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Still: Symphony No. 1 / Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6

DPO Alive, Notes by Neal Gittleman

The Paradox of Choice

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argued that the more alternatives you have, the harder it is to decide. He was talking about shoppers facing Coke Classic, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, and Coke Zero. But he could have been talking about this compact disc!

This is the first of a series of CDs of live performances by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra recorded during recent concert seasons. For this disc, I was choosing from the 2008-2009 season of classical concerts, which included favorite standards such as Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Dvo?ák’s Seventh Symphony, and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, wonderful rarities such as Moszkowski’s Piano Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, and a fabulous recent orchestral showpiece, Joan Tower’s Tambor. With only 79.8 minutes of disc capacity to play with, it was, indeed, the paradox of choice!

I chose William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony and the Sixth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. Why these two very different 20th century symphonies?

I suppose part of the answer is that that’s what they are: two very different 20th century symphonies. Conventional wisdom holds that the traditional symphony of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky was an expression of an 18th and early 19th century aesthetic that (Gustav Mahler notwithstanding) had no real place in the post-Brahms era, supplanted by tone-poems, ballets, and smaller, less grandiose musical forms. Some composers, however, bucked the conventional wisdom, believing that there was still a lot to say in the old-fashioned multi-movement symphonic form. America’s William Grant Still and the Soviet Union’s Dmitri Shostakovich represent two very different “takes” on the symphony, but their symphonies (five by Still, fifteen by Shostakovich) prove that reports of the symphony’s demise were, to say the least, an exaggeration.

I think that the pairing of these particular symphonies is a happy one. Shostakovich’s Sixth gave the musicians of the DPO a fabulous opportunity to flex their collective and individual musical muscles. And Still’s First gave us the chance to put a uniquely Daytonian spin on a ground-breaking work, by pairing Still’s music with the words of Dayton’s hometown poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as recited by University of Dayton Dunbar scholar Dr. Herbert Woodward Martin.

In the end, though, my choice of these two works for this recording only works if it works for you, the listener. Here’s my fervent hope that it does!

William Grant Still, Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American)

William Grant Still’s 1930 Afro-American Symphony deserves a place in the annals of classical music merely for being one of the first (if not the first) symphony by an African-American composer. Yet what I find most extraordinary is not Still’s ancestry, but the symphony’s. From the work’s very beginnings—in Still’s sketchbook—the composer indicated that his musical inspiration was coming from the blues.

Still wanted this to be a true "Afro-American Symphony," expressing the characteristics of what he called "the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears." He felt that the blues—rather than the white/black amalgam of the spiritual—was the most suitable musical wellspring for such a work. The blues is a closed form: eight or 12 bars of music with a rigid progression of chords. That’s good news to the gigging musician. Someone says "Blues in F" and you know exactly what to play. But it’s bad news for a composer. Closed forms make it difficult to create the kind of continuous musical development that is typical of symphonic writing. The blues inspired Still, but it also limited his options, just as the closed forms of Ukrainian folk songs limited Tchaikovsky in his Symphony No. 2.

Blues phrase structures and chord patterns appear throughout the work. But despite the composer’s own description of the symphony as "based on a simple little blues theme," I hear more than just the blues. Each of the four movements is an expression of one of the dominant styles of African-American music: the 12-bar blues in the first movement ("Longings"), the spiritual in the second ("Sorrows"), the minstrel song in the third ("Humor"), the church hymn in the finale ("Aspirations").

To my knowledge, this is the first recording of the Afro-American Symphony that unites Still’s music with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Still prefaced each movement with a Dunbar epigraph. And while these brief excerpts evoke the moods of the music that follows, the full poems from which they are drawn do so even more. The third movement is a perfect example. The epigraph, written in Dunbar’s "vernacular mode," paves the way for the jaunty, banjo-driven snap of the music. But the full text of  Dunbar’s "An Ante-Bellum Sermon" suggests something much deeper than a cutesy minstrel tune and underlines the movement’s "Humor" subtitle. A seemingly innocent surface masks hidden in-jokes and a deeper hidden message of inspiration and liberation. 
Still’s symphony is a beautiful, moving work in its own right. Paired with Dunbar’s poetry it becomes something even greater, something that expresses every word of its title: Afro, American, and Afro-American. This is our music.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 6

"A seemingly innocent surface masks a deeper hidden message of inspiration and liberation." I wrote those words about William Grant Still and Paul Laurence Dunbar. But they apply to Shostakovich and his Sixth Symphony as well.

