By Tim Secomb
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Festive Overture in 1947 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. First performed in 1954, it is unusual among Shostakovich’s works for its gaiety and lack of introspection. Perhaps the composer consciously wrote in this populist style to make fun of the artistic censorship imposed on him in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the result was a highly effective musical composition. In 1962, the composer included it in the only public concert that he ever conducted.
The Spanish composer and virtuoso pianist Joaquín Rodrigo almost completely lost his sight after contracting diphtheria at the age of three. He wrote his compositions in Braille, which was transcribed for publication. Although he is best known for his guitar music, he never mastered the guitar himself. His most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez was inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the spring resort palace and gardens built by Philip II in the last half of the 16th century and rebuilt in the middle of the 18th century by Ferdinand VI. Rodrigo described the concerto as capturing “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains” in the gardens of Aranjuez. The central movement is one of the most recognizable in 20th-century classical music, featuring the interplay of guitar with English horn. The final movement is based on a single thematic idea which is first presented by the guitar and appears several times in different keys and varied orchestration. The concerto ends somewhat unexpectedly with a rapid descending pianissimo figure.
The final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, the Symphony No. 9, occupies a unique position in the repertoire of classical music. It was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony, and it is often known as the “Choral Symphony.” Its vast scope redefined the possibilities of the symphonic form. Ever since its premiere in Vienna on May 7, 1824, any performance has been a special event. Although the symphony was written towards the end of the composer’s life, often referred to as Beethoven’s “late period,” it brings together influences from throughout his life, including a fascination since his boyhood with the work of the writer and poet Friedrich Schiller. It shows a close relationship to Beethoven’s Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80, which was composed years earlier in 1808.
Commentator Michael Steinberg writes: “The Ninth Symphony traces a path from darkness to light.” In the opening of the first movement, snatches of a theme emerge from an indistinct murmuring, gradually gathering coherence and force, and building into a large and complex structure, with a rich array of thematic material. Next comes the scherzo, in which a few brief rhythmic and melodic elements are developed into an extensive and relentlessly driven movement. The third, slow movement is a complete contrast, with sublime themes developed and varied within an overall mood of serenity. Now the symphony reaches a crossroads, and seems to lose its way for a while. After a terrifying fanfare, the cellos and basses protest with a dramatic theme in the style of an operatic recitative. The orchestra offers brief snatches from each of the first three movements, and each is rejected by the low strings. Finally the woodwinds hint at something quite different, simpler and gentler. The low strings accept this suggestion, and state the famous “Ode to Joy” theme, which is taken up by the rest of the orchestra, and eventually by the vocal soloists and the chorus. The movement unfolds as a set of variations on this theme, on a grand scale, carrying the symphony to a triumphant conclusion.