Bach & the Russians

Alina Kobialka, violin
Vadim Gluzman, violin & leader


Tonight’s program features a series of masterful works by master composers not often associated with composing for strings alone. Two violin concertos by Bach grace our program, the first for a single soloist, the latter the beloved “Double,” both revealing the German under the influence of the Italians. Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, a transcription of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8, is a powerhouse showpiece for strings, an emotionally charged composition and one inseparable from the world of war and politics. And we’ll conclude with one of the most famous works ever conceived for string orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, a work brimming with Russian passion and Mozartean charm.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Concerto No. 2 in E major for Violin and String Orchestra, BWV 1042; Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra in D minor, BWV 1043
Instrumentation: for two solo violins and string orchestra
Composed: probably between 1717-1723 in Cöthen, Germany
Duration: each is about 18 minutes in length
Western classical music owes a great deal to the Italians, who were on the front edge of developing styles for centuries. In the 17th century we can look to that sunny land in the south for cutting-edge violin music in particular, a consequence of the eminent violin virtuosi who were then pushing the instrument’s technical potential on instruments being built by the world’s foremost makers (the Amatis, Stradivari and the Guarneri family). Think of it as a co-dependent relationship—the violinists constantly demanding more responsive tools and the makers experimenting with the world’s greatest players. These early violinists like Giuseppi Torelli (1658-1709) and later, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), exploited their instrument as a vehicle for new types of pieces such as the violin concerto and it wasn’t long before word got around. To the north, Bach understood as well as anyone the importance of the Italian’s development of the concerto style. He was also a particular fan of Vivaldi’s music and was quick to incorporate what he heard into his personal style.

Two violin concertos, plus the “Double,” for two violins and orchestra, are probably not the only violin concertos Bach composed during his musically prodigious lifetime, but they are the only ones to have survived. These were likely composed during the six years Bach was employed in the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen, when most of his great instrumental works were written (the violin sonatas and partitas, Brandenburg Concerti and the six cello suites) and where he was expected to provide music for concerts on a weekly basis. Leopold was himself a gifted amateur violinist, so besides composing a variety or works and overseeing musical matters at court, Bach was certainly cognizant of enriching the violin repertoire available, both for his royal employer and for violinists of the court orchestra, whose members were among Europe’s musical elite. Bach himself possessed substantial violin chops—in addition to being one of Europe’s greatest organists and playing viola—so he well understood how to write for strings. All three scores rely on the three-movement, fast-slow-fast architecture handed down by the Italians. Bach then infused the lighter Italian style with his vintage counterpoint, more active bass lines and robust harmonies.

The E major Violin Concerto opens with three muscular Vivaldi-inspired chords stubbornly grounding the movement’s E major tonality and providing a tonal keystone that Bach will revisit several times over the course of the opening Allegro to reaffirm the harmony and create structure. Notice how he arranges his forces: often (as at the outset) the soloist dances right along with the first violins while at other times the solo violin sets out on its own, spinning out embellishments of the opening material. The soloist’s rhythm, however, remains largely that of unabated sixteenth notes, providing consistent forward thrust. A brief cadenza leads to a return to the top of the movement (in Italian, da capo, or “to the head”), capping off this zestful first movement. The foundation of the moving Adagio is carried by the bass line, a throbbing pattern above which everything else rides. The soloist mostly shies away from this gentle motive, spinning out heartfelt phrases and reflecting Bach’s almost superhuman ability to capture the depth of human expression in sound. The concerto concludes with a rondo finale set in triple time (marked Allegro assai, or “very fast”). The theme, a rather formal sixteen bar melody heard in the violins and set in ¾ time, exudes the quality of a courtly dance, powdered wigs and all. While the melody and counterpoint are fully Bach, one easily imagines the German Kapellmeister looking to Vivaldian models in the soloist’s virtuosic passagework. One time through this tight, sprightly finale and Bach’s E major concerto is in the books.

