Program Notes: Shostakovich & Respighi

Seattle Symphony Concertmaster Noah Geller leads the orchestra in a program featuring Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a and Respighi’s The Birds, broadcasting from the Benaroya Hall stage on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 2021, AT 7:30PM
Shostakovich & Respighi

Noah Geller, conductor & violin
Seattle Symphony

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH    Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a
/arr. Rudolf Barshai


Allegro molto








OTTORINO RESPIGHI    Gli uccelli, P. 154 (“The Birds”)

Preludio (“Prelude,” after Bernardo Pasquini)

La colomba (“The Dove,” after Jacques de Gallot)

La gallina (“The Hen,” after Jean-Philipe Rameau)

L'usignuolo (“The Nightingale,” after an unknown 17th-century English Composer)

Il cucù (“The Cuckoo,” after Bernardo Pasquini)


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Noah Geller’s position has been generously underwritten as the David & Amy Fulton Concertmaster.


Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a

BORN: September 25, 1906, in Saint Petersburg, Russia
DIED: August 9, 1975, in Moscow, Russia
WORK COMPOSED: 1960; arranged for string orchestra 1967
WORK PREMIERED: Original form, String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110, premiered October 2, 1960, in Leningrad, by the Beethoven Quartet; Barshai transcription for string orchestra, Op. 110a, premiere unknown

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: Shostakovich’s signature motif, a musical cryptogram that spells D-S-C-H, sounds at the outset of this composition and permeates most of the first movement. It later reappears in different iterations: conspicuously during the second and third movements, well disguised in the fourth and prominently again in the fifth.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, during a visit to the East German city of Dresden in July 1960. Subsequently, with the composer’s blessing, this music was arranged for string orchestra by the conductor Rudolph Barshai, the transcription requiring only the division of the Quartet’s cello part among the orchestral cellos and basses, and the assignment of certain passages to solo instruments rather than to the full string choir.

Such are the bare facts concerning the genesis of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a. They tell us, of course, nothing of what the composer might have been trying to express in the work. As it happens, this is far from certain. Shostakovich reportedly was deeply moved by the sight of Dresden, which still showed the devastation wrought on it by Allied bombing some 15 years earlier, and his reaction presumably prompted the tragic tone of the Eighth String Quartet and its dedication, “To the memory of the victims of fascism and war.” But while there is no reason to doubt that Shostakovich would have mourned the destruction of Dresden and tens of thousands of its inhabitants, there is also evidence suggesting that the work conveys a more personal meaning.

We cannot hope to unravel this enigma without considering something of Shostakovich’s circumstances as an artist in Soviet Russia. The composer had endured much at the hands of the communist government — notably, two official denunciations during the years of Stalin’s rule and the consequent humiliations of being forced, for the sake of his career, to issue public “apologies.” But in 1960 these difficulties seemed behind him. Stalin was in his grave, and the era of the Khrushchev “thaw” had arrived. Moreover, since the passing of Sergei Prokofiev in 1953, Shostakovich stood alone as the Soviet Union’s leading composer and he enjoyed a growing international reputation.

Strangely, it was at just this moment that Shostakovich’s resistance to everything he reportedly despised about his government apparently faltered. Shortly before making the trip to Dresden that produced the Eighth String Quartet, the composer had taken the incongruous step of joining the Communist Party. In the years that followed he played the loyal Party member, attending government functions and publicly condemning dissidents, including Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. He also enjoyed a degree of material privilege unusual for a Soviet citizen.

Beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating after the collapse of communist rule in Russia, a number of Shostakovich’s friends and associates began to assert that all this had been forced upon the composer by a Party newly eager to appropriate the leading lights of Soviet culture. But, they contended, Shostakovich’s appearance as a Party loyalist was a sham; that in order to survive in what was for artists and intellectuals an exceedingly dangerous environment, he led a double life, appearing a blameless communist functionary in public but encoding his true thoughts and feelings in certain compositions. Among them is the Eighth String Quartet, the original version of the Chamber Symphony.

