Three for the Road

Sofia Gubaidulina July1981 Sortavala ©DSmirnov.jpg

David Nice’s course on Russian Music—a total of forty sessions, each 2-3 hours in length—completed last week. The music, however, lives on. Here are three works, one each by Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Lepo Sumera, featured in the final installment of Nice’s Russian Music tour de force.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium (1980)

“The 1980 Offertorium is a multi-dimensional work. On one level, it is a set of variations – or perhaps more accurately, an extended meditation — on the thema regium of The Musical Offering, which explains one aspect of the title. Gubaidulina was inspired by both Bach and Webern; she describes them as ‘the two personalities who have produced, in the history of music, the greatest impression on me.’ On another level, Offertorium is a violin concerto composed for her champion Gidon Kremer in 1980. And as in all her works, there is a deeper level of symbolic meaning connecting the work to the ‘other things’ that her art is concerned with.” [cite]

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1976-1977)

“The Concerto Grosso 1 is one of Schnittke’s best known polystylistic compositions. Within the neo-classical frame, one can find the transformation of a cheerful chorus sung by Soviet schoolchildren . . . a nostalgic atonal serenade . . . quasi-Corelli allusions . . . and, finally, ‘a favourite tango of my grandmother, which my great-grandmother played on the harpsichord’ (Schnittke’s own words).” [cite, p. 22]

Lepo Sumera’s Cello Concerto (1998-1999)

“Sumera died in 2000 at the untimely age of 50, and this was one of his last works. The soloist’s often maniacal winding-ups to fever pitch and the haunting, ultimately devastating oscillations of the restless slow movement hint at deep personal distress, akin to the “Anfortas Wound” movement of John Adams’ Harmonielehre, his first work after an 18 month creative block which had brought him close to madness. There is not a cliched idea or sound-combination in the entire concerto, and the finale clinches it all by sailing out into determined melody, only to return to mania and extinction. In its intensity, the work is on a level with Britten’s Cello Symphony, Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto and Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto.” [David Nice review, The Arts Desk]

Together, these works provide compelling evidence that brilliant music is timeless. To celebrate, here is a song from another work included in Nice’s presentation in the last Russian Music class: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Immortality, from Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, op. 145a (1975).

“For this setting, Shostakovich chose two epitaphs (190 and 194) from a set of forty-eight [Saslow 3] that Michelangelo wrote to commemorate the death of the 16-year-old nephew of his agent, Luigi del Riccio. Del Riccio had asked for a portrait, but Michelangelo didn’t like portraiture and offered the epitaphs, a sonnet, and a madrigal instead. [Saslow 20] Del Riccio seems to have showered Michelangelo with gifts to entice him, prompting Michelangelo to accompany some of the epitaphs with wry comments. To Epitaph 190, Michelangelo appended the note, ‘When you don’t want any more of these, don’t send me anything further.’ [Saslow 350] He accompanied Epitaph 194 with the note, ‘I didn’t want to send this one to you since it’s very clumsy; but the trout and the truffles would compel heaven.’ [Saslow 356]

“It’s hard not to laugh, despite recognizing the solemn occasion that caused the writing of the epitaphs. It’s even harder not to laugh when listening to the mad-cap toyshop tune that opens Shostakovich’s setting, taken from a piano piece he wrote when he was nine. The setting increases in gravitas as it proceeds, but an echo of the toyshop tune sneaks in again at the setting’s close.

“I’m reminded of the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, which he described at one point as a ‘toyshop.’ [Wilson 493] Elizabeth Wilson wrote of the Fifteenth Symphony that Shostakovich’s

‘. . . descriptions of the first movement as a toyshop, a picture of a childhood with unclouded skies, or as a protest against death all serve more to confuse than clarify. In fact there is as much of the enfant terrible as the innocent child in the music . . .’. [Wilson 493]

“Much the same might be said of Shostakovich’s musical vision of Immortality.

“Is there an end, then? Or do the possible meanings and associations endlessly open out? As Epitaph 194 would have it, “I’m not really dead; though I’ve changed homes,/I live on in you . . .”. [Saslow 356, Epitaph 194]” [cite]

2 thoughts on “Three for the Road

  1. David Nice

    I’m thrilled you’ve put up films of those superb performances, in the hope that you win them new fans. Above all I recommend the Sumera as an example of concert engagement at the highest level. As you know visiting my ma in hospital meant I had to cancel going to Estonia this year, but we can watch all the concerts for free here:

    Thank you once again for all your illuminating comments, not just on here but in your weekly reports on the videos.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Ah thanks be to YOU for highlighting these works in the final installment of your spectacular Russian Music course. Thanks, too, for the link to this year’s Parnu Festival. I do hope your ma is doing all right and here’s to your being able to attend next year’s festival in person!

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