanian folk song, featured a bassoon being played higher in its range than anyone had ever been asked to do before. The unlikely sound of the instrument caused composer Camille Saint-Saens to exclaim, ‘If that is a bassoon, then I am a baboon!’

In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross provides a vivid account of that first night:

The programme began innocuously, with a revival of the Ballets Russes’ Chopin fantasy Les Sylphides. After a pause, the theatre darkened again, and high, falsetto-like bassoon notes floated out of the orchestra. Strands of melody intertwined like vegetation bursting out of the earth – ‘sacred terror in the noonday sun’, Stravinsky called it, in a description that had been published that morning. The audience listened to the opening section of the Rite in relative silence, although the increasing density and dissonance of the music caused mutterings, titters, whistles, and shouts. Then, at the beginning of the second section, a dance for adolescents titled ‘The Augurs of Spring’, a quadruple shock arrived, in the form of harmony, rhythm, image, and movement. At the outset of the section, the strings and horns play a crunching discord, consisting of an F-flat-major triad and an E-flat dominant seventh superimposed. They are one semitone apart (F-flat being the same as E-natural), and they clash at every node. A steady pulse propels the chord, but accents land every which way, on and off the beat:

one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight

Even Diaghilev quivered a little when he first heard the music. ‘Will it last a very long time this way?’ he asked. Stravinsky replied, ‘Till the end, my dear’. The chord repeats some two hundred times. Meanwhile, Nijinsky’s choreography discarded classical gestures in favour of near-anarchy. […]

Howls of discontent went up from the boxes, where the wealthiest onlookers sat. Immediately, the aesthetes in the balconies and the standing room howled back. There were overtones of class warfare in the proceedings. […]

Little more of the score was heard after that. ‘One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,’ Gertrude Stein recalled, no doubt overstating for effect.  ‘Our attention was constantly distracted by a man in the box next to us flourishing his cane, and finally in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him, his cane came down and smashed the opera hat the other had just put on in defiance. It was all incredibly fierce.’

Nevertheless, in Alex Ross’s judgement, the riot at the Rite‘s first night wasn’t unique – there had been other first night disturbances in previous years, and only a couple of months before the première of the Rite, police were called to a riot in Vienna triggered by the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  Ross continues:

Soon enough, Parisian listeners realized that the language of the Rite was not so unfamiliar; it teemed with plain-spoken folk-song melodies, common chords in sparring layers, syncopations of irresistible potency. In a matter of days, confusion turned into pleasure, boos into bravos. Even at the first performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and the dancers had to bow four or five times for the benefit of the applauding faction. Subsequent performances were packed, and at each one the opposition dwindled. At the second, there was noise only during the latter part of the ballet; at the third, ‘vigorous applause’ and little protest.  At a concert performance of the Rite one year later, ‘unprecedented exaltation’ and a ‘fever of adoration’ swept over the crowd, and admirers mobbed Stravinsky in the street afterwards, in a riot of delight.

As mentioned earlier, one of the first reviews of the Paris première was by Jacques Rivière, a critic for the Nouvelle Revue Française, and it was wildly enthusiastic:

But all of the sudden one night [there appeared] this thing without profit, this refusal to live off the past, this terrifying blow to the very expectations they had themselves implanted in us, this work which changes everything, which changes the very source of our esthetic judgments and one which we must immediately number among the greatest: Le Sacre du Printemps. […]

It was a masterpiece.  I beg your pardon for expressing my great enthusiasm at such length without giving my reasons.  It is just that they are too numerous and too important to be summarized in one sweeping statement.  The work is so new that to grasp it fully one must let time mature and deepen the thoughts it suggests.  It marks a date not only in the history of the dance and of music but in all the arts.  Its beauty overflows everywhere.  But that only makes it more difficult to embrace.

Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1929, by Léon Bakst
Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1929, by Léon Bakst

Whatever the scale of outrage and incomprehension that greeted its debut, Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring is now regarded as one of the greatest musical masterpieces of the twentieth century – perhaps the greatest of all.  Alex Ross puts it in context and makes this judgement:

The Rite, whose first part ends with a stampede for full orchestra titled ‘Dance of the Earth’, prophesied a new type of popular art – low-down yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined. It epitomized the ‘second avant-garde’ in classical composition, the post-Debussy strain that sought to drag the art out of Faustian ‘novel spheres’ and into the physical world. For much of the nineteenth century, music had been a theatre of the mind; now composers would create a music of the body. Melodies would follow the patterns of speech; rhythms would match the energy of dance; musical forms would be more concise and clear; sonorities would have the hardness of life as it is really lived.

A phalanx of European composers – Stravinsky in Russia, Bela Bartok in Hungary, Leos Janacek in what would become the Czech Republic, Maurice Ravel in France, and Manuel de Falla in Spain, to name some of the principals – devoted themselves to folk song and other musical remnants of a pre-urban life, trying to cast off the refinements of the city dweller. […]

The real break came with the First World War. Even before it was over, Satie and various young Parisians renounced fin-de-siecle solemnity and appropriated music-hall tunes, ragtime, and jazz; they also partook of the noisemaking spirit of Dada, which had enlivened Zurich during the war. Their earthiness was urban, not rural – frivolity with a militant edge.


A hundred years after that first performance, Vasily Petrenko  and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave a spine-tingling account of Stravinsky’s electrifying work.  It was a truly visceral musical experience, the musicians approaching the piece with tremendous attack that emphasised its jagged rhythms and sharp contrasts.  Is there anything that can compare to the deafening and shattering conclusion of this work – or to hearing it performed live?

Complete performance: Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 2010

Or, for a sense of what the original ballet production of 1913 would have been like:

Footnote, 28 May: according to an item in today’s Guardian, the audience at that first night 100 years ago included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

And 29 May: How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music is an interesting article by George Benjamin in today’s Guardian.

Best of all, though, is this visualisation of Stravinsky’s music by Jay Bacal and Stephen Malinowski, in two parts: The Adoration of the Earth, (above), and The Exalted Sacrifice, (below). It’s an animated graphical score that, in Malinowski’s words, allows “your eyes to lead your ears” as the music’s structure and the lines of orchestration are given shape on screen.

See also