An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber.

Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the time). Berlioz referred to Weber in his influential Treatise on Instrumentation and Debussy remarked that the sound of Weber’s orchestra was “obtained through the scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.” Weber’s opera Euryanthe anticipated Wagner’s Leitmotif technique, in which a short, recurring musical phrase is used to represent a character or idea. Even twentieth century composers returned to Weber’s music. (Listen to Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is based on themes by Weber).

The Oberon Overture begins with a distant horn call and slowly awakening strings. Listen to the harmony at 1:15 and you’ll be reminded of yet-to-be-written Wagner. A few moments later at 1:33, we hear the playful laughter of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And then, after this sleepy and introspective opening, the music suddenly explodes into a fireball of virtuosity. A cast of characters comes alive through the instruments of the orchestra. The overture, which began so quietly, ends in a high-flying flourish of euphoria.

Oberon was first performed at London’s Covent Garden on April 12, 1826. The three act Romantic opera’s plot dates back to a medieval French story, Huon of Bordeaux. You can hear Maria Callas sing an excerpt from the opera here.

  • Find Carl Maria von Weber’s overtures at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the complete opera here.

Nordic Spin: Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony

Winter landscape outside Helsinki (from Alex Ross)
The winter landscape outside Helsinki (from Alex Ross)

Listen carefully to the way Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony begins. An expansive opening motive, quiet, awe-inspiring and mystical, sets the entire mighty symphony in motion. The Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) famously insisted on periods of prolonged silence when he was working. Appropriately, the opening of the Fifth almost seems to emerge from the bleak, desolate stillness of a Scandinavian forest. The tympani’s roll from B-flat to E-flat, taken by itself, would suggest a simple dominant to tonic in the symphony’s home key of E-flat major, but the music never quite arrives at this convincing resolution…There’s more left to be said.

You may notice this pattern repeating as the first movement unfolds. Every point of arrival opens up a new door of uncertainty, building tension and plunging us into increasingly frightening territory. At one point the tonal center evaporates completely and the solo bassoon wanders, lost in a sudden, ghostly sea of atonality (6:43). Sibelius’ Fifth breaks down traditional Sonata form, leaving development which is more circular, a phenomenon which musicologist James Hepokoski describes as “rotational form.” Could this altered sense of time be vaguely influenced by Nordic seasonal cycles, where a low midnight sun in the summer transitions to dark, gloomy winters?

Following its completion in 1915, Sibelius revised the symphony. (“Never write an unnecessary note,” he said. “Every note must live.”) The revision included the bizarre and unprecedented innovation of splicing together the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second, creating an uninterrupted symphonic arc. Alex Ross describes this moment (around 9:25 in the clip below) as “a cinematic ‘dissolve’ from one movement to another.” What follows is a thrilling feeling of gradual acceleration and crescendo, as if the brakes have been suddenly cut loose. 

Listening to this symphony, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of spin. This sensation is first apparent right after the expansive opening as the motive takes shape before our ears (0:14), as if composing itself and searching for a way forward. In this passage you’ll hear the motive passed between groups of woodwind instruments. Do the voices of the instruments suggest distinct personas?

Listen to the first movement and see if you agree with me about the sense of spin…motion which never arrives anywhere definitive until the end of the movement. This is Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra:

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

  1. Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato (0:00)
  2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto (14:32)
  3. Allegro molto (23:57)

At first, you may hear pastoral sounds of the nineteenth century in the second movement-maybe even a nod to Beethoven. But there’s something more ominous lurking beneath the surface, evoking the twentieth century and a world on the brink of war. Consider this movement’s sense of flow and development. Pay attention to the pizzicatos and the contrasting, static, sustained pitches in the woodwinds, with all those strange “wrong” notes hanging over. Notice the way empty musical “space” is filled with increasing complexity and embellishment as the movement unfolds.

Rising out of the trembling iciness of the final movement (music which occasionally brings to mind John Adams’ 1978 minimalist masterpiece, Shaker Loops) is the distinctive “Swan Theme” (25:14). In the recording above, listen to the way Segerstam brings out the deep, organ-like bass notes and notice the hypnotic way they fit together with the horns. The symphony’s transcendent, heroic climax comes with the sudden turn to C major (26:07). It’s a brief but significant moment, which sticks in our minds long after it has passed.

The iconic “Swan Theme” plays an important role in the conclusion of the symphony; but in these final bars, it seems to be surrounded by ambiguity. Before we get there, we experience a hint of the opening of the first movement (30:22), as if to remind us where we’ve been. How do you interpret the end of the piece with its strange silences? Is it even important to try to sum it up in words, or to assign emotional labels to something which transcends description? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.

