Masterworks 2

Tchaikovsky’s Passion

Headshot of composer Jennifer Jolley.

Blue Glacier Decoy

The 2017 obituary in the New York times for the modern dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown only casually mentioned her debt to the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. It was an unusual characterization for an artist who once told her fellow Washingtonian, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, that “the rain forest was my first art class.”

Indeed the Pacific Northwest’s instruction is found in many of Brown’s works. Her 1970 piece “Floor of the Forest” employs a steel scaffolding to hold a cloth canopy of ropes threaded with colorful used clothing to create a synthetic forest where dancers writhe and wiggle.

Her 1979 piece “Glacial Decoy” is similarly derived from these experiences. In this work Brown and Robert Rauschenberg created fleeting images via gossamer-clad dancers and an ongoing found image slide projection. The mechanical and physical movements become an elegant analog to the glaciers. The images and dancers move and shift forward and back, side or other side, or anywhere in between, like a lateral melt The fleeting projections become a visual metaphor melting and congealing anew.

I have never been to Olympic National Park, so I followed Brown’s example and combined my own experiences with what I learned from an artist who followed the Hoc River Trail studied the Hoc Rainforest, and revered the Blue Glacier. We should follow her lead and do the same. We must “give [ourselves] a moment to feel this very mobile sense of how the balance is.”

Instrumentation: 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English Horn, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Percussion, Harp Piano, Strings, and Fixed Media (32 audio files of Trisha Brown’s recorded voice).

This is the Dayton Philharmonic’s first performance of “Blue Glacier Decoy."

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107

Picture of composer Dimitri Shostakovich sitting at the piano, with his head resting on his hand and a musical score behind him.

If ever we needed evidence that art and politics can make for a lethal mix, the life of Dmitry Shostakovich provides it. A son of the Russian Revolution, he started off as a true believer. But in his early twenties he got caught up in the Stalinist nightmare, apparently surviving the purges only because Stalin liked his “politically correct” music for propaganda films.

In January 1936 an article appeared in Pravda severely criticizing Shostakovich’s highly successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. Immediately, upon the order of the government, the opera was withdrawn from the stage and performances of all of the composer’s music banned. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood taken and his very life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he used to sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up, they would not disturb the rest of the family.

World War II brought a breather and an upsurge of patriotism, with the horrors of the '30s temporarily forgotten. But in 1948 came a resurgence of purges, suppression and disappearances, orchestrated by the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov, whose decrees permitted only cheerful, uplifting and folksy art. With Stalin’s death in 1953, however, things began to look up; and later in the decade, when Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program was underway, Shostakovich felt freer to express himself without fear of retribution. Throughout this political roller coaster, he maintained his artistic integrity by continuing to compose “for the drawer.”

Few musicians in the last century inspired more composers to write for them than did cellist and conductor Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich. A long time friend of Shostakovich, with whom he frequently performed around the Soviet Union, Rostropovich had long hoped that the composer would write a cello concerto for him. He recalled that when he raised the question of a commission with Shostakovich’s wife, she answered “Slava, if you want Dmitry to write something for you, the only recipe I can give you is this – never ask him or talk to him about it.” True to form, in 1959, the composer surprised his friend with the Cello Concerto in E-flat.

Although the times may have been calmer, the Concerto opens with a grim four-note motive on the cello

that dominates the movement and expands into the movement’s principal theme.

Not only is there the inherent musical tension in the chromatic theme but, in addition, in the cello part which begins in the low register, gradually ratchets higher and higher, transforming the theme into a shriek.

The second theme offers less contrast than one might expect in a sonata form, but at least it attenuates the anger; the composer however, couldn’t resist appending his grim motto to this theme


In the development, the highest register in the upper winds compliments the cello’s naturally lower voice, with appropriate hysterics.

The lyrical second movement opens with a melancholy introduction in the strings,

followed by the cello’s plaintive melody based on a Jewish folksong.

The middle section offers another even more intense theme;

the return of the folksong in a duet between the cello and glockenspiel is breathtaking.

It is one of Shostakovich’s most romantic movements and leads into a huge written-out cadenza – based on the earlier themes – which the composer notated as a separate movement. In it, the grim four-note motive from the opening movement reappears, and the tempo increases very gradually, becoming more and more fanciful,

until the cadenza transitions into the Allegro finale.

