St Cyprian’s Church, Glentworth Street, London NW1,Saturday 19th May 2001

Khachaturian: Suite No. 2 from the ballet Spartacus
Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 14
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6, op. 54, in B minor

Khachaturian: Suite No. 2 from the ballet Spartacus

I – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia
II – Entrance of the Merchants, Dance of a Roman Courtesan, General Dance
III – Entrance of Spartacus, Quarrel, Harmodius’ Treachery
IV – Dance of the Pirates

“The courageous and heroic figure of Spartacus has for long been beckoning and inspiring me to write a ballet. I believe that the theme of Spartacus and the slave uprising in ancient Rome has great importance and appeal today.”

may2001rsKhachaturian finally completed his ballet Spartacus on 2 February 1954. The first public announcement of the project was made on 29 December 1940 in the newspaper Sovetskoe Iskusstvo [Soviet Art]. However, the music was written between 1950 and 1954, with most of the work taking place during summer months at the composer’s retreat in Staraya Ruza.

The original idea for the ballet was the creation of the critic and author Nikolai Volkov in 1938. Volkov based his version of Spartacus on the accounts of two ancient historians, Plutarch and Appian. This was then embellished to include the characters of the sly Aegina and the treacherous Harmodius. The story, set around 74 to 71 BC, concerns the fate of Spartacus, a rebel slave, who leads a revolt against his Roman captors, only to be betrayed by a number of his followers and brought down.

When Volkov approached Khachaturian with the idea of creating a ballet on the story, the composer was concerned about the theme as it was set in antiquity – his previous ballet successes (Happiness and Gayane) had been set in modern times. Volkov nonetheless persuaded Khachaturian that a ballet on the subject of a slave uprising would be ideal, writing in the corner of the score `with this you shall succeed’.

The work was premièred at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad on 27 December 1956, staged by Leonid Yakobson. The music was well received, earning Khachaturian the Lenin Prize for the score in 1959. From the original ballet score to Spartacus Khachaturian constructed four suites, three `Concert-rhapsodies’ and `Seven Marches’ for wind band. The first three suites were written between 1955 and 1957. The second suite is memorable for the music of the love scene between Spartacus and Phrygia, about which Askold Makarov (who danced the part of Spartacus in the Yakobson production) wrote:

“When Phrygia, after her burst of despair, rises from her knees and stands next to [Spartacus] like a monument of grief, the theme flares up in the orchestra… The grieving violins are followed by the pathetic and vibrating voices of the cellos: the theme grows, embracing the entire orchestra. And I…want to rise. I know that my hero is dead, but the very notion that Spartacus may still be alive gives me no peace when I hear the anthem to immortality.”

Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 14

I – Allegro
II – Andante
III – Presto in moto perpetuo

Written the same year as tonight’s symphony, Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was commissioned in the spring of 1939. Barber’s status as an international composer had been confirmed a year earlier after Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra had broadcast, among other works, his hugely successful Adagio for Strings of 1936. After this point almost all of Barber works were commissioned.

It was the industrialist Samuel Fels who commissioned the Violin Concerto for his adopted son, the Italian prodigy Iso Briselli. Briselli was, at that time, a student at the Curtis Institute of Music – the institution largely responsible for Barber’s musical education and in which, from 1939 to 1942, Barber taught composition.

Barber began work on the concerto in the summer of 1939, while in Switzerland. Before the end of the summer the first two movements were complete and on their way to Briselli. However, the violinist complained that the music was too easy and not virtuosic enough, whereupon Barber promised a finale of suitable bravura. Barber duly presented Briselli with the finale, which Briselli found too difficult, causing Fels to abort payment of the outstanding of the commission. To prove that the finale was not, as Briselli insisted, `unplayable’, another violin student at the Curtis Institute, Herbert Baumel, was asked to play part of the finale to a selected audience with just two hours preparation. Baumel later recalled:

“I looked [the finale] over, practised it for an hour or so, and returned to school in the afternoon to play it… I proved to their delight that I could play it at any tempo they wanted me to.”

The argument was settled and Fels agreed to pay Barber the remainder of the commission fee. The work was given its première on 7 February 1941 by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, generating great enthusiasm and earning Barber a prize. Barber’s Violin Concerto admirably demonstrates the composer’s gift for writing expansive elegiac melodies, supported by a well crafted formal design. Often considered pejoratively as a Romantic, Barber stated in 1971:

“[When] I’m writing music for words, then I immerse myself in those words, and I let the music flow out of them. When I write an abstract piano sonata or a concerto, I write what I feel. I’m not a self-conscious composer…it is said that I have no style at all but that doesn’t matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe that takes a certain courage.”

