Gershwin & Shostakovich – January 23, 2015

George Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F major

After the success of Rhapsody in Blue, Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Society, commissioned Gershwin to write a full-length piano concerto in 1925. With contract in hand, and a promise of $500 for the Concerto, Gershwin left for London, armed with “four or five books on musical structure to find out what the concerto form really was!” Returning to New York in late June, he set to work in earnest. By November 10, 1925, it was finished.

Eager to hear his new work, Gershwin hired 50 musicians and arranged for a run-through at the Globe Theatre. Gershwin was the pianist at the first performance on a stormy Thursday afternoon, December 3, 1925, in Carnegie Hall. Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony.

Gershwin himself provided an analysis of the Concerto: “The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life…. The second movement has a poetic, nocturnal tone. It utilizes the atmosphere of what has come to be referred to as the American blues…. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythm starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.”

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

Begun on July 1, 1943, most of the work on the Eighth Symphony was done at the Soviet Composers’ Home near Ivanovo, some 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Early that year the battle of Stalingrad had ended with the surrender of the German army. The Russian winter offensive had begun, and that very summer, the tank battle at Kursk would result in another German defeat. Shostakovich completed the work on September 9.

As the Seventh Symphony was written during the siege of Leningrad, the Eighth once bore the subtitle “Stalingrad.” Indeed, critics once regarded the seventh, eighth and ninth symphonies as a trilogy of “war symphonies.”

Shostakovich’s own remarks on the Eighth are contradictory. In 1956 he said, “In this work there was an attempt to express the emotional experience of the people, to reflect the terrible tragedy of the war…. The Eighth Symphony is an echo of that difficult time, and quite in the order of things, in my opinion.”

However, if Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich can be believed, the composer claimed the Eighth Symphony is not about the war, but Stalin’s persecution of his own people during the 1930s. “The Seventh and Eighth symphonies are my requiem,” he is supposed to have said. “The terrible pre-war years. That is what all my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are about, including the Seventh and Eighth.”

The first performance took place in Moscow on November 4, 1943. Yevgeny Mravinsky, to whom the work is dedicated, conducted the USSR Symphony Orchestra.

The Symphony is in five movements, only two of them fast, and the last three are linked, “a curious, somewhat lopsided form,” according to Boris Schwarz. The opening movement consists of two slow sections framing a fast section. “The slow sections are suggesting a bitter contemplation,” writes Schwarz, “the fast part a battle or invasion.” The next two movements function as scherzos, more in the manner of Mahler than Beethoven. The second is a march, the third a kind of perpetuum mobile. The somber Largo is a set of twelve variations on a theme in the bass, like the baroque passacaglia. The Finale’s three themes present a pastoral mood, leading to a climax and subsiding into tranquility at the end.

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2015.