Life-saving symphony

  • Wednesday, November 8, 2017 1:30am
  • Life

Some great composers never run out of catchy tunes — George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Paul McCartney, John Williams, Carole King, Frederic Chopin. This type can’t scribble five notes on a napkin without getting a hit stuck in everybody’s heads forever.

For others equally great, the art of composition depends more on other aspects of music to rope listeners in and carry us along.

The Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra’s Nov. 11 program features music from the ends and middle of the ear-worm spectrum.

It’s not that Ludwig van Beethoven and Bob Dylan didn’t come up with some memorable melodies; it just wasn’t the core of their creative mode. Beethoven wrote a transcendent symphony movement based on four notes — and three of those the same pitch.

But you don’t turn to those guys for a bare tune that digs into your soul all by itself. A real ear worm feels complete whether rendered by a full orchestra or a lone whistler.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) stands as the prototype of the master melodist. His tunes have become familiar beyond the concert hall, thanks to their once-heard, forever-remembered quality.

And he did it every time, making him about the most accessible of the “serious” composers.

His violin concerto, like his first piano concerto, opens with a real winner of a melody that sets the mood and would stand up to all kinds of variation and elaboration. But that first introduction, just like in the piano concerto, is the last we hear of it for the rest of the piece.

Fortunately, the hits keep coming. All three movements of the concerto introduce a heart-breaking new melodies the soloist and orchestra then work over.

For the soloist, that means a workout through the whole catalog of the technically most challenging ways of using a violin. Tchaikovsky makes it work musically, though, and history has thoroughly contradicted the critic at the 1881 premier who wrote that the concerto was so bad, “You can hear it stink.”

It’s now the most popular violin concerto in the standard repertoire, despite a tough start. It took a few years to get it played at all. The composer takes part of the blame because he ticked off his boyfriend, who could have played the solo.

Another leading soloist looked it over and declared it “unplayable” (then learned it after it became a hit). There’s a lesson here about pushing boundaries — a list of violin concertos called “unplayable” when first written looks a lot like a list of the ones now the most beloved: Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Paganini share the honor of unplayability for their efforts in the form.

In his approach to melodic material, Finnish master Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) has more in common with Beethoven than with Tchaikovsky. His “Andante Festivo” from 1922 doesn’t have what the record company talent scouts would call “a hook.” But somehow the piece comes out complete, constantly intriguing and finally satisfying.

Since the Viennese critic mixed up the senses to diss a violin concerto, let’s borrow from sight and taste to describe this less-heard opus. You can hear the colors and richness, even though the composer limited his palette to strings and timpani.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) takes a kind of middle position with respect to catchy tunes in his Symphony No. 5.

And not entirely by his own choice.

At 30 years old, Shostakovich already ranked with the most prominent living Russian composers, next to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninov.

Of the four, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov were the standout tunesmiths, while Stravinsky and Shostakovich generally wrote melodies less memorable by themselves.

That’s fine. The latter two earned their places as leaders of modern music without making the Billboard charts.

But Josef Stalin’s dictatorship threw a brutal wrench into the Russian music scene. Subject to the whim of a tone-deaf Communist Party functionary, any musician could find themselves accused of practicing “formalism” and betraying Soviet ideals in favor of capitalist degeneracy.

Don’t bother trying to find a musical definition of formalism. It was a political label masquerading as an artistic doctrine.

When a letter signed by Stalin appeared in print in 1937 denouncing Shostakovich’s new opera as “formalism,” it looked like the composer’s career, and possibly his life, had come to an end.

In a controversial act of compositional genius and artistic compromise, he put aside everything to write his Symphony No. 5, and it probably saved his life.

With the right notes and right rhetoric, the piece scored an immediate hit with audiences and party apparatchiks. He sold the symphony as a monument to Soviet military might, and it’s musical appeal is undeniably visceral.

But this soul-grinding dance between free expression and toeing an invisible party line cast a dismal shadow over Shostakovich’s whole life. Meanwhile, his compatriots Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov fled to the West.

Another personal bummer around the same time as Stalin’s letter occurred when Shostakovich’s girlfriend left him and moved to Spain with a dashing artist. Her name, Carmen, inspired the composer to weave a familiar tune into the symphony.

In his opera “Carmen,” French composer Georges Bizet — another of those gifted with the magic melody mojo — packed more hit tunes than a Beatles compilation album. You will probably recognize the “Habenera” as Shostakovich works it over in a few tortured, spiteful, settings.

The other tune you might recognize in the symphony is a theme from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

But then again you might not, since it isn’t there. Film composer John Williams — a top-tier melodist himself — certainly channeled the Shostakovich’s fourth movement theme to depict the Nazi menace. That’s not really stealing, and the dramatic opening motif or something very like pops up in lots of other pieces, like Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

So while he suppressed his artistic inclination to explore more modern, abstract musical territory, Schostakovich partly knuckled under to pressure to crete something dangerously powerful critics could understand. But he got the last word, since the ironic triumph and anguish in the Symphony No. 5 speaks louder and longer than the oppressive regime that shaped it.

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