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 54

I – Largo
II – Allegro
III – Presto

1937 saw Shostakovich’s `practical creative reply to just criticism’ in the form of his Symphony No. 5. In the wake of the Pravda article `Muddle Instead of Music’, the première of the Fifth Symphony was a sensation (with a thunderous ovation lasting half an hour) – not only was this a work that could secure the composer’s rehabilitation, but also a legitimate channel for grieving at the zenith of the Great Terror of the 1930s.

In September of the same year Shostakovich began teaching composition at the Leningrad Conservatoire. This, together with the immense relief after being rehabilitated, halted any major creative work for almost two years – the period between 1937 and 1939 saw the composition of a number of film scores, a second Jazz Suite, and the First String Quartet.

It was the Sixth Symphony that signalled the end of this creative drought. The successor to the hugely successful Fifth was originally publicised as a `Lenin Symphony’ – a monumental work employing soloists, chorus, and orchestra, setting, among other things, Mayakovsky’s poem `Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’. Yet by January 1939, when Shostakovich was preparing to write the long-awaited symphony, no mention was made of Lenin or a text, or soloists and chorus. Instead the composer produced a purely instrumental work in an unconventional three movement form, with an opening Largo of greater duration than the following Allegro and Presto put together.

On the subject of the Sixth Symphony, Shostakovich stated:

“The musical character of the Sixth Symphony will differ from the mood and emotional tone of the Fifth Symphony, in which movements of tragedy and tension were characteristic. In my latest symphony, music of a contemplative and lyrical order predominates. I wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy, youth.”

And at a private playing of the symphony in front of the composer’s closest friends, Ivan Sollertinsky and Issak Glickman, Shostakovich exclaimed:

“It’s the first time I have written such a successful Finale. It seems to me not even the sternest critics will be able to find fault with it.”

As Glickman recalls, the première was a huge success with the Finale being encored. Yet the critical reception was not so enthusiastic. Critics were uneasy with the lop-sided three- movement structure and, as Boris Schwarz reports, `the inner contrast between the philosophical subjective beginning and the extrovert, flippant ending seemed too sharp.’ With the patriotic works by Prokofiev and Shaporin overshadowing the Sixth Symphony, perhaps the failure of Shostakovich to produce a Lenin Symphony contributed to the cool critical reception.

On 21 November 1939, exactly two years after the première of the Fifth Symphony, in the same hall (the Large Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic), with the same performers (the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeni Mravinsky), the Sixth Symphony was unveiled to the public. Part of the `All-Soviet Music Festival’, Shostakovich’s symphony shared the stage with such patriotic works as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Yuri Shaporin’s On the Fields of Kulikova, together with Myaskovsky’s symphonies nos. 19, 20, and 21 and Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto.

As Glickman recalls, the première was a huge success with the Finale being encored. Yet the critical reception was not so enthusiastic. Critics were uneasy with the lop-sided three- movement structure and, as Boris Schwarz reports, `the inner contrast between the philosophical subjective beginning and the extrovert, flippant ending seemed too sharp.’ With the patriotic works by Prokofiev and Shaporin overshadowing the Sixth Symphony, perhaps the failure of Shostakovich to produce a Lenin Symphony contributed to the cool critical reception.

Shostakovich was unable to attend the Moscow première on 3 December 1939, but the Moscow musicians’ malicious gossip soon found its way back to the composer. In a letter to Vissarion Shebalin, Shostakovich wrote:

“…the composers are indignant with my symphony. What can be done: I didn’t oblige, evidently. As much as I try not to be distressed by this circumstance, all the same my heart is heavy. Age, nerves, all this tells.”

The opening Largo, inherently lyrical and pensive, is neo- Bachian in its contrapuntal treatment of the opening two themes. This is clearly nothing like the playful 1930s neo- classicism of Stravinsky and his followers. Rather, it is indicative of a retreat into the composer’s own private world – an expressive device that finds perhaps its purest manifestation in the first movement of the elegiac Fifteenth String Quartet. The middle section of the Largo presents, by way of contrast, a series of recitative-like passages for cor- anglais over sustained trills, before the material of the opening returns, in a truncated form, to close the movement. The second movement is an unpredictable scherzo in which the spectral and the coarse and earthy cohabit. This fleeting movement gives way to a finale that builds from a tentative beginning to a full-blooded and debauched music-hall gallop. As Boris Schwarz observed:

“In Shostakovich’s make-up, Bach and Offenbach had always been friendly neighbours, and so they are again in the Sixth Symphony.”

(c) Kristian Hibberd 2001.