Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) composed his “Symphony No. 5, Opus 47 in D Minor” with fear and trepidation – literally. As a Soviet Russian composer, his work was under constant scrutiny by the Soviet government to conform to “communist ideals.” As an artist, this was a difficult task – he was, in fact, denounced twice during his career. In Stalinist Russia, a denounced artist could vanish during the night. Many of Shostakovich’s friends did vanish, never to be seen again.
The Symphony No. 5 was composed as a “comeback” work after a period of denouncement, to show his loyalty to the party. Shostakovich also wanted to be true to himself as an artist. Remarkably, he succeeded, winning both popular and Communist Party approval for the work. It was first performed on Nov. 21, 1937 in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
Remember those friends who had vanished? Everyone in Russia knew someone who had been denounced, executed, exiled or “vanished” from society. It was a horrific time. What the public so related to in Shostakovich’s symphony was this: leitmotifs (musical themes) of the Russian Orthodox liturgy and requiem for the dead. Audiences recognized these tones, and actually wept during the first performances. It was an opportunity for public, physical release of their grief and fear – in short, a relief, if even for three-quarters of an hour. The standing ovation lasted well over half an hour at the inaugural performance.
Such is the power of music to release passionate feeling.
The second performance of the evening is “Scheherazade, Opus 35” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), composed in 1888. Based on “The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights),” this is the composer’s most popular work.
“The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim (in series), for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely,” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his introduction to the score.
This work is lyrical and filled with leitmotifs for each character. The Sultan is literally a “heavy” in the opening notes of the work. The four stories of the Sultana Scheherazade are easily visualized in this lyric work: “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” “The Kalendar Prince,” “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” and “Festival at Baghdad/The Sea/The Ship Breaks Against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.”
This music is extremely sensual, as Scheherazade wins the heart of her husband and their leitmotifs soar into consummate ecstasy.
Racy stuff for those modest Victorians – powerful Russian passion, indeed.
The “Russian Power/Russian Passion” concert will be performed one evening only, on Saturday, March 26 at 7:30 p.m. Order tickets soon, as the Folsom Symphony is swiftly becoming one of the more popular organizations in the region. Stage One at the Folsom Lake College Performing Arts Complex is located at 10 College Parkway (just off East Bidwell Street) in Folsom.
Single tickets are $22 to $42. To purchase, call (916) 357-6718 or visit www.folsomsymphony.com.