Come back on Friday to hear echoes of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony in music written in 1990 by contemporary Danish composer Poul Ruders.

Recordings, old and new

I’ve noticed that this piece can sound quite different, depending on the interpretation. Here are a few recordings. Let me know your favorites:

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony

Dimitri Shostakovich
Dimitri Shostakovich

It’s impossible to separate the music of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) from the horrors and repression of Soviet life under Stalin. In a brutal society glued together by coercive thought control, constant fear, and the execution of between eight and 20 million people, art had the capacity to articulate truths otherwise unspeakable. This made Shostakovich’s music dangerous, as this quote by the composer suggests:

[quote]Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.[/quote]

Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin was complex and has been the subject of debate. Amazingly, in spite of constant state censorship, the spirit of darkness permeating the music is evident, often in the form of irony. For example, the final movement of the famous Fifth Symphony concludes with seemingly triumphant and celebratory fanfares in the heroic key of D major. Many conductors have taken this music at a fast clip-about 188 eighth notes per minute. But there is speculation that Shostakovich actually intended it to go much slower. Listen to contrasting tempos of this ending here. You’ll notice that in the slower tempo the music sounds empty and hollow, providing only a veneer of celebration.

There are questions about the accuracy of Shostakovich’s memoirs, published by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. Still, this quote from the book regarding the ending of the Fifth Symphony is interesting to consider:

[quote]The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing”[/quote]

Called upon to commemorate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany with his Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich delivered music which was light and frivolous. It was quickly censored by Soviet authorities.

Premiering on December 17, 1953, Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 was Shostakovich’s first symphony following Stalin’s death. Some listeners hear the darkness and terror of the Stalin years fully expressed for the first time in this work.

Let’s listen to a live 2009 performance of the Tenth Symphony by Mariss Jansons and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As you listen, consider the atmosphere the music evokes. How do harmonies elicit emotion? Do the sounds of the instruments suggest distinct personas? The first movement grows out of the eerily quiet depths of the low strings. What happens as the music develops?

  1. Moderato (0:00)
  2. Allegro (20:05)
  3. Allegretto (27:42)
  4. Andante-Allegro (40:18)

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Let’s go back and listen one more time. From the opening of the first movement, you probably sensed something frightening, maybe even menacing…a sense of dread and foreboding. We’ve all had the experience of fixating on something we find disturbing and experiencing an almost physical reaction. The more we think about it, the more anxious and worked up we get. For me, this first movement unfolds in a similar way. Slowly, in stages it gets increasingly wound up, along the way capturing a sea of indescribable and complex emotions (2:17, then 3:20, then 4:11).

At 5:55 a grotesque waltz begins. Notice the way beats are accentuated in unpredictable ways. It’s anything but graceful. This isn’t Swan Lake.

By the time we reach the development section in the middle of the movement, we’re at a completely new level of anxiety, which continues to grow. Notice the way the woodwinds scream out at top volume in the most shrill, high register around 10:41 The motive from the opening bars of the symphony is repeated obsessively (in the low brass at 10:19 and 13:58). A sense of struggle is written into the music. Following 12:14, listen to the way the strings fight against the brass, desperately grasping at a series of notes which lead nowhere. Except for a brief ray of light (20:52), the movement ends as it began.

The second movement provides another view of terror. As you listen, consider how the music is flowing. Are we moving towards a goal or just rigidly marching forward towards an increasingly frightening abyss?

In the third movement we hear the famous DSCH motive (29:06 and 35:29), which Shostakovich used in many pieces, including the ferocious String Quartet No. 8. In German these pitches, (D, E-flat, C, B), are abbreviated initials for “Dmitry Shostakovich.” With the obsessive repetition of this musical cryptogram, Shostakovich may be suggesting that the spirit of the individual cannot be crushed. The solo horn motive, which is repeated throughout the movement, represents the initials of one of Shostakovich’s female students, Elmira Nazirova (E-A-E-D-A). In the final bars the two motives are heard together.

In the final movement Shostakovich gives us an almost silly and slightly sarcastic theme (44:59). We hear hints of this theme gradually taking shape in the preceding Andante (44:19). Notice the return of the DSCH motive (49:27, 52:13, 52:53). Consider how the ending of the final movement relates to the what came before. Why do you think Shostakovich chose this type of ending?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Now it’s your turn…[/typography]

I’ve offered a few of my thoughts regarding the music. Now go back, listen again and come back with your own ideas. Is there a particular moment in the music which speaks to you in an especially strong way? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.