Symphonic wars

Composers in time of conflict
By BEN MEIKLEJOHN  |  January 24, 2007

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THE WHOLE SHEBANG: Symphonies explore total war.

In a time of war, brace yourself for a symphonic rendition of the human struggles of war and conquest. On Tuesday, the Portland Symphony Orchestra will play several pieces composed in wartime — Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17 (1942), Ludwig van Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (1809), and Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 (1944). Lawrence Loh, music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, will appear as guest conductor.

Neo-romantic Samuel Barber, who later served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, was probably not thinking war when he composed the Second Essay, and for this the audience will ease gently into the program — innocently, naively, like many contemporary Americans, oblivious to the harsh realities of war, impervious to its personal affects. Timpani solos and blasting brass choirs, however, will not let the most isolated citizen escape unscathed without a thought of military might and its impact upon us all, Barber’s lilting sweet 6/8 transformation of the melody aside. A lively fugue and brass-powered return to the opening theme will leave the audience well-prepared for the wars that follow.

It’s 1809 and Napoleon is attacking Vienna. Beethoven is hiding out in his brother’s basement finishing the Emperor concerto. Beethoven’s enduring of the eventual takeover is bittersweet, as it was Napoleon for whom Beethoven’s Third Symphony was written, a dedication later recanted upon Napoleon’s self-proclamation as Emperor. The concerto starts with a long initial movement uncommon for the time, in which a heroic battle is exemplified between the piano and orchestra. Also atypical for the era is an introduction of the first theme by the piano rather than the orchestra. Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein will do the honors on piano, and as I mentioned in a previous column, is favored to win the battle with the orchestra (see "Flirting With Beethoven," December 29, 2006). In typical Beethoven fashion, the middle and final movements are joined without pause, so don’t get confused when the war does end.

Fast forward to 1944 in Ivanovo, Russia, where Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and other Leningrad and Moscow composers have been relocated by the Soviet government to avoid the dangers of war. Prokofiev is completing his Fifth Symphony, laying out his story of war and humanity, in four grim movements dominated by bass (a favorite piece of tuba players!). In the andante, two competing musical subjects battle, using whatever means it takes — bass, strings, horns, trumpets. The allegro marcato presents a hysterical scherzo that culminates in discord. An adagio offers a gloomy funeral march, and in the final movement, an allegro giocoso, the initial subject is re-activated and the counter-subject returns in the form of a fugato, to put the subject out of its misery. We are left wondering — which is good or evil? Who has one or lost? What is the good that comes from the death of war?

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