The added violin soloist in the D minor Double Concerto opened up the possibilities for counterpoint and indeed, the Vivace first movement is ushered in with an elaborate orchestral fugue. The soloists then enter with their own contrapuntal lines, weaving in and out of one another with intricate and ingenious melodic lines. Unlike the concertos of Mozart, where distinct themes are established up front and presented over a rather traditional structure, Bach’s music is freer flowing, with ideas unfolding like a stream of consciousness. The slow Largo ma non tanto is one of the loveliest of Bach’s concerto creations. Its expansive melodies are balanced perfectly with the soloists, each complementing the other with sensitive accompanimental counterpoint while the orchestra exists purely for their support. The energetic Allegro not only looks back to the first movement’s contrapuntal finesse but ups the ante, the soloists sometimes exchanging ideas within the tight space of a single beat and at other moments in a more leisurely manner. Among the most intriguing passages of the finale, however, comes with repeated notes of the soloists, who are momentarily there to accompany the orchestra! The soloists, however, will naturally have the last word in Bach’s brilliant and beloved score.


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Chamber Symphony (from the String Quartet No. 8) in C minor, Op. 110a
Instrumentation: for string orchestra
Composed: July 1960
Premiere: Leningrad, 1960
Duration: about 22 minutes
In the summer of 1960 Shostakovich was asked to write film music for Five Days, Five Nights, a story about a group of Soviet soldiers attempting to track down priceless Dresden art treasures looted by the Nazis. In July, Shostakovich headed to Dresden to carry out the project but once he arrived he failed to find the proper inspiration to score the film. Instead, over a three-day stretch he dispatched his Eighth String Quartet, a brooding work that was to prove among the composer’s most autobiographical scores. Outwardly, the C minor Quartet was an homage to the firebombing of the city and the effects of war. As related by a friend of the composer, “He walked among the ruins of Dresden, shaken by the scenes of devastation and… decided to dedicate the score to ‘the memory of the victims of fascism and war.’”

The quartet, however, was far more than that. A short time before its composition Shostakovich had not only been diagnosed with a debilitating muscle disease but had reluctantly joined the Communist party. The latter, of course, was anathema to Shostakovich’s personal politics but one had to make a living. The quartet, then was a response to both war and totalitarianism; more profoundly, he was also contemplating suicide, rendering this composition Shostakovich’s musical epitaph. When the performers who were to premiere the work played it through for the composer at his home, Shostakovich only buried his face in his hands and wept; the quartet of musicians, who had been awaiting musical instruction, silently packed up their instruments and left. The piece was later arranged for string orchestra by Russian conductor and violist Rudolf Barhsai and approved by Shostakovich.

The Chamber Symphony is built of five interconnected movements, opening with a Largo and uniquely closing with two more Largos. In between, faster-paced movements carry the work’s dramatic force, but it is the Largos’ overriding sense of loss and tragedy that dominate the atmosphere. At the very start Shostakovich introduces a four-note motive in the solo cello, pitches central to the work as a whole and to Shostakovich personally, as they spell out a portion of his name in German transliteration—in German notation, the note E-flat is pronounced “es” and B-natural is pronounced “hah”, thus the motto pitches D, E-flat, C, B, to make DSCH (D. SCHostakovich).