Contemporary Shostakovich scholarship centers on an unanswerable question: "Who was Dmitri Shostakovich?" Was he, as one commentator wrote, "Soviet Russia’s most loyal musical son"? Was he a closet dissident? Or was he just another member of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia trying to make it from one day to the next as best he could?

Those questions are unanswerable because Shostakovich watched his words carefully and preferred to let his music speak for itself. His cryptic commentary on his Tenth Symphony (supposedly a dissent-filled portrait of Stalin in the years of his bloody terror campaigns) is typical: the first movement was perhaps too long, the second possibly too short, the third just about right, but maybe a little too long. Shostakovich’s strategy was simple and effective: deflect all attention away from meaning of the music.

Too long, too short, just about right. Those words could apply equally to the three movements of the Sixth Symphony. By 1939 no one should have been shocked by a three-movement symphony. There were plenty of earlier models: Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Franck’s Symphony in D minor, and many early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. But this three-movement symphony was shocking.

The proportions are off. A massive slow movement (20 minutes long, but only 24 pages in the conductor’s score) is followed by two short high-speed scherzos (each under seven minutes, 54 and 67 pages, respectively).
The mood is off, too, especially for 1939, the heyday of Socialist Realism. At a time when the authorities demanded optimistic, easy-to-enjoy, inspirational music, Shostakovich’s Sixth gave them just the opposite: an unequivocally tragic first movement, an apparently normal second movement that morphs into a snarling angry blast, and a too-hyper-by-half finale that seems to have one foot in the circus and the other in the soccer stadium and ends about as crudely and abruptly as could be. This is hardly a work meant to inspire audiences to work harder in the factories or to praise their leaders more fervently!

So why did Shostakovich write such a radically different kind of symphony in 1939? I think part of the answer lies in the Fifth Symphony, composed two years earlier. Premiered in Leningrad/St. Petersburg at the height of Stalin’s Terror, that symphony evoked an incredible emotional response in listeners. Contemporary accounts speak of open weeping during the Fifth’s tragic slow movement. It was music that struck a chord in audiences. So I find it striking that in his very next symphony Shostakovich returned to that same vein, as if to say that there was still much more tragic music to be written. And it intrigues me to think of this not just as a symphony with an extraordinarily long slow movement, but as a symphony without a first movement. The grand, heroic gestures of the late-/post-romantic symphonic first movement (and of Socialist Realism) never appear. Instead, Shostakovich gives us mourning followed by anger followed by escapism.

Am I right? I have no idea. But at least now you know what was on my mind as the Dayton Philharmonic and I performed this piece. This is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century, a masterpiece that (like its composer) guards its secrets jealously and demands that you, the listener, think about what you hear, what you feel, and what you believe.

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Neal Gittleman, Music Director & Conductor
Richard C. McCauley, Chairman

William Grant Still, Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American), 1930
TRACK 1 - 8:46 - Twell de Night is Pas’ - I. Moderato assai ("Longings")
TRACK 2 - 7:35 - W’en I Gits Home - II. Adagio ("Sorrows")
TRACK 3 - 6:29 - An Ante-Bellum Sermon - III. Animato ("Humor")
TRACK  4 - 11:24 - Ode to Ethiopia - IV. Lento, con risoluzione ("Aspirations")
Poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar / Recited by Herbert Woodward Martin

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 6, op. 54, 1939
(1906 –1975)             
TRACK 5 - 20:08 - I. Largo
TRACK 6 - 6:23 - II. Allegro
TRACK 7 - 7:05 - III. Presto

Paul A. Helfrich, President
Neal Gittleman, Music Director
Patrick Reynolds, Assistant Conductor
Hank Dahlman, Chorus Director
Elizabeth Hofeldt, Junior String Orchestra Director

With thanks to the American Federation of Musicians Local 101-473 for their assistance
Marketing Director and CD Creative Direction: David S. Bukvic
Recorded and Mastered: Lloyd Bryant
The DPO wishes to thank Classical 88.1 WDPR for their continuing support of the Orchestra and broadcasting of its concerts
© ? 2010 All Rights Reserved Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws

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