In this view, the music has little to do with fascism and war. Rather, it is an autobiographical composition expressing Shostakovich’s loathing of his government and anguish over his capitulation to it. The score’s dedication is merely the pro forma declaration of an obedient communist composer and had the effect of masking the work’s real subject. The music even embodies a ciphered protest. This interpretation was endorsed by a number of the composer’s associates. Galina Vishnevskaya, the celebrated soprano and wife of cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, asserted in her autobiography that Shostakovich made no secret of the Quartet’s autobiographical nature. Lev Lebedinsky, a musicologist and close associate of the composer during the 1950s and early 1960s, declared that Shostakovich wrote the work as an epitaph for himself, and that he expected to need music for this purpose soon. According to Lebedinsky, the composer felt so morally corrupted by his good standing with the Soviet government that he planned to commit suicide.

More convincing than these testimonies is the music itself, and more than just for its somber tone. The composition prominently features Shostakovich’s signature motif, D-S-C-H, a musical abbreviation of “Dmitri Shostakovich” that appears in a number of the composer’s mature works. (In German musical nomenclature, the pitch E-flat is called “Es,” which Shostakovich transforms to “S,” and B-natural is “H.”) The persistent appearance of this motif throughout the work, coupled with quotations from at least half a dozen of Shostakovich’s major compositions, can hardly be mere happenstance.

Shostakovich introduces the D-S-C-H motif at the outset, weaving overlapping statements of it into an expressive contrapuntal fabric that forms the first movement. The same four-note motto also launches the next two movements. First comes a “horror scherzo,” wherein D-S-C-H vies with driving motor rhythms and brutal “hammerblow” figures. There follows a waltz, almost surreal in character, that at last fades to a single tone forming a link to the fourth movement. This brings a great and poignant outpouring of melody that includes several quotations — most notably an aria from Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, heard as a high cello solo. At length, the D-S-C-H motif returns and leads to the fifth and final movement, whose tone and substance is closely related to the first.

Scored for strings.

© 2021 Paul Schiavo



Gli uccelli, P. 154 (“The Birds”)

BORN: July 9, 1879, in Bologna, Italy
DIED: April 18, 1936, in Rome, Italy
WORK PREMIERED: 1928, in São Paulo, Brazil, with the composer conducting

Ottorino Respighi was born into a family of musicians and virtually groomed for a life in that field. Blessed with abundant talent, he balanced the demands of a performer (violin and viola) with that of a composer, frequently serving in both capacities. In his early years, he played viola in the orchestra of the St. Petersburg Opera, which gave him the opportunity to study composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, whose orchestral brilliance obviously rubbed off on Respighi, himself a true magician of tone painting. He gained further mentoring from Max Bruch, but it was Rimsky-Korsakov whose influence was most pronounced, enhanced by exposure to Debussy and Richard Strauss.

Composers have virtually always responded to the allure of birdsong. References to the musical offerings of our feathered friends show up in classical music at least as far back as, for instance, Heinrich Biber (1644–1704) in his Sonata representativa, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. This past century has given us many evocations of birds by Olivier Messiaen, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Respighi in his popular Pines of Rome from 1924. Four years later he produced Gli uccelli, a delectable and skillfully written work in five movements.

The Prelude opens the piece with a winsome tune ascribed to Bernardo Pasquini (1637–1710). The amiable melody is presented twice, first to introduce the sequence of bird-calls in the middle section, and again in the third and closing episode. The second movement is a transcription of a piece by the 17th century lutenist Jacques Gallot — a musical representation of the cooing of a dove, with a tranquility symbolic of this peaceful bird.] The third movement, The Hen, draws from the harpsichord aviary of Jean-Philippe Rameau. One cannot miss the musical portraits of clucking hens (strings) and rooster calls courtesy of the winds. The Nightingale is a showcase for horn, bassoon and flute, illustrating the most lyrical of bird-calls — Respighi chose a folk song collected by Jacob van Eyck, the Dutch recorder player and pioneer of bell instruments to represent this bird.] The fifth, concluding movement, The Cuckoo, begins with a two-note call from the winds led by a flute in a gradual increase in energy and excitement before Respighi reprises the Pasquini theme from the opening Prelude. Respighi’s considerable skill and orchestral imagination employs a celesta to add luster to the proceedings.

Scored for 2 flutes (the 2nd flute doubling piccolo); oboe; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; harp; celeste; strings.

© 2021 Steven Lowe, with additions from Raff Wilson

Posted on April 15, 2021