Program Notes: Shostakovich and Haydn

Conductor Joseph Young leads the Seattle Symphony in music by Carlos Simon, Shostakovich and Haydn, featuring pianist Tengku Irfan and Seattle Symphony Principal Trumpet David Gordon on Thursday, October 15, 2020 at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave

We live in a world where political decisions impact our lives each day. Too often, these decisions reinforce discriminations and inequities. In November 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The aftermath of Brown’s murder and the grand jury’s decision were met with protests, demands for justice and reform, and an increase in Black representation within Ferguson and Missouri’s political spheres. Brown’s murder was part of a century-long practice of racist profiling and violence; Carlos Simon’s musical rumination is part of a history of Black artists responding to this painful reality. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Simon writes concert music and film scores in a style that incorporates elements of neo-romanticism, gospel and jazz. His string orchestra work – An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave (2015) – is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and those who have been “wrongfully murdered by an oppressive power.”

Simon states: “The recurring ominous motif represents the cry of those struck down unjustly in this country. While the predominant essence of the piece is sorrowful and contemplative, there are moments of extreme hope represented by bright consonant harmonies.” A one-movement work less than 6 minutes long, An Elegy opens with icy tremolos and slow slides that are pushed to the background through the rich, layered entrances of viola, cello and first violin. The texture ranges from a united front, fragmented motives, impressionistic effervescence and lyrical sorrow, a network of emotions and perspectives aching to be recognized and supported. Simon’s work  expresses the fragile possibility of justice and accountability in response to police brutality; the idea that hope is sustaining, but also sporadic and fleeting, if systemic changes are not made. 

Scored for strings


Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (1933)
Allegro moderato
Allegro con brio

BORN: September 25, 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
DIED: August 9, 1975 in Moscow, Russia
WORK PREMIERED: October 15, 1933 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Stiedry and Dmitri Shostakovich at the piano

When asked to name a censored classical composer, many people might think first of Dmitri Shostakovich — a Russian composer who, unlike some of his compatriots, lived and worked in Soviet Russia; a man whose career is defined by his subtle responses to the Soviet government’s censorship practices that ranged from scathing critiques to executions. But prior to his first public denunciation in 1936, Shostakovich achieved critical successes. A 1925 graduate of the Petrograd Conservatory, Shostakovich’s embrace of off-kilter character, pointed and militaristic rhythms, brittle timbres and parodic quotation of other classical works became key stylistic elements that would take on deeper, darker political significance in later years. But in 1933, they were the characteristics of a fresh, exciting musical voice.

This is a piano concerto in which the solo trumpet plays a major role throughout the work, leading some to consider it a double concerto for piano and trumpet. Another unusual variation is in the number of movements: four instead of three. The first movement – Allegro moderato – sets up the trumpet’s important role as it joins the solo piano in an opening flourish. The main theme passes from piano to orchestra and back, leading into an intense and mischievous development section. The theme’s return in the orchestra signals the arrival to the recapitulation, leading to a subdued conclusion.

The second movement – Lento – showcases Shostakovich’s balance of cinematic and haunting lyricism. This latter characteristic is given to the muted trumpet, a timbre that creates an icy, otherworldly feeling matched by the pianist and a closing cadence that appears never to resolve, until you hear the gentle concluding note in the strings.

The Moderato acts as a prelude to the final movement, hosting rhapsodic piano passages juxtaposed with a morose, aching melody in the orchestra. The finale – Allegro con brio – is harried, energetic and gleeful through the use of quick tempos, tonal instability, pointed timbres and extended techniques like col legno (where string players tap the wood part of their bows on the string). One section features a parody of Beethoven’s Rondo a Capriccio, Op. 129, also known as “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” Though the tonal character is sometimes misleading, Shostakovich wrote a concerto that not only showed off his technical skills, but reminded listeners that virtuosity is not only there to inspire, but entertain. It could, and should, be fun.

Scored for solo piano; 1 trumpet; strings



Symphony No. 104 in D major, “London” (1795)
Menuet: Allegro
Finale: Spiritoso

BORN: March 31, 1732 in Rohrau, Austria
DIED: May 31, 1809 in Vienna, Austria
WORK PREMIERED: May 4, 1795 at King’s Theater in London

In 1791, and again in 1795, Franz Joseph Haydn found himself a celebrated guest in London, England. Invited by the violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon, Haydn began work on what would become a collection of twelve symphonies, completed over the span of his two tours in London to receive their premiere performances there. As a composer who initially was ‘on staff’ for an aristocratic house, and later composed on commission, Haydn balanced his stylistic idiosyncrasies with patron and audience interests. To hold an audience’s attention for a significant period of time with an instrumental work required a type of drama and vivacity on par with an operatic or choral work. He understood the exciting uses of contrast via dynamics, texture and articulation, providing listeners with the familiar and the unexpected.

The Symphony No. 104 in D major, “London” (1795) is Haydn’s last symphony, and a beautiful example of his approach to form, drama and style, an approach studied, recreated and expanded by many composers after him, leading to the moniker “father of the symphony.” The power of dynamic contrasts is immediately present in the AdagioAllegro. Following a slow, dramatic introduction, the strings introduce the main theme at a low volume before the entire orchestra enters on a sudden fortissimo with a melody that is simultaneously elegant, fun and sweet. The texture is mainly homophonic but even in moments of polyphony, the themes and motives are clearly orchestrated and easy to pick out. The prominent presence of the timpani through the work would become a major feature in nineteenth century symphonies.

The Andante marries the elegance of the first movement with a whimsical character achieved through short articulations in the strings and woodwinds. The uses of sudden dynamic changes, modulations and melodic patterns help set up a new section before returning to the movement’s main theme. The Menuet: Allegro is spritely and stately, thanks in no small part to the joyous minuet theme and lyrical trio section. The Finale: Spiritoso opening is similar to the first movement: a catchy main theme stated at a moderate dynamic followed by a bombastic explosion from the orchestra. Through fast scalar passages, moments of lyrical gentleness, shifts to minor keys and melodic layering across different orchestral sections, Haydn consolidates the exuberant energy from the previous movements that fully embraces the piece’s joyous character.

Scored for 2 flutes; 2 oboes: 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; 2 trombones; timpani; strings

© 2020 A. Kori Hill

Posted on October 14, 2020