It is characteristic of many of the finales of Shostakovich’s symphonies and concerti to have a playful and often satiric bite. Stalin may have been dead and even discredited, but Shostakovich could not let him off that easily. The Finale is a rondo, and the “hoochie-coochie” refrain from the last example is a veiled parody of one of the dictator’s favorite sentimental ditties, Suliko, the same one the composer parodied in the satirical cantata Rayok (The Peep Show), lampooning Zhdanov’s and his followers’ decrees. Yet, the reference is so heavily disguised that the composer even had to point it out to Rostropovich. The cantata, probably composed in stages (incorporating official “howlers”) between 1947 and 1967, remained hidden even after the composer’s death and was finally performed in public in Washington, D.C. in 1989 under Rostropovich’s baton.

In this movement, once again, the four-note motto is featured prominently, but if there is any political significance or symbolism associated with it, none has been determined with any certainty. After a series of virtuosic licks between the repetitions of the rondo theme, including another Jewish theme,

Shostakovich sneaks it back in several episodes, as at the end of a little waltz.

Its reappearance by the upper winds and a prominent “fanfare” for the horns sets up a full return to the opening of the Concerto.

Instrumentation:  2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 1 Horn, Timpani, Celesta, Strings, and Solo Cello. 

The Dayton Philharmonic’s most recent performance was in October 1986 with Charles Wendelken-Wilson conducting. The soloist’s name is missing from our records.

Russian Composer Pyotry Ilyic Tchaikovsky photographed in a tuxedo with his head resting in his left hand.

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique

This Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s final completed work, premiered to a lukewarm reception on October 28, 1893 only nine days before the composer’s death from cholera. Although its emotional intensity and title, Pathétique, suggest that this was yet another manifestation of the composer’s periodic depression, or even a foreshadowing of his own death, the fact remains that Tchaikovsky was extremely pleased with this work from the moment he set to work on it. At the symphony’s second performance, as part of a memorial service for the composer, the audience seems to have suddenly perceived its significance, and it has remained a favorite ever since.

Tchaikovsky’s original conception was that the symphony should have a program, much like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, but he refused to specify what the program was, wanting the listener to guess it. His early, and by now well-known, scenario for the program reads: “The ultimate essence of the plan…is LIFE. First movement–all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH – result of collapse). Second movement, love, third, disappointment, fourth ends dying away (also short).” The final version can be understood to conform to this program only in part, and then only in the first and fourth movements. That it bears little resemblance to the final version of the music is clear even at a first hearing.

Still intending to call his work a “program” symphony, Tchaikovsky accepted his brother Modest’s suggestion of the Russian patetichesky, which the publisher insisted on translating into French, still the language of the Russian aristocracy and intelligentsia. The English reader, however, should be aware that the adjective pathétique actually means “highly emotional” and does not have the derogatory connotation of “pathetic.”

The Symphony opens with a low bassoon solo introducing the first theme in a ponderous and pessimistic Adagio.

The melody is then taken up in a nervous Allegro and repeated by the successive sections of the orchestra.

The emotional turmoil, however, is resolved in the second theme, among the most famous in the canon of memorable Tchaikovsky melodies.

The theme was specifically meant to be a transformation of Don José’s “flower aria” from Carmen – giving a hint as to the composer’s emotional take on love.

The second movement is a “waltz” in 5/4 time, giving the impression of alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4.

Strangely enough, this meter works as a waltz, for despite its limping quality, one can imagine the alternating foreshortened 2/4 bars used for a lift or emotive pause, if the movement were actually to be used for dancing. It is a hybrid of a classical minuet and trio, or scherzo – with two themes and a series of repeats – and a ternary (ABA) song form customary for slow movements. The Trio (or B section), which proceeds with a constant timpani ostinato in the background, darkens the ballroom atmosphere.

Like the first movement, the third is best known for its second theme, a sprightly march,

which follows a scurrying opening theme in rapid triplets, out of which one can already hear hints of the march theme.

As in the second movement, however, the composer utilizes an unusual metrical structure, creating an ambiguity between duple and triple time by composing the march in 12/8 time. The movement, in G major, seems almost to begin backwards with a series of themes in the relative e minor that gradually lead into the march theme in the principal key.

The Finale can be interpreted as taking up the symphony’s original program. The opening theme, a series of short breathless, sighing motives, is a variation of the first theme of the opening movement and has the identical underlying harmony.

A programmatic interpretation of the movement suggests anxious struggle – in the rising sequences – and resignation upon the approach of the nothingness of death. It is particularly noteworthy in the history of symphonic finales in both its lugubrious tempo and fatalistic pessimism.

Instrumentation: 3 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Percussion, Strings.

The Dayton Philharmonic’s most recent performance was in April 2012 with Neal Gittleman conducting.