These four pitches dominate the first movement and are countered two other ideas. The first is a winding chromatic theme that snakes its way in the first violins for some eighteen bars over a static harmony, and the second, a plaintive folk-favored melody introduced (violins) shortly thereafter. The perpetually running accompaniment and violent offbeat punctuations of the frenetic Allegro Molto are twice checked by a somewhat broader theme in the lower strings, a melody drawn from the composer’s Second Piano Trio (accompanied by the violin’s diabolic string crossings). This, in turn, leads into a danse macabre (Allegretto), distinguished by its folksy violin writing and dramatic offbeat rhythmic bursts (some might also recognize a quote from the composer’s Second Cello Concerto). The final two Largos are marked by a series of additional personal quotations and folk songs, yet one need not recognize any of these to comprehend the essence of what follows. Slashing three-note unisono chords (perhaps in imitation of the KGB knocking?) open the fourth movement with dramatic apprehension, though the majority of this stark, elegiac movement is permeated by a series of long connected lines. Out of the darkness rises a solo cello, quoting Katerina’s aria, “You’re all I have, you know, my love…” from the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Fused together by slow renditions of the four-note motto, the final Largo is one of inconsolable sorrow, offering little by way of hope. Rather, its depth of expression serves as a window into the life of one of classical music’s most profound composers, a man inextricably bound to the darkest hours of his country and, tragically, of the twentieth century.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
for string orchestra
October 30, 1881, St. Petersburg, under the direction of Eduard Nápravník
about 33 minutes
For many composers of the nineteenth century, bigger was better. They were often drawn to themes larger than life—legends, faraway lands, nature, even death. To capture these images in sound typically demanded ever larger musical resources and lengthening spans of time. Certainly, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky thought big, as evidenced by many of his symphonic scores. But on a few occasions the Russian master scaled back, crafting music inspired by an earlier time. Certainly, the Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra, which ProMusica has performed on several occasions, casts a backwards glance to the classical era. And so, it is with the Serenade for Strings, which takes Mozart as its inspiration.

It was around 1880, the year of the Serenade, that Tchaikovsky’s reputation as a composer really began to blossom. With works like his opera Eugene Onegin, the Fourth Symphony and his Violin Concerto recently behind him, Tchaikovsky, a musical late bloomer (his first job was a civil servant) was now being recognized as one of the most promising composers of his generation. Tchaikovsky often struggled with issues of confidence but throughout the Serenade for Strings, we get the sense of a composer who has fully mastered his craft. From start to finish there is an unerring understanding of his forces, the string writing is sublime, if demanding, and each movement sparkles with freshness and command.

Beyond its four-movement structure and sense of intimacy, there is little here that is particularly Mozartian. To the contrary, the Serenade is imbued with vintage Tchaikovsky melody and robust writing, which in no way suffers from the size of the ensemble. One way he achieves thicker textures is by giving separate lines to the various sections. Tchaikovsky’s ideas are also perfectly suited to the forces, from which he draws unparalleled warmth, lyricism and energy, requiring neither winds, brass nor percussion to succeed. Even the “Piece in the form of a small sonata” isn’t really all that small. The movement opens with a grand introduction, a rich chorale whose importance will be made clear over time. The Allegro proper opens with the entire string section moving together but in short order they are off on their own. Listen to how Tchaikovsky creates a richness by dividing up the upper strings, while the cellos launch into fast-moving counter lines, a perpetual motion of sorts that drives the music ever forward. The full-blown development and recapitulation is then topped off with a return of the introductory chorale.

In the second movement Tchaikovsky replaces the minuet of Mozart’s day with another ¾ time movement, the waltz. By the late 19th century the waltz had become as popular in Russia as it was in Vienna and Tchaikovsky could rival the any of his Viennese counterparts, as evidenced by his ballet scores and the second movement of his Serenade. Harmonic surprises abound, and delicacy provides the perfect balance to the more robust movements that surround it. Tchaikovsky’s sensitive nature is revealed in the Élégie, a Larghetto elegiaco that lays it all out there—lush melodies, rich harmonies, a tremendous sense of pacing and style that has stood the test of time. Among the many things that make this movement work is the shaping of the various voices—listen to Tchaikovsky’s textbook “contrary motion” at the outset, as upper and lower strings move away from one another with the unfolding of the opening theme.

It is in the finale where Tchaikovsky’s Russian blood finally makes its presence unapologetically felt. Prior to the Allegro con spirito, Tchaikovsky opens with a magical Andante, as if reluctant to break the spell of the Elegy. Note the muted, sustained upper strings who seem to question what’s to follow. Forty-four bars later the Russian master gets to work in earnest with a jaunty folk melody (Tema russo), soon contrasted by a broad lyrical second theme introduced by the cellos. Now it’s all joy and forward drive until the very end. The surprise return of the chorale introduction offers a magnificent conclusion to one of the most beloved compositions ever written for strings alone.

© Marc